Traveling in Taiwan: A Taiwan Travel Expert's Guide

Taiwan is a small island nation that packs a serious punch. At only 36,193 km², it is about the size of Vancouver Island, but home to a staggering 24 million people.

Do not be fooled by its compact size, however. Cliché notwithstanding, traveling in Taiwan has something for everyone: the tallest mountains in Northeast Asia, rich history & culture, welcoming locals, some of the best night markets and street food in the world – the list goes on. To get a better idea, see my ever-growing list of 55 incredible things to do in Taiwan.

I’ve lived in Taiwan for over 10 years. I’m married to a Taiwanese, and my two kids were born and raised in Taiwan. I’ve written articles about Taiwan for CNN, National Geographic Traveller, Discover Taipei, and Taiwan Travel Magazine, as well as my book, Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner, which has sold more than 7000 copies.

This Taiwan travel guide links out to my most useful articles for planning a Taiwan trip. Here on my Taiwan travel blog, Spiritual Travels, you’ll find some of the most comprehensive Taiwan travel information available in English online, all based on years of on-the-ground research. I also offer free Taiwan travel tips and will answer any questions you have about your trip to Taiwan in my Taiwan Travel Planning group, so please join!

Let the below be your personal guide to traveling in Taiwan. So now, let’s dive in!

Taiwan Travel Tip #1: When To Visit Taiwan

Deciding on a season or month for your trip to Taiwan is the first step to planning your Taiwan travels, and thus the first topic to cover in this Taiwan traveling guide. To make things easier, I’ve written this dedicated guide to the best time to visit Taiwan. In it, you’ll find a description of every season and month of the year in Taiwan, and links to my individual guides for every month of the year, which I update constantly to add upcoming events and Taiwan travel news.

To summarize the above-mentioned article for you here, there’s no real high or low season in regard to travel to Taiwan; each season of the year comes with some ups and downs. Summer is extremely hot and humid and comes with the chance of typhoons, but it’s also the best time for the beach and other water-based activities.

Meanwhile, winter can be gray and chilly, but is the best time for hot springs and seeing cherry blossoms. Spring has warm weather but also a mini rain season, while autumn is my personal favorite for these reasons.

Here are my individual guides to each season in Taiwan. But don’t fret too much about it; if you can only visit at a certain time of the year, there’s really no bad time to be in Taiwan!

Best Taiwan Travel Deals & Tours

Who doesn’t want to find a good deal when traveling to Taiwan? Here are some of the websites and services I regularly use for planning my Taiwan travels:

These are some examples of great travel deals you can find on Klook:

Klook.com

Taiwan Travel Passes

One way to save money on travel around the world nowadays is by using city travel passes. Taiwan has a few available, but in order for them to actually save you money, you have to understand how they work, and get the right one for your needs.

Here are some travel passes in Taiwan that you may consider getting:

Taiwan Fun Passes

These 1-3 day passes include all transportation in and around Taipei, entrance fees to a long list of attractions, and some tourist shuttle buses for day trips out of Taipei. The most popular one is the Taipei Unlimited Fun Pass, which you can buy here on Klook.

Read my detailed review of all the Taipei Fun Passes to see how they work and determine if any of them will be worth it for your Taiwan trip.

Easy Cards

Don’t confuse Taipei Fun Passes with the EasyCard, which is what everyone in Taipei uses to swipe onto the MRT and city buses.

Taipei Fun Passes are designed for tourists, while the EasyCard is a reloadable card used by everyone else, including tourists who don’t get a Taipei Fun Pass. It gives you a discount when you swipe on for all forms of transportation in Taipei and other major cities in Taiwan. You can also use them in taxis or at convenience stores. They save you time and money.

You can get an EasyCard from any MRT station and load money onto it. There’s a TWD100 deposit, which you can back anytime you want, such as at the Taoyuan Airport MRT station before you leave Taiwan.

You can also order an EasyCard for pickup when you arrive in Taiwan. Learn more about EasyCards in the transportation section at the end of this article.

