••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Taipei (Travel with Mom Series)
Best of Taipei by Metro in 5 days: Traveling to a Democratic China!
Taiwan is a great option to get exposed to Chinese traditional culture without too many bureaucratic restrictions. It is also a valuable gateway to Asia as well. JFK airport in New York offers non-stop flights to Taipei that could take a little over 16 hours. From there you can take flights to other Asia destinations for a reasonable price and much less time.
In February the temperature is mild and you can catch the annual Taipei Lantern Festival. It’s also a good idea to spend a few days in New York before a longer journey anyway!
2019 Taipei Lantern Festival
We were happy to have prearranged an airport transfer from Taipei airport through Amba Hotels. The cost of US$50 is worth it when you see an assigned driver with your name on a tag to pick you up in a strange land early in the morning. Unless you are lucky to get a better price or win a sweepstakes as I did, Eva Air charges between US$800 and US$1000 traveling Economy for great food but not much leg or reclining room.
Although lots of Taiwanese speak English, a diversity of accents may cause confusion and lots of information can be lost in translation to get a cheaper transportation to the hotel. It would have been even better if our driver spoke English to host our first impression of the city, but I noticed that most drivers only speak Mandarin. It is therefore a big advantage having the hotel staff as interpreters.
My mom is over 70. We both have difficulty moving around. It was very wise to book the room starting the night before to have time to get some rest before heading to the Lantern Festival later in the day. Amba Taipei Ximending happens to be a perfect hotel choice because major events and activities related to the festival happenings are right across Ximen MRT train station exit 6, which is only a 10 minute walk from the hotel. This year, performances and parades took place from February 16 to 24th right there. Besides the upbeat hip décor, it was really helpful to be welcomed with a map featuring the hotel location, surrounding buildings and streets. One of my concerns was being able to buy a local SIM card, so the staff helped me to find two mobile stores on the way to the train station. However the cost-benefit of buying a SIM card for a few days didn’t make sense mainly because the train stations and the hotel offer great Wifi.
One of Amba hotels’ great treats is a huge morning buffet including Western and Asian cuisine along with chef choices prepared on the spot, such as delicious egg styles, traditional rice rolls and noodles. We were lucky to have arrived early enough to enjoy since it is over by 10am. It was more than enough food to cover all our breakfast and lunch needs for the long day ahead!
On our way to the train station there is a very nice shopping area where you can find very comfortable and inexpensive shoes, besides traditional pineapple cakes made in Taiwan. There are also tons of souvenirs and exotic food options. It was over 10 pm when we came back from Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival and the stores around Ximen blue line station were still opened. It was our best option instead of adventuring ourselves to Ningxia Night Market where we would have to transfer to the red line and get off at Shuanglian station.
How to get to Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival?
It takes some leg work but it is not difficult. Taiwan metro is state-of-the-art top of the world. It is extremely clean, trains are precisely on time, there are always English-speakers available on information/ticketing booths, there are clear easy to follow indicator signs and it is cheap. I suggest purchasing a NT$500 EasyCard. It can last one week with multiple entries. It is about US$3 per day! But make sure to use the card on every exit as well otherwise there will be a fine. Keep it in a safe place in order not to get lost. If you buy it at the booth with cash you will receive the change, the receipt and card on a little tray. It’s very cute and sweet!
Taiwanese people are extremely polite and eager to help. They seem very happy to practice English. Every single time we were unsure about a direction to take we found a kind soul that went out of her way to get us back on the right track. However, don’t forget to be always with a metro map handy!
Ximen is only one station away from Taipei Main Station. From there take a train to Ruifang Railway Station, which is about 30 minutes ahead. After changing trains it will take about 45-50 minutes to Shifen Station (Pingxi line) where you can paint a big lantern and release it to the sky for NT$150. And don’t worry! There are plenty of signs and people going there to follow. You can choose just enjoy watching it along with a vast variety of exotic food and beautiful souvenirs. The event venue, Shifen Square, is really packed. Be prepared to wait for the train a long while on the way back. Remember to be a good sport! We arrived at 5:30 pm and left around 8:30 pm. It was plenty of time to enjoy it. Total travel time can reach 2 and ½ hours each way. Above all, it was certainly an unforgettable experience!
