Often overlooked, Taiwan, or Ilha Formosa, “beautiful island”, as it was once known as, is an island adrift in the South China Sea.
It is a country rich in heritage yet so far advanced in technology the world looks on with ambitious and excited eyes. You need not look further than the label in your clothes for an association with Taiwan and yet it is still a relatively undiscovered country shrouded in mystique. We caught up with Louisa Lau, Art Director of Black Tomato, a luxury travel concierge service and Studio Black Tomato, Black Tomato’s content creation and marketing agency, about Taipei, the island’s capital.
Best time of year to visit Taipei?
March to November. I would recommend going for the Ghost Festival in September, a Buddhist/Taoist festival unique to Taiwan, which takes place in Keelung, just an hour and a half train from Taipei.
The festival includes folk-art performances, the opening of the Gates of Hell and the release of burning water lanterns. The highlight by far is watching young men compete with one another to climb up cone shaped towers called Gupeng to get the pastries placed at the top. A true spectacle of endurance and strength.
What is unique about the city?
Having once been a Japanese colony, modern Taiwan is a distinctive mix of contemporary Japanese aesthetics and traditional Chinese heritage. Cute cartoon characters adorn everything in the streets, as you hear the chants and gongs from nearby ancient temples, sprawling mountains sit as a backdrop to high rise towers. Having visited all the major cities in China and Japan, there is a distinct uniqueness to the city, that effortlessly fuses both countries.
Historic monuments not to miss?
Longshan Temple to soak up the serene atmosphere. The exquisite carvings and decorations within the temple hark back to Taiwan’s traditional Chinese roots, so you’ll get a little insight into the island’s history that dates back tens of thousands of years. A trip to Martyrs Shrine is a great and educational alternative. Resting on the slopes of the Qing Mountains and overlooking the Keelung River, this shrine symbolises the martyrs’ brave spirit and pays tribute to the men who sacrificed their lives in the revolution and Civil War.
Where to go for the best view of the city?
The view from Elephant Mountain is amazing, and that way you get to see the whole city including Taipei 101 and the mountains behind. It’s a gentle hike and the trail is paved. Take a couple of beers with you, and walk up in the evening to enjoy the sunset, beer in hand.
Taipei’s best kept secret?
Da’an district is a quieter part of the capital city. The area is home to some great street food markets (see Linjiang below), Da’an Forest Park and the colourful Jianguo Holiday Flower Market, but I would head straight for Onefifteen. A 1950s building that’s been transformed in a luxury lifestyle boutique, filled with lush plants a conservatory and beautiful clothing from labels like Sophia Webster, Martin Grant and Nicholas Kirkwood as well as Taiwanese designers.
Best place to stay?
Palais des Chine exudes opulance and glamour, classing itself as a museum 5 star hotel. The décor is not for the faint hearted, as you can expect to find antique European furniture, carved eagles, and murals depicting mythical creatures. The W is an ultra modern alternative.
Taiwan is known for its food markets and Taipei is home to Shilin Night Market, the largest and most famous night market in the city. What are your tips for first-timers? What should they make a beeline for and what should they avoid?
I would actually avoid the crowds of Shilin and go to Linjiang Street Night Market instead, which all the locals go to. I like to go on an empty stomach and try as many stalls as I can stomach, fresh fruit drinks, dumplings, fried chicken feet, stinky tofu and the famous oyster omelette. I think it’s always a bit of a gamble with street food, so I would just be open to try anything and everything!
Where’s best to grab bubble tea? A cold beer?
50 Lan for bubble tea, they have some interesting flavours like Hazelnut milk tea and pearl and Mango Baozhong tea. Nothing beats an ice-cold Taiwan Beer (original name I know) in the midst of the bustling street food markets, but if you’re after a craft beer experience (who isn’t?), head to Beer & Cheese Social house, which sells imported American and Belgian beers but also the first made-in-Taiwan craft beer by Redpoint Brewing.
Best unusual food recommendation?
Shi-Yang Culture restaurant is in the outskirts of Taipei, surround by beautiful mountains. Most of the ingredients they use are seasonal and come from the local farms-they do an amazing 10-course tasting menu including a mushroom and lotus soup. It’s the most unique dining experience and would recommend going for lunch to soak in the lush jungle view.
Venturing further afield, where is best for a weekend outside of the city?
Drive 3 hours south to Sun Moon Lake, the scenery and nature is beautiful and you could unwind very easily by taking boat rides, or leisurely cycle around the lake. I would happily spend the entire weekend at The Lalu, a luxury hotel designed by Australian architect, Kerry Hill, the hotel blends traditional Asian with contemporary architecture. Its emphasis on lighting and space is magnified by its commanding views over the majestic Sun Moon Lake. It’s perfect for a tranquil getaway. Serenity, simplicity and elegance – what more could you need?