Where should you go if only visiting Taiwan for 1-2 weeks? Most say that if you like history and culture, stick to the west coast. If you like scenery and nature, head to east Taiwan. This is a simplistic breakdown of Taiwan’s diverse and abundant attractions, but there’s no denying that Taiwan’s east coast boasts a vast, sparsely populated coastline of unparalleled beauty, making it the ideal place for a Taiwan road trip. This article includes several experiences that make my list of 50 best things to do in Taiwan.
Part 1 of this Taiwan east coast itinerary covers the norther half, from Yilan to Hualien (or Hualien to Yilan) and Part 2 covers the southern half, from Hualien to Kenting. I would say you need a full day (two nights) just to see Taroko Gorge, and aim for two days (three nights) to add Qixingtan Beach, the Qingshui Cliffs, and more. To properly cover everything on this page from north to south, four nights or more would be ideal.
If you’d like to join a tour, this comprehensive four-day east coast tour covers much of the journey described in these two articles, starting in Hualien and traveling down the east coast on Highway 11 to Taitung, back to Hualien through the East Rift Valley (Highway 9), then north to Jiaoxi (Yilan) and back to Taipei.
The tips and photos I present below come from multiple visits over many years, including a road trip by car with my family from Canada shortly after I first arrived in Taiwan in 2008, including research trips for my book Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner.
I’ll give numerous hotel recommendations below, but also note that that AirBnB is becoming increasingly popular in Taiwan. Get NT1100 off your first Airbnb stay anywhere in the world if you use this link to sign up!
Why is Taiwan’s East Coast so beautiful?
Taiwan is a geologically active island nation that sits on a convergent boundary between multiple tectonic plates. The subduction of the Yangtze Subplate of the Eurasian Plate beneath the Philippine Sea Plate has produced the Central Mountain Range, the highest mountains in Northeast Asia. From the peak of Yushan (Jade Mountain) (3952m), the Pacific Ocean to the east is so near that it can be seen on a clear day. The drop from Yushan down to the east coast of Taiwan (50 kilometers) continues below the sea at the same rate, so that another 50 kilometers out from the coast it drops another 4000 meters, constituting one of the most dramatic overall drops in the world.
This explains the rugged seaside cliffs at Qingshui (see below) just north of Hualien, as well as the breathtakingly immense scale of Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s premier scenic attraction. South of Hualien, a smaller and geologically more recent chain of mountains, the Coastal Range, runs parallel to the coast. Provincial Highway 9 connects Hualien and Taitung (Taidong), the east coast’s two largest cities, via the East Rift Valley, a long, narrow belt of fertile farmland between the Central Mountain Range and Coastal Range. Alternatively, Provincial Highway 11 follows the coast between the two cities. What this means is that you can do a loop between Hualien and Taitung, taking Highway 9 in one direction and 11 in the other, making this a popular route for cyclists and motorists alike.
South of Taitung, the scenery remains rocky and dramatic, but then transforms to sand dunes and open expanses as one approaches Kenting National Park, occupying the southern tip of the country and home to the best beaches on Taiwan’s main island.
I’ve decided to start my guide from the first point on the east coast (excluding the far north) where the mountains meet the sea, at the southern end of the rice-paddy-dominated Yilan plains. This winding coastal route from Suao, Yilan to Hualien is called the Suao-Hualien/Suhua Highway, or Provincial Highway #9 (which becomes the inland highway through the East Rift Valley south of Hualien).
Getting from Taipei to Hualien and the East Coast
The fastest and most convenient way to reach the area is to book this flight from Taipei to Hualien, departing from Taipei’s Songshan airport in the city center.
Many people begin their Taiwan East Coast journey in Hualien, and this makes perfect sense for a short visit. Hualien County is home to Taroko Gorge, and visitors who only have a few days will probably only visit Taroko Gorge and surrounds and then go back from Hualien to Taipei. Also, the traveling time from Taipei to Hualien is only 2 hours on the Puyuma express train, while reaching Suao means you have to take the local train, which takes 2.5 hours or more, even though it is closer to Taipei.
It is impossible to travel all the way from Taipei to Hualien by bus because no buses do the Suao to Hualien stretch, though some people do shorten their journey to Hualien by taking a bus from Taipei to Luodong in Yilan, then catching the train from there (or the same thing in reverse). Therefore, seeing the stretch of road from Suao, Yilan to Hualien is only possible with your own transportation, and only recommended for those who have a little more time on their hands. However, note that you can easily visit the Qingshui Cliffs from Hualien.
Trains these days are easier than they’ve ever been for visitors to book. Here is an excellent guide to booking train tickets online and picking them up at 7-11 or the train station (note that despite what this page says, you don’t even need to print anything off. Just bring your booking code and passport). While the Puyuma express doesn’t allow standing tickets and can sell out, for other train types in Taiwan you can always buy a ticket at the station, even at the last minute, and just stand or sit on the floor between train cars if there are no free seats. You can even get a standing ticket and then sit in unoccupied seats until people with tickets for those seats arrive.
