Photograph by GUIZIOU Franck, hemis.fr/Alamy
A densely populated basin surrounded by verdant mountains, Taiwan’s energetic capital is packed with elaborate temples, ancient and edgy art, Chinese memorials, green space, and its celebrated night markets. And with tea gardens and hot springs minutes away, there’s plenty to keep the thrifty traveler happy, starting with free Wi-Fi citywide.
Get your bearings with a visit to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, dedicated to the Nationalist Party leader. Climb the 89 steps (one for each year of Chiang’s life) for an up-close look at the Lincoln-like bronze statue of the controversial leader. Learn more about his life at the (free) museum downstairs, which displays his uniforms and cars. Arrive at dawn to catch locals practicing tai chi in the plaza, also a popular spot for protests and national celebrations. Roam around the peaceful gardens and the two Chinese ponds surrounding the memorial before it opens at 9 a.m.
Built in the early 19th century as a paean to Chinese folk god Baosheng Dadi, revered for his medical miracles, Baoan Temple still draws believers asking the doctor deity for healing. Its fantastically ornate decorative arts—wall murals depicting dragons and gods, sculptures, mosaics, and koji ceramic art—and revival of temple rites earned it a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2003. English-speaking volunteers are available to interpret the symbolism of the works. An annual folk festival is held at the temple each spring. Past festivals have featured fireworks, opera performances, and a Chinese medical clinic, all free.
Nearby is the Minnan-style Confucius Temple, modeled on the original found in the philosopher’s hometown of Qufu in Shandong Province and intended as an educational center to study Confucianism. The temple complex is another trove of architectural adornments, including the octagonal plafond ceiling in the main Dacheng Hall. Entrance is free.
The equally exquisite Lungshan Temple was founded in 1738 to venerate Guanyin, the bodhisattva of mercy, but today is home to a hundred-plus folk deities as well, including Yue Lao (aka the Chinese Cupid) and Wenchang Dijun, god of culture and literature and popular with students offering up a prayer before exams. Admission is free. If the gods can’t help, try the fortune-tellers, masseurs, and herbal vendors that peddle their services and wares outside the temple. Visit during the Lunar New Year for a lantern-lighting ceremony and other festivities.
The venerable National Palace Museum opens its doors for free on five days of the year: New Year’s Day; Lantern Festival day; International Museum Day (May 18); World Tourism Day (September 27); and National Day (October 10). Otherwise, adult admission is about $8; school-age children always get in free. With tapestries, paintings, ceramics, bronzes, calligraphy, and other antiquities from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, it's the world’s largest collection of Chinese art. Much of it was commandeered from Beijing’s Forbidden City by the Nationalists before they fled China’s communist takeover in 1949. Get up to speed on your dynasties at the orientation gallery on the first floor, and don’t miss the jadeite bok choy cabbage, believed to be a gift to Emperor Kuang-Hsu’s (1875-1908) consort Chin. English guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily for free but must be booked online at least three days in advance.
Free each Saturday from 5 p.m. to close (8:30 p.m.), the airy Taipei Fine Arts Museum exhibits international and local art, from a retrospective on American architect Louis Kahn to a show featuring installation works by avant-garde Taiwanese artist Dean-E Mei. The Children's Art Education Center also presents free workshops to engage kids in works on display, such as a recent interactive installation on 20th-century German painter Paul Klee.
Wander the narrow passages and staircases of Treasure Hill Artist Village, a onetime illegal settlement that was renovated by the government into an eco-friendly creative community. The colony features 14 studios with exhibition space for resident artists. Check the website for what’s on display.
The cable car ride to the area’s tea district in the hills of Maokong will cost you about $1.60, but admission is free at the Taipei Tea Promotion Center, where you’ll learn how the regional oolong is produced. Several of the tea gardens along Zhinan Road offer tea tastings.