Sun Moon Lake Passes

The other place you will find travel passes in Taiwan is at Sun Moon Lake. There are numerous Sun Moon Lake passes to choose from, and you can buy them from 7-Eleven iBon machines or from train stations in Taichung.

Like the Taipei Fun Passes, these only save you money if you use them for enough avtivities. Most also include transportation to and from Taichung.

Learn all about the passes and how to use them in my Sun Moon Lake Pass review.

Taipei: The Tantalizing Capital of Taiwan

Header for Taipei section of Taiwan travel guide

In some countries, you want to get out of the capital as soon as you arrive. This is not the case with Taipei. For most visitors to Taiwan, I normally recommend budgeting at least two full days for Taipei City alone, plus add 1-2 more days for day trips from Taipei (even more if you can!)

Taipei is always buzzing with activity; by day, you’ve got atmospheric historical neighborhoods to explore, towering Taipei 101, and hikes in the hills (and volcanoes!) surrounding the city, while after the sun goes down, it’s time to eat ’til you drop in the city’s famed night markets and hit the bars or night clubs.

As if that weren’t enough, Taipei is incredibly safe, and getting around is a breeze on the MRT, one of the best metro systems in the world. Below are my most useful guides for planning your stay in Taipei.

Things to Do & Taipei Itineraries

Here is my epic post on 50+ awesome things to do in Taipei, as well as three itineraries tailored to exactly how many days you will be staying in Taipei.

The above itineraries will make things easier for those will little time for planning. But my recommendations for Taipei don’t stop there.

For people who want to dig a little deeper and further customize the Taipei portion of their Taiwan trip, here some useful resources that further explore how much Taipei has to offer, including its best temples, night markets, and beaches.

Also see the fourth post below for the best times of the year to visit Taipei; the weather of Taipei is quite different to that of other parts of Taiwan, so if your trip to Taiwan is mainly focused on Taipei, you’ll find this article more useful than my “Best time to visit Taiwan” article I linked to in the first section above.

Coolest Neighborhoods & Where to Stay

Deciding where to stay in Taipei can be rather intimidating, as there are so many cool neighborhoods to choose from.

Let me make life easier for you by breaking it down to the best neighborhoods to stay in Taipei, with my hotel recommendations for each one. For each area of Taipei, I’ve included hostel & hotel recommendations for budget, mid-range, and luxury travelers, also pointing out which ones are suitable for travelers with kids.

Besides my “where to stay in Taipei” article below, I’ve got detailed guides to some of my personal favorite neighborhoods in Taipei: Beitou for hot springs, historic Dadaocheng, and funky, gay-friendly Ximending. Start planning your walking tours with these guides!

Day Trips from Taipei

When deciding how long to stay in Taipei, you have to factor in that there some really incredible day trips from the city!

I normally recommend that, if you can, dedicate two full days to exploring Taipei, then another one or two days for day trips. If you only have one day in your Taiwan travel plan to do a day trip from Taipei, I would suggest that you plan it carefully. This way, you’ll be able to squeeze in several of my recommended 40 day trip ideas into one day.

The following five stops are some of the most popular day trips from Taipei, and since they are all fairly close together, you can combine them into one killer day trip from Taipei. There are even some shuttle buses deals like this that can make this even easier to accomplish.

  • Jiufen: A former gold mining town on top of a mountain, famous for its atmospheric staircases and teahouses
  • Shifen Waterfall: The widest in Taiwan, accessed from a cute train station where people set off sky lanterns
  • Houtong: The “Cat Village”, literally a village full of cats
  • Keelung: A harbor city with the best night market in Taiwan
  • Yehliu Geopark: Odd, wind-blown rock formations on the coast

With even more time, there are practically unlimited day trip possibilities from Taipei. This is why myself and so many other expats love living in Taipei; you get the excitement of the city, but you can go somewhere different every weekend. Because Taiwan is so small, and thanks to its amazing transportation system and the High Speed Rail, you can go almost anywhere in Taiwan in a day or weekend trip. 

