Home Taiwan 13 Important Tips For Visiting Taiwan as a Westerner

13 Important Tips For Visiting Taiwan as a Westerner

by David
Lotus Lake Night Market, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Visiting Taiwan

Disclosure: This post (probably) contains affiliate links. If you click on one, I may make a small commission. Of course, this will come at no extra cost to you and helps keep this site running.

Few destinations in recent memory have overwhelmingly surprised me as much as Taiwan. Visiting on a whim out of curiosity, I came with few expectations and very little clue what was ahead of me. I just knew that visiting Taiwan was not something a lot of people do, which made it perfect for me. Honestly, beyond the city of Taipei, the island was a mystery to me.

Once I touched down, it quickly became apparent just how much Taiwan travel has to offer. Safe to say, my two weeks in Taiwan was never going to be long enough. Visiting Taiwan again in the future has become a priority that’s for sure. And I can’t recommend visiting highly enough, especially if you’re travelling through East Asia, as it’s much easier to visit than you might expect.

If you have decided to visit Taiwan and want to make the most of your trip, the following things to know should help prepare you, if even just a little.

 

1. Token Westerners

Liuhe Night Market, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

Rather than starting with something strictly informative, I thought I’d touch upon just how few Westerners I met when visiting Taiwan. Throughout my 2 weeks in Taiwan, there were plenty of times when I felt like I was the only Westerner in a city.

Sure there were exceptions like in Taipei, Taroko or at the tourist night markets, but on the whole numbers were very low. Perhaps the time of year had a hand to play in it, but I do think that Taiwan just hasn’t made it onto Westerner’s radars just yet.

Without question, the main market for Taiwan tourism is visitors from the mainland, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was a common sight to see a huge tour group of Chinese tourists pass by. To a lesser extent, I met a few expats from places like Hong Kong and tourists from Singapore. But people from Europe, Australia, the US etc. – nada.

Don’t get me wrong, none of this is a bad thing. I enjoy visiting places that people from my background aren’t used to. Worth mentioning is that despite fewer Westerners, I never felt treated with too many stares, curiosity or suspicion. More often than not, people didn’t pay me much heed. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly, but more on that later.

 

2. Entry to Taiwan

Dragon and Tiger Temples, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

Despite the complicated relationship between Taiwan and the PRC, entering Taiwan is far more straightforward than its mainland neighbour. I’d liken it to the experience of visiting Hong Kong if that helps.

If you’re from most Western countries, you should be eligible for visa-free entry for 90 days. Other nationalities may require an eVisa or need to apply for a visa. Everyone should check this map and then confirm what they need to do on the official ministry website.

The one thing you should be prepared with though is proof of onward travel, like a flight out. This was something I was asked for by the airline on my to Taiwan and is less of an issue if you have an actual visa already. It wasn’t brought up at immigration when entering Taiwan though.

Taiwan has quite a few airports, but the main four are Taipei-Taoyuan, Taipei Songshan, Kaohsiung and Taichung. On my trip, I flew into Taichung and out of Taipei-Taoyuan, with mixed impressions, mostly around getting between the airports and their cities.

I much preferred the easy MRT trip out to Taipei-Taoyuan Airport compared to the slow bus from Taichung Airport far outside the city.

 

3. Getting Around

Old Railway Station, Taitung

If you’re like me, you probably thought Taiwan was much smaller than it was before visiting. This means getting between the island’s cities takes time; it’s over 300 kilometres between Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south.

Thankfully Taiwan is blessed with some pretty great infrastructure, so getting about isn’t too difficult. Well, that is if you follow the ring of cities along its coastline and don’t delve too deep into the mountainous interior.

Now I can’t speak to the experience of driving in Taiwan as I never had the opportunity. Right around the coast, each of the major destinations is connected by train, or multiple to be specific. You see Taiwan enjoys both a regular rail service and a high-speed rail (HSR) network. I only ever used the regular trains, partly because the special HSR stations were further out from the city centres, but also because they didn’t seem a lot faster.

With the regular trains, my advice would be to pre-purchase tickets which you can collect at the station. Otherwise, as I found out, there may only be standing room left, which is less comfortable over several hours.

Lastly, a comment on getting around each of the cities. With Kaohsiung and Taipei, I highly recommend taking the MRT metro. It’s cheap, really easy to use and helps you get about these big cities. Each of the cities also has bus networks, which I only used sparingly to get into the centre of Taichung and Taitung upon arrival. Those too were cheap but not quite as easy to navigate.

