As the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world and the most progressive city for LGBTQ + rights in Asia, a legacy of artists and activists has helped make Taiwan's capital a place where culture, progress and creativity thrive.
In recent years, a new wave of resident creatives has revitalized the city. These days, cutting-edge art galleries stand next to traditional teahouses, and basement club techno still murmurs in the streets, while local markets set up their fare as the sun rises. Affordable, safe, efficient and exciting, this sea of glass, concrete and palm trees is a dreamland for urban explorers. For travelers looking to explore Taiwan's underground scene, here are eight tips on how to discover cool Taipei at its best.
1. Don't stop drinking coffee
Taiwan's famous tea culture can be traced back more than three hundred years. Home to some of the world's best greens and oolongs, tea here is both a science and a philosophy, a remedy for body and soul.
While you'll find no shortage of old tea houses, the same spirit of craftsmanship and pride has been applied to Taipei's third wave coffee scene – and the results are glorious. Interesting cafes are popping up all over the city, from the towering chemistry lab B Coffee & Space in Da'an to the award-winning baristas and Scandinavian-inspired minimalism of Fika Fika in Zhongshan.
Whether you spend the day sipping espresso or sipping cups of bottled single-origin brew, you'll quickly find out why Taipei is tipped to become the next hub of cafe culture in the world.
Coffee Culture © Colt St. George
2. Tap into the city's creative scene in Zhongshan and Dongmen
Taipei was named World Design Capital 2016 for a reason. From young architects to underground record labels, everyone seems to have a new "made in Taiwan" pride that's trendy and distinctly Taiwanese. The neighborhoods of Zhongshan and Dongmen are perfect for testing the waters.
While the main streets feel a bit commercial, stroll the historic back alleys of Zhongshan District and you'll discover well-stocked vintage stores like Blue Monday, cute design boutiques and stylish record stores like Waiting Room. Taipei Artist Village – an art facility and residency open to local and international creatives – is also worth a visit.
Dongmen is even more enjoyable. While the upscale main streets offer everything from craft bubble tea to the latest Taiwanese interior designs, hit the quiet residential alleys and find quirky art cafes, craft beer bars, dusty Chinese antique stores and good old-fashioned Taiwanese comforts like James Kitchen on Yongkang Street.
3. Try the street food, especially stinky tofu
Whether in London, New York or Berlin, street food has become undeniably, and often tragically, hip. Derail the pomp, faux grit and absurd prices of the latest questionable Western street food trends and revel in Taipei's affordable authenticity.
From notable night markets like Ningxia and Liaoning to nameless back alleys serving generations-perfected dishes during the day, there is an overwhelming selection of delicious local fare. Fatty braised pork on rice, oyster omelets, beef noodle soup, dumplings and shaved ice loaded high with fresh fruit are good for beginners.
Your ultimate task, however, should be to conquer the infamous chòu dòufuor stinky tofu. It smells like a rotting corpse, but has a flavor profile of such intense complexity that most hardcore foodies call it sublime. Others spit it out immediately.
Stinky Tofu © Carlos Huang / Shutterstock
4. Try vegetarianism
If you're a vegan or vegetarian who has trouble finding meatless meals, look for restaurant signs with giant, garish swastikas. The symbol is associated with Buddhism in China long before its appropriation in Europe, and marks the restaurant as purely vegetarian.
There are many people in the city selling delicious Buddhist meals at ridiculously low prices. Many are buffet style, where everything piled on your plate is paid for by weight. The selection is usually too extensive to try everything in a single trip, which will keep you coming back again and again.
5. From decay to design: check out the city's former arty knick knacks
Maverick Taiwanese artists were the first to recognize the potential of Taipei's abandoned industrial buildings, squatting and staging illegal performances in these derelict creative spaces. Although the authorities were initially quite resistant, after many protests, spaces like Huashan 1914 Creative Park and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park became government-protected cultural centers.
These days, these spaces are generally pulsing with life, offering a variety of fun events for adults and families at on-site galleries, concept stores, cinemas, studios, concert halls and more. While the government commercialization of these spaces has mitigated their innovative origins, they still feel undeniably special and worthwhile.
Street life © Colt St. George
6. Get lost in Taipei's nightlife
The nightlife and music scenes in Taipei are just great.From indie garage rockers like Skip Skip Ben Ben to techno, noise and experimental hip-hop, Taipei's underground sounds explorations will reveal a completely different dimension of the city and provide opportunities to meet with the artists who make it happen.
Revolver in Zhongzheng is a laid-back and friendly institution that hosts everything from metal to indie nights, while F * cking Place (though the club doesn't use an asterisk) is definitely one of the coolest dive bars in town – with the added bonus of ridiculously cheap beer. For techno and electronic parties, head to Korner, a section of the well-known club The Wall. Pipe and APA Mini are also great places for live music.
7. Don't feel the party? Try a reading rave
With a vibrant population of artists, intellectuals and activists, it's no surprise that print still holds a special place in Taiwan. The popularity of Eslite at the Dunnan store, Taipei's massive 24-hour bookstore and one of the only in the world to keep such hours, speaks for itself. Get comfortable in this beautifully designed book wall and join the locals as they pore over the pages all night long.
On a smaller scale, look out for the Pinmo Pure Store stationery store, the Gin Gin Store (the first gay bookstore to open in Greater China) and the hip new concepts for libraries. In this regard, Pon Ding is a definite standout – a friendly, three-story collaborative creative space that hosts art, independent publications, quality magazines and pop-up events. Of course, they also have a brilliant cafe.
8. Go back to nature
Every now and then you need to leave the city behind and relax in nature. Fortunately, nature is never far away in Taiwan.
The high-speed rail from Taipei takes less than two hours to reach the island's subtropical southern coast, while the green hiking trails and popular surf bushes are easily accessible by bus. If you're adventurous, dive into the mountains to experience the colorful cultures of Taiwan's indigenous peoples.
But when you're feeling perpetually recharged and craving the big-city buzz, it's a quick train ride back to Taipei's creative playground.
EVA Air, a Star Alliance member, flies daily from London Heathrow to Taipei, offering passengers award-winning service and a choice of three cabin classes: Royal Laurel Class (business class), Elite Class (premium economy) and Economy Class. See more of Taiwan with the Taiwan Tourism Association.Top photo: Pon Ding © Pon Ding.