Most visits to Taiwan begin in Taipei, the capital and largest city, home to Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum and some of the island’s best restaurants, bars and night markets. It’s also surrounded by a host of worthy day-trips including the cable car to the teahouses of Maokong, the hot springs at Beitou and the volcanic peaks of Yangmingshan National Park. The storm-battered North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area is a short ride away, as is the wonderful night market in Keelung, the intriguing Pingxi Branch Line Railway and picturesque Shifen Falls. Nearby, the old mining towns of Jinguashi and Jiufen are deservedly popular for their historic streets and teahouses, while the Northeast & Yilan Coast National Scenic Area contains some of the most rugged coastline on the island. Southwest of Taipei, Hsinchu makes an excellent base for trips to Hakka country, the primary home of Taiwan’s small but influential Hakka minority, while Shei-Pa National Park provides an opportunity to tackle some of Taiwan’s largest and most memorable peaks. Nearby, Taian Hot Springs is perhaps the island’s most alluring hot-spring resort.
Central Taiwan is home to some spectacular scenery, though it pays to spend a couple of days in vibrant Taichung, renowned for its teahouses and lively nightlife. Not far from the city, Changhua is noted principally for its Great Buddha Statue, and atmospheric Lugang is celebrated for its craftsmen and classical architecture. East of Taichung, picture-perfect Sun Moon Lake makes a fitting introduction to Taiwan’s mighty central ranges, a place for languid lakeside walks and gorgeous views. Just outside Puli, to the north of the lake, Chung Tai Chan Monastery is a man-made wonder, a remarkable blend of modern architecture and Zen Buddhism. Heading south, Chiayi provides a staging post for the cool valleys and Tsou villages of the Alishan National Scenic Area. Beyond this lies Yushan National Park and the scintillating hike up Taiwan’s highest mountain, commanding awe-inspiring, cloud-capped vistas.
South Taiwan is the most traditional part of the island, with Tainan making the obvious introduction to the region, a modern city crammed with historic sights, particularly temples, complemented by superb food. Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second city and an earthy counterweight to Taipei, its smattering of sights enhanced by a growing number of parks, outdoor cafés and bars. Nearby is the elegant monastery at Foguangshan, while the dramatic Southern Cross-Island Highway heads east across the mountains to Taitung, slicing through the northern end of Maolin National Scenic Area, rich in Paiwan and Rukai culture. The southern tip of Taiwan is dominated by Kenting National Park, with its popular beaches and surf spots.
The east coast is a world apart, isolated from the rest of Taiwan until very recently and still home to the greatest concentration of its indigenous tribes. Most visitors make for Taroko National Park, with spectacular Taroko Gorge at its heart, in parts an incredibly narrow gap between lofty walls of stone. Hualien is the largest settlement on the east coast and makes the ideal gateway to Taroko, with plenty of opportunities to buy its famous marble, tasty dumplings and sweet-filled rice cakes. From here there are two routes south: the East Rift Valley is noted for its hot springs and rafting on the Xiuguluan River, while the coastal road twists past isolated beaches and Ami villages. Both end up at the laid-back town of Taitung, location of the National Museum of Prehistory and base for trips to Ludao (Green Island) with its exceptional outdoor springs.
Taiwan’s offshore islands have their own distinctive cultures and histories. Penghu, in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, is an archipelago of magnificent beaches, old temples and crumbling fishing villages, a haven for windsurfing and other watersports. Just off the coast of China’s Fujian province, the Matsu Islands provide a rare taster of traditional northern Fujian culture, as well as Taiwan’s recent military history. The theme is continued on Kinmen, literally within sight of the now booming mainland city of Xiamen and rapidly remodelling itself as an open-air museum.