Over Memorial Day weekend I took the older of my two boys on a 4-day father-son adventure to Taipei, Taiwan and Xiamen, China. Sound crazy? I’m sure it is to most. But sometimes a short trip is all you can make happen. If you wait until you can spend two weeks away each time you travel overseas, I’ve found it won’t happen much. Points and miles let you do some amazing (and crazy) things.
My son and I arrived into Taiwan on the nonstop night flight from San Francisco, flying China Airlines 777-300ER business class. It was planned strategically so that we could sleep in lie-flat seats and arrive refreshed, ready for a full day in Taiwan. Short story: the idea paid off, although I’m a bit split on whether flying business class with kids is always worth it.
Transit into the city took a little over an hour, as Taipei Taoyuan Airport is a good distance from the city. Even so, we made it to our hotel right about when we’d normally be having breakfast, using the MRT, which I consider the best transit option from TPE airport to Taipei city center. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt, just steps from Taipei 101.
The Grand Hyatt Taipei didn’t have a room available and ready for us, but they did provide us the opportunity to shower in the fitness and spa facilities. A shower after a long day, half a night, and then 13 hours in the air is the most wonderful thing. Now we were ready to head out and enjoy exploring the city!
Hitting the History
Taiwan has an interesting history. The island was dominated in the colonial period by the Dutch and the Spanish, returning to Chinese rule for a couple centuries before being occupied by the Japanese for fifty years leading up to the second world war. After World War II and Mao Zedong’s rise to power, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan, and Taipei became the seat of the government. Our first stop was Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, a monument in memory of the president who led the Republic of China through much of the 20th century.
I’m not sure why there was an inflatable tank and man (which I have to assume is a picture of Tiananmen Square “tank man” from the 1989 protests) in front of Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. But that was the case when we visited. It sort of ruined my shot of the landmark, in my opinion. Climbing the steps, we headed inside to watch an intricate changing of the guard ceremony. It was quite impressive.
From the steps of the hall you have a view across Liberty Square to the gate on the other side. The two buildings flanking the square are the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.
Both of the latter two buildings are constructed in very traditional Chinese style and are absolutely beautiful. We didn’t go inside either building, but just admired them from the outside.
Taiwan in May is warm! We’d only been out in the sun for maybe 30 minutes, with a brief stint inside Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. But already we were feeling the heat. I love the gate. The construction is magnificent.
Oldest Museum in Taiwan
From there we headed past the East Gate and through the 2/28 Peace Park on our way to the National Museum of Taiwan. The park is nice, and fairly large. In the middle is a monument dedicated to the 2/28 massacre, a heavy-handed government response to an uprising in 1947. I’d never heard of the incident before our trip.
The National Museum of Taiwan dates from Japanese colonial times and is the oldest in the country. Entry costs $45 NT (~$1.50 USD) per person, which is extremely reasonable. The museum features both human and natural history, with a focus on species endemic to Taiwan. There are general exhibits as well.
There nature exhibit about the relationship between plants and bugs. A couple sections were undergoing renovation, but we were able to still see the third floor which features an exhibit on Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants.
The third floor is where species endemic to Taiwan are also featured. From the Formosan clouded leopard (declared extinct in 2014…but possibly still alive) to the formidable giant flying squirrel, Taiwan has an array of unique wildlife. The National museum can be visited in 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on your interest in the exhibits and what you hope to get from the visit.
Yongkang Beef Noodle
By this time, we were starving. With the time change, our eating schedule was all out of whack. We’d not had as much of a breakfast as I would have liked, and it was well past dinnertime back in California. I’d gotten a few recommendations about the best eats in the city from a friend, but Taipei has so much to offer, it was hard to decide. I settled on Yongkang Beef Noodle, which was just a couple stops down the MTR. There was a line, which is a good sign in Taiwan. The places that draw crowds are the places to eat.
The server spoke basically no English, but we weer able to order just fine. I’ve found that menus in both China and Taiwan often have pictures, making it easy for the international traveler. Or you can just point at a photo on the wall, and hopefully they serve you that.
