My Paradise: Last-minute trip to terrific Taipei

Photos by Chrissy M. Yates
Photos by Chrissy M. Yates

My Paradise: Last-minute trip to terrific Taipei

by Chrissy M. Yates
Stripes Japan

Solo travel can be exhilaratingly fun. It can also be exhausting. With no one else to chime in on plans, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do and see.

I was originally supposed to travel to Taipei in the spring but had to cancel due to illness. This time I decided to tack on a three-day trip to the end of a group trip I took to South Korea. Honestly, early June isn’t the best time of the year to visit Taiwan due to the heat, humidity and rain.

Still, I had a great time and am so happy I got to visit such a beautiful country. Here’s a selection of some of the things I did.

Hit the ground eating
Since I landed in the afternoon, and knew I had early dinner plans, I decided it was best to go see what Taipei-only foods I could find at the airport before I went and dropped my bags at my hotel. I dragged my suitcases to the basement floor of Taoyuan Airport’s Terminal 1 and went to the food court where I found Taiwan Snack. There I had a bubble tea (50 TWD, $1.60) and a deep-fried food variety combo (200 TWD, $6.52)  that included boneless deep fried chicken with salt and pepper, french fries, fried mushrooms, fried deep sea squid, fried tofu, and fried pork blood sausage cake. The last item being a Taiwanese specialty. It reminded me a bit of blood sausage, though sadly not as peppery. The texture was a bit sticky and gooey thanks to the rice the blood is mixed with.

Slurp up some soup dumplings
Soup dumplings, or xiolongbao, are one of the must-try foods in Taipei. If you are going to eat at the famous Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung, I suggest trying a set menu at their Taipei 101 location so you can go up to the top of the tower after you eat. I also suggest reservations. Even though it was a Wednesday night when I went, the sign showed a 70-minute wait for walk-ins. The set menu included the original xiaolongbao, shrimp shumai, spicy wontons, hot and sour soup, stir fried water spinach, and more.

However, my favorite place was a takeout-only joint and where I met up with a friend. Tang Bao Hung’s xiaolongbao is so popular that you need to place your order in advance. Three varieties are available — original, garlic and mala (a numbing spicy seasoning made from Sichuan peppercorn and dried red chili peppers). We ordered all three. These were as filling as they were delicious. The dumplings are larger than the ones at Din Tai Fung and an order includes eight pieces. My friend taught me a new way of eating them too. Instead of nipping the side with your teeth to drain the broth into the spoon to slurp, you bite the top off and suck out the broth then stuff it with the ginger and scallions that are served on the side, pour a splash of vinegar on top, and devour. It took a bit of practice, I might’ve gotten a squirt or two of soup on myself but it was worth it. My favorite were the garlic ones and the slightly sweet, black vinegar really complimented the juicy pork filling. One downside to this spot is it’s takeout only, but there’s a nice park nearby with a few tables or you could bring a blanket and have a picnic.

Nibble through night markets
One mistake was booking an evening tour that included going to Raohe Night Market right after dinner. It meant I didn’t have much room for all the wonderful treats that awaited me at this lively location. I watched as fresh donuts were made in one booth, while the one next to it served fresh watermelon juice, and next to that one a vendor was using a blowtorch to cook beef cubes. Everything looked and smelled amazing. I only had room for a watermelon juice that I sipped as I wandered from stall to stall that were selling dried fruit, grilled seafood, fried quail eggs, sausages, crispy milk doughnuts, taiwan sweet potato balls, bubble tea, fruit juices and more.

Two days later, I visited Ningxia Night Market. This smaller market was recommended by the tour guide who took me to the mountains earlier that day. I arrived around 10:30 p.m. and it was still quite busy. A line formed at the entrance for the fried sweet potato balls, but I decided to first walk the full length of the market before I jumped in line for anything. I came hungry this time and filled up on fried quail eggs with wasabi sauce, gua bao/”Taiwanese hamburger” (a steamed bun filled with tender and perfectly seasoned pork belly and pickled greens), stuffed squid, and fried rice. I even saw some items I thought were exclusively American county fair foods, like fried oreos and roasted corn (70 to 80 TWD). The price of most items ranged from 50 TWD to 70 TWD. Here you can also try the Michelin-rated taro balls, but the line was a bit too long for me.

Shop local
The friend who introduced me to Tang Bao Hung and I hopped a train after our lunch to go to Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. The building on the grounds that once was home to the Songshan Tobacco Factory is now two floors of artists spaces, cafes and various craft shops. It was a great spot to buy locally-made souvenirs and support Taiwanese artisans. I picked up some leather goods, postcards, magnets and even some kitschy plant markers.

Nearby is the Eslite Spectrum Shopping Centre, which includes an impressive 24-hour bookstore at the top that even has a section in English. I also enjoyed spending some time looking at the translated covers of various Western books.

Tea farm tour and tea tasting
I didn’t just eat my way through Taipei. One morning I woke up really early to head up to the nearby Xiangshan, or Elephant Mountain. My tour guide explained how Taiwan came to be known for its tea and I discovered my new favorite type of oolong, the honey scented Oriental Beauty. I also participated in a gongfu tea ceremony in the historic Pinglin Old Street. The many steps in the brewing process are designed to not only serve the tea at its optimal temperature but also focus on appreciating different aspects of the tea, such as its color, scent and taste.

It rained on and off during my trip, but on my last day the rain was particularly heavy and unpredictable. Luckily the night before I made a reservation at Hermit’s Hut tea house. I love a bougie experience and this place didn’t disappoint. I ended up staying there for hours trying different teas and learning about the different ways of preparing each tea while chatting with one of the co-owners. It was a peaceful and relaxing experience.

Foods to eat
Stinky tofu: Despite the name, this fermented food was tasty deep fried with a mild flavor. I got to try the barbecued version during my walk down the Shenkeng Old Street area.

Grass jelly: Made from a plant called Chinese Mesona, which is an herb in the mint family. It can be made into tea or served with shaved ice.

Bubble tea: A combination of tea, milk and balls made of tapioca or fruit jelly served with ice. 
Peanut candy: A crunchy outside with a peanut powdery center, I first tried these during my tea ceremony in Pinglin Old Street area.

Dried fruit: My favorite was candied licorice olives, which have a sweet bitter flavor.
Fresh fruit: Dragonfruit, jujubes (looks like a green apple), and apple mango, all of which you can pick up at any of the outdoor markets. 
Fami-Ice: Available at FamilyMart convenience stores with rotating seasonal flavors.

Other spots of interest
National Palace Museum: Houses the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks in the world. 
Taipei 101: The tallest building in Taiwan and offers great nighttime views of the city.

Xiangshan (Elephant Mountain): It’ll take about 30 minutes to climb all 600 steps to get to one of the most Instagrammable spots in the city. Here you’ll be able to see Taipei 101 against the surrounding green, lush landscape. 
Ciyou Temple: Can’t miss this if you go to Raohe Night Market in Songshan District.

Ximending Night Market: More of an entertainment and shopping district that has been called the Harajuku of Taipei. It’s very crowded with street performers, restaurants and retail shopping.

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