Taiwan's largest freshwater body, Sun Moon Lake sits at an altitude of 762m in the mountains of Nantou County, in central Taiwan. With good weather year-round, accessible sights and tons of outdoor activities to offer, it's not surprising it's one of Taiwan's most renowned tourist destinations.
All the places mentioned on this page can be found on the MAP at the bottom of this page.
Shuishe Village is where the bus station is located, so that's probably where your trip will begin. It's got a Starbucks, 7-Elevens, souvenir shops, a visitor center, and a few places to rent bikes, and scooters. Minsheng Rd, a small pedestrian cobbled alley is packed with OK restaurants. There's also a pier where people hang out day and night, and board boats to cross the lake. The other village on the other side is called Itashao.
Sun Moon Lake is encircled by a 30km-long scenic road that gives unparalleled views on the lake and the surrounding mountains. Riding an electric scooter is the most convenient way to explore the area. Riding a bicycle is also very enjoyable, as there are many cycling paths off the main road. For scooter and bicycle rental, you can check Papago Rental Shop in Shuishe Village, at 151 Zhongshan Road (中山路151號). Here is what you can expect to pay for a day:
If you'd like to get grand views of the lake from above, but are not that keen on hiking, you can take the 1.8km-long cable car (officially called the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway) to get high above the water and mountains and enjoy an unparalelled perspective of the whole area. The trip begins near Itashao Village and finishes at the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, a theme park that is a lot of fun for kids. 300NT$ return trip.
Time to exercise those arms... Get yourself a rowing boat and try to make it to Lalu Island, in the middle of the lake. You can rent one at Shuishe and Itashao for around NT$200/hr. Don't be shy to bargain here. Boat tours can also be arranged; NT$300 for 45mins.
The lake is right in the middle of Nantou County, and Nantou County is in the center of Taiwan, which is basically just mountains and forests. The whole area is criss-crossed by narrow farm paths and proper mountain trails. Hiking at Sun Moon Lake is a great way to experience the island's natural side.
Mt. Maolan Trail is an easy walk that takes you to a weather observatory that was built by the Japanese in 1940. From the summit, at 1020m, you can see as far as Puli. The 3km trail (a paved road and man-made steps most of the way) winds through vast tea plantations. The trailhead is about 300m past Shuishe Village. 2hrs round-trip.
Mt. Shuishe Trail (5.6km long) is a much more ambitious undertaking that can upset any city-weakened legs. It's steep all the way to the summit, at 2059m, from where you get unbeatable views of the lake. The trail starts at the stone monument that says "Thao" at the aboriginal settlement behind Itashao Village. 8hrs round-trip. Only attempt in clear weather, and if no rain is forecasted as the trail has a lot of steep, muddy sections. Only for really fit people!
They say you can't swim.... But if it's 32 degree Celsius and you've got decent underwear... go for it! I've swam in that lake a dozen times without ever encountering any problem apart from fish trying to bite my toes. There are some quiet places where you won't be disturbed on the west side. You will most probably get into trouble if you try to jump in the water at the main piers, so just don't do that. My #1 spot to swim at Sun Moon Lake is right at Shuishe Dam, about 1.5km west of Shuishe Village.
Itashao Village is on the Eastern side of Sun Moon Lake. The main reason why tourists come here is to eat, sleep, or take the scenic Cable Car to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village. Itashao also has lots of food stalls where you can buy traditional street snacks such as corn and barbecued meat.
The area is the ancestral home to the Thao, Taiwan's smallest indigenous tribe. Once, a Thao lady told me: "Han people, from Taipei and China, only care about money, not about us or the environment." Itashao village is now eighty percent ethnic Han Chinese and they own most of the businesses. The Thao people are mostly used by Han Chinese to make money from tourists - lots of shops are in the business of selling the idea of a beautiful traditional aboriginal culture through cheap handicraft and symbols of the ancient tribe's folklore. If you walk at the back of Itashao Village, you'll see old, derelict houses where the Thao people live. Sad situation for them.
On your way to Itashao, you can't miss this imposing Daoist shrine, perched on the mountainside, overlooking the lake. Sunset is the best time to be here - the crowds have vanished and warm hues paint the lake below.