Planning Your Trip around Taiwan

Taroko Gorge in winter

One of the hardest part of planning a Taiwan trip is mapping out the perfect Taiwan travel itinerary.

What a lot of people do is book their trip first, and then realize they didn’t budget enough time for everything they want to see. Moreover, some of the best things to do in Taiwan are on opposite coasts, with 3000-meter mountains between them!

For example, many people only schedule around one week for their Taiwan trip. Then they decide they want to visit Taipei, Taroko Gorge on the east coast, and Sun Moon Lake and/or Alishan, which are in Central Taiwan but accessed from the west coast. On the map, these three top scenic attractions in Taiwan look fairly close together. But guess what? There are no buses that cross the Central Mountain Range of Taiwan. You can do it in a car, but the road is super winding and takes a long time.

So what I see a lot of visitors doing is going from Taipei to Taroko Gorge first (2.5 to 4 hours on the train, one way). Then they have to return to Taipei, and then travel a similar amount of time down the west coast to reach Sun Moon Lake and/or Alishan. It’s certainly possible, but it means you have to use up an entire day of your trip on the road.

So how can you resolve this common Taiwan travel dilemma? I feel the answer is in planning your trip better before you book it, so that you can budget enough days to travel all the way around Taiwan and see everything that you want to without rushing. Which leads to the next important question: 

How Long Do I Need to Visit Taiwan?

With a week or less, you will probably only have time to visit Taipei, including some day trips, and perhaps do a 1 or 2-night trip to Taroko Gorge on the East Coast, or Taichung, Sun Moon Lake, and/or Alishan in Central Taiwan (and this would be really rushed).

If you want to do a full circle around Taiwan, these are the most obvious destinations along the way, going in a clockwise direction around Taiwan by riding the train: Taipei, Hualien (Taroko Gorge), Taitung, Kaohsiung, Tainan, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Taichung, and back to Taipei. To do this, you are going to need two weeks or more. With exactly two weeks, you may even have to cut out one or two of the above stops, otherwise you’ll just be checking in and out of hotels every day or two.

With even more time, you can be less rushed, and potentially add more stops, such as the beaches of Kenting on the southern tip of the island (as a side trip from Kaohsiung), Lukang, spend more time in laid-back Taitung, or visit some of the offshore islands, like Green Island, Orchid Island, or Penghu. This is why I think 3 weeks is a great amount of time for visiting Taiwan, and if you can go even longer, all the better!

Taiwan Travel Itineraries

Here are my recommend itineraries for traveling around Taiwan.

The five-day itinerary is for a very short visit, while the second article provides Taiwan itineraries for 1, 2, or 3 weeks. These are tried and tested itineraries that I have done in some form or another several times, including with my kids (see more on that below)!

The itineraries for 2 weeks and up involve doing a full circle around Taiwan mostly by train, with a few buses as well. See the end of this article for more information on transportation options for getting around Taiwan.

Visiting Taiwan with Kids

My kids Sage and Lavender were born and spent the first handful of years of their life in Taiwan. They’ve seen more of the country than most visitors ever will!

Below are my super detailed guides to visiting Taipei with kids and how to plan a complete circle around Taiwan with kids. The latter article is very similar to my above Taiwan itinerary for 1-3 weeks, but with tweaks along the way to focus on sights that my kids loved the most, as well as recommendations for kid-friendly hotels in each stop along the way.

Best Attractions around Taiwan

Eryanping, a beautiful sunset spot on the way up to Alishan

When trying to decide which destinations in Taiwan to include on your itinerary, it will be useful to take a deeper look at each of them to decide which ones are for you.

I’ll start with a list of some of the top scenic attractions. These five are the most common stops that people include on their Taiwan itineraries. I’ll follow that up with the best cities in Taiwan besides Taipei, best off-the-beaten track places to visit, and finally the offshore islands of Taiwan. Again, these are described in clockwise order going around Taiwan.

