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Top Taipei Hotels


Taipei As the capital of the Republic of China, Taipei is a chaotic blend of traditional culture and thriving vibrant cosmopolitan life. Shaped by a long history of colonisation and invasion, Taiwan continues to confront mainland China; however the island runs itself politically and economically and reunification remains a distant prospect. Much of the world might primarily recognise Taiwan as a hi-tech developer of computer chips, manufacturing machinery and electronic goods, but there is a lot more to the place that 16th century Portuguese settlers named Ilha Formosa or Beautiful Island. Many significant cultural si ghts are located throughout Taipei including the National Palace Museum - one of Asia's top museums. More recently Taipei has strived to become more of a trendy city. Sleek clubs, bars and shopping malls have increased to feed on the locals appetite for nightlife. The rise of Taipei 101 shows a serious intent to climb to the pedestals on which stand other highly urbanized capitals - the impressive modern take on the traditional Chinese pagoda is currently the world's tallest building and is in itself is a reason for a stop in Taiwans capital. Pick through the chaos of Taipei's traffic, the maze of disorganised streets and you will find a people that are open, friendly and warmly inviting and a destination which has more to offer than one would think first off. More...

Attractions

There's a wealth of things to see and do in Taipei, from ancient temples to (for the moment, anyway) the world's tallest skyscraper.

Lung Shan Temple, otherwise known as Dragon Mountain Temple, is nestled in the bustling old Wanhua District and only a short stroll from Huashi Night Market. The temple contains two main pagodas; the entrance leads to a small hall with an altar intricately decorated with wood and stone carvings while the roof is adorned with fiery dragons.

Worshippers present offerings to the hundreds of gods that reside here, the main one being the Goddess of Mercy, whose statue amazingly survived the fires caused by Allied bombing in 1945. The "Sing Buoy" is another eye-catching act of veneration. Two wooden bricks are held together and thrown on the ground. Depending on the way the bricks land reveals the gods' response to questions concerning love, life and career.

The main deities are found inside the larger pagoda beyond a small courtyard. Along the way, the walls and pillars are decorated with skilfully crafted stone tablets depicting the various other gods that inhabit the temple. Offerings are left here, ranging from fruit and flowers to money. This can be done by burning paper money or placing real currency in the offertory box in front of the Goddess of Mercy's statue. This temple is one of the most impressive in Taipei – as much for its architecture as its religious practices.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall is a few minutes walk from the International Convention Centre and Taipei 101. The Memorial Hall stands in quiet gardens and is designed in typical Chinese palatial style. The entrance to the hall is dominated by a 30ft seated statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen. The Changing of the Guard here is a great spectacle – with plenty foot stomping and rifles whirling -- and is a very serious affair due to Sun Yat Sen's pivotal role in Taiwanese history.

Apart from the memorial statue, at the back of the hall there's an expo on the history of the revolution and the good doctor himself. A theatre for performances and recitals occupies the upper floors, and the expansive surrounding gardens provide the largest green space in eastern Taipei.

One is in for an awe-inspiring museum visit at the National Palace Museum, a must-see for anyone who wants a complete overview of Chinese culture and arts in just one stop. With its extensive collection, it has earned a rightful place in the league of the best museums of the world.

Taipei 101 opened to the public in November 2003; at 509 metres, it's currently the tallest building in the world and likely to stay that way for some time. Its exterior is designed like a traditional Chinese pagoda with eight floors separating each level of the pagoda roof, while feng shui has been incorporated into every detail of the design. Well placed in the financial and exhibition district, 101 is close to the Taipei Exhibition and Convention Centre, Grand Hyatt Hotel, International Convention Centre, and the Japanese department stores of Sogo and Mitsukoshi.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall is another palatial Chinese design with blue tiled roofs, white walls and red flowerbeds, representing the flag of Taiwan. The Hall is flanked by lush gardens and close to the National Theatre and National Concert Hall which stage international acts and performances from around the world.

At the very edge of the city stands Yang Ming Shan National Park. It remains a favourite for locals because of its amazing scenery, hot springs and easy access – just 45 minutes by bus or 70 minutes on the MRT train. Wonderful flora, wildlife, hiking and picnicking complement the natural hot springs and the surrounding spa hotels. From full-blown public baths to private in-room natural spring water jacuzzis – Taipei-ites love to take a dip and revel in the benefits from the mineral spring water.

At the bottom of Yang Ming Shan lies a quaint little district called Peitou, which forms the cheaper end of the park and is much easier to reach. The new Peitou MRT Line leads straight to the Hot Spring Public Park and Museum. The option of wading in the natural run-off from the springs is best avoided due to the plastic bags and other rubbish there. The walk from the station to the top of Peitou, where all the private baths are, takes only about 30 minutes. The route is lined with a variety of hotel spas offering either public baths, private baths or private baths with rooms attached. Prices rise for each of these respectively.

