Jenny Southan delves into the rich history of Taiwan’s capital, taking in dizzying heights and odd architecture along the way
National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine
Since China Airlines began operating direct flights from London to the Taiwanese capital in March, Taipei has never been more accessible. Although many areas of the city are easy to explore on foot, a lot of the key sites are spread out so for this tour you will need to take a taxi. For the most part you will remain north of the Keelung River.
Start at the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. Built in 1969 to commemorate Taiwan’s war dead, this grand yet serene monument is set at the foot of Chingshan Mountain and offers a good introduction to local culture. There is a long plaza leading up to the main building, which features vibrant hand-painted decorations, golden dragons and towering red columns. The changing of the guard takes place on the hour from 9am to 4.40pm daily – watch as the soldiers solemnly march to relieve their comrades, who stand stock-still in the baking heat in shiny steel helmets and high-heeled boots, their white-gloved hands gripping long rifles.
National Palace Museum
Located 5km north of the shrine, this treasure trove of wonders has been renovated and expanded several times since opening in 1965. It features ongoing temporary exhibitions alongside a permanent collection of more than 677,000 ancient, and often priceless, Chinese artefacts including paintings, jade sculpture, lacquer and enamelware, ceramics, calligraphy, rare books and textiles. There are more than 50,000 antiquities from Beijing’s Forbidden City.
You could easily spend a whole morning or afternoon here, but as time is short it’s probably best simply to take in a few of the highlights. One of the most famous is the 19cm-long Jadeite Cabbage from the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911), carved out of a single piece of stone and incorporating the natural white and green colours that occur in it – you can even see two grasshoppers resting on its leaves. Also take a look at the meticulously crafted ivory balls – each comprised of smaller concentric spheres, one inside the other – and the refined, duck-egg blue Northern Sung Ju porcelain vases and dishes, now worth many millions of pounds each. These ceramics date back to the 11th-12th centuries but the examples here remain in perfect condition. Open daily 8.30am-6.30pm (8.30pm Sat), entry NT$160 (£3). 221 Sec 2, Zhishan Road, Shilin District; tel +886 228 812 021; npm.gov.tw
Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines
Located diagonally opposite is the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. Notable for its unusual and rather ugly architectural design – a concrete and glass box strangely reminiscent of the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet – a quick look around gives some interesting background on the island’s indigenous population.
The permanent exhibition occupies four floors but level B1 offers the most interesting collection, on “beliefs and ceremonies”, with artefacts used in traditional rites and rituals, and historical photographs from times when ancestor worship and human head-hunting were common – the Japanese, who were in power from 1895 to 1945, ended the latter gruesome practice in 1930. Open Tues-Sun 9am-5pm. Entry NT$150 (£3). 282 Sec 2, Chih-shan Road, Shilin District; tel +886 228 412 611; museum.org.tw
Five Dime Driftwood House
A ten- to 15-minute drive away, on the corner of Neihu Road and Tiding Boulevard, is probably the most bizarre building you have ever seen – a twisted nightmare of grey concrete, scrap metal and wood, reminiscent of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.
Inspired by curved organic forms found in nature, Five Dime restaurant was designed by potter and artist Hsieh Li-Hsiang, a woman with no formal training but whose passion for bringing her dreams to life has seen a string of similarly designed eateries open across the island – this one being her fifth, unveiled in 2006. Open for lunch 11am-2pm and dinner 5pm-9pm, dishes incorporate Chinese, Japanese and Western styles, and open-plan seating areas are arranged on multi-tiered levels looking down on a central water feature on the ground floor. It’s a maze-like place, so have a wander around before ordering your food. Choose from dishes such as fish roe and abalone salad, steamed shark’s fin with chicken soup, fried rice with sakura shrimps, and steamed seabass with oyster sauce. Set menus are available from NT$600 (£12).
8 Lane 32, Sec 1, Neihu Road, Neihu District; tel +886 285 025 567; five-dime.com.tw (Chinese only)
After your meal, cross the river and head into the financial district of Xinyi, which, depending on traffic, will be about 15 minutes’ drive. Standing at just over half a kilometre tall, Taipei 101 (named after the number of floors) is easy to spot, sporting blue-green glass curtain walls and a structure inspired by bamboo cane. Until the opening of the 828-metre-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai earlier this year (see page 26), it was the tallest building in the world.
As well as being the base for the Taiwan Stock Exchange and international firms such as Bank of America, Lenovo, Merrill Lynch and KPMG, it is also the best place to get a bird’s-eye view of the city, day or night. The 89th-floor observatory is open 9am-10pm daily (last entry 9.15pm) and tickets cost NT$400 (£8), but be prepared to queue for 20 minutes or so. Free audio guides are available, and you can even take a look at the tuned mass damper, a giant golden sphere suspended between the 92nd and 88th levels that helps to offset the sway created by earthquakes and typhoons. Visit taipei-101.com.tw
If you have no time off during the day, head to Shilin night market north of the Keelung River. It’s hot and crowded but the atmosphere is lively, with hundreds of food stalls selling weird and wonderful dishes. Take in the smells and sounds and, if you’re feeling adventurous, sample some chicken’s feet or stinky tofu. Open 4pm-2am.