Taiwan recommendations← Back to Kevin's homepagePublished: 2024 January 28
I lived in Taipei from 2020 April until 2021 May, initially bouncing around pandemic-priced AirBNBs/hotels before settling on an apartment near the Linjiang Night Market (15 minute walk southwest from the famous Taipei 101 building).
I didn’t know any Mandarin when I arrived, but self-studied to a survival (counting, food, coffee) proficiency. English is common in Taipei, but still nothing like, e.g., Western European cities. However, I found people were generally very accommodating and patient with me as we pantomimed, etc. — I wonder if it’s because Taiwan is somewhat “off the beaten path” and not completely overrun by foreign tourists.
That said, there are certainly accommodations for tourists: even plain-looking hole-in-the-wall restaurants had English / Korean / Japanese menus available.
Public signage is often in English and I don’t recall ever having a substantial problem due to my illiteracy.
My food vibe is unfussy counter serve and street eats, with my favorite kind of establishment serving only a handful of items. Taipei is a nearly perfect city in this regard, and many street vendors meet my platonic ideal, asking just a single question: “regular or spicy?”
While Taiwan does not buck the worldwide trend of fast food leaning golden-brown and deep-fried, it’s quite easy to find a bowl of rice and vegetables or papaya salad.
Directly opposite my traditional Taiwanese goto (pork and rice bowl; tofu and steamed vegetables on the side) is an extremely fast and efficient Hainanese chicken operation. (A filling, healthy meal at either place runs $5, so we rarely ate at home.)
These casual places often have a paper menu / order ticket that you fill out on arrival, then pay upfront at the counter when submitting, then your food is delivered to your table.
The famous night markets are great fun (and a relief from the daytime heat), though food definitely skews greasy or sweet.
As for groceries, while there are some western-style grocery stores and hyper-marts, it seems like the majority of shopping is done in street markets.
At the more formal groceries, the selection varies considerably from the US. I never found sliced deli turkey or ham at grocery stores while in Taipei (just SPAM-like canned ham), so essential gave up sandwiches for a year. (Though the real selection culture shock came when I went to Costco, which had bulk dried fish but no peanut butter.)
champagne and fried chicken hole-in-the-wall bar
“Soypresso” ice cream is a delicious, barely sweet, aggressively bland-almost-cardboard flavor that I found delicious (though my partner found it unpalatable). I’d invest in a Los Angeles location in a heartbeat.
Booking bar - interesting cocktails in secret library vibes with lots of cozy corners for small groups
There’s a strong specialty coffee scene in Taipei and even the chain stores (e.g., Louisa Coffee and Cama Cafe) offer multiple varieties of pour-over filter coffee to order.
Working from laptops in cafes is common and people will often leave them unattended while going to the restroom or outside to take a phone call (high-social-trust environment!)
I found fancier third wave shop staff usually spoke fine English, but the teenagers working the chain stores sometimes struggled. When staff couldn’t understand my English pronunciation of origin names (Ethiopia, Peru, etc.), used ordinal vocabulary usually worked (e.g., “shǒuchōng kāfēi dì èr” for “pour over #2”). This chinese/english glossary of coffee terminology is extremely helpful.
The summertime iced drinks included some bubble tea crossover, Extremely Asian vibes; my favorites were iced latte with coffee jellies and cold brew with pineapple slices
Not worth doing recommendations here as the typical coffee shop here is simply on my level. They’re everywhere and the vibe is easily legible from the street.
Misc. tips / destinations
The convenience stores (7-11, Family Mart, etc.) are of Japanese quality. Unlike the sketchy, endless-rolling hot dogs of American 7-11s, the ones in Taiwan have multiple-times-a-day delivered fresh onigiri and sushi. Packages can be delivered to the store for pickup (including cash payment on delivery!), utility bills can be paid, train tickets purchased, etc. Larger stores have counters or full seating areas where you can eat/drink items purchased in the store (including alcohol).
Sign up for the YouBike share bikes, there are docks throughout Taipei and the system is of excellent quality (locals use it). I never felt unsafe cycling; though traffic in general is a bit more intermixed compared to most of the US. On large avenues bikes tend to be with pedestrians on the (very wide) sidewalk rather than sharing road with cars, and smaller local streets often contain pedestrians, bicyclists, scooters/mopeds, and cars together.
Elephant mountain is paved/staired climb with awesome views of Taipei. Easy to get to trailhead via walk from MRT or YouBike.
Taipei’s Ximending neighborhood feels like teenage anime party zone and is a particularly memorable LED-neon place for late-night eating and drinking.
Tainan has a few castles you can check out and is only a few hours from Taipei via high speed rail. This cafe / hotel is an excellent place to stay.
Xiaoliuqiu is sweet lil’ tropical island where I did a 3 day freediving course (highly recommended!); the island can be circumnavigated in an hour on rental electric scooters (traffic is relaxed and roads are in excellent condition) and is covered in all sorts of temples, caves, and tropical walks.