 

4. Cost of Travel

Formosa Boulevard MRT, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping for Southeast Asian affordability in Taiwan, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not to say that Taiwan is an outrageously expensive destination, just that it fits more in with prices from other East Asian destinations. Prices for many things wouldn’t have been out of place in parts of central Europe which is my benchmark for many things these days.

For instance, nice private rooms with shared bathroom facilities ranged from 900NTD to 1100NTD (~US$28 to $36). My single experience with Airbnb in Taiwan was cheaper, however, as it often is. Speaking of accommodation, this article will help you decide on where to stay in Taipei and potentially keep costs down for your trip.

Likewise, intercity trains weren’t all that cheap at 340NTD to 470NTD (~US$11 to $15) for journeys of several hours. Again, not all that expensive, but not cheap either. The exception to all this is food, where things get much more affordable. Eating at convenience stores (which is very common in Taiwan) is super cheap and even dinner at restaurants would only get up to 200NTD (~US$6.5).

Regarding paying for things, sure you can pay with cash or a card, but the third option is cards like EasyCard. This contactless card is mostly used for public transport in Taipei and convenience stores like 7-11 and Familymart. It seems as if each city has a different card system, but I had zero experience with these cards. Their benefit is that you get discounted fares when using public transport compared to individual fares.

 

5. Language in Taiwan

With a trip to Taiwan, prepare yourself for a bit of a language barrier. In Taiwan, the official language is Mandarin, while a majority of people also speak Taiwanese Hokkien. If you don’t speak Mandarin, things are going to be harder no question.

English is spoken a little, especially by people in the biggest cities who work in hospitality or tourism. Outside that though in my experience, English isn’t all that common. Still, I survived and I’m sure you’ll cope too.

The other major challenge somewhere like Taiwan is navigating hanzi, the Chinese characters used in writing. They’re much harder to learn coming from an English background than say French or even Russian.

Thankfully, Taiwan often doubles up things like street signs with an English version too. Many restaurants will have an English copy of the menu (they may have to dust it off), or you can just point and hope like I did. This is where having an app like Google Translate comes in handy.

 

6. Friendly and Genuine People

Shen Ji Market, Things to do in Taichung

When you’re in a place that sees fewer tourists from your part of the world, it’s always unclear how people will react to you. I’m glad to say that my experiences with the people of Taiwan were mainly positive and when one-on-one, found them welcoming people. I will say there was also a tendency to just leave me alone which may bother others, but not me so much.

There were a couple of times when people went out of their way to try to help me. On my first day out exploring Taichung, a couple asked me if I was lost while I was looking down at my phone. I wasn’t, but it was extremely comforting to have people concerned about a tourist like that.

A far more helpful moment was when I was at Taitung train station after the typhoon and was confronted with massive crowds and long queues. Uncertain about what I needed to do to get my pre-purchased train ticket, a man in the queue in front of me was a huge help. He left the line to go ask someone what I needed to do and even took me over to the machines once he found out. After he was positive that I was set, he wished me well and rejoined the queue.

Unlike some experiences I’ve had in Southeast Asia, people aren’t looking to simply profit off of you. My interactions with the people in Taiwan always felt genuine. I think the greatest hurdle in experiencing the warmth and friendliness of the Taiwanese people is the language barrier. It often created a bit of distance and meant I was left alone quite a bit. Still, even when language was a problem a smile was usually reciprocated and patience offered.

 

7. Taiwan Weather

Taitung Flooding

To say the weather shaped my visit to Taiwan there would be an understatement. Visiting Taiwan in October, I was there at the very tail-end of the island’s typhoon season.

It’s important to clarify that the weather in Taiwan isn’t the same overall as the island. My time in Kaohsiung on the island’s west coast was hot and humid, whereas up on the east coast, it was far cooler. The climates here seem to split between the north-east and the south-west.

Then there was my time in Taitung during the typhoon. Over the space of several days, Taitung got hammered with rain and I stayed holed up in my hotel room, waiting it out. The flow-on effect of that extreme weather, to me at least, was cancelled trains, crowded train stations and hiking trails closed in Taroko National Park. That’s not a mistake I’ll likely be making a second time.

 

8. Where to stay in Taiwan

Grand Hotel Taipei, Tips for Visiting Taipei Taiwan

Normally, I wouldn’t find myself remarking on accommodation in one of these posts. But I noticed a trend in Taiwan that I thought was worth sharing. Much like in destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong, space seems to be a premium in Taiwan.