Top Scenic Attractions in Taiwan

  • Taroko Gorge: dramatic canyon on the east coast
  • Taitung: Laid-back, rural corner of Taiwan
  • Kenting: Beaches on the southern tip of Taiwan
  • Alishan: Mountain resort famous for huge trees, high mountain tea, and sunrises above seas of clouds
  • Sun Moon Lake: Beautiful lake surrounded by mountains

Here are my extremely detailed guides to some of the three big ones that almost all visitors try to include on their Taiwan travel itinerary:

Best Cities in Taiwan

Besides Taipei, which is a given, city lovers are going to find there are a few other cities they may want to include on their Taiwan travel itinerary. You can see my above-linked Taiwan travel itineraries to see how to fit these cities into your schedule.

Since there is one only train line around Taiwan, you’ll have to pass through all of them anyway if doing a full circuit around Taiwan. Since most cities in Taiwan are located on the developed west coast, the below are in counter-clockwise order. The varying time to reach them depends on whether you take the regular train/bus or the much faster High Speed Rail.

  • Taichung: 1 – 2 hours south of Taipei on the west coast and the largest city in central Taiwan. Known for its artistic attractions (including Rainbow Village) and as the birthplace of pearl milk tea.
  • Tainan: 1.75 – 5 hours south of Taipei on the west coast of southern Taiwan. Former capital of Taiwan, with lots of historic buildings & temples, and considered by locals as the food capital of Taiwan.
  • Kaohsiung: 2 – 6 hours south of Taipei in the far south of Taiwan and end of the High Speed Rail line. Port city known for its revitalized harbor front, street art, and the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, Foguangshan.
  • Hualien: 2.5 – 4 hours, only major city on the wild, scenic east coast of Taiwan. Mostly people stay in the city to visit nearby Taroko Gorge, but the city has a good night market and opportunities to experience Taiwanese aboriginal culture, such as this aboriginal cooking course.

Off-the-Beaten-Track Places to Visit in Taiwan

Just to make things more difficult for you, besides the many must-see places to visit in Taiwan I mentioned above, which already require at least two weeks to visit, there are loads of off-the-beaten-path destinations that are just as worthwhile.

Are you beginning to see why Taiwan is such an amazing place to live? Even after spending over 10 years of the country, and making small trips around the country almost every weekend, there are still many parts of it that I have yet to visit.

The below are articles cover some of the more remote or less visited (by short term travelers) places in Taiwan. These are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are some of my personal favorites.

Depending on what kind of traveler you are, these may appeal to you more than the “must see” attractions I covered above!

The Offshore Islands of Taiwan

Grassland on Orchid Island, Taiwan in May

Yet another list of places you’ll want to visit during your Taiwan travels is the offshore islands. However, a visit to any of the offshore islands is like a trip within a Taiwan trip; visiting most of them involves a little more planning and time. 

There are about half a dozen main ones to choose from. Also, the offshore islands are best visited in spring, summer (high season due to domestic tourists, but can be very hot), and early fall. In winter, they become very windy (especially Penghu) and/or many traveler’s services totally shut down (especially Orchid Island).

The first four below are most commonly reached by ferry. Orchid Island also has the option of flights in very small airplanes from Taitung, while Penghu has regular flights from Taipei and other cities in Taiwan. Kinmen and Matsu are much closer to China than Taiwan  (they are so close to it that you can see China from their shores), so they require flights.

Here are the small islands of Taiwan that you may want to visit someday.

