1. VISIT (AND RE-VISIT) THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM
With an incomparable collection of more than 600,000 ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks – of which only 3000 can be viewed at any given time – permanent exhibitions change four times a year. The priceless works were sent to Taiwan from mainland China for safekeeping during a turbulent period after World War II. As integral to the museum as Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, Jadeite Cabbage is a jade carving of the humble vegie with grasshoppers perched in the leaves.
2. EAT YOUR GREENS
At Silks Palace, an upscale restaurant next to National Palace Museum, the Jadeite Cabbage is recreated in edible form – fresh bok choy is steamed and served with crunchy grasshoppers. Just kidding. Shrimp stands in for insects in this classic dish. Chefs also take inspiration from other famous museum exhibits and historical legends to devise memorable morsels that pay homage to the relationship between food and art. Go all in with the nine-course Imperial Treasures Feast tasting menu, or keep it simple with dim sum. Book ahead.
3. SAVE ON ACCOMMODATION COSTS
According to expedia.com.au, the average daily rate for a hotel room in Taiwan is $148, which is more affordable than many other Asian cities. A night in Hong Kong will set you back $249, on average, while Tokyo hotel rooms are a smidge lower on average, at $221. More Aussies are sitting up and taking notice of what Taiwan has to offer, with searches on expedia.com.au up almost 45 per cent year on year.
4. DISCOVER THE BACKSTREETS
Join an Intrepid Urban Adventure for a spontaneous, three-hour tour of day-to-day life in the bustling city with a local taxi driver who knows it inside out. Far from a structured group tour with pre-determined photo stops, this is a personalised trip into the entertaining uncertainty of roads more and less travelled. Fasten your seatbelts.
Shilin night market Photo: CWIS / Alamy Stock Photo
5. DINE OUT LOCAL-STYLE
The Shilin Night Market is one of the biggest and busiest, attracting locals and visitors with its hundreds of stalls selling inexpensive food, clothing and souvenirs. Woks start firing up from 5pm and the action continues past midnight. Don't miss the opportunity to try the oyster omelet, fried taro buns and many flavours of bubble tea. Stinky tofu is for the brave. Din Tai Fung, purveyor of everybody's favourite soup dumplings, started in Taiwan and now has multiple branches throughout the city.
6. FOLLOW A LOCAL FOODIE
If this is your first time in Taiwan, it's worth joining a guided tour. On the Urban Adventures two-hour group outing to Ningxia Night Market, a local foodie expertly navigates the stalls to find you the best pork fried rice, herb soup, yam balls and more. Less time lost in translation means more time focused on what's on your plate.
7. RIDE THE METRO LIKE A BOSS
The Taipei Metro, or MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is fast, clean and a convenient way to whiz around the city and surrounds. English language signs make navigation easy, while the EasyCard payment system is straightforward. Just buy the card, put money on it (around $NT120 [$5.50] per day should do it) then remember to tap on and off every time you ride. Whatever you don't spend can be refunded at the end of the trip. Twenty-four-hour unlimited ride cards cost $NT180.
8. MARINATE IN HOT SPRINGS
Just a short MRT ride from Taipei are the Beitou thermal volcanic springs, said to cure everything from arthritis to exhaustion. Access to public bathing areas is affordable (just a couple of dollars), though you'll be sharing the human soup with hundreds of others. At upscale resorts like the Grand View Resort (gvrb.com.tw), private bathing pools are available. Local etiquette demands you submerge your body straight away – toe-splashing is frowned upon – so start with the cooler pools before turning up the heat.
Taipei's lantern festival Photo: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
9. EXPLORE ONE OF ASIA'S BEST FESTIVALS
Taiwan Lantern Festival – one of the biggest and best in Asia – is held every year close to Chinese New Year and attracts visitors from around the world. Blending the best of traditional lantern-making with high-tech innovation (digital controls; a tri-lingual festival app; eco-friendly materials), the festival takes place in multiple locations. In PingXi, a small town about 30 kilometres from Taipei, thousands of flying lanterns are released into the night sky.
10. INDULGE AT THE OASIS SPA, GRAND HYATT TAIPEI
With his 'n' hers thermal heated baths, sauna and steam rooms, this recently renovated spa is a great place to warm up on a chilly winter's eve. Herbal tea is a welcome tonic. Four curated spa journeys – also known as packages – are designed to bring calm, healing, revival or renewal with massages, facials, scrubs and more. Too many choices? Opt for the Oriental foot massage and walk out with a spring in your step.