It’s clearly that priority that has driven the style of hotels and hostels in major cities such as Kaohsiung and Taipei. Staying in 2-star pod-style hotels in both cities, the rooms are little more than a bed and feature shared bathroom facilities.

That being said, I could not fault the facilities and service in the slightest. Shared bathrooms can often be pretty feral but not a chance here.

Even when I stayed in more chic budget hotels in Taitung or Taichung, much was done to make efficient use of space, like storage space under elevated beds. None of this may be all that new to experienced travellers through East Asia, but for me, it was novel and surprisingly comfortable.

 

9. A Mix of Influences

Day Trip to Cijin Island from Kaohsiung Taiwan

Chances are you probably don’t know a whole lot about Taiwanese history and how that has shaped the island’s culture. You may be familiar with the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC, but boy is Taiwan more complicated than that.

For instance, did you know that Taiwan was under Japanese control from 1895 to 1945? No, me neither. Or that Taiwan is home to more than 500,000 Taiwanese indigenous people, the original inhabitants before Chinese settlers came? Again, me too.

All that goes to say that Taiwan is made up of far more influences than I would have ever thought. There are both obvious and subtle characteristics taken from mainland China, as would be expected. Then there are things like the worship of the sea goddess Mazu that now are bigger in Taiwan than they were in China.

As for Japanese traits, those can often be seen in the architecture of older parts of cities, like the neighbourhood of Hamasen in Kaohsiung. Last but not least is the subtle feeling of American influences, that I can’t put my finger on. I know they’re there, but I could never really identify. Ultimately, Taiwan’s culture is a hybrid, feeling both familiar and wholly new at the same time.

 

10. Food in Taiwan

Liuhe Night Market, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

One of my favourite things about visiting Asian destinations is the chance to tuck into the local food. And yet, I hadn’t thought of Taiwanese food in the lead-up to my trip. Chances are I simply didn’t know what to expect. Given Taiwan’s many influences, it’s hardly surprising that Taiwanese cuisine likewise contains hints of other cuisines.

I often had little idea what I was eating as my approach was just pointing to a menu and hoping. That didn’t mean I enjoyed the food any less, of course. Quite a few times I had big bowls of noodle soup, including Japanese ramen and Taipei’s famous beef noodle soup.

A great dessert to try in Taiwan is baobing, shaved ice cream with mounds of fruit and covered in condensed milk. After walking around in the hot and humid weather of Taichung and Kaohsiung, having some baobing was a great way to cool off. There are also cakes like pineapple cake and moon cake which are especially popular as well.

When visiting Taiwan, you must visit a night market in whichever city you’re in. I mainly went to ones in Kaohsiung, when the weather was suitable for being outdoors. Night markets are a great way to cheaply try many different things, from grilled meats, fried foods and fruit juices.

Different influences also inspire foods here, whether it’s Taiwanese sausages, Chinese green onion pancakes, Japanese grilled squid or American popcorn chicken. I do wish I could recommend more, but my advice is to just be adventurous and try it all. Alternatively, take a street food tour and let someone give you recommendations then and there.

 

11. Chinese Number Gestures

Hand Gestures, Visiting Taiwan Tips

Something I was completely oblivious to before visiting Taiwan was that there are special Chinese hand gestures for numbers. When I was purchasing things in convenience stores, for example, clerks would often use them whenever they didn’t speak English. It was something I slowly learned as I went.

Now, while 1 to 5 might not be particularly different, 6 through 10 are worth learning. That’s because they still only use one hand to represent these numbers. For instance, the gesture for the number 6 is the shaka, which you often see in surf culture.

7 is a “finger gun” similar to the above, although pointed to the ground, I kid you not. Then there’s the number 10 which is a cross made with your two index fingers. I recommend looking at the link above and at least becoming familiar with them as it can make life much easier when ordering or paying for things.

 

12. More than Urban Areas

Day trip to Taroko Gorge Waterfalls

It has to be said that the Taiwan landscape is one of the island’s best-kept secrets. Both me personally and those commenting on my Taiwan posts have been surprised by Taiwan beyond its urban centres.

Because yes, Taiwan has some huge metropolises, but the island is much more than that. Between cities, you can find coastal grey beaches and venture just a little way inland and you’re among Taiwan’s awesome central mountains.

