Taipei is always the first port of call for first-time visitors to Taiwan – and rightly so, given that it’s the capital.
But if you really want to delve into Taiwanese culture, heritage and explore the lesser known parts of the island, you need to head south.
I decided on Tainan, the former capital, as my first port of call.
On the train down, I spotted an article on some of the craftsmen in the city – that’s how I ended up at Tainan Kuang Tsai Embroidery Shop.
Mr Lin, who’s owned the shop for decades, creates these incredible embroidered pieces for everything from Chinese opera costumes and wedding outfits to decorations for temples.
They can takes months or even years to complete, and costs thousands of Taiwanese dollars each.
Taiwan’s many richly decorated Buddhist and Taoist temples still provide much of the work for craftsmen such as Mr Lin.
On Shennong Road, for example, is an unmarked wood carving workshop that makes sedan chairs for the temple gods – and there are small workshops like these all over the city that you can visit for free – the craftsmen would be happy to show you round.
Tainan also offers an insight into Taiwan’s past as a colony; it was briefly occupied by the Dutch and then later by the Japanese.
Most visitors flock to the district of Anping to see landmarks such as Anping Old Fort (Fort Zeelandia) and the very Instagrammable Anping Tree House.
The former was a military and trading port occupied by the Dutch in the 17th century while the latter was a warehouse of British-owned salt-trader Tait & Co in the 19th century.
In the city centre, there are landmarks like the Dutch fort Chihkan Tower; and Koxinga Museum, which is dedicated to the man who ultimately fought off the Dutch.
Taiwan was also occupied by the Japanese until 1945 and many of the buildings in Tainan still date back to that period.
The historic Hayashi Department Store, for example, was one of the first buildings to feature a lift at that time. It’s still working today and leads up to a hidden rooftop shrine and a great view of the city.
Where to eat and drink in Tainan:
Tainan is steeped in history, there are trendy pockets all over town.
A friend introduced me to Yu Lee, owner of Instagram-favourite NINAO, who makes some incredible gelato and soft serve ice cream in his two outlets.
The talented ice cream maker recently took home the crown for Glenfiddich’s World’s Most Experimental Bartender Award along with Johnny Tsai from Bar TCRC – another top spot in the city.
There, you can even order BBQ food from around the corner when you’re sitting at the bar.
Yu took me on a walking tour of his neighbourhood, which was filled with little stalls that have been there for years. You can find everything from fish jerky and beef soup to ice tea and faux offal. There was even a restaurant hidden inside a clothing market – you just have to discover it.
And if you head to Anping too, order a bowl of fresh tofu from one the restaurants – the area is well known for it. The delicate treat has the texture of a set custard and can be sweet or savoury and served hot or cold.
After Tainan, I headed to Alishan – Taiwan’s most famous mountain.
It’s home to the Tsou people, one of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan, who have their own visitor attraction, Yuyupas.
But while touristy and fun, the two essential things to do in Alishan are actually tea tasting and watching the sun rise.
It’s hard to define what’s so special about the sun rise until you get there.
There’s a train that takes you up to a viewing platform where you, and perhaps a couple of hundred other people, huddle together for the first light.
And as touristy as it is, after getting up at 3am, squeezing onto the train and bracing yourself in the cold, the first warming rays of dawn feels amazing.
The tea is similarly revelatory.
Thanks to its relative high altitude, Alishan produces some incredible teas.
You can see tea bushes all over the mountainside and, if you go in the right season, the tea merchants will be drying their wares right on the side of the road.
Pop into one of these merchants and they would be more than happy for you to see how the freshly picked leaves are processed into tea and you can even taste the finished product.
At one such merchant’s shop, I drank cups and cups of fresh and fragrant tea by the end of which I’ve been invited to join them for dinner and maybe even come tea picking next time I’m in Alishan.
That’s the thing I loved about this part of Taiwan – people, even strangers, seem to have so much more time to show you round and give you a taste of their life.
And even in the most touristy of places, the experience felt so authentic.
Things to do in Taipei:
If you don’t have time to head south, there are plenty of cultural things you can do in Taipei too.
The Taiwan National Palace Museum and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall are both considered must-visit landmarks. However, it’s also worth getting out of the city.
There’s Yangmingshan National Park, which is well known for its sulphur springs – and many hotels have their own.
Here, there are lots of little towns and villages to explore here and some good nature hikes.
It also makes a good base for a visit to Tamsui, a charming fishing village with so much street food options around that it’s impossible to leave hungry.
Or on the other side of Taipei, there’s Shen Keng, known for its firm tofu. In fact, there’s a whole street dedicated to it where every single restaurant serves the stuff.
Where to stay in Tainan and Alishan and how to get there:
I travelled with Edison Tours on a bespoke six-night itinerary around Taiwan.
Priced from £1,350pp based on two people sharing, the trip includes a one-night hotel stay at the four-star Landis Hotel Yangmingshan or similar, two nights at the five-star Tainan Tayih Landis Hotel or similar, two nights at the four-star Alishan House, one night at the five-star Sherwood Hotel Taipei or similar.
It also includes daily breakfast, tour insurance, private transfers and an English speaking guide throughout but excludes flights and activities.
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