Back in the city, Guang Hua Night Market is a bustling street made up of food stalls and snack shops catering to the local residents, and ranks as one of the best of Taipei's street food marts, and is fun to browse around even if you're not hungry. It's not exactly geared towards tourists as it's off the beaten track but it is exciting nevertheless. In general, it's harder to figure out which queue is for which stall than which snack to actually eat. Many local residents come down to Guang Hua Street to pick up food to take home, and friends and couples come along to grab a bite -- it's all relatively cheap and extremely tasty. Beef bone soup is a special favourite, while dumplings are equally popular. The stalls selling doughy pancakes, similar to Indian or Malaysian Roti bread, provide a touch of theatre as they are kneaded and pan fried with oil and then fluffed up to provide a layered chewy texture; spicy or tangy sauce is an optional extra.

Huashi Tourist Night Market was formerly a red light district in the old part of the city, near Hsimen. The area has seen some rejuvenation but still offers some interesting sights and temptations for travellers. It's made up of restaurants, foot reflexology salons, souvenir shops -- and food stalls which lay on some stomach-churning exhibitions. Gutting snakes, ripping out prized internal organs or chopping off turtle's heads is not really everybody's idea of an appetiser -- but nevertheless it's all on show here.

Entertainment and Eating Out

Taipei has a massive appetite for eating out -- there are enough snack stalls, restaurants and cafes for at least three cities. Although there are quite a lot of international franchised restaurants, you can still dine on local fare for as little as US$1 – or splash out US$500 on fine dining.

A number of buzzing (albeit odoriferous) night markets dot Taipei, some more for the tourist, but the markets frequented by locals are the most thrilling. A range of food stalls offering local, traditional Chinese fare and some with their own take on western snacks are perfect for a quick bite when touring the many stalls and garment shops. There's a real melting pot of Chinese cuisines, due to the fact that so many emigrated from provinces in China, including a healthy assortment of classic Chinese foods. Shri Lin, Guang Hua and Huashi Night Markets are the best by far, not only for their size but variety and bustle. Juicy pork buns, dumplings, Chinese sausage, doughnuts and pancakes are everywhere. For soups and takeaway boxes, the locals favour Guang Hua Market.

It must be said that these snacks are available around the city away from the markets but they are sold by illegal hawkers and come with a health warning! These stalls are subject to occasional raids by the authorities, scenes of some mayhem and possible hazard from spilled boiling oil. Be warned.

Outside the city, Miaokow in Keelung Town -- approximately 40 minutes away by train or 30 minutes by taxi – has stirred up quite a following. Open 24 hours a day for almost 365 days of the year, Miaokow is basically a street food market on Ren Sen Road. The staff are multi-lingual in case you need to clarify what in fact they are selling, which is highly likely given the inventiveness of Taiwanese cuisine. There are more than 70 stalls serving everything from drinks to snacks, from hearty meals to full blown desserts. Ask for duck tongue if you want to try a real "delicacy".

On the arts side, Taipei hosts a wide variety of live performances, from classical to contemporary and Western to traditional Chinese. For recitals, operas or theatre check out Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, the National Theatre and National Concert Hall. Either call their booking lines directly or pick up a flyer in any of the major hotels.

Travellers with children should go to Shrilin night market where there are hordes of games stalls, similar to fun fairs except that these are found along the streets. Throwing darts at balloons or firing BB guns (plastic pellet air guns) is all the rage. Mah jong gambling or guessing card games with street hustlers – another feature of Shrilin -- is not recommended for under 18s.

One notable feature of Taipei's streets is the plethora of convenience stores including 7-11, OK, Family Mart and Hi-Life who are the main combatants in the franchise wars. They all stock the basic confectionery, cold drinks and cheap coffee although pot noodles and other take-out food are also available.

After hours, for reasonably priced drinks and various nightlife options, the "Combat Zone", around the back of the Imperial Hotel on Chungshan North Road, is a good place to start. Pool tables, darts and other pub games are easy to come by. If you need a snack or even a full blown meal, local restaurants can deliver to the bar while you enjoy your favorite tipple in comfort. Simply ask the bar maids and they'll give you a menu; otherwise you can snack on the overly salty peanuts.

Rather more up market is the area northeast of Chunghsiao Fuxing Station. A mix of smart upscale dining outlets rubs shoulders with watering holes of all shapes and sizes -- Malibu's and The Ploughman's Inn are both decent bars.

For something a little more peculiar, if solely for the humour, try Hooters where all the bar maids and waitress are scantily clad and buxom blondes (wigs) prance around the place. A local favourite, karaoke, is served up in a whole range of different ways. In the Combat Zone, taking the stage is encouraged with the optional flirtatious bosom buddy on hand for company. For more serious night larking, "Party" has several outlets around Taipei in a more secluded environment, with private rooms available.

