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
Population: 2.6 million
Height of the taipei 101 tower, in feet: 1,670
Number 0f motor vehicles, according to the Taipei City Motor Vehicles office: 1,845,686
Percentage of people who recycle: 60
Year Taipei became the capital of Taiwan: 1949
Number of stalls in Shilin night market, Taipei’s largest: 539
Types of bubble tea: 7
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The many faces of Taiwan’s biggest and weirdest culinary export
Most of the treats that have earned Taiwan global foodie fame originated off the island. Xiaolongbao dumplings were born in Shanghai; stinky tofu wafted over from Beijing; New Year pineapple pastries are probably Malaysian. But Taiwan’s biggest ingestible export is a homegrown phenomenon. Whimsically invented in the 1980s, when, as legend has it, a teahouse employee dumped tapioca pudding into her iced tea, so-called bubble tea has become ubiquitous throughout Asia.
In its simplest form, bubble tea—also known as pearl tea or boba—adds large, chewy (think gummy bear) tapioca balls to cold green or black tea. From here, the options are unlimited. Some variations add milk or fruit; the tapioca can be replaced by or supplemented with other ingredients: grass jelly, red beans, pudding; the sweetness varies, as does the amount of ice; the tea can even be served hot, or replaced by coffee.
With more than 20 shops to choose from, it’s impossible to get any two Taipei residents to agree about where to find the best boba. But you can’t go wrong with the Ten Ren chain, a 60-year-old company that makes its version from Taiwanese tea leaves. Order like a local: taro milk tea, with pearls, 50 percent sugar, 30 percent ice.
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Getting away from it all in Taipei’s verdant, misty mountains.
Just beyond the urbane onsen (hot springs) of Beitou lies the splendid Yangmingshan National Park. A prime destination for picnicking, biking and hiking, the 30,000-acre park is especially popular during the spring bloom of its famed cherry blossoms. Shutterbugs should come prepared with their complete camera kit to capture steaming solfataras (volcanic craters), bamboo forests, scary snakes and more than a hundred species of bird. If the views from Taipei 101 and Elephant Mountain aren’t high enough, climb Taiwan’s tallest dormant volcano, Mount Qixing (3,675 feet), then descend to relax in the sulfur baths at the Lengshuikeng hot springs.
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The inside scoop from those in the know
Art director, Mitsui Group
“There are always more fun and interesting places in small alleys rather than big streets—many more cool stores and restaurants. Wufenpu is the best-known wholesale garment market. You can bargain with the vendors and get good deals on fashionable clothes and accessories.”
Writer, Yuanfang Magazine
“The alleys in the Zhongxiao Dunhua area are full of small and cozy boutiques that have a wide variety of charming and lovely clothes. And the Fashion Institute of Taipei has a wide range of quality Taiwanese designer clothing.”
W Hotel “Taipei Insider”
“For a night out, people here dress to impress. Ladies can find accessories and cute short dresses in the alleys of Dong Chu; men can get what they need in the department stores around Xinyi. The city’s newest and hottest clubs—Spark and Hive—are in the ATT4Fun building.”
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