Despite its small size, Taiwan packs in an immense range of experiences—street-food escapades, mountain hikes, hot-spring soaks, encounters with aboriginal tribes. If you’re planning an all-ages getaway in Taipei and its surrounds, here’s a quick primer on where to go.
With a relatively laid-back vibe, efficient public transportation, and plenty of open spaces in which to frolic, Taiwan’s capital is undeniably one of the friendliest cities in Asia for traveling families.
Taipei is easy enough to navigate via its reliable MRT system, but for first-timers wishing to get their bearings, the Taipei Sightseeing Tour Bus hops between major attractions like the Ximending retail district and the pagoda-inspired Taipei 101. The latter is a must for the panoramic views enjoyed from its 89th-floor observation deck.
Taipei’s well-designed green spaces are a real delight for all ages. Together with the expansive lawns of the Central Art Park next door, the historic converted winery known as Huashan 1914 Creative Park offers not just plenty of outdoor areas for children to run around, but also seasonal kid-friendly attractions such as exhibitions focused on cartoon characters. Also check out the grounds of Taipei Expo Park, where Maji Square hosts changing pop-up exhibitions, a free merry-go-round, and a vibrant farmers’ market on weekends. Make time to stop by at its small, Lego-inspired Bricks Café.
Families with teens interested in history should make a beeline for the National Palace Museum, which holds nearly 700,000 imperial Chinese artifacts once housed in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Look out for the small, intricately carved Jadeite Cabbage and the mao gong ding, a bronze ritual vessel believed to be 2,800 years old. Outdoorsy families can hike the trail up Elephant Mountain; a straightforward 45-minute climb brings you to several lookout platforms with postcard-perfect vistas of the city skyline and Taipei 101. If the weather permits, take the Maokong Gondola up to the tea hills south of the city. Don’t leave without exploring Taipei Zoo at the lower end of the cable car system.
No trip to Taipei is complete without visiting its night markets. Kids and adults alike will be captivated by the sights and smells of Shilin Market, but if you want to deal with less crowds, check out smaller alternatives such as Tonghua Night Market. Must-eats here include fried chicken cutlets, Taiwanese sausages, and fresh strawberries, while you can also sample popular local drinks like bubble tea and papaya milk. Directly outside Songshan MRT station, Raohe Street Night Market is another recommended stop for food-loving families. Its famous hu jiao bing, or black-pepper pork buns baked in tandoor-like ovens, are worth lining up for.
You don’t need to travel far from the capital to get a sense of Taiwan’s remarkable natural beauty. An old mining town known for its railway-straddling market street and a 40-meter-wide waterfall, Shifen makes for a pleasant day trip and a welcome change of scenery. Direct buses ply the route between Taipei and Shifen, but for greater flexibility, you can hire a private driver from Own Rides.
If someone in the family is a cat-lover, take a detour to Houtong Cat Village, a former coal-mining settlement that’s now home to more than 200 friendly feline residents. The recent reversal of Houtong’s fortunes is evinced by houses adorned with cat-themed murals and the proliferation of souvenir shops selling goodies like cat-shaped pineapple cakes.
Hidden in the lush Keelung River Valley and dubbed the “Little Niagara of Taiwan,” Shifen Waterfall is regarded as one of the most scenic on the island. The cataract can be reached on foot from Shifen train station in about half an hour. Aside from a series of hiking trails that take you into the surrounding woodlands, there are plenty of viewing areas from which to enjoy its sublime beauty.
Less than 15 minutes down the railway tracks from Shifen, Pingxi Station has become a popular spot for visitors to send up sky lanterns inscribed with their wishes. However, do take note that most of these are not eco-friendly; choose a vendor who uses traditional, decomposable materials such as cotton paper and bamboo.
Another recommended day-trip destination from Taipei is Jiufen, whose main draw is its photogenic maze of cobblestone lanes and steep alleyways collectively known as Jiufen Old Street. Once an isolated mountain village, the place was transformed into a boomtown when gold was discovered nearby during the 50-year Japanese occupation of Taiwan.
For modern travelers, Jiufen is synonymous with Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. It is said that the lantern-festooned streets of the mountain town inspired some of the settings in the movie, and visitors flock to its retro-Chinese and Japanese cafés, most famously the century-old A Mei Teahouse. Kids and adults alike will be fascinated by the carefully choreographed tea ceremony performed tableside by the servers here; if you’re feeling peckish, the afternoon tea set includes local snacks such as mochi, green-tea cakes, sugared plums, and sesame crackers. Opt for a table on A Mei’s third-floor terrace, which affords a jaw-dropping view of the nearby mountains and the Pacific Ocean far below.
A less-crowded and more intimate alternative is Jiufen Teahouse, whose beautiful wood-and-brick interiors alone make a visit worthwhile. The main floor features teapots over rustic pit stoves, while its basement houses a small museum showcasing tea wares and artwork, alongside an indoor waterfall cascading into a koi pond.
Families interested in Asian movie history should not miss the oldest cinema in Taiwan. Restored in 2011 after decades of neglect, Shengping Theater retains its nostalgic setup with rows of wooden chairs and balcony seating; it screens silent movies with live voiceovers on most afternoons as well as running the occasional performance by Taiwanese opera troupes.
If you’re planning to spend the night, Something Easy Inn offers contemporary, boutique lodgings just 100 meters from Jiufen Old Street. Selected rooms feature a standalone bathtub and private balconies, but the pick of the lot is the upstairs quadruple room. Vistas of Taiwan’s heavily indented northern coastline are best admired from its timber-decked sun terrace.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“One With The Tribe”).