I used to write a lot of articles on the theme of short layovers around Asia.
“Seven hours in Seoul,” “A Day, a Night and Some Petty Larceny in Okinawa,” that sort of thing. When I was younger, I did a lot more of these super-short duration trips that would leave me trying to get the most of of short visits to exotic spots.
A few days back I got a message from a friend of a friend from the Nomadness Travel Tribe asking advice on a stopover she’ll have in Taipei in a couple of weeks on a flight from the states to Bangkok. Nikky told me that she wanted to experience as much of Taipei as she could in eight hours, basically a 12-or-so hour layover with two hours on each end for a safe buffer for clearing customs on both ends, storing and collecting her luggage and getting between Taoyuan Airport and Taipei.
I searched my database for a previous “Things to do with eight hours in Taipei” article, only to realize that I’d never written one. And why would I have? I live here, so it’s one of the few cities I’ve never actually visited under time constraints.
So I started this article:
Things to do with eight hours in Taipei
But here’s where it got complicated. I started thinking of the usual things that could be done with eight hours: A good meal, a visit to a couple of museums and temples, maybe even a guided tour. (My company, MyTaiwanTour, does tons of customized tours exactly like this, with airport pickup and delivery.)
But before I got halfway in, I realized that I ought to ask Nikky what her time-frame was. Because, you know, logistics.
She told me she’d be landing at around 8pm on a Sunday night and taking off at 8pm the next morning.
This, of course, changed things entirely, since at that hour the museums are all closed, there are less temples to visit, and once you hit the city you’ve only got a couple of hours until Taipei’s fabulous MRT system shuts down for the night.
So halfway through, I changed the article title to
Eight Hour Taipei Layover: Midnight Special
And here we are.
In a nutshell, I’ll be offering a few suggested activities that’ll allow you to cram maximum Taipei experience into the eight hours before dawn. If you’re the sort of reader who’s already got their finger hovering over the TL:DLR button, I’ll front load the important fact: Safety.
Q: Is Taipei safe for a solo female traveler to wander around at night?
A: Taipei is among the safest in the world. Taipei has a very low crime rate, similar to Tokyo. Shit does happen, but our shit happening rate is ridiculously low compared to pretty much any city in America. Furthermore, if you do encounter a problem – or if you need directions – you can approach any cop and they’ll do their best to help you out.
(For more on the topic of safety in Taiwan, check out this article from Taiwan Scene.)
OK, now that that’s out of the way. First, lets get the boring stuff out of the way:
- Go through customs. As an American, you don’t need a visa for your 12 hour romp. Hell, if you fall in love with the place, you can stay 2 months on your landing visa. Or is it three months these days…anyway, it’s beyond the scope of this essay.
- Change some money in the airport. You won’t be able to do it in Taipei in the middle of the night. $100 USD will turn into just a tad under $3000 New Taiwan Dollars. Your biggest expense will be the taxi back to the airport (see above note about MRT schedule). It shouldn’t be more than 1200 NT, but let’s budget 1500 just to be safe. So $100 US bucks should be enough for food, transportation and a foot massage. If you want to get a drink or two, a full body massage, or a more expensive meal, get $200 to be on the safe side. You can change it back on the way out.
- Stow your luggage. This website lays out the options nicely. I’ve not confirmed the info, but it seems correct to me. (To paraphrase Jay Z, “Taiwan’s got 99 problems, but not being able to store your luggage at an airport, bus or train station ain’t one.”) Moving on…
- Hop on the new MRT that goes directly to Taipei. It takes a bit under 40 minutes and costs NT$160. It lets you off (1) within walking distance of the neighborhood you’ll want to explore first.
Now lets get to the more interesting stuff.
Depending on various factors, you should now find yourself at the northern end of Taipei Main Station (1), and it should be around 9:30 PM. You could hop on the MRT to Ximen station, or you could walk. I’d suggest the latter.
See that big (and quite professionally rendered, if I do say so myself) circled area with the “2”? That, roughly speaking, is the Ximending district, Taipei’s answer to Tokyo’s Ginza. Wander there first. The massive pedestrian mall has tons to see and do. There’s street food, good restaurants, shopping and people watching galore.