Kids under the height of three feet seven inches get in free to the observatory at Taipei 101, the city’s iconic skyscraper, which briefly held the title of world's tallest building. (Officially the Taipei International Financial Center, the building was designed to resemble a stalk of bamboo, symbolizing flexibility and fast growth.) Adult tickets, on the other hand, cost $16, but the experience may be worth it for the stomach-churning whoosh of the world’s fastest elevator—it goes from ground level to the 89th floor in 40 seconds—and 360-degree panorama of Taipei. Another Guinness World Records claim to fame: The world’s largest and heaviest wind damper, designed to reduce the swaying of the tower in strong gusts, is suspended between the 87th and 92nd floors for your viewing pleasure.
Carved out of the city in the 1980s, leafy Daan Forest Park was inspired by New York’s Central Park. Though it's less sprawling, its 64 acres packs in all of the essentials of an urban park: pavilions, ponds, a skating rink, an amphitheater, and, most importantly, a playground with swings and a jungle gym. Find them in the northeast corner.
With an admission price of less than $2, the Taipei Zoo may not be free, but it's a true bargain. Animals aren’t confined to cages, and most are grouped into eight exhibition areas, from the Children’s Zoo—with domestic animals like rabbits, llamas, and mini-horses—to the Formosan section, featuring the indigenous Chinese pangolin and Asiatic black bear. Highlight: Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, giant pandas gifted by China in 2008 as a gesture of unity. Their offspring Yuan Zai, born in 2013, was the first panda cub born in Taiwan.
For less than a buck a ticket, the Taipei Children’s Amusement Park will likely provide hours of entertainment for tots with its game area, sand zone, and giant slides. The park’s 13 major rides—including bumper cars, a carousel, spinning teacups, and a Ferris wheel—are priced separately from about 65 cents to a dollar.
Food & Drink
Stinky tofu, dumplings, beef noodles: Taipei is synonymous with cheap eats like these. While street vendors are out at all hours, save your appetite for the city’s colorful night markets, where you’ll find the best assortment of xiao chi (“small eats”) and a carnival-like atmosphere. Don’t miss the small alleyways at Shilin, the most sprawling of the markets, where you can snack on an oyster omelet while perusing knockoff fashions and cheap electronics. Spare ribs in herbal broth, squid stew, and black pepper buns are a few of the specialties at Raohe Street, one of the oldest of the city’s markets. They don’t call Huaxi Street Snake Alley for nothing: Offerings skew toward “tonics,” such as all manner of snake and rat preparations believed to be good for the health. If that doesn’t appeal, the shaved ice is supposed to be the best around. Still hungry? Head to the slightly less crowded Tonghua Night Market for a plate of cheap and satisfying Taiwanese teppanyaki (think poor man’s Japanese steakhouse fare). Also big here: steamed buns and grilled sausages.
Modeled on European urban spaces, Taipei Park was established in 1908, when Taiwan was ruled by Japan. Its name was changed to 228 Memorial Peace Park in 1996 to commemorate the massacre of thousands of protesters by the Kuomintang-led government on February 28, 1947. A memorial to the victims stands in the southern end of the park. Join the locals for an afternoon jog or early-morning tai chi.
Considered the country’s best example of Chinese garden design, the Lin Family Mansion and Garden in New Taipei City was built in 1847 by Guo Hua Lin and Guo Fang Lin, scions of a rice magnate who emigrated from China’s Fujian Province. Admission is free. Wander the garden paths at will; entrance to the house is by (free) tour only. Notice the architectural motifs—bats, coins—symbolizing good fortune. Closer to Taipei proper, locals get their garden fix at Taipei Botanical Garden, where you can leaf peep in the fall and see the lotuses come summer.
Unwind in the municipal pools at Beitou Hot Springs, just a 20-minute train ride from downtown, for an entry fee of around $1.30. Outdoorsy locals head to the volcanic landscape of Yangmingshan National Park, easily accessible by public transportation, to hike, view cherry blossoms in the spring, and plunge into yet more hot springs.
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