Traveling in Taiwan
It was a snap decision when we decided to visit Taiwan on our 2017 Asia trip. We had briefly discussed it, but didn’t do much research before just showing up. We decided the best way to really get a feel for the country though would be to circle the entire island. Taiwan is made up of a large amount of natural reserves and national parks. The country has a gorgeous coastline wrapped all the way around it in addition to a number of pristine islands off both the east and west shores. Taiwan is home to several gigantic cities as well as many small rural areas. We flew into Taipei from Busan, South Korea and immediately began making our way down the east coast. We took public transportation on our route to traverse the entire perimeter, which was challenging at times, but also made for a really unique experience. We rented scooters here and there to get around some areas and we used bicycles and trains in the cities.
The Cost of Travel in Taiwan
- Currency: New Taiwanese Dollar ( 30 NT = $1 USD)
- Cash or Credit? The short answer is no, you can’t use your credit card much in Taiwan. It’s weird though. Some stores go as far as to accept Apple Pay, but then places like the restaurants in the international airport are cash only. The annoying part is that because cash is king in Taiwan, most ATMs are running low on it. In Japan, I always used the 7/11 ATMs and I could take out as much money as I wanted. In Taiwan, some of those same ATMs limit me to taking out $100 usd at a time. Which really stinks because the ATM charges a $3 fee and my bank charges $5 on top of that. I had to make 3 withdrawals in a row once and when it was all said and done I had spent $24 usd on the fees alone. If you find an ATM that lets you take out a lot at once you should jump on it because they are rare.
- Taxi: The ticker in most cabs starts at $100 NT and goes up pretty quick. I would not recommend taking cabs when there is so much public transit.
- Bus: Bus rides are super cheap in Taiwan. Within the city they are less than $1 usd, and in between cities they average between $6 and $10 for a decently far trip.
- Train: The trains are super nice and efficient. The local trains make more stops, but they are cheaper. The most expensive ride you will take though is only about $10-$12 usd.
- Ferry: The ferry we took to Green Island from Taitung cost $15 usd and it was a hour long boat ride.
- Scooter: Renting scooters is the most popular way to get around Taiwan. Prices range from $250 NT a day to $800 NT a day depending on the type of scooter and where you are trying to rent one. Most places do not require you to have an international drivers license. Just a passport and a drivers license from your home country.
- Meals: Food is super cheap in Taiwan. Most meals in a restaurant will not cost more than $5. Many simple meat and noodle bowl dishes come with a drink and only cost 60-90 NT ($2-$3). Beer is also pretty cheap, with the Taiwanese national beers being sold at 40-50 NT for a tall boy ($1.30-$1.60).
- Accommodation: Rooms are more expensive in Taiwan than elsewhere in northeast Asia. Hostel dorm beds start at around $16usd/person and go all the way up to $35usd/person. The Airbnb’s we found were all in the $30-$35 usd range on the east coast but slightly cheaper in the cities on the wet coast.
Tips for Traveling in Taiwan
- Attempt to learn a little mandarin
- Get used to eating guts
- Use the Obike app to rent bicycles in any city on the cheap. You will need a phone number which you can also get an app for and then they are super cheap to rent for as little or as long as you need them and they are super easy to find.
- Some places will let you rent a scooter without an international driver’s license, but if not you can also rent an electric scooter which they don’t require a license for. You can ride two people on one and still go pretty far, decently fast. We used one the entire time we were in Kenting.
Things to do in Taiwan
- Elephant hike Taipei
- Green Island
- Buddha memorial museum and monastery in Kaohsiung
- Lotus Pond Kaohsiung (Tiger & Dragon Pagodas)
- Kenting National Park
- Taroko National Park
- Boba/bubble/pearl Tea– Most of us have seen these in the west, but this drink actually originated in Taiwan. Ice cold milk tea with sugar and marble sized tapioca balls drank through a giant straw.
- Duck– There are stands that sell literally every part of the duck on skewers and grill them right there. They are very popular with locals young and old alike.
- Sausages- I’m not sure why, but these are a big hit all over Taiwan. Just a basic bratwurst looking sausage on a stick. They come in different flavors and cost about a buck. They are pretty good for a quick snack and protein fix.
- Hard Boiled Eggs in Soy Sauce: Again, not sure why. People eat them like crazy though. To the point that they are sold in pretty much every restaurant and even in the convenience stores.
- Sticky Buns– Steamed buns filled with goodies. A timeless classic.
- Steamed dumplings– A thin doughy wrapper with vegatbles or meat inside. Cooked with steam inside a basket-like tray.
- Sashimi- Delicious fresh cut sushi slices. Salmon and tuna are the most popular and in my opinion the most delicious.
- Squid- Sometimes its a giant tentacle, other times its the whole squid. It can be fried or grilled with a nice sauce.
- Fried Crabs-Small crabs deep fried whole with some seasoning that you can eat like popcorn.
- Stinky Tofu- Squares of tofu that have been left to ferment and are then deep fried. It’s a hit or miss for most people.
