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Taipei (Keelung) Overview
Taipei is a busy city of more than two and a half million people situated at the northern tip of Taiwan. Founded by Chinese traders in the 17th century, the city became the country's capital in 1885 and, like the entire country, has been occupied at various times by the Dutch, the Spanish and the Japanese.
Today, the city is a thriving hub of business and tourism that will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time in any of the world's big cities. There are English signs everywhere, American fast-food stops and clothing and shoe shops with recognizable names like Benetton, Sketchers and Aldo. The city's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is easy to navigate, and if you keep your eyes on the towering Taipei 101, you can usually figure out which direction to go.
Like the world's big cities, Taipei is crowded. Locals and tourists alike compete for space, motor scooters are an ever present danger and skyscrapers dominate the horizon. But interspersed among all the noise are pockets of quiet and reflection. Temples, like churches in the Western world, are everywhere, and two of the city's most popular tourist sites -- the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and Martyr's Shrine -- request respectful silence.
Not all of the city's tourist attractions are quiet, the most notable exception being the National Palace Museum, which receives thousands of visitors a day. Originally located in Beijing's Forbidden City, the more than 600,000 objects in the collection were moved, first to China's south to avoid the Japanese invasion in 1931, and then to Taiwan in 1949 because of the civil war between the Nationalist Government and the Communists. With the largest collection of Chinese cultural and artistic objects in the world, tourists, especially those from mainland China, flock to the city to visit it.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) • Hong Kong • Kelang (Kuala Lumpur) • Kobe • Koh Samui • Langkawi • Mumbai (Bombay) • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Taipei (Keelung) • Tokyo • Yangon (Rangoon)
Jade jewelry and beautifully carved decorative items are ubiquitous in Taiwan … but not necessarily inexpensive. If you're ready to shell out the money, you can find unique items, including jewelry made from Taiwanese rose jade, an unusual find.
Most people in Taipei speak Mandarin Chinese. English is new to the country but compulsory in school, so children are more likely than their parents to know some English. Most people younger than 30 should have a basic understanding of English, as do most shopkeepers.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Taiwan New Dollar, also called NTD, is the official currency of Taiwan; coins are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10 and 50, while bank notes come in 100, 500 and 1,000 NTDs. For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Cash is king in Taipei, though large department stores, museums and some souvenir shops accept Visa or MasterCard. You can exchange money at an exchange desk at the terminal near where ships dock at the Keelung port or use your ATM card at the 7-Eleven located right across the street from where ships dock.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships visiting Taipei dock at the port of Keelung