What to do in Taipei?
After drinking a caramel flan bubble milk tea for NT$50 and having a taro bun for NT$20 my mom and I were ready to visit the main touristic attractions near Ximen blue line station. Longshan Temple on the blue line is one station away and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall on the green line is two stations away from Ximen. Huge and fantastically adorned lanterns are displayed on the outside patio of Longshan Temple, especially during Lantern Festival. There we were introduced to the so called Jiaobei or Poe, which are red half-moons that Taiwanese use to perform daily-life divination. Bags of food, goodies and drinks are offered to gods in front of the praying altars.
After the visit to the temple we headed to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which is located in a huge open area with gorgeous gardens. The Liberty Square is surrounded by other three buildings with majestic dimensions, the National Concert Hall facing the National Theater and the Main Gate. The feeling of grandiosity near the red columns of the National Theater is outstanding and it is the closest exit to the metro station, number 5. I found a vending machine nearby and had my first can ever of papaya milk for NT$30, about one dollar. Delicious! Both places are a must-see and are free!
Amba Taipei Zhongshan is a great choice to take full advantage of the Taipei Sightseeing Hop on Hop off bus that offers a blue and a red route all over the city. It takes only a tiny walk to the Ambassador Hotel, stop number 3 on the blue route. It costs NT$300 for a 4 hour pass per person with headphones available for English speakers as well.
If you take the first bus on the blue route scheduled to arrive at 9:54 am in front of the Ambassador Hotel, make sure to ask to be included on a visit to the secret tunnel at the Grand Hotel, designed as alternative escape to VIP guests should an armed attack happened. After the visit, we got back on the bus and headed to the National Palace Museum stop.
We didn’t get inside the museum because there was too much walking involved and were told by a taxi driver that we could not get to the main entrance uphill by car. We chose to visit the Soka Culture Organization at the Zhishan Yiwen Center nearby and weren’t disappointed. They promote exhibits, performances and events such as “Cultural Roots and Build a Hundred Years of Taiwanese Art.” It is definitely a place to explore in future visits. This Center is on the way to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigenes, where there are outstanding pieces of ancient clothing and artifacts, on the same Zhishan Road.
Make your 4 hour pass worth it going towards the Taipei Main Station for at least a glimpse of The Red House before heading back to the hotel. If you have the energy, check the show schedules at TapeiEYE, which is walking distance from Amba Taipei Zhongshan . Another option is to check out the Ningxia Night Market, about a 10 minute walk.
Right by the Ambassador Hotel on Section 2, Zhongshan North Road, there is a regular bus stop where we took the 260 bus which theoretically could get us directly to the Yangmingshan National Park. There is a 7 Eleven store on the way to the bus stop where you can recharge the EasyCard. However, one of our improvised extremely helpful Taiwanese regular citizens turned into a guide went out of her way to advise us to get off by MRT Jiantan Station instead.
Photo: Temple Offerings
There is a Tourism booth right at the station entrance where we were informed to take a small bus S15 on the outside area to Yangmingshan station. Each way costs NT$15 (about US$0.50), the same price as regular buses, and can take from 30 to 40 minutes to get there. There are plenty of hiking choices. In order to get to the Flower Clock and Cherry Blossom stunning park we took bus 125, about a 10 minute-ride from Yangmingshan station. Be prepared for crowds, getting in line and waiting a bit. This is a very pleasant trip, rain or shine. Don’t forget to eat a tea boiled egg during a break!