When we landed in Taipei, we decided to start our way down the east coast of the island instead of spending time in the capital right off the bat. We took a bus to Yilan where we got a room for 3 nights. We stayed close to a sprawling night market where we got our first introduction to Taiwanese street food. We also really enjoyed riding bicycles to a local brewery and world renowned distillery. The bike trails are really nice and well kept and can take you to a lot of cool parts of the township. The area is known for its hot springs and spas. We went to the Wufung waterfall and hiked around for a day and took a dip in the fresh mountain water. We also went to an outdoor hot spring that had tubs full of little fish that nibble on your skin as a skin therapy. The beach is close by to Yilan and while there aren’t many marked public beaches, you can enjoy yourself just going straight up to the water pretty much anywhere along the coast. A lot of the coast consists of black sand beaches with big waves to watch.
- Kavalan Distillery
- Jim and Dad’s Brewery
- Hot Springs
- Fish Pool Spa
- Wufung Waterfall
- Black sand beaches
- Dongmen Night Market
We stayed in Hualien so that we could visit Taroko National Park. It is a world famous national park known for its canyons and tunnels that go through the mountains. The best way to go is by renting a scooter in Hualien. The shops around the bus station didn’t mind that I did not have an international drivers license. It was super fun getting to ride through the park too. There are several good hikes and stops throughout. Back in town there are plenty of great restaurants and other activities. The Nanbin Coastal Park has a bike trail that follows the coastline further than you could ever want to go. There is also a great night market around that area. We rented bicycles using the Obike app and road up and down the coastline. There is a whale watching spot, but we weren’t so lucky to see any.
- Nanbin coastal park
- Dongdamen Night Market
- Taroko National Park
We took a ferry to Green Island (460 NT each one way) from Taitung. We couldn’t justify the price of the hostels and hotels on the island, so we ended up sleeping on the beach for 3 nights. The island has the best coral reefs we have ever been to. There are 3 different diving/snorkeling spots you can go to and the reef is full of life. There are some awesome all you can eat, table top grill places for food, where the grill is in your table and you go to refrigerators with some tongs and a plate and have your pick of all kids of different meat, veggies, and seafood (500 NT/person). We rented a scooter (500NT/24hrs) while we were there so we could zip around the island quickly and see all of the sites. We were pretty much the only people on the island that weren’t a part of a big tour group. The sad part is that the tour guides take about 30 Chinese tourists out on the reef at a time, about 20 times a day, and they let them walk all over the live reef and allow/encourage them to touch it and take anything they want (starfish, coral, etc.) home with them. The reef won’t be as nice as it was when we were there for long if something isn’t done to control the tour groups more. For instructions on traveling to Green Island, please check out my post How to get to Green Island, Taiwan.
Hengchun Township/Kenting National Park
We stayed in Hengchun so that we could spend some time in the national park. Hengchun is the city just outside the park where a lot of people stay. You can also stay directly in the park in some of the small towns there but they are of course more expensive and cater more towards tour groups. We stayed in a hostel in Hengchun, which is rare for us because usually paying for 2 beds is more expensive than paying for one room on Airbnb, but there weren’t any in our price range. We rented a scooter but they would only let us rent an electric one without an international drivers license, even though we have rented 2 normal scooters so far in Taiwan. The electric scooter was slow but still got us all the way around the park just fine. There are several really nice snorkeling spots to stop at as well as a few good beaches to just relax on. Some of the beaches are pretty crowded and some of the reefs have Chinese tourist walking all over them, but there are still some undisturbed areas where you can break away on your own. There is an awesome night market in Kenting Village that lines both sides of the roads and has more street food than you could ever try. It is kind of chaotic with so many people there but it is definitely worth checking out.
Kaohsiug was are first big city as we made our way up the west coast. We stayed right next to Central Park which put plenty of good restaurants and night markets close by as well as easy access to the subway. The two big activities to do in Kaohsiung are the Fo Guang Buddha Memorial Museum and the Lotus Pond. The Memorial museum could easily be considered the feature attraction of Taiwan. It is a huge monastery combined with 8 giant pagodas, leading to the largest Buddha in the country. Underneath the giant gold Buddha is a huge museum that took us all day to get through. They proudly house one of only 3 tooth relics from the Buddha. There are buses that go straight there from the train station and once you get there it is completely free. Lotus Pond is a popular attraction back in town where there are a number of shrines and huge statues surrounding a big pond. The tiger and dragon pagodas are the most famous but there is an even more impressive war God statue and some of the most impressive temples we’ve seen on the street surrounding the park.
We stayed in Nantou to visit a friend of mine from college back in Colorado. It was great to get shown around by a local and have some of the food and other customs explained to us. We visited Sun Moon Lake, which is a big attraction in Taiwan, but there was a typhoon coming in, so the weather wasn’t great. It definitely started pouring on us while we were walking around the lake. We enjoyed going to several markets in Nantou and getting to see how the food is different the further north we traveled was very interesting. We got to try stinky tofu for the first time too!
- Sun Moon Lake
Taipei is really fun and easy to get around. You can take the subway to most major areas or rent bicycles and discover your own places. We spent 5 nights in Taipei and we stayed in a really happening part of town. There are lots of really cool night markets to go to in the city as well as many parks for just hanging out. I recommend the Elephant Mountain hiking trail to get a great view of the city and of the Taipei 101 building. We spent time visiting some of the temples in town too and went to some of the museums to learn more about the history of the country. We really liked visiting the national concert hall and watching the changing of the guards at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
- Lungshan Temple of Manka
- Shilin Night Market
- Snake Alley (Huaxi Street Night Market)
- National Museum of History
- 228 Peace Memorial Park (and museum)
- Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall