Sun Moon Lake, Nantou is Taiwan’s largest lake and, with 6 million visitors a year, also one of the country’s most popular scenic attractions, along with Alishan and Taroko Gorge.
Sun Moon Lake attractions, which include Wenwu Temple, the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway, and scenic views around the lake, draw in tour group masses, but it is still easy to enjoy a pleasant and crowd-free stay.
Below I’ll tell you my favorite places to stay and things to do at Sun Moon Lake, and help you plan your Sun Moon Lake itinerary. I’ve been to Sun Moon Lake six times in my 10 years in Taiwan, so apparently I have a soft spot for this often criticized tourist magnet.
The simple answer to this question is that Sun Moon Lake is incredibly beautiful. Surrounded by the western foothills of the Central Mountain Range, the 748 m lake is like a gem on the side of Taiwan’s mountainous crown.
The first time I stood on the shore of the lake, I didn’t quite see what the hype was all about. It wasn’t until I admired the lake from higher vantage points, like Wenwu Temple, Ci En Pagoda, and the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway, that I finally got it.
The Sun Moon Lake shore has been inhabited by the Thao aboriginal tribe (邵族) since the Qing Dynasty. Today, the Thao, who mostly live in the lakeside village of Ita Thao, number less than 1000 (only 626 listed by Wikipedia in 2008), making them one of the smallest of Taiwan’s officially recognized aboriginal tribes.
According to Thao mythology, Thao hunters spotted a white deer in the mountains and chased it to the shore of Sun Moon Lake. They were so impressed by the lake that they decided to settle there.
As a visitor, you can observe Thao customs and make donations at the Thao Performance Center in Ita Thao (details below), my favorite village to stay at Sun Moon Lake.
Overall, I think it is the natural beauty, aboriginal culture, ease of access, and of course developed tourist infrastructure that make Sun Moon Lake so popular.
The Sun Moon Lake Swim
There are no beaches, and swimming is not allowed in Sun Moon Lake, except at the annual Sun Moon Lake Mass Swim in September, one of the largest in the world.
To participate in the mass swim, you need a group of at least three people, including one Taiwanese person who can help you register here. Then you pay NT1000/person at 7-11. Registration usually opens about two months in advance.
The 3km swim takes a few hours, and a floatation device is required. There are safety rest stations along the way. You will also definitely need waterproof sunscreen.
In recent years, 3km and 5km competitive races have also been added the day before.
On a personal note, I actually joined a busload of expats to do the swim many years ago, but couldn’t swim in the end, embarrassingly, because I got diarrhea that day. Also, I once snuck a swim at Sun Moon Lake on another trip by jumping off a boat dock when nobody was looking : )
Sun Moon Lake is (sort of…) shaped like a sun on the eastern side and moon on the western side, hence the name. Shuishe, on the northwest shore of the lake, is the main tourist village where most people arrive, and location of the Sun Moon Lake visitor center.
The eastern and southern sides of the “sun” part of the lake are where most of the popular Sun Moon Lake attractions and best views are found. Much of this shoreline is also lined with wooden walkways, and cycling Sun Moon Lake along the main road around the lake is a popular activity.
The lake’s second tourist village, Ita Thao, is located on the southeast shore. I’ll explain below why I think it is the best place to stay at Sun Moon Lake.
The western, or “moon” side of the lake sees less tourists, and much of the road is not right along the lake until meets up with the spread of resorts on the north shore. You can cycle around the lake in a full day, or ride a scooter around it in about one hour (with no stops).
Shuishe: The Main Tourist Village
Shuishe (水社) is collection of tourist oriented restaurants, resorts and other facilities. Personally, I consider it a transportation hub and place to rent your bike, scooter or hop on a bus to get out of.
On the plus side, you may choose to stay in Shuishe due to its convenience and some of the great mid-range and high-end hotels in town. To be fair, it’s not a terrible place to stay, with nice paths and lake views on the shore.
Most buses arrive at and depart from just in front of the Shuishe Visitor’s Center. Last time I visited, there was no ticket window there; you just show up and get in line at the right time. The bus around Sun Moon Lake also begins here.
The Starbucks in Shuishe offers decent lake views from its patio, and you can also appreciate the lake from Meihe Park or the Shuishe Pier. There are many restaurants in town, especially on the main road and near the Shuishe Pier, with an emphasis on Taiwanese and seafood.
Shuishe is also the starting point of the annual Sun Moon Lake Mass Swim.
Where to Stay in Shuishe
Unfortunately, there isn’t much on the budget end here. Some of the cheapest deals can be found at Tanxiang Resort Hotel (read reviews / see prices) near the Shuishe Pier, but the reviews for it are pretty bad. Sun Moon Lake B&B (see prices) is another barebones property west of town. I’m not aware of any hostels in Shuishe. There are better budget choices in Ita Thao.
In the mid-range, Shaoguang 188 (read reviews / see prices) is a very popular, highly rated choice with stone tubs in the rooms, while Doris Home (read reviews / see prices) nearby offers artfully decorated, cat-themed rooms in a lovely house. Yue Lake Backpackers (read reviews / see prices) west of town offers reasonably priced rooms considering they have good lake views.
Sun Moon Lake Hotel (read reviews / see prices) just west of town, is a moderately priced upscale choice offering incredible lake views, while Fleur de Chine (read reviews / see prices) east of town is one of the most opulent properties on Sun Moon Lake.
Ita Thao: My Personal Favorite
Ita Thao (Yida Shao, 伊達邵) is the other main tourist village on Sun Moon Lake and located on the southeast shore of the “sun”. The actual aboriginal village, which you probably won’t even see or notice, is located just above the tourist village.
Personally, I strongly prefer the vibe at Ita Thao to Shuishe, even though it is still entirely tourist oriented. There are more guesthouses than resorts, the flavor is more aboriginal, and there is greater access to the waterfront, with a nice collections of boat docks that you can walk on.
The best place to experience Thao culture is at the Thao Tribe Performance Center (see #6 on my list of things to do at Sun Moon Lake below). The performances here are the real deal, as opposed to some of the shows put in big hotels, on the Shuishe pier, or other tourist centers in Taiwan, which often have a fake feel to them.
Ita Thao is the end point of the Sun Moon Lake Mass Swim, and it is within walking distance of the Sun Moon Lake ropeway (#4 below).
The best part about Itathao is its great food stalls and night market. From the bus stop, follow the main street all the way down to the pier. The street is packed with shops and restaurants and becomes an atmospheric night market in the evening. This is one of the most accessible places in Taiwan to try aboriginal specialties like boar meat (山豬肉), bamboo tubes of sticky rice (竹筒飯), and millet wine (小米酒).
Something I’ve never seen elsewhere in Taiwan is millet wine slushy drinks, though the alcohol concentration was disappointingly low (0.4% according to the vendor).
Besides aboriginal fare, there are lots of other great Taiwanese snacks to find on the Ita Thao night market. Some personal favorites were grilled mochi, deep fried oyster & egg balls (a Chiayi specialty), Sun Moon Lake black tea flavored ice cream and beer, and marinated dou gan (tofu cubes).
Where to Stay in Ita Thao
As we usually stay in Ita Thao, I can speak from personal experience here. My absolute favorite place to stay in Ita Thao is an AirBnb cabin property five minutes walk up a small road from the Ita Thao bus stop. If you haven’t signed up for AirBnb yet, please use my sign up link to get $NT1100 off your first AirBnb stay!
There are two gorgeous cabins here and a larger family house. I brought my kids here on a father-daughter-son trip and we loved it. It’s in a quiet, totally natural setting, so you completely forget you are right by one of the most popular tourist centers in Taiwan, but it’s only a five-minute walk to Ita Thao, where you can enjoy the night market, restaurants, or walk to the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway.
On our most recent visit, we were looking for the cheapest possible (but family friendly) room to crash in Ita Thao for the night, and chose at Itathao Vacation Hotel (read reviews / see prices) on the main road around the lake. Our expectations were low, but we were pleasantly surprised! The room seemed very new (not normal in Taiwan for this price range), beds were comfy, and our 5th floor balcony had a view of the lake. Not the best view, but better than nothing!
There are several properties right on or directly facing the pier in Ita Thao that have incredible views of the lake through full-wall windows. We almost considered staying in one of these as they are quite reasonably priced for what you get.
When planning your Sun Moon Lake itinerary, I feel that one night is sufficient, two tops, to experience the best of the lake. If you hire a scooter, ride a bike, or use the bus, you could see most of the sites below in one full day. Taking boats only, you won’t be able to see everything of course. Make sure to buy a Sun Moon Lake Pass to save some money.
The best way would probably be to arrive as early as possible on your first day, do some exploring that afternoon, visit the night market in Ita Thao that evening, and then see anything else you missed the next day.
The sights below are roughly in clockwise order around the lake, starting in Shuishe.
Things to Do at Sun Moon Lake
1. Take a Boat Across Sun Moon Lake
Strangely, in my six trips to Sun Moon Lake, I’ve never done this, but it is one of the most popular things to do at Sun Moon Lake. Boat rides are included in most Sun Moon Lake passes.
Alternatively, can buy an all-day boat pass on Klook for NT300 that gives you unlimited rides between the three main piers (Shuishe, Ita Thao, Xuanguan) on an eco-friendly electric boat. There is also an option to include a bike rental in the deal.
2. Wenwu Temple (日月潭文武廟)
The view from just above Wenwu temple, with the temple’s orange roofs in the foreground and lake in the background, is the most iconic view of Sun Moon Lake. I would say that this is easily one of the prettiest temples in Taiwan.
This large, imposing structure is built in the palace style of northern China and is guarded by two enormous vermillion lions. In Chinese culture, Wenwu temples house gods related to both civil and marital affairs. Originally two temples stood at the side of Sun Moon Lake but were torn down when dam projects caused the lake level to rise in 1919. The new temple was built in its present location in 1938, and then rebuilt and expanded in 1969.
Come early for a better chance of clear lake views and to beat tour bus crowds. Also, make sure to go up the rows of stairs outside the back of the temple for the classic view.
Across the road from the front of the temple, you can also walk down 366 steps (one for each day of the year plus one for leap year) to the shore of the lake, once the only way to access the temple.
3. Nine Frogs Stack (九蛙疊像)
Halfway between Wenwu Temple and Ita Thao, there’s a pullover on the lake side of the road for Water Frog Head Trail (水蛙頭步道), an easy boarded trail through bamboo forests to a dock on the lake where you can spot Nine Frogs Stack (九蛙疊像), a statue in the water that is used to measure the lake’s level.
Tour buses don’t stop here, so it’s a good place on Sun Moon Lake for a quiet, scenic stroll with no crowds.
4. Sun Moon Lake Ropeway (日月潭纜車)
The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway is probably the most popular Sun Moon Lake attraction, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it. Even with a large number of visitors, the Sun Moon Lake cable car lines move quickly. When we visited on a weekday, arriving the moment they opened, and there was hardly a line.
The views over Sun Moon Lake during the ride are nothing short of breathtaking. There’s no view once you arrive at the top, so you can either head right back down, or continue on another ropeway down into the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village (see below).
A round trip on the Sun Moon Lake gondola costs NT300, and rides are included if you buy an entrance ticket to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village. Operating times are 10:30-4 (weekdays) and 10:00-4:30 (weekends and holidays). The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway is included on some Sun Moon Lake passes. Here’s a great deal on Klook that includes a bike, boat rides, and Sun Moon Lake ropeway ticket.
You can walk from the pier in Ita Thao to the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway along a pretty lakeside path in about 15 minutes.
5. Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village (九族文化村)
I’m not going to lie here…the combination of aboriginal culture center and theme/amusement park (complete with ”European garden & Mansion”, a popular theme at many of Taiwan’s theme parks built in the 80s) at Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village unsettling. This is cultural appropriation at its finest, not to mention that ticket prices are pretty steep.
The Chinese name “9 Tribes Culture Village” (九族文化村) harks back to a time when only nine aboriginal tribes were officially recognized in Taiwan (today there are 16).
I honestly wouldn’t really recommend coming here. We went because I though it might be fun for my kids. The amusement park section is nothing special. We saw one crazy looking waterslide (picture below), but overall the park is really spread out and requires tons of walking, but doesn’t have many facilities.
The aboriginal section covers a large hill and also takes quite some time to walk through. It does however offer a chance to photograph aboriginals dressed in traditional costumes and watch song and dance performances.
If you really want to experience aboriginal culture, I’d suggest the more humble (and legitimate) Thao Tribe Performance Center (see #6), and if you want rides, there are many better amusement parks in Taiwan.
If you still want to visit, this Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village day trip deal includes transportation to and from Taichung, ropeway tickets, park admission, and a guide. Regular admission to the park also includes ropeway tickets.
A small center in Ita Thao village is trying hard to preserve and promote the customs of the Thao people (邵族), one of Taiwan’s smallest tribes. Only a few elders still speak the Thao language, and their customs are in danger of dying out.
One of the special features of Thao culture is a kind of music called chu yin (杵音) or ’pestle sounds’, made by pounding large pestles into mortars. The Thao discovered it in past times when they found that pounding different materials produced different sounds. You can watch performances of the music at the center today. The center also features songs and dance from the Bunun tribe (布農族), another tribe which lives in the greater Sun Moon Lake area.
Daily performances take place on weekdays from 11-11:40 am and 3-3:40 pm (except Wednesdays) and 11-11:40 am, 3-3:40 pm and 5-5:40 pm on weekends and holidays. Donations are appreciated. See more details here.
7. Ci En Pagoda (慈恩塔)
Continuing past Ita Thao village, the next point of interest, and another of Sun Moon Lake’s most iconic sights, is towering Ci En Pagoda, visible from many points on the lake.
The 43-meter pagoda was commissioned by former president Chiang Kai-shek for his late mother in 1971. It’s a 570-meter walk up stairs to reach the pagoda. It’s definitely worth coming for the incredible, panoramic view of Sun Moon Lake from the top of the pagoda.
Here’s a short panoramic video I shot of Sun Moon Lake from the top of Ci En Pagoda:
8. Xuanguan Temple (玄光寺) & Wharf (玄光碼頭)
The furthest you’ll likely get from Shuishe (unless you cycle or ride all the way around the lake) is Xuanguan Temple & Wharf. It’s one of three piers you can take a boat to, but I found it the least appealing. The temple is nothing special, and there’s less space here so it felt crowded.
The highlight for me was seeing Lalu Island, which is just off shore. There is also a famous tea egg vendor called 金盆阿嬤的香菇茶葉蛋 by the pier. Sun Moon Lake is known for having really good tea eggs, which are stewed with giant mushrooms, local Sun Moon Lake tea leaves, and spices, and this stall apparently has the best ones.
No experience is required, kids can even do it, and there are morning or afternoon options. But for the most serene experience, go for the dawn paddleboarding option, when the lake is at its calmest and no tourists are out yet.
There are multiple places in Shuishe town where you can rent bicycles (expect to pay about NT200 for two hours, or double that for a high quality Giant bike here), e-bikes, or scooters (around NT400 per day, usually able to rent here without a proper license).
Sun Moon Lake is famous for its black teas, which are mostly produced north of the lake in Yuchi township. See my full article on Sun Moon Lake Tea and tea-related activities in the area (coming soon).
Puli, a city 30 minutes north of Sun Moon Lake, is worth a stop for visiting enormous Chung Tai Chan Monastery, the world’s tallest Buddhist Monastery. Just outside of Puli, Paper Dome, a church made out of paper, is another popular attraction. You can stop here with the Sun Moon Lake pass.
A 40-minute drive west of Sun Moon Lake, Wuchang Temple in Jiji is an interesting, if unusual, local attraction. The temple here completely caved in during the disastrous 921 Earthquake in 1999, in which 2415 people died, and has been left that way since. A lavish new temple commemorating the incident has been built right in front of it.
See these detailed articles with beautiful photos of Wuchang Temple by Alexander Synaptic and this one on Wuchang Temple by Josh Ellis for more details. Here are some shots from my most recent trip (2018):
Another 45 minutes’ drive past Jiji, you can reach the Xitou Monster Village, a popular Japanese-themed village. Click the above link for information on getting there by bus from Sun Moon Lake.
Getting to Sun Moon Lake
Generally, you can budget about three hours to get from Taipei to Sun Moon Lake, 1.5 hours from Taichung to Sun Moon lake, and three hours from Alishan to Sun Moon Lake.
Taipei to Sun Moon Lake
The simplest way is to take the bus from Taipei to Sun Moon Lake. Buses in Taipei depart from the Taipei Bus Station, located at exit Z5 of Taipei Main Station. A one-way adult ticket costs NT470. You can find the complete timetable here for bus 1833 from Taipei to Sun Moon Lake and Sun Moon Lake to Taipei. The bus usually takes 3-3.5 hours and includes a stop in Puli.
Buying your return ticket is a good idea, to avoid uncertainty about getting a seat on the way back. It’s also smart to buy your ticket a day or two in advance, especially for weekend or holiday departures, but it’s often possible to just show up a little early and get a ticket.
If you don’t want to take a three-hour bus ride, you can take the HSR from Taipei to Taichung and then the shuttle bus from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake (see below). This costs more and you might only save 30 minutes, but I’ve done this before because a three hour bus ride is difficult for my kids.
Tourist Shuttle Bus A runs from Central Taichung to Sun Moon Lake in about 90 minutes. You can board at Gancheng Station, Taichung Station, Daqing Station, Taichung Airport, or Taichung HSR Station. The bus also stops in Puli and at Paper Dome. Here are the bus times. Bus tickets are included in most Sun Moon Lake passes.
The bus costs NT190 or less (depending where you get on), and runs roughly every 30 minutes. The first bus is at 7:45am from Taichung Gancheng station and 7:25 am from Sun Moon Lake. EasyCard is accepted.
There is a minibus two times per day from Alishan to Sun Moon Lake and Sun Moon Lake to Alishan. The bus from Alishan departs at 1 and 2 pm, and the one from Sun Moon Lake departs at 8 am and 9 am, costing NT$328.
The trip from Alishan to Sun Moon Lake should take less than three hours, but going uphill from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan might take a little more than three hours. To save money on bus tickets for Taichung-Sun Moon Lake-Alishan, you can get the Sun Moon Lake Alishan pass.
If you made it this far, I hope that you’ve found some useful information here. Please let me know below if you have any comments or questions, and how your trip to Sun Moon Lake goes!
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