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Taipei City(臺北市”Tai Bei Shi”) is an often overlooked Asian city on most people’s tour map. The city boasts a population of just over 2,600,000 and compared to other capital cities in the region (Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok), Taipei just doesn’t get the props it deserves.
Taipei is a great place for any traveler or short time visitor who wants to get a sense of a modern international Chinese city with great food, culture, night life, shopping, outdoor recreation, and even hot springs (that’s not an error) all connected by a top tier transportation system. And, unlike many of its regional urban counterparts, communicating in English in Taipei is about as easy as you’re going to get. It’s friendly, safe, and heck of a lot cheaper than Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seoul!
Taipei City is located in the northern part of Taiwan in the Taipei Basin. It is surrounded by mountains but connects to the ocean via the Tam Shui River (“Dan Shui”) . Although it was settled in the 17th century, Taipei’s modern development was triggered by Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT in 1949 as they fled from China after losing the civil war to the Communists. For the next 20 years, Taipei expanded greatly, annexed outlying county regions and became a big population center.
Through the 1960-1980’s Taipei was the center of the “Taiwan Miracle”. Because of foreign investment, and protection, Taiwan developed a large manufacturing infrastructure for export. It was during these decades that the wealth of Taiwan skyrocketed and the term “Made in Taiwan” was printed on products worldwide. As China has opened and became the new source for cheap products and labor, Taipei transformed into a high tech manufacturing economy with most businesses still based in Taipei today.
Taipei is not only the economic center of Taiwan. The central government is based in Taipei as well as the entertainment and tech industries. It remains the hub for Taiwan’s economic and international identity.
Most people, foreign or Taiwanese, who have had to move to Taipei for work or study will say two things: 1) Taipei is a great city. There’s so much going on. BUT 2) it rains.
Unless you adore cold, rainy winters, and hot, rainy, summers, Taipei’s weather may have you clamoring to live in the sunny, drier climate of the southern cities like Tainan or Kaohsiung.
The Taipei basin heats up on hot days in the summer with almost no relief in sight in the city. The heavier rains tend to come in February and continue through October. This includes the occasional typhoon that blows through. It’s best to invest in a good umbrella and rain boots.
Autumn is the driest time of year and brings cooler temperatures and a gentle breeze. Winters can be anywhere from delightful to cold, raw, and wet. The winds change from North to South and some days it just howls through the city. Don’t let the thermometers fool you, Taiwan is humid and the cold and wet seep through your skin and the concrete walls of buildings making you feel a bit chilly most of the time.
Taipei is by far the most expensive city in Taiwan. Everything from a bowl of noodles to a downtown apartment is more expensive than places just outside the city. In fact, housing prices have skyrocketed the past decade to the point where it’s almost impossible for an average dual income family to afford just a basic 3 bedroom apartment within city limits.
However, compared to Hong Kong, Seoul, and just about any city in Japan, Taipei can seem like a bargain. It is still easy to have a hot bowl of noodles and side dish for less than $3.00usd. A 500cc cup of cold tea costs under a dollar, and the local bakery will sell you a fresh loaf of baked bread for under $2.50usd.
Transportation is still a good deal. Most MRT rides will cost you under $2.00usd. Taxis are an even better deal. When traffic is light and you have a group of 3-4 people, a taxi is not only the easiest but also the cheapest option. Most rides to place downtown can be under $5.00usd!! The bus system is busy and efficient. Rides will set you back under $3.00usd for most places around town.
Food variety has the largest range.Night markets can fill you up with cheap/freshly made snacks. The average buffet style restaurant serves up a hearty lunch or dinner for about $3.00usd. Noodle shops are prevalent. However, there are large busy restaurants that are perfect for an elegant meal out. Yet, in my opinion, they are still comparably less expensive than in other Asian cities. As with any city, there are ranges and choices, so you can decide if Taipei will bust your bank account or not.
Taipei Nightlife also has it choices. A draft beer can cost anywhere from $3-7.00usd. This depends on the kind of pub/club you frequent. Dance clubs usually charge a cover on weekends and you should expect to drop $15-30.00 for entrance. But, as with everything in Taipei, there are ranges and choices for everyone. It’s what makes this city so special.
As with the rest of Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese is the language most heard throughout the city. Taiwanese can also be heard here and there, but it is much less prevalent than in the areas of Southern Taiwan.
English in Taipei is also spoken by many from young to old. If there is one thing that Taipei stands out from other Asian cities, it’s how many people can communicate with you in English. Taipei has always been international and the education system, and parents, will start teaching English to students at a very young age. English definitely gives you an advantage for overseas study and eventual work in Taiwan.
Many companies that do business internationally are housed in Taipei, so it’s highly likely English will be needed at some level. But, I am not talking about your average tourist stop English. If you are lost or need directions, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone who speaks well enough English to help you. On top of that, they will be proud to help you and get a chance to practice their language ability. Compare that to Seoul or Tokyo! (where English speakers can be almost impossible to find)
Restaurants, coffee shops, malls, hospitals, or the train station are a lot less daunting in Taipei as well. Many places have some kind of English signage and even streets signs are written with an English Romanization. There are several English newspapers on sale and online every day that can help you orient yourself with the city and happenings.