  • Green Island: Off Taitung’s coast, best for scenery and snorkeling or scuba diving, and a saltwater hot spring.
  • Orchid Island: Harder to reach/plan, and home to Taiwan’s most remote aboriginal tribe.
  • Xiao Liuqiu: Seeing sea turtles, and easily done as a day trip from Kaohsiung.
  • Penghu: Best for beaches, sailing, island hopping and a fireworks festival.
  • Kinmen: Much closer to Taiwan than China, known for military history and a strong alcohol.
  • Matsu: Also very close to China, known for its tunnels and forts.
A guide to Orchid Island (Lanyu) Taiwan

Orchid Island, Taiwan: A Detailed 2020 Guide

Orchid Island (Lanyu or 蘭嶼) is a small volcanic island located 64km off the southeast corner of Taiwan, directly east of Kenting. It is a volcanic island of breathtaking natural beauty and is home to the country’s most isolated aboriginal tribe, the Tao, who are famous for their annual Flying Fish Festival. Planning a trip

Read More »

Transportation: How to Get Around Taiwan

Taiwan has an amazing transportation system, and getting around the country is a breeze thanks to its extremely reliable metros, buses, and railway systems.

It is still important to understand some things about getting around Taiwan, though, in order to avoid disruptions on your trip (like finding out all the trains to your next stop are sold out!)

If you follow my Taiwan itineraries, you’ll mostly be taking trains around Taiwan, with some exceptions. Getting to Alishan is more complicated, as it can involve a train, bus, or combination of the two. Sun Moon Lake and Kenting are also only accessed by bus. Luckily, you don’t need to book any of these bus rides in advance.

Getting Around Taipei

Upon arriving at Taoyuan International Airport, you can takes a bus (TWD135, 1 hour), the new Airport MRT (TWD 165, 35-50 min), or a taxi (TWD1000, 45 min to 1 hr) to Taipei.

The MRT is the lifeline and pride of Taipei. It is considered one of the best metro systems in the world. You’ll love it, and use it to get almost everywhere you go in Taipei.

In order to ride the MRT, it’s best to get an EasyCard from any station (or order it before your trip) and load some money onto it. This makes it easy to swipe in & out, and you get a discount on every ride.

The EasyCard also works for buses and taxis in Taipei, ferries in Danshui, and buses in New Taipei City, which is where many of the day trips from Taipei are located. It can also be used on city buses in other major cities in Taiwan, the Kaohsiung MRT, and regular/local train tickets between cities that don’t require seat reservations.

Note that taxis are also cheap and plentiful in Taipei. Taipei has Uber, too, but it often isn’t any cheaper than taxis. Taxi drivers speak varying levels of English, and some not at all, so it’s a good idea to have your destination written in Mandarin.

Taking the Regular Train (TRA) around Taiwan

My kids riding a train in Taiwan

The regular (TRA) train does a full circle around Taiwan. Tickets can be booked online (with some difficulty, usually) up to exactly 14 days in advance, or you can buy them from any train station or 7-Eleven iBon machine.

Trains sell out in Taiwan very often, especially on weekends and holidays. Sometimes they even sell out minutes after they go on sale, such as for long weekends, or for very popular rides (like the express train from Taipei to Hualien/Taroko Gorge).

For this reason, it’s very important to book your tickets in advance. Note that 14 days in advance means the tickets go on sale at precisely 12:00 a.m. (midnight). For example, if you want to travel on September 15, you should try to book your ticket at 12:00 a.m. on September 1, which is actually the night of August 31, Taiwan time of course.

If your train sells out, don’t freak out. You can always buy standing tickets on most trains. A lot of people do this, and just stand in the aisle or sit on the floor between train cars. It’s not comfortable for a long ride, but at least you’ll get there. Another option is to try a different time, or take a bus (but beware that there are no buses from Taipei to Hualien, and very few buses running down the east coast).

Note that you are allowed to eat and drink on trains in Taiwan, and they all have toilets on board. You can even discreetly drink a beer on Taiwan trains, although most train stations no longer sell them. But be warned that Taiwanese people tend to be very quiet on trains, and they don’t appreciate noisy passengers. To be respectful, keep talking to a whisper, or just don’t talk at all.

