I was very unimpressed by Tainan the first time I drove through it. The main roads all looked the same: heavy traffic, a billion Chinese signs... could have been anywhere on the island. Just another big Taiwanese city I thought. How wrong I was!
The second time I visited the city, I had more time to go beyond the main avenues and I set to explore the narrow lanes on foot. What a surprise I got. I couldn't believe my eyes! A new world had opened and I now understood why people say Tainan is Taiwan's Kyoto as well as the island's cradle of culture and traditions.
Tainan is packed with touristic sights such as temples, museums, night markets, and even a fort where you can learn about Taiwan and China's military past. There are enough things to do to keep you busy for at least 2-3 days. Here are some places you'll want to include on your Tainan travel itinerary:
Welcome to Taiwan's oldest Confucian Shrine! Of all the Confucius temples around the island, this one is my favorite. The halls are set in front of a vast park filled with huge banyan trees where people chat, fly kites, paint or just walk around. There's no better place to be on a sunny day when the temple's pink walls contrast against a deep blue sky.
Remain of Tainan's old defences. From the Confucius Temple, it's only a short walk along Nanmen Rd. to get to the Great South Gate. The massive double gate was completed in 1835. Set in yet another pleasant park, the giant structure is a reminder of Tainan's military past as well as one of the most photogenic attraction in town.
300-year-old Fahua Temple is also worth a detour. The monk on this picture told me he spent his entire life at the temple. "I was born to be a monk," he said. "When I was a kid, I used to come here to recite sutras while my friends would stay home to work and play." Although he doesn't speak English, he's always happy to take visitors around the shrine. Fahua is a quiet tourist attraction that doesn't get as busy as Confucius Temple, so it's a great spot to soak in the culture without the crowds.
Extremely popular with Chinese tourists from the mainland, this memorial is dedicated to Koxinga - the Ming Dynasty general who kicked the Dutch out of Taiwan in 1662. You can see a statue of the man in the main hall as well as tablets commemorating his army along the side corridors. A small museum by the shrine has traditional Taiwanese puppets on display.
While I was visiting the temple, a devotee explained to me: "City God is the afterlife judge. He keeps account of people's moral behavior and decides how one should be rewarded or punished."
The large abacus in the main hall is said to help City God calculate people's good or bad deeds. The torture instruments and graphic images of hell are also quite interesting sights.
Set in an attractive neoclassical building that used to be Tainan's City Hall, this museum showcases exhibitions that detail the progression of Taiwanese literature since the Japanese occupation. For most, the building's architecture is the main interest. It was built by the Japanese in 1916. Most displays have English descriptions. It's just a short walk north of Confucius Temple.
Due to its central location and its proximity to lots of good restaurants, this popular landmark seems to attract more tourists than any other attraction in town. Even if you don't like crowds, you should still put Chihkan Towers on your travel itinerary.
When you enter the site, take a right to make your way to the pavilions. You'll see a statue of a helpless Dutch bowing his head in front of a powerful Koxinga.
Climb up the two Fujianese-style pavilions to get good views over the city. The nine tablets lined up on the back of stone turtles at the base of the first pavilion date back as far as 1786. They were sent by the Chinese Emperor of that era.
You simply can't miss this striking temple with its pink-colored walls as you walk on Minzu Rd. The original shrine, dedicated to Guan Di, was built in 1690.
After taking this picture, the man in the blue shirt asked me: "Do you have places like this in America?" I said: "I'm not from America. How about you, do you have places like this in China?" He quickly and nervously snapped back: "This is China!"
Established in 1662, this is the oldest Matsu Temple in Taiwan. And it's such a lively place. It seems that every time I visit it, there's a ritual that's being held where giant Chinese puppets dance, gongs are beaten and joss money is thrown up in the air amidst the sound of exploding firecrackers and traditional Taiwanese music.
Being a coastal city that used to be dependent on fishing it's understandable that Tainan should have a special liking for Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea. The city has no less than 17 temples dedicated to the deity.
Also called Fort Zeelandia, this impressive bastion was originally build by the Dutch in 1653. All that remains from the original structure are a few crumbling walls that used to make up the foundation. The streets around the fort turn into a lively market on weekends and the entire area enjoys a carnival atmosphere as hundreds of Taiwanese tourists show up to buy snacks and play games.
Yet another temple dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea. This one is right by Anping Fort and is always packed with devotees.
Look for the fortune teller by the main altar - he's quite a funny character. Point your camera at him and watch his reaction. Don't worry, he won't get angry - he likes attention!
Taiwanese opera performances are often held on the parking lot in front of the temple. Careful if you see the performers walking on the stage with bottles. They sometimes throw alcohol in the crowd. It's supposed to ward off evil spirits.
The fortress is set in the biggest and most beautiful park I've seen in Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, tons of Taiwanese flock here on weekends to stroll around the fortifications.
It used to be an important piece of Taiwan's defense against the Japanese. Military buffs will enjoy the cannons on top of the citadel. Photographers will want to shoot the front gate early morning. I highly recommend to walk between this site and Anping Fort.
Tainan is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan and hotel rooms are hard to find if you do not already have a reservation. I would suggest you book your hotel or guesthouse in the city before you get there so you don't end up spending half your time there looking for a room.
Here, I also have a page where I have put my own recommendations about the best places to stay in Taiwan's old capital city. Check this page of fine accommodation in the city.
By train: Tainan's train station is located in the northeastern part of the city, about 1km away from the Confucius Temple and Chihkan Tower.
By Bus: UBus has a station right next to the train station at #2 Beinan Rd. Buses for Taipei cost NT500 and take between 5 to 6 hours depending on the traffic situation.
Tainan Airport is only 5km away from the city center and has regular flights to Taipei and Kinmen. The High Speed Railway Station (HSR) is a very frustrating 30 minutes south of the city.
One of the most popular areas to find traditional food in Tainan City is around Chihkan Towers. There you'll find everything from fried rice to dumplings sold at street stalls, as well as other local specialties such as Dan Zai Noodle. If you walk around the city, you'll pass dozens of Taiwanese, Chinese, and even Japanese restaurants that offer in BBQ, hot pot, quick stir-fries, and even western food like pizza, burgers, and steak.
Tainan Photo Gallery - 50 Travel Pictures: That's right... More pictures! There's simply no better way to get describe this amazing city. Check pictures of temples, landscape, people, parks...