We shared a large bowl of plain beef noodles for $240 NT (~$8). I say plain since we with the non-spicy option. My son isn’t an especially adventurous eater. They were still delicious.
Stomachs satiated, we headed to Taiwan’s tallest building to take in the city with a bird’s eye view.
I still remember when Taipei 101 beat out Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers to become the tallest building in the world in 2004 (until 2010 and the completion of the Burj Khalifa). It was impressive then, but far more impressive to now be standing right underneath it. It’s still the tallest building in Taipei and all of Taiwan.
The entry fees are $600 NT (~$20 USD) for adults and $540 NT for children. Not much of a discount for young ones. The total came to about $40 USD for the two of us, which still isn’t bad for an observation deck. There are plenty of others that cost more, on buildings not nearly so tall.
The Taipei 101 elevator is zippy. It takes you from the fifth floor to the 89th in just 37 seconds. The observation deck has floor-to-ceiling glass, and you can catch views on all sides. Someone didn’t want to sit with me and lean back against the glass.
The views of Taipei on all sides are incredible. There is nothing even remotely as close to as tall as Taipei 101. If not for the haze, the views of the mountains to the south would have been even more impressive. Here we are looking east across the city.
There is also an outdoor observatory two floors up. You must take the stairs to access this, if I understood correctly. It only has views to the east, and overall, I find you get a better view from inside. But the level is worth visiting, as there is an interesting video detailing the construction of Taipei 101. It also showcases some of the fireworks displays for which the tower is famous.
A Little Hyatt R&R
At this point we took a break and checked into our room at the Grand Hyatt Taipei, conveniently across the street. Here our feet got some much needed rest. We’d already packed our day full, but there were still hours to go! Gummy bears are an excellent fuel. Plus, we could take in some nice views from the Grand Hyatt lounge.
Our evening would consist of visiting one of Taipei’s night markets. We headed off to a different MTR station that would take us to Ximen. Along the way we stopped at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. If you’re interested in his life and the history of the early Republic of China, it’s worth a visit. He was the first president of the ROC when the government was still based on the mainland.
Night Markets: The Best of Taipei
If you do one thing in Taipei, visit the night markets! These are the top experience, in my opinion. We started our evening in the bustling Xinyi pedestrian area, enjoying a boba tea. Boba tea is a Taiwanese creation. I’m not sure if we got the most “authentic” stuff, but it was good.
Meandering through more of the crowded pedestrian zone, we made our way south until we were free of the sea of people, headed toward Dihua street. This is another shopping district with numerous small storefronts offering all kinds of foodstuffs and other goods. We even tried a tea of 100% pure Wisconsin ginseng!
Ningxia Night Market was the final destination of the evening, and the highlgiht. We caught it just after opening, before it was actually night. Things get rolling around 5:00 PM and the activity doesn’t stop until late. There are stalls selling all kinds of food. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to Taiwanese food. Each vendor typically only offers a couple items, sometimes only one, and they seek to do it well. The crowds are thick at most of the night markets, but this is part of the experience as well.
We tried a few different items, including this “pocket” filled with cream and boba. Well…by we, I mean me, as my son was skeptical of most things we saw. Not an adventurous eater, this one.
There is so much to see, smell, and taste at Taipei’s night markets. If you travel for food, you must hit this city.
Wrapping Up Our Day
Our day came to a halt at about 7:00 PM, maybe an hour after we’d arrived at Ningxia Night Market. Exhausted after all day out and about, we were ready to get back to the hotel and crash. The MTR makes it so easy to get around Taipei. The system is clean, and the people polite. They actually use the metro queue lanes, which impressed me.
Given that Taipei is a city known for its food, I didn’t expect to eat in the lounge during the evenings. But my son hadn’t filled his stomach, so we made one last stop. After that, it was some well-earned shuteye. We’d need it, as the next day would be spent hiking in mountainous Yangmingshan National Park.