Shopping

Taiwan's largest shopping mall -- 24,000 sq m, 19 floors, 400 retailers, 13 screen cinemas, open 24 hours a day – grants an insight into Taipei's devotion to shopping.

Core Pacific City Mall is unique to Taipei and maybe even the world. As Asia's largest spherical building and with a great location in one of Taipei's trendy, up-and-coming districts, it's at the top of the list for die-hard shopaholics.

Chungshan North Road is a haven of boutiques, bridal salons and apparel retail outlets. Following Chungshan South Road, past Taipei Main Station all the way up to Grand Formosa Hotel, there are plenty of other spots to go wild. Landmark Taipei Shin Kong Observatory kills two birds with one stone. The top of the building offers a great panorama of Taipei and provides plenty of retail outlets and even a cheap food court in the basement. Idee Department Store and Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store are on the next junction up on Nanjing East Road and offer international brand names in all the respective departments as well as inexpensive local products.

The Chinese Handicrafts Mart, located on the corner of Shiujou Road and Chung Shan South Road, is the largest handicraft showroom in Taiwan with authentic Chinese goods, from ceramics to paintings and calligraphy to ornaments. Some goods are just a plain rip-off but there is enough here to meet any budget and taste.

Towards the northern end of Chung Shan Road, in the basement of Grand Formosa Regent Hotel, is the DFS Galleria. Top brand names -- Cartier, Burberry, Chanel, Bvlgari, et al -- are offered at low prices before tax for anybody keen on having the latest haute couture.

Hsimen Ding is the teenage student hang-out, with lots of hip and trendy cafes plus all manner of "cool" outfits to be had. The district's shops boom out the latest dance or hip-hop tracks over the jungle of phone accessories, bovver boots and cult clothing. The area's just near the Hsimen MRT station.

For budget travellers, there are always the cheap and tacky night markets. Taipei's oldest market, Shrilin offers knock-off goods and plenty of retail outlets while Jaoho is more of a flea market but does have some of the best trinkets to be had in Taipei.

Getting from A to B

Taipei is not a very large city, but it's quite difficult to get around easily, although there is a choice of buses, trains, and taxis.

Taxi drivers will always need the destination written down unless you know the mandarin pronunciation (which sometimes also fails due to the many dialects in Taiwan and encrypted street maps). Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap. Some models of taxis are more modern than others but all are fairly well cleaned. Flag fall is NT70 for 2kms.

Buses are usually crowded and dusty, however this is a cheap way of getting around the city – they're also quite quick as they are able to use designated bus-only lanes.

The MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) is an underground and elevated rail network similar to the subway system in the New York or London, although it's fairly characterless. One interesting point is that none of the trains have drivers; everything – including the doors and speed – is fully automated. The "R" in MRT could only stand for Rapid so do not be surprised if the doors open and shut at the drop of a hat. Prices vary from NT25 to NT40. Check the route map before buying tickets, as it may be easier to catch a cab rather than having to walk half a mile from the station.

Cyber Taipei

Internet Cafes are surprisingly not all the rage in Taipei; there are lots of cafes but those dedicated to surfing the Web are not immediately obvious. Sometimes there is a PC tucked away inside but good connections and even English language software is hard to come by.

Hotel business centres remain costly, and again connections are not the best. Human Space Cyber Te@ House is one of the more dedicated outlets. Located on No.7, Lane 60, Sec. 3 Hsin-Shen S.Rd, it has delightful home brewed Chinese tea and coffees as well.

Tours

Walking tours and scenic tours are pretty common in Taipei. With the number of temples found within the city and the proximity of the mighty Yang Ming Shan Country Park, it's not surprising. All walking tours are best booked with reputable tour guides via hotel concierges or travel agents in the city.

Taipei County has a lot to offer; a train from the main station to Keelung takes only 40 minutes away and costs a mere NT60.

For adrenaline seekers Fresh Treks ((886-2) 2700-6988 www.freshtreks.com) offers trekking, rock climbing, horseback riding, bungee jumping, paragliding, rafting, sailing, go karting, mountain biking and 4x4 wheel driving. Tailor-made packages are available suitable for groups of children, adults, families plus corporate outings.

Events

Festivals are held throughout the year and celebrated by a whole host of religions. Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn festivals are traditional for Chinese. In Taiwan they go one step further and dedicate rituals to over 100 deities or popular gods and commemorate birthdays and "death days". February is the lunar month for Chinese New Year and is a time to be with family and friends to celebrate the coming of the new year. Red is the prominent colour and considered most auspicious, "lucky" red packets with money inside are exchanged and are a sign of good will.

Matsu, foremost deity of Taiwan, is the goddess of the seas, and guardian saint to the islands' fisherman. The festival in her honour is a big event starting in March and ending in April and celebrated in many of the temples in Taipei and throughout Taiwan. Lungshan Temple in the old district is one of them, seeing hundreds of offerings, including roasted pigs and burning of lucky money.

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