Even with a slower pace it is possible to include a visit to Beitou Hot Springs, Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf and Shilin Night Market on the same day. On the way back from Yangmingshan station, you may take the regular city bus R5 to MRT Jiantan Station. Take the red line to Beitou direction Tamsui and then a more colorful train to Xinbeitou on the pink line. Except on Mondays, don’t miss visiting the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, taking a pick at the public hot spring bathhouse (The Beitou Outdoor Hot Spring Bathing Pool) or strolling towards the Thermal Valley, where you can see the green-sulfur mineral water and the “milky” fumes on the hot water. There are nearby hot-spring foot-soaking pools available as well. On the way back to the metro station you can walk on the adorned sidewalk of Ketagalan culture center, dedicated to Taiwanese indigenous people.
By the time the museum closes, around 5 pm, you’ll be ready to go see the beautiful Lover’s Bridge at the end of the Tamsui red line. In order to get there, you can take bus 26. It’s a 15-minute ride. This night show of colorful lights at the bridge by Tamsui Fisherman's Wharf is worth seeing. Be alert to the shoe sales made in Taiwan at the shops outside Tamsui train station! One pair could cost a little over five bucks.
Back at Jiantan station direction Xiangshan, go to the Shilin Night Market exit and voila’, there you are! There is plenty of exotic food around to try. Are you ready for a roasted conch?
Although Zhongshan station on the red line would be the most obvious choice, it is a long walk towards the hotel. Choose instead getting off at Shuanglian station to go back to Amba Taipei Zhongshan . It’s much faster!
Our Taipei 101 experience got a great boost through the conveniences offered at Amba Taipei Songshan. The classy hotel, located near Songshan station on the green line and Songshan City link, offers a shuttle van service with set schedules from 10 am to 9 pm. Destinations include Yongchun Metro Station on the blue line, Bella Vita luxurious mall and Taipei 101. The proximity to the supertall skyscraper formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center offers stunning room views, especially at night when this landmark building is lit.
The visit to tea houses via Mahong Gondola is best to be made in a sunny day. Check the weather beforehand and be ready for a hike! Daan station is the the second stop (direction Tamsui) from Taipei 101 / World Trade Center red line. Get off and take the brown line towards Taipei Zoo.
Make a left exiting the station and keep walking. You can’t miss the entrance. Beware from the promotions and make sure what they really are and exactly how much a three-station round-trip will cost you. NT$50 single rides may be offered only to Taiwanese citizens. They tend to count each stop as one ride even though you don’t get off! It can be very confusing and frustrating. In 2019 there is a promotion of NT$100 each way when you use your EasyCard, which means NT$200 round trip. This includes 3 stops, exactly what you need to reach Maokong Station.
If you have mobility difficulties, Guan Ding Tea House is a great option for a hot tea, lattes, local pastries and ice creams and it is located right across the street from Maokong Station. Besides regular tables and chairs, there are Japanese style tables with tatami cushions available upstairs as well. The lower level offers different kinds of local Oolong tea packages, such as Tie Kuan Yin Tea that one can taste after being craftily prepared for show. One package of 150 gr costs NT$800.
||The next suggested stop is Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall station on the blue line in the afternoon. It’s very easy to get there by metro from Maokong Gondola Station. Dr. Sun’s memorial closes at 6pm and it is a must-visit place, since it is where you will find a gigantic statue of Dr. Sun who is revered as the founding father of Republic of China, setting the democratic fundaments for Taiwan.
He was the first leader of Nationalist Party of China. It’s a great history lesson! From Taipei Zoo station on the brown line, get off at Zhongxiao Fuxing station, and transfer to the blue line direction Taipei Nangang Exhibition center. It’s only one station away!
In order to close the day with a golden key, the Songshan station at the end of the green line will take you right to the entrance of the colorful Raohe Night Market and is very close to Amba Taipei Songshan!
You can choose to end your journey here or take advantage of the fact you are in Asia and enjoy other nearby destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, among others! I hope you enjoyed the tips!
© Gisele Ribeiro May 2019
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