There are different types of TRA trains in Taiwan, and its useful to know the names of them when searching for train times. Here they are:

  • Local Train (區間車): Slowest, stops at every small stop, cheapest, least comfortable, and you can sit or stand anywhere. Buy ticket at station or swipe with EasyCard.
  • Chu Kuang Express (莒光號): Regular trains that circle around Taiwan. Reserved seats, but you can always buy standing tickets from the train station ticket window.
  • Tze-Chiang (Express / 自強號): Same as the above, but faster and fewer stops. Standing tickets also possible.
  • Taroko / Puyuma Express (太魯閣號): Super express train from Taipei to Taroko Gorge/Hualien. Reserved seats only, and always sells out very quickly.

The High Speed Rail (HSR)

How to get around Taiwan the fastest: by HSR

Taiwan has a Japanese-made high speed rail (HSR) sytem. The single line has 12 stops along the highly developed west coast of Taiwan, from Taipei in the north to Kaohsiung (called Zuoying Station) in the south.

Generally speaking, HSR tickets costs about twice as much as the regular train, but get you there twice as fast.

It’s important to note, however, that in most cities, the HSR station is located outside of the city center, just like airports tend to be, so you have to factor in time (and money) to get to the city center once you arrive. This is the case for every stop except for Taipei.

In some cases, though, the location of the HSR station can be more useful. For example, in Taichung, the HSR station is closer to Rainbow Village, and has direct buses to Sun Moon Lake. Similarly, in Chiayi, you can catch a bus directly from the HSR station to Alishan, and thus avoid going into Chiayi City. In Kaohsiung, the HSR station is right beside Lotus Lake, one of the city’s top attractions. To get to the Kaohsiung City center, you just have to hop onto the KMRT.

You can buy HSR tickets online up to 28 days in advance, and buying them early usually gets you an early bird price. You can also buy discounted HSR tickets on Klook. Note that when you buy these, you usually have to check in at a designated window at the train station and show you passport to retrieve the actual ticket, so get there a little earlier to do this.

Unlike TRA trains, the HSR has three cars (10-12) for unreserved seats. This means you can show up at an HSR station anytime and buy an unreserved ticket at full price from one of the machines. These never sell out.

You aren’t guaranteed a seat, but you can almost always get one. The only time every train really fills up completely is Lunar New Year and on long weekends, and even then, we’ve always managed to get on without waiting too long.

The HSR has a stop in Taoyuan, from where you can connect to the Taoyuan International Airport on a shuttle bus (20 minutes) or by taxi. This means that you can end your tour around Taiwan and head directly to the airport without having to go back through Taipei. Just make sure you leave enough time to spare for catching your flight! 

Special Trains in Taiwan

Besides the MRT, TRA trains, and the HSR, there are a few special small-gauge train lines in Taiwan. Mostly these are restored old trains that run along former logging lines, built by the Japanese when they were logging during their colonial rule of Taiwan. They tend to be fun and highly scenic rides.

Here are some of these special small train lines that you may encounter or seek out on your trip:

  • Pingxi Line: this small train line provides access to some of the most popular day trips from Taipei, including Houtong, Shifen, and Pingxi. Most people board it at Ruifang, which has direct connections to Taipei.
  • Alishan Forest Railway: This is the most interesting way to get from the city of Chiayi to the mountain resort of Alishan. However, the final section was destroyed in a typhoon, so you have to take a bus for the final leg. There are also parts of the train line running to scenic spots within Alishan National Scenic Area. You can find all the relevant information in my guide to getting to Alishan.
  • Neiwan, Jiji, and Bong Bong Lines: These are three more scenic small train lines that far few tourists ever make it to. They are in Hsinchu, Changhua, and Yilan (on top of Taipingshan Mountain), respectively. 

Final Thoughts on Planning a Taiwan Trip

Well, I hope you’ve more than enough information in my Taiwan travel blog for planning your trip. As I write this, we are approaching the end of a brutal year in the travel industry, but Taiwan is just starting to open up to travel again. Hopefully by the time you are reading this, Taiwan is read to welcome you again!

Please feel free to check back again, as I’m constantly updating my Taiwan travel content to reflect the current situation. And if you’ve got any questions, please join my Taiwan Travel Planning group and I’ll answer them there!