It is possible to rent scooters at Hualien or Xincheng (Sincheng/Taroko Gorge) train stations for about NTD 400 per day. Most places prefer international driver’s ID. Cycling is another good option, or you can organize taxi tours from your hotel. See more info for all of these options below.
Suao (Su-Ao) Cold Springs
Starting in Yilan, Suao Cold Springs (蘇澳冷泉) is Taiwan’s most famous cold spring town. The town looks very similar to hot spring towns found all over the island, with multiple hotels and spas offering a full range of experiences, from cheap and gritty to posh and upscale, but the water itself is freezing cold. Obviously, the town is only popular in summer, and attracts many families with kids. I’ve never stopped Suao Cold Springs because I like the natural setting of Dongao Cold Spring south of Suao (see below), but if you want a convenenient place to cool down in summer on the way to Hualien, Suao may be for you!
Nanfang Ao (南方澳) harbor is located just south of Suao, where the largest isthmus on the East Coast of Taiwan provides a perfect natural harbor, which just happens to be adjacent to a stretch of coastal water rich in migratory fish. The harbor is abuzz with activity, especially around the main fish market in the morning. The market caters to tourists; you can buy sample packs of extremely fresh sashimi, or buy a whole fish or any other kind of seafood and have one of the adjacent quick fry shops cook it up for you for only NTD 100 per dish.
The rickety-looking boats bobbing about in the teal waters of the harbor make for great photos, and for the best vantage point of the entire harbor and adjoining Suao port, there is a lookout point when you continue south along the highway, which ascends steeply above the harbor.
After the highway winds upward for some time and reaches its crescendo, you will suddenly be rewarded with an incredible view of the wide Dong Ao bay to the south. After you descend and reach the small aboriginal town of Dong Ao, watch for a small sign (or ask around if you can’t find it) to the rustic Dong Ao Cold Spring (東澳冷泉).
Here a small cold spring stream has been dammed up to create a pool of chilly, crystal clear water that provides a much-needed cool-down on a scorching, Taiwanese summer day. Kids love it, evidenced by the mobs of children splashing around in the water. Many local aboriginal families come here to picnic, and don’t be surprised if they call you over and offer you a chilled can of beer from the water.
The pool sits below a train overpass, causing the kids to scream every time a train passes overhead. Beside the pool there is a large grassy field, and at peak times, vendors set up, selling cold beer, sausages, and other snacks. Strangely, the spring was packed with people and food stalls the first time I went, about three years ago (photos below), and nearly deserted when I went last year (photo above). Both visits were on summer weekend days.
See the section above “Why is Taiwan’s East Coast so Beautiful?” for an explanation of how these coastal bluffs came into existence. The Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖) have been designated as one of Taiwan’s “Eight Wonders”, and stretch for more than 21 kilometers. However, some of the best views are on the Hualien end and can easily be visited if you are staying in Hualien City or near Taroko Gorge.
From the entrance of Taroko Gorge, it is only a 10-15 minute drive north to the start of the cliffs. There are multiple lookout points and places where you can park at the side of the road or follow stairs down toward the sea. Just be careful of traffic, since many drivers’ eyes are on the sea and not the road. Another magnificent experience is to visit the cliffs while sea kayaking!
If you are visiting Taroko Gorge by van tour or on this private tour, the Qingshui Cliffs are included in the itinerary. The cliffs are best seen in the early morning, when the rising sun casts softer rays on them, but you may also be rushed to get into Taroko early to beat the crowds. In other words, the earlier you start your day of sightseeing in around Taroko, the better, or split your visit into two days.
Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s #1 scenic attraction, is so vast and magnificent that I have dedicated a whole post to it: Taroko Gorge: The Grand Canyon of Taiwan. This is pretty much why you come to the East Coast of Taiwan, and for many visitors, it is the only place they visit besides the greater Taipei area.
Taroko Gorge is easy to access, even with kids, but also provides strenuous hiking, and is a phenomenal cycling destination. I’ve also written a separate post for Wenshan Hot Spring, the valley’s once famous hot spring that was destroyed in a typhoon.
See my article on Taroko Gorge to find out how to do it on your own.
River Tracing to the Golden Grotto and other Adventure Sports
River tracing (aka river trekking) is becoming a very popular summertime activity in Taiwan. Basically, you walk up a river, jumping in various spots, playing in the water, sliding down rock slides, and more. It’s really fun and a great way to cool off in summer.
Sanzhan/Sanjhan (三棧), which I will discuss below as my favorite place to stay in the Taroko Gorge area, is also the starting point for one of Taiwan’s most renowned river traces: the Golden Grotto (黃金峽谷), but it’s probably not the best idea for beginners. This 6 to 7-hour return trace requires some experience and equipment, and it is at times technically illegal to the visit due to the very real danger of falling rocks, especially after heavy rainfall.