Like most cities in Asia, crime is a lot lower than cities in the west. Taipei is no exception. The city is open late and that means people are out on the streets. It is not uncommon to walk in a neighborhood in the early morning hours and feel completely safe. However, as with any place, one must remain careful and aware.
Taiwan does have its share of petty crime but as guns are illegal, violent offenses are rare. Most cases or violence or homicides occur between parties who know each other.
Drugs are illegal in Taiwan and punishment can be harsh. Being caught in involvement or even near involvement can result in a serious penalty. The drug trade is alive but is very underground.
Triads and gangsters are a part of the Taiwanese landscape. After living in Taiwan for a short period of time, one can point out a heavily tattooed member at close range. Generally, gangsters won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. Most likely they are not spending time in your hangouts anyways. But at times, you may cross paths with some and you should be aware. For example, staring at their girlfriends or getting involved in an argument at a pub can result in serious injury to those involved. It’s best to mind your own business and they will mind theirs.
Traffic is a final caution to take in Taipei. It’s a busy and congested place at times. Crossing the street can be dangerous and although drivers in Taipei are probably the best in Taiwan at obeying traffic laws, it’s wise to be extremely aware when crossing streets. Don’t assume cars or scooters will give you the right of way. Make sure vehicles are stopped or not turning before you cross.
Taipei City is the most populated urban center of Taiwan with a population of just over 2,600,000. One commonality of Asian cities is how all types of people and lifestyles live among each other throughout every area of the city. Taipei is no different. Families, singles, couples, the elderly, and expats live in all parts of the city and share all the same markets, restaurants, malls, parks, and recreation areas. Where ever you go on whatever day, you’ll be surrounded by all walks of like. Expect lots of children accompanied by parents or grandparents. College students and the twenty something crowd are also prevalent. Expats have no boundaries and participate in just about every activity available.
Taipei City also is arguably the most fashion conscious part of Taiwan. Stand on Zhong Xiao East Road 忠孝東路on any afternoon, evening or weekend and enjoy a plethora of Taipei’s fashionable and hip. Shopping in Taipeiis the best in Taiwan and many men and women take advantage of that to look their best.
Stressed out in Taipei? If you come from another part of Taiwan, you might start to feel the cool breeze of the population. Taipei is busy, competitive, creative, and expensive. It also has its share of traffic jams and packed buses and subways. This tends to lead to a higher stress level and speed of the average Taipei citizen. Although, personally, I believe Taipei is still a relatively friendly city, one can see the difference as soon as you travel to other mellower cities like Kaohsiung, Tainan, and even Taichung. But don’t be dissuaded. If you ever need directions or help, Taiwanese everywhere will be there for you.
Taipei is as convenient as any city can get. It boasts a fabulous and growing MRT system. The MRT links well with an elaborate city bus system that can take you about anywhere. And on top of that, it won’t bust your wallet. Ticket prices are quite reasonable when comparable to other big Asian cities.
Taxis are also an easy way to get where you’re going. Although many cab drivers may be English challenged, taxis are clean and efficient. The best thing about Taipei taxis is they are affordable. So much in fact, that if you’re traveling with a group of 2-4, it’s cheaper and faster to take a cab. Again, compared to other Asian cities, Taiwan taxis are a bargain!
If you’re driving your own car and not used to Taipei driving, the traffic can be a headache. Taipei drivers are a bit aggressive and will jostle for every inch of space. Also, there are many one way streets and no left turn signs. It’s doable, of course, but you may need to get used to it.
Taipei can be termed as a “walking city”. Because of the MRT and bus system, Taipei city folk don’t mind walking a few blocks to get where they’re going. However, once you leave Taipei, the thoughts on walking to a destination decrease dramatically.
Taipei has two airports. The main international airport is CKS (Chiang Kai Shek International Airport). Long and short haul flights leave from here. It takes about 40 minutes to 1 hour to travel from downtown Taipei to the airport via bus or taxi.
The Song Shan airport is located in Taipei City. Once the main airport, it was relegated for many years as Taiwan’s domestic terminal. However, with the opening of direct flights to China, the Song Shan airport is once again busy with short haul flights.
The Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) links Taipei City to Kaohsiung City in the south. There are several stations along the way including Taichung and Tainan. The trip to Kaohsiung takes 1.5-2 hours. More information about the THSR here.
Taipei has no shortage of hotels space for anyone’s budget. Whether you don’t mind a small, simple love motel room near the train station, or prefer the style of the “W”, there is a choice for you. Many rooms can be found at smaller boutique hotels. The price range from 80-200 USD for a weekend stay and usually include breakfast and wifi. These types of hotel have been popping up all over Taiwan as old buildings have been given new life. They are usually smaller rooms, but clean and a good bargain.
See our EIT Visa Section for questions on getting a Taiwan visa.