Having spent centuries shrouded in mystery, Taipei has emerged as a global incubator for technology, design and cuisine. Even so, the Taiwanese capital still has plenty of surprises for those willing to explore.
Author Orion Ray-Jones Photography Shane McCauley
DAY ONE | It’s no accident that until a few years ago Taipei was home to the world’s tallest skyscraper. This is a place obsessed with its own skyline, and locals can spend hours gazing at the towers from the nearby mountains, or at the mountains from the city’s towers. Appropriately, then, you awake to a picture window in a 30th-floor suite at the neon-emblazoned W Taipei, the city’s effort to provide the last word on design hotels.
You take your time, watching the sun arc from the hip and expensive eastern district toward the old city in the west. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and espresso in the hotel’s summery Kitchen Table restaurant, you head down to the lobby, pausing to puzzle over an interactive sculpture that mirrors your movement on a grid of hundreds of LEDs. From here, you take the short walk eastward to Elephant Mountain, where you intend to get the lay of the land.
It’s a little after eight, but the red-walled Lingyun Temple at the mountain’s base is already teeming with local hikers. Knowing an out-of-towner when they see one, they stop to ask where you’re from, or whisk by with a breezy zao an! Many are much older than you but seem better equipped to tackle the stone stairs that climb toward the summit. You wheeze your way up, rejoining the beaming geriatrics beside a large moss-covered rock, which you scale to pose for a selfie, the pagoda-like Taipei 101 jutting up behind you.
The elevator at Taipei 101, you’ve been told, is the world’s fastest, and you’re in no mood to argue as you zoom upward to a soundtrack of spaced-out music and your own popping ears. Alighting from the disco-lift on the 89th floor, 37 disorienting seconds later, you cannot help but notice that it’s gotten a little cloudy, mostly because the clouds are at eye level. Through the wisps, you can see Taipei in all its glory—the spinning Ferris wheel, the golden roofs, the lesser towers prickling their way towards the mountains. The effect is made more dramatic by the fact that this building isn’t just the city’s tallest; it’s the tallest by a long shot.
It takes seconds to descend the skyscraper, but the wait for a lunch table at Din Tai Fung, in the basement mall, promises to be considerably longer. This spacious eatery is almost as famous for its lines as for its xiaolongbao, the soup dumplings that have earned the Taiwanese chain a Michelin star in Hong Kong and a “top-notch table” designation from The New York Times. The dumplings are a sublime combination of chewy and soupy, but it’s the spicy wontons that steal the show. When Tom Cruise ate here, your waitress tells you, he was so taken with them he asked for a lesson from the chefs.
A five-minute cab ride takes you to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a neo-industrial complex on the grounds of an abandoned tobacco factory. Recently declared the 2016 World Design Capital, Taipei is a hotbed of bleeding-edge art and design, and the warehouses of Songshan are the place to see it. Particularly compelling is the Red Dot Design Museum, where all sorts of objects, from elephant-inspired fire extinguishers to twisted steel table lamps, are displayed in chrome-walled halls.
Unlike some Asian capitals, where sidewalks are treated as an extra lane for scooter and bicycle traffic, Taipei is a pedestrian-friendly city. So you work up another appetite strolling along retail-heavy Zhongxiao Road, watching as the sky turns a dusky crimson and the ubiquitous neon bursts to life. As you near Zhongxiao Dunhua Station, you come across Ice Monster, the legendary shaved-ice eatery. Heck, you think, nothing wrong with a little light dessert before dinner, and head inside for an icy mango refreshment.
Taipei’s shaved ice has been exported all over the world, but the city is an importer of tastes, too. The intimate eatery Flavors, where the chef and the cuisine are Swedish, is a worthy case in point. As you graze on “snapas”—an assortment of smoked and cured fish paired with flavored spirits—chef-owner Ola Ekdahl pops in and out of the oaken dining room to extol the virtues of his adopted city. “Taipei is a place you just fall in love with,” he says, “and the people of Taiwan are the nicest in the world.” You can’t help feeling that you’ve stumbled into a family meal, and you leave full of aquavit and cheer, ready to tackle Taipei’s spirited nightlife.
First, you’ll have to find it. On a nearby street, you squint at a small neon bull’s-eye, partly obscured by a hedge. You approach the sign hesitantly, opening the door to what you hope is MOD Public Bar and not someone’s living room. Inside, a rowdy, good-looking crowd sips selections from a menu of more than 75 scotches and classic cocktails, mixed by an equally good-looking bar staff who, according to your newfound drinking buddy, are among the best in town. “They steal bartenders from all the fancy bars,” he shouts above the din of indie rock, clinking glasses and raucous laughter.
An indeterminate amount of time later, you return to the W, only to encounter the lobby’s Woobar, which is packed with grooving socialites. You’re exhausted, but … hey, you’re on vacation.