For a Capital City That’s serviced by direct flights from australia’s east coast, Taipei is underrated as a tourist destination. it’s easy to navigate thanks to a tidy, efficient railway network and after dark it becomes a lively city with modern bars and restaurants that weave between old and modern-world charms. From art hubs to nightclubs and night markets, Taipei’s night scene is a stew pot of offerings.
Start the evening by witnessing the day’s last Changing of the Guards ceremony at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. The former Chinese government leader, whom the memorial was named after, fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War against the Communists. He remained in exile here until his death in 1975, aged 89, and the monument was opened five years later. Revered by some and abhorred by others, a 6.3-metre-high bronze statue of the dictatorial strongman lords over an otherwise vacant auditorium guarded by members of the various Taiwanese defence forces.
There’s still enough sun to scale Elephant Mountain for twilight views over Taipei. Catch an MRT (Taipei Metro) train to the Red Line terminus station, Xiangshan, before the thigh burning hike up a coiling stairway to the Six Giant Rocks Lookout – one of several on the mountain. Dominating the Taipei skyline is Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building. If that’s not enough walking for you, Taipei 101 is just a few minutes on foot from the base of Elephant Mountain. Its traditional design elements represent a bamboo stalk and Asian pagoda, but due to the threat of typhoons and earthquakes, these were given modern makeovers with a spherical steel pendulum suspended between the 92nd and 87th floors to counterbalance movements caused by wind and tremors and to ensure the skyscraper withstands its exposure to the elements. The 101-storey glass tower stretches 525 metres above the city streets. Boutique fashion houses, a food court and several restaurants fill its lower levels, and indoor and outdoor observation decks occupy the 89th floor and 91st floors. Access is via what was, until recently, the world’s fastest elevator, which climbs 382 metres in 37 seconds.
Down in the Taipei 101 dungeons is Din Tai Fung, a restaurant specialising in dumplings and single foods, or what the Chinese call ‘small eats’. As many as 14,000 pork, shrimp, vegetable and truffle dumplings are rolled per day and an army of dumpling chefs – I counted 18 – prepare these tasty parcels behind the glass windows which connect to the front kitchen. The next port of call is a two-kilometre walk away – the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. Five former tobacco factories have been converted into exhibition and performance spaces, and the site includes gardens, museums, galleries, bookstores and craft beer bars. Lording over them is the Eslite Spectrum shopping mall, where samples of pearl milk tea are served at Chun Shui Tang on the third floor. The teahouse claims to have invented the beverage popularly known as ‘bubble tea’, using tapioca balls as its secret ingredient.
Taipei’s famed night markets are all over town. The closest to my hotel, the funky Amba Taipei Songshan, is the Raohe Night Market, which sits down a narrow pedestrianised street that leads towards the Keelung River. It’s one of the oldest night markets in the city, and packed to the brim with food stalls and trinkets. From here, it’s a train ride through the MRT to Jiantan Station to get to Shilin, north of the river. A maze of alleyways is filled with dishes whose names I can’t pronounce, though there are also noodle dishes and tempura that I recognise. Resorting to pointing and sampling bits and pieces here will ensure full bellies. After soliciting advice earlier from my concierge, I’ve got a list of bars to troll through around the Da’an and Xinyi districts. First off the rank is On Tap, which reviews described as ‘Taipei’s only true pub’. Only true English pub would have been more accurate, because apart from the large student clientele – Taipei National University is located close by – I could be mistaken for thinking I’d wandered into a timber-clad corner bar in Shropshire. A Drinking Legends honour board hangs from the wall and the beers on tap include Long Dong Lager, TaIPA and Rock Monkey Stout from the Redpoint Brewing Company and Badger English ales and lagers. But it’s not what I’m looking for tonight.
Better-dressed clientele are around the corner at Draft Land. Opened in January 2018, it is full of young professionals ordering from a selection of 18 pre-mixed cocktails on tap. Owned by an award-winning mixologist, the bar staff alter the mixes every second night. There are no frilly umbrellas or fruit garnishings, just classic ingredients fused with Taiwanese influences. An example? Pandan with dark rum, cinnamon and apple. A recent innovation in Taipei is the rise of speakeasies – bars modelled on the illicit establishments selling alcohol during the prohibition era in the US. Ounce is hidden behind a café and accessible through a door with multiple handles and buttons. Only one works. I make my intentions known to the Eastern European girl behind the coffee machine and she okays it with the barman, allowing me to enter. Inside is an intimate, barely-lit room where female patrons outnumber men two to one. Take a seat at the bar, where the drinks are heavy on the liquor and the price tags match (around AU$20 each compared to AU$9 at Draft Land). For late night drinks, the American barman from Ounce recommends Dick’s Place in Da’an or Tenderland in Zhongshan. Both stay open all night. With jetlag catching up, however, my hotel bed sounds more appealing.