Places like Sun Moon Lake and Cijin Island off Kaohsiung, each prove that Taiwan has so much to offer visitors. Despite my disappointments with hiking there, Taroko National Park did a wonderful job of showing me the dramatic gorges and mountains that combine in the island’s centre. I mean who doesn’t like the sight of waterfalls?

Then there’s the insane number of Taiwan hot springs around the mountainous parts of Taiwan like at Beitou and outside Taitung. Possibly the biggest regret of my Taiwan trip was missing them during my visit.

 

13. Creative Cultural Parks

Street Art, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

Lastly, it’s hard to ignore how Taiwan is choosing to revitalise city spaces that have fallen out of favour. In multiple cities, I came across what they call “cultural parks” that have turned disused spaces into fun and creative spaces. There’s Shen Ji market in Taichung that gave old commissioned housing new life as a place for cafes and restaurants.

The old railway stations in Kaohsiung and Taitung have both been adapted with creative projects to lure in visitors. My favourite though is the Pier 2 Art Centre of Kaohsiung with its fantastic street art, sure to impress and delight. Don’t miss these spaces, they’re sure to be some of Taiwan’s more popular attractions in the coming years.

 

Resources for Visiting Taiwan

Yancheng District, Kaohsiung Sightseeing, Taiwan

 


What do you want to know before visiting Taiwan? If you’ve visited, what things do you think people need to know? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

You may also like

8 comments

tom July 7, 2019 - 8:41 pm

Thanks for the great post: have never been to Taiwan but really looking forward to going!

However, the hand signal above is for 8: I’m almost certain that Taiwan would be the same as the Mainland, where that signal is 8.

Reply
David July 10, 2019 - 8:57 pm

Hi Tom, thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, that image shown is the gesture for 8 in mainland China, because I couldn’t find an exact match for what I was looking for. If you take a look at the wikipedia link in that section you’ll see that Taiwan does the numbers 6-10 slightly differently as do different parts of China.

Reply
Keith November 11, 2019 - 12:01 pm

Just came across your article and I found it informative, the way it’s presented and some unique things that aren’t normally pointed out in other articles. Just like the hand signal thing! It’s one of the most popular destinations for people from east Asia and Malaysia and Singapore, and it’s a bit of a shame that people outside of this circle doesn’t know Taiwan better. Thanks for spreading the love about Taiwan!

Reply
Courtney Fulton January 13, 2020 - 4:04 pm

great post! the hand signals totally tripped me up as well. the first time someone tried to say 6 to me and gave me the shaka I was like WHAT on earth are you talking about. thankfully I have figured it out within a couple weeks and it is now very helpful!

Reply
Leonard April 27, 2020 - 7:26 pm

Hi, regarding the language barrier, it could be an idea to buy one of those new hand held translators, it would probably ease things considerably. Great post by the way.L

Reply
David May 1, 2020 - 10:58 am

That’s a great suggestion Leonard. I’ll definitely give it a look when I next visit!

Reply
Edo October 29, 2020 - 1:38 am

Hello, though this post is already two years old, and as a native Taiwan born friend (grow up in Canada); I can confirm that most of the details given from this article are mostly accurate — especially the hand sign thing!!

Other than night market, Taiwan also offer a wide variety of fusion restaurants (morphing different countries’ food with Taiwan’s modern kick), and not to forget that Taiwan also offer higher classed gourmet restaurants in major cities. (Of course, these can come with a bigger cost, but definitely worth the visits)

I am sorry to hear that Taroko National Park was a bit disappointment for you — But I actually cannot deny this – I was equally disappointed from this as well, maybe I have had a higher standard after visiting so many nature spots in Canada. But to retaliate this statement — there are many hidden gems that require local experts / tour guides to take you (and climb through off tracks) for a much more rewarding experience and views. (On the other hand — Taroko National Park has become more of a tourist spot rather than just purely a scenery spot, some of the scenery spots has already been destroyed by the travelers, may it be intentional or not.)

Reply
David November 3, 2020 - 3:37 pm

Hi Edo, I’m glad I was able to not get too much wrong about Taiwan here.
I must admit that food isn’t always my biggest focus so I definitely missed the fusion food scene.

As for Taroko National Park, it wasn’t so much a disappointment as bad timing. I can’t wait to return in better weather.
And yes, I’m sure there are some great hidden gems in the mountains, another thing I want to focus on next time I’m there.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.