Culture + Style

Got 24 Hours in Taipei? Here’s How to Spend Them in the Most Perfect Way

If you’ve got 24 hours and you are looking for things to do in Taipei, there’s cutting-edge design, delicious dumplings and a buzzing bar scene to keep you busy. (Photos: Craig Ferguson)

It’s 5 a.m., and although my head hit the pillow, post-nightcap, just a few hours prior, I can’t sleep. As always when I travel, I’m craving stimulation, not slumber. I want new neighborhoods to explore, amazing architecture to ogle. And I’d really like to fork over some New Taiwanese Dollars in exchange for turnip cakes, but it’s too early for breakfast. So instead, I head out through deserted early morning streets to… the bookstore.

taipei bookstore eslite

This is a city of contrasts—a forward-looking Asian hub that teems with old-fashioned charm and boasts a rich mix of Chinese, Japanese and Dutch influences.

Eslite Taipei, the popular, 24-hour branch of the country’s big bookselling chain, sits inside a nondescript office tower that belies the hive of activity within. The bibliophile nirvana and nightlife staple never shuts down (though the complementary floors of fashion, jewelry and music do close at night) and I’m far from alone as I spend the remainder of the wee hours perusing its vast collection of international art and design periodicals.

A young woman, her face a mask of smeared makeup, has found respite from what looks like a hardcore bar crawl in the recipes of a vegetarian cookbook. A couple, hands entwined as they sit cross-legged on the wood floor, are clearly more interested in each other than in the books open on their laps.

It’s no surprise that Taipei is home to such a cool, all-day-all-night blend of social and retail space. This is a city of contrasts—a forward-looking Asian hub that teems with old-fashioned charm and boasts a rich mix of Chinese, Japanese and Dutch influences.

taipei temple

Here, ornate temples huddle beside Taipei 101, the flashy skyscraper offering unparalleled views of the skyline from its 89th-floor observatory. And while ancient calligraphy scrolls and exquisite Ming Dynasty vases are must-sees at the sprawling National Palace Museum, there’s something equally exhilarating going on at Songshan Cultural Park.

Once I’ve had my fill of books and magazines, I leave Eslite for this 1930s tobacco factory turned contemporary art mecca. Home to both the Taiwan Design Museum and Red Dot (a design gallery with siblings in Singapore and Essen), it offers an inspiring mix of edgy graphics and textiles.

Looking at art always makes me hungry, so next I head off to Formosa, an airy, old-school spot in the basement of the unassuming Howard Plaza Hotel. Here, families and suited businessmen gather at large round tables to savor homespun Taiwanese specialties like chunks of pork pan-fried in brewer’s grains and circular omelets strewn with pickled radish.

taipei food formosa

taipei restaurant formosa

Next up: Beitou, the former red light district and home of the Hot Spring Museum. Dating from the Japanese Colonial era, the black tile-roofed building, with its tatami room, arches and restored stained-glass windows, offers an historic glimpse into one of the country’s most beloved pastimes — a dip in the soothing, gurgling waters.

taipei tea beitou

taipei beitou

Taipei offers endless opportunities for great eating and drinking, and as evening falls I’m spearing ground pork doused in five-spice powder with chopsticks at the bustling, brightly lit Lu Rou Fan.

The vintage bathhouse experience leaves me in a Zen state that’s worth trying to prolong, so next I’m off in search of the perfect cup of tea. The obvious choice for a lot of expats and locals is the iconic Wistaria House, once a hub of radical political discourse and now better known for the sweet, bite-sized pineapple cakes that accompany a pot of Oolong.

But though I love this space, complete with garden and koi pond, I prefer the soothing Xiao Man Whole Food Tea Experience. Tucked away on a side street, the house is filled with beautiful Chinese furniture and exquisitely wrapped bricks of tea sourced from small farms.

Taipei offers endless opportunities for great eating and drinking, and as evening falls I’m spearing ground pork doused in five-spice powder with chopsticks at the bustling, brightly lit Lu Rou Fan. Amid the vortex of impatient waitstaff and loud, hungry patrons I allow myself a little pride in the fact that I’m one of very few tourists.

Dessert demands a trip to the equally crowded Ice Monster, where the queue for a table is so long that I head instead to the take-out window, then head off with my mango shaved ice to a bench in the shadow of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall—salvation on a sultry evening.

taipei night market

taipei noodles

It would be easy to say goodnight to Taipei on a pleasantly full stomach, but that would be to miss out on the city’s hopping bar scene.

Other options, on other evenings, have included wandering through the aromatic food stalls at the lively night markets. At Raohe, among the oldest, a weathered gent hands me bronzed, crunchy pork dumplings and I watch regulars make heartfelt offerings at the on-site temple; at Tonghua, I join the hordes on line for sausages and red bean cakes; and at Shida, I watch students peruse the colorful garments on display racks before succumbing to a steaming bowl of beef noodles.

It would be easy to say goodnight to Taipei on a pleasantly full stomach, but that would be to miss out on the city’s hopping bar scene.

I am not a fan of Marquee, with its contrived nightclub feel reminiscent of New York’s Meatpacking District in the aughts, but its upstairs speakeasy, Alchemy, is highly seductive. I settle into a leather chair and sip a well-wrought Old Fashioned while watching a slew of wedding revelers pass around a bottle of the Macallan.

taipei drink alchemy

taipei alchemy bar

The Taiwanese take their brown spirits seriously, and whisky is also the star of Marsalis, a retro-ish lair inside the Home Hotel. It is here, listening to cool jazz on the piano with a Scotch by my side, that I realize I just might be tired.

This story first appeared on Medium.com as a part of Gone – smart, surprising and compulsively readable travel stories, launched in partnership with the Marriott portfolio of brands.