San Sheng Temple is a very interesting sight. Its isolated position, among beetle nut plantations, on a quiet country road south of Sun Moon Lake (road #62), guarantees that you'll most likely have the whole place to yourself. The roof, paintings, and sculptures are showing their age and that's what makes it so special. Walk in and the smell of incense, the smoke all around, and images of Chinese gods and dragons will make you feel like you've traveled back in time to ancient China.
Chiang Kai-shek had Tsen Pagoda erected in honor of his mother. The place is most quiet in late afternoon. It's about 3km past Itashao, up in the mountains. Sometimes gets super busy. One of the top 3 attractions at SML.
One of the busiest points of interest in the region, this temple, which was built in 1955, offers splendid views over the lake and tiny Lalu Island. Best time to visit is early morning, before the hordes of Chinese mainlanders arrive.
There are lots of hotels and minsu (B&B) in Shuishe, Itashao and Yuchih. The accommodations in the Sun Moon Lake area aren't the cheapest, some of Taiwan's most expensive rooms are here.
You can also check availibility and prices for accommodation here. I strongly advise you book your room before getting there. This is one of the most touristy areas in Taiwan after all. Don't even consider showing up here on long weekends or holidays without having a hotel reservation.
If all you want is a centrally-located hotel with a room and your own private bathroom (if you don't mind boring simplicity), you should consider Hotel Minren (名人大飯店). A double room will only cost you 1200NT$ per night. It's simple, basic, with no bling-bling and few amenities, but you are right "downtown" Shuishe Village, and... it's cheap by Sun Moon Lake standard.
Address: 138 Zhongshan Road
Phone Number: 049-2855338-9
Another popular cheap accommodation is Teacher's Hostel at No.136, Jhongsing Road. Phone Number: 049-285 5991 Check the MAP below to find it.
Skylight B&B is a very popular option in Itashao. It's modern, clean, has extremely attentive / friendly staff, and has a couple of rooms with wonderful lake view. Standard double rooms are around 3000NT$ per night. Check room prices at Skylight B&B here.
The ultimate experience at Sun Moon Lake is to have a room which faces the lake and have a nice little balcony where you can chill at night and enjoy a glass of wine, beer, or whatever it is you enjoy drinking. Lake-view rooms with balcony aren't cheap, but it's worth every penny, especially if the weather is nice and you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise (or sunset) from your bed.
Find hotels, B&B, hostels right from this box below...
There's a couple of campgrounds at Sun Moon Lake, some right by the water (expensive), some hidden further away along small country roads (much cheaper). Check the map at the bottom of this page to locate the campgrounds in the area.
One of my favorite places to pitch a tent is the Toushe Reservoir Campground. It's a bit far from the lake, 10 minutes by scooter or car from Shuishe Village, but it's also much quieter, there's decent bathrooms with showers, wood to make a fire, nice areas to barbecue, and the old Taiwanese man who runs the place is really friendly.
Shuishe and Itashao are packed with decent Chinese restaurants. One place that I keep going back to is the Min Hu Old Restaurant, at 15 Minsheng Rd, in Shuishe Village. Dishes from NT$150. Ask for the catch of the day.
Another restaurant which serves fantastic Chinese dishes for relatively decent price is Gu Zao Wei 古早味 at 135 Zhongshan Road, also in Shuishe Village. I highly recommend the white chiken and the 3 cups mushroom - really, really delicious!!
Buses leave from Taichung Train Station, High-Speed Train (HSR) Station as well as from the airport. 189$ / 340$ for one-way / return with the convenient Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus.
From Taipei, Green Transit Buses leave hourly from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station (exit 4 - south side of Zhongxiao Rd). NT$350, 4.5hrs. Buses also leave hourly from Taipei Main Station. Honestly, I don't see the point in traveling from Taipei to Sun Moon Lake by bus. Taking the normal train or HSR is just so much more comfortable
To travel to Sun Moon Lake from Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Chiayi, Hualien, or Taitung, I recommend you first get to Taichung City by TRA train or HSR. From those two stations, you can then take a bus. Buses leave hourly.
Nantou Bus Company has regular buses to Puli for NT$50. Buses to and from Cingjing Farm and Shuili also exist.