In the summer, the stretches of river just upstream from Sanzhan, basically the start of the river trace to the Golden Grotto, are filled with Taiwanese river tracing tour groups. There are several good cliffs for jumping in within 20 minutes trace upstream from Sanzhan. Here is a complete guide to river tracing to the Golden Grotto.
Cycling is extremely popular in the area. For more detailed info I would recommend searching cycling blogs online, of which there are many, or checking Lonely Planet Taiwan.
For a more leisurely ride, you can cycle along the coast from Qixingtan beach (see below) to Hualien City. You can hire your bikes at one end and drop them off at the other. The Taroko Lodge (read reviews / check prices) organizes bike excursions into Taroko Gorge where they drop you off at the top and let you zoom down to the entrance.
Qixingtan Beach, Hualien
“Seven Star Lake” (七星潭) is not a lake but a picture-postcard pebble beach in Hualien with incredible views of mountains looming over the sea looking north along the coast. There are a dozen or so food stalls set up here and it’s a great place to lie on the beach and gaze at the sea, but note there is no swimming permitted due to strong tides, and yes, they will stop you.
Qixingtan is between Taroko Gorge and Hualien City, so it is very doable to make a stop here on your way to or from Taroko Gorge if you are staying in Hualien City. If you are staying in Xincheng or Sanzhan (see below), it is a 20-minute scooter ride down county road #193 to reach Qixingtan.
There is nothing you MUST see in Hualien City (花蓮市) itself, but it makes a convenient base for exploring the area and has the highest concentration of excellent hostels anywhere in Taiwan.
If you are in Hualien City for the night, you’ll probably want to check out the East Gate Night Market (東大門觀光夜市) at #50, Zhongshan Rd., which has recently been restored to its original location after it was set up in a different location and called Ziqiang Night Market for years. It is separated into three sections: a games street, regional cuisine street, and aboriginal street.
Visitors with children or people interested in a leisure farm experience might want to consider a day trip from Hualien City to this eco-resort, which features a petting zoo, farming demonstrations, bike and electric car rentals, swimming pool, and hot spring. You may also be interested in Farglory Ocean park, a marine ecology theme park.
Aboriginal Culture in Hualien
Nearly 30% of the population of Hualien county is aboriginal, including the Ami (Taiwan’s largest tribe), Atayal, Bunun, Truku or “Taroko”, Sakizaya, and Kavalan. As such, many aboriginal festivals take place in Hualien city and county, including the most famous, week-long Ami Harvest Festival in summer.
Dates of festivals can change, so if you want to see if anything is coming up, I would recommend contacting the Hualien County government. All of my photos above and below were taken at the Hualien County Joint Aboriginal Festival in Hualien City in 2014. At any authentic aboriginal festival, you can expect song and dance performances, curious smiles, and profuse consumption of millet wine (xiaomi jiu).
This is your cheapest option. Heliu Campsite is first-come-first serve, with a dozen wooden platforms (NT200 per tent) 16.5 kilometers up the valley. I stayed here several years ago with my family; the facilities are very basic but the setting is awesome.
Hostels in Hualien City
There is high concentration of hostels in Hualien, and their quality and value for money is better than anywhere else in Taiwan. Try booking.com (sign up with this link and get 20$ off your first booking!) It is a 40-minute ride by scooter from Hualien City to Taroko Gorge.
Staying near Xincheng (Taroko Gorge) train station is very convenient for accessing Taroko Gorge.
I have a friend who stayed at Taroko Lodge (see reviews / check prices) and raves about it. The owner speaks excellent English and is incredibly helpful. He can pick you up at the train station and can organize bike tours. The hotel is near Xincheng. They also have larger cabins for groups.
My personal favorite is the Moon River Guesthouse (check prices) in Sanzhan (Sanjhan).Sanzhan is a small aboriginal village 10-minutes south of the Xincheng train station, in the direction of Hualien City. You can rent scooters from one shop in the Xincheng Train Station parking lot (2 pieces of photo ID needed, international or Taiwanese driver’s license preferred but may not be necessary, speaking Chinese helps).
The relaxed one-street town of Sanzhan sits on a lovely stretch of the scenic Sanzhan River with a stunning mountainous backdrop, with many good spots for jumping into blue-green pools of water. It is a 15 minute ride by scooter from Sanzhan to the entrance of Taroko Gorge. There are only a few tiny shops and informal restaurant-slash-KTV joints with limited hours in Sanzhan, so you may want to pick up supplies at the 7-11 on the highway just south of Xincheng train station.
They don’t speak much English and the hotel is basic but clean. I love it for its location and the town’s non-touristy atmosphere. I’ve never seen other guests staying there, but do be aware that it can sometimes be filled with river tracing groups, so advance reservations are strongly recommended in summer.
Where to stay in Taroko Gorge
There are a few places at the entrance to Taroko Gorge, including Liwu Hotel (a hostel) (see reviews / check prices).
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