11. TAKE TIME FOR TEA
The ancient pleasure of tea-drinking is getting a millennial makeover in Taipei, where small-batch harvests and menus curated by hipsters are now enjoyed in 100-year-old tea shops. At Wistaria, a historic tea house in Da'an District, 1930s decor is influenced by Japanese sensibilities. The menu of brews – Morning Sunshine, Ancient Road Sunset, Tipsy – reads more like a Manhattan cocktail list. Meanwhile, the growers at Wolf Tea package and sell (in store and on Etsy) single-day harvest tea from micro-regions to protect the purity of the leaves' provenance.
12. APPRECIATE THE ARCHITECTURE
Supertall skyscraper Taipei 101, once the world's tallest building, is a symbol of Taiwan's modernity and engineering prowess. With indoor and outdoor observation decks, it affords some of the best views of Taipei. Evoking a bygone era, the Grand Hotel has been a landmark of classic Chinese architecture for more than 60 years. Built to host foreign dignitaries, it is equipped with secret air-raid shelters and escape hatches.
13. HIKE UP ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN
Xiangshan, as it's known locally, is situated in a green oasis close to the city. The peak of the mountain is reached via a 20-minute stair-filled climb. Once there, the sweaty masses are rewarded with the best views of Taipei 101 and the city. Time your visit for late afternoon on a clear day and you'll catch the colours of sunset. Stay a little longer and watch the city lights illuminate the darkening sky.
14. JOIN A TOUR AND SEE MORE OF TAIWAN
Wendy Wu Tours' 5-day Fascinating Taiwan tour combines the best of Taipei city with a road trip that takes you out of the urban metropolis and into the natural landscapes. At Sun Moon Lake in the mountains of Nantou, Aboriginal Thao tribes invite visitors to learn more about traditional lifestyles. The nearby WenWu temple enjoys unbeatable lake views. Venture further to Taroko National Park, a lush haven of green mountains, gorges and the evocatively named Eternal Spring Shrine.
15. TURN UP THE CUTE FACTOR
There are more than 50 cat cafes and cat bars in Taipei; in fact, the first-ever cat cafe in the world opened there more than 20 years ago. With strict no-pet policies in place in most apartment buildings, locals curl up in these cafes for a cuppa and a feline cuddle. If you prefer your cats pink with bows in their hair, you're in luck. Taipei Taoyuan Airport has the only themed Hello Kitty departure lounge in the world, complete with Hello Kitty memorabilia and a retail store.
16. PARTY LIKE A LOCAL
Taipei is a late night city and many Taiwanese people love to come out to play after dark. Start with beers and snacks at a night market, then head up to FRANK, a sophisticated rooftop bar, for cocktails and fabulous views. Belt out your best Celine Dion or Frank Sinatra tune at one of Taipei's five-star karaoke lounges (many are open 24/7) then follow the young people to a nightclub where C-pop music gets the crowd moving.
17. SHOP LIKE YOU MEAN IT
You might want to take an empty suitcase to Taipei, or better still, buy one there. From department stores that stock almost everything (Japanese store Takashimaya is a favourite) to luxury shopping malls, such as the one found on the lower levels of Taipei 101, this a city where asset acquisition is taken seriously. At the weekend jade market, all manner of jewellery and precious stones can be found, while book-lovers can pick up a new read at 4am, thanks to the round-the-clock opening of Eslite's Dunnan branch.
18. BROWSE ARTWORKS IN YINGGE DISTRICT
Artists' studios and porcelain stores line the streets here. Ceramics Street (also known as Old Street) is a cobblestone pedestrian mall where you'll find the perfect teapot to take home. You can even make your own at a DIY pottery workshop. At Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum a history of ceramics provides a glimpse into Taiwanese culture, while contemporary pieces reveal a more sensual, playful side.
19. CYCLE YOUR WAY AROUND THE CITY
Cheap bike rental from the public sharing scheme Youbike means you'll pay just $NT5 for the first 30 minutes. A network of 300 kilometres of cycling paths throughout the city makes it easy to get on your bike and go. If the urban traffic is too much for you to take on, check out one of the green spaces skirting the metropolis. Da'an Forest Park, Taipei's version of NYC's Central Park, is a great place to start.
20. STAY AT A DESIGN-FOCUSSED HOTEL
Taipei's assignation as World Design Capital two years ago had a flow-on effect to the city's hotels, who upped their game with art installations and wow-factor design. W Taipei considers itself a magnet for arty types, leaving a trail of enormous stainless steel water drops by the pool to lead the way. At Hotel Eclat, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the priceless art on the walls would rival that of a major gallery.
Kristie Kellahan travelled with assistance from Cruiseco.