Temples, beaches, mountains, islands, festivals, night markets... Taiwan has it all! And the great thing about it is that only few travelers know Taiwan even exists. Somehow, Formosa has found a way to remain off the main tourist / backpacher trail in Asia. With so many amazing things to do, it's a true mystery why Taiwan is not as popular a destination like Thailand or Japan.
The beautiful "Isla Formosa", as it was called by the Portuguese, has such a rich diversity of amazing experiences to be lived, there are so many fun things to do in Taiwan, that it's challenging to make a to-do list even if you have 2 or 3 full weeks to tour the island. I've been traveling around Taiwan for 17 years and still haven't seen it all!
Throughout the years, I've received lots of emails from visitors enquiring about itineraries and "must-see" places and "must-do" adventures in Taipei or other destinations around the island. The 16 following things to do and places to see should be on your list if you visit Taiwan one day.
When people tell me they want to skip Taipei because it's a big city with crazy traffic and lots of people, I tell them they should change their mind. The capital is an extremely pleasant city to visit, with sights that will make you wonder like no other place can. Must-sees in Taipei are the National Palace Museum, the 101 Tower, Shilin Night Market, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, and Longshan Temple.
One of Asia's most amazing natural wonders, Taroko Gorge offers plenty of opportunities for the adventurous traveler. Wether you're hiking along a turquoise river at the bottom of thousand-feet-high marble walls, or along a tiny path that clings to a steep mountain side, you're certain to bring back tons of stunning pictures, and great stories to tell. Taroko National Park is easily accessed from Hualien City, on Taiwan's wild East Coast.
Taiwan's East Coast is my favorite part of Taiwan. The cities are smaller, the sea is cleaner, the pollution is almost non-existent, and the mountains are always nearby. The East Coast is a top destination in Asia for cyclists, nature enthusiasts, vagabonds, surfers, and people who have an interest in ancient aboriginal cultures. Dulan, Fulong, and Jiufen are three places you should put on your list.
Whether you want to scale Taiwan's highest peak Jade Mountain (Yushan), or simply take a short day-hike along easy trails at lower altitude in jungles or bamboo forests, you'll find what you're looking for in the Central Mountain Range. My personal favorite alpine station on the island is Hehuanshan, where lots of day-hikes and longer treks can be started. Check Cilai Mountain if you want to test your endurance and alpine skills.
Kenting is Taiwan's top destination for beach lovers, surfers, snorkelers, and people who are into eating fresh seafood! Located at the southern tip of the island, the area is also home to a national park, a beautiful lighthouse, quiet fishing harbors, and one of Taiwan's busiest night markets. No vacation to Taiwan is complete without a visit to Kenting!
There are temples everywhere around the island, but no other place has such diversity of religious sites like Tainan. If you're interested in knowing more about Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taiwan's own brand of "folk religious practices", you should spend at least 2 days in the old capital, which is located in the south. Tainan remains a stronghold of ancient Taiwanese culture.
Sun Moon Lake in the heart of Nantou County, is the top destinations in Central Taiwan. People come here to hike, cycle, drink tea, row across the lake, or take a gondola to an aboriginal cultural village up high above the clouds. Weekends can be especially busy, so try to organise your itinerary so you can be here on a weekday.
This small volcanic island situated in the Pacific Ocean is home to the best diving and snorkelling in Taiwan. The reef here is home to more than 210 kinds of coral and 600 kinds of fish. Green Island also offers the only seawater hot spring in the country, a lighthouse, hiking trails, and small beaches with fine white sand.
Stinky tofu is the ultimate national night snack and it's a top thing to do in Taiwan for most visitors. Don't be fooled by the strong, pungent odor - it doesn't taste as bad as it smells. Night markets across the island sell this famous street food for as little as 30NT$ a plate.
Few places in the world enjoy such a high concentration of hot springs across the land as Taiwan - more than 150 sites! Only Japan ranks higher. There are three ways you can enjoy hot springs on the island: at public baths, in your own private room, or in nature, where springs still gush naturally in streams and rivers.
The Tao aboriginal tribe on Orchid Island (Lanyu) is one of the most fascinating, maybe because it's able to retain its original character and its ancient ways due to its remoteness. Orchid Island is actually closer to the Philippines than the main island of Taiwan.
Few tourist destinations offer such spectacular views over the Pacific Ocean as Jiufen. On a clear day, strap on your hiking shoes, and walk along easy paths in the hills to get stunning views of the northeast coast. The town is also popular for its old street, little snacks, and teahouses.
Visiting Matsu is not on many people's list of things to do in Taiwan, mostly because you have to take a flight, or a very long boat ride to get there. Another reason why people dismiss it is because most of the focus in travel guidebooks is on the military sights that are found here. Matsu is not just about soldiers, tanks, and army bases. The archipelago is also home to beautiful wild forests, temples, and interesting villages with ancient Chinese architecture.
I first came to Taiwan in 2000 to rock climb at Long Dong cliffs. Located just an hour southeast from Taipei, Longdong offers world-class rock climbing on high-quality sandstone, right by the ocean. Both sport and trad routes can be found here, and there's even a couple of multi-pitch climbs. One of the great things about Long Dong is that it's possible to climb here year-round.
This kind of stuff doesn't compare with anything you've ever seen. Taiwanese religious parades are chaotic shows of colorful symbolic nonsense filled with dragons, loud music, half-naked pole-dancers, blood, fire-crackers, statues of gods being carried by drunk people, beetle nut chewing drivers, and clueless observers of all ages. Less and less of these traditional parades can be witnessed these days, but they still occur, mostly in the countryside. One of the craziest events you can ever see in Taiwan is Dangki - an ancient Chinese Ritual which involves blood and crazy people.
If you're only gonna visit one night market in Taiwan, make sure it's Miaokou. The food here is of much higher quality than at most night markets around the country. If you're into seafood, you'll love this place and you'll want to make sure you arrive on an empty stomach. Dianji Temple is right among the food stalls, and it's a super nice spot to take pictures or see people make offerings to the gods. Keelung is only 40 minutes away from Taipei by train, and trains leave every 20 minutes. Definitely one of the coolest things to do in Taiwan!
Many people will agree with me: the best way to discover Taiwan is on two wheels! The ubiquitous scooter is symbolic to Taiwan and it's also the ultimate freedom tool for the traveler who's in search of adventure. On a scooter, you can access remote parts of the island, such as deep valleys in the central mountain range, and you can travel at your own pace without having to rely on bus or train schedules. More about scooter travel here.