This building is a landmark. I don’t know why.
The pedestrian mall has tons of stuff. Wander to the west of the pedestrian mall and you’ll find alleys filled with tattoo shops, skate punks, more street food, more little shops, street art, stuff like that. You’ll find about half a dozen good massage places (foot & full body) on Kunming and Xinning streets (two main drags running north to south). Just south of the plaza where exit six of the Ximen MRT station is located (kind of the heart of the neighborhood – there’s a jumbotron that shows movie previews) is where the Red House is. It’s Taipei’s main GLBTQ nexus is, so tons of bars surrounding a restored Japanese colonial era building. You can’t miss it.
Though not a night market, Ximending tends to be more happening at night then in the day. Most restaurants will close around midnight, but you won’t have trouble finding something to eat at any hour. There are a few 24 hour places in the neighborhood.
So let’s assume at this point it’s, oh, 1:30 am. You’ve eaten, explored the area, gotten a massage, and now you’re having a drink somewhere around the Red House. (It’s Sunday night, so it’s entirely possible that this area won’t be as happening as it would have been were it Saturday. You’ve still got 3-4 hours to kill before having to hop a taxi back to the airport.
Grab yourself a cappuccino at a 7-11 or Family Mart. (You’ll have no problem finding one.) Start walking eastward, towards the area circled in the map above and labeled “3”.
How do you know which way is east? Look for this building in the distance:
That’s Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taipei. It’s East of you. Do not confuse it with this building:
That’s the Shin Gong Tower. It’s much closer (you could walk to it in 15 minutes), and throughout your brief evening stroll, it should remain to your north.
(Sorry for using Shutterstock photos. I’m too lazy to search through my hard drive at the moment for photos. Take some of your own!)
Heading directly east from the Red House will bring you into 2-28 Memorial park, which has some lovely gazebos, a band shell, a foot massage path, a monument to the massacre for which the park is named and more.
Though the park won’t be deserted at that time of night, there should be a few people wandering around. It’s a fairly well known meeting place for local gay men, or at least it used to be when Taiwanese society was a bit more repressed. It’s a peaceful spot, day or night.
South of the park, you’ll see the Presidential Palace. If you’re lost, or just feel lonely, have a chat with one of the soldiers guarding the place. They’re probably bored at this hour. Keep heading east past the Presidential Palace and you’ll walk into Liberty Square, a massive plaza that’s home to Chiang Kai-shek memorial. The memorial and museum are closed, which is just as well. But the plaza is open, and who knows? You may see some super-early risers doing TaiChi here. Lots of cool stuff to look at.
Depending on your pace, and whether or not you’ve run into the president out for a late night stroll with her cats (I have no idea if the president takes her cats for walks, but we have to assume that if she does she does it late at night), it’s probably about time for you to think about getting yourself back to the airport.
If you still have an hour to kill and are feeling a bit hungry, you can either wander back to the Ximending area (there are a few 24 hour restaurants there, and there’ll probably be a couple of street food vendors still out as well, and of course, 24/7 convenience stores) or head down to Roosevelt Road (where the red and green lines meet way down on the bottom edge of the map below) and walk a bit. You’ll find something.
Since the MRT won’t start running until 6am, trying to use it to catch an 8am flight seems a bit risky (especially since you’ve got to grab your luggage in an unfamiliar airport and clear customs). If it were me, I’d hop in a taxi no later than 5am to get to the airport around six. (Traffic is usually pretty light this early)
From this neighborhood, a taxi to the airport should be around NT 1200, about $35 bucks. But let’s say NT 1500 just to be safe. Most taxi drivers can understand “Taoyuan Airport”. If not, show them this: 台灣桃園國際機場, and your ticket, which should also have the terminal number and so forth.
So there you have it, my suggestion at least, an uncomplicated single pot meal visit requiring no extra transportation outside of your trip back and forth from the airport. You’ll experience some neon glitter, exotic culture, Taiwanese cuisine, historical architecture, a sliver or two of nature, and whatever other surprises unscripted travel can bring.
Here’s another map with some possible walking routes. You’ll be able to see Shin Kong Tower, represented with the reddish-purple blob
Let me know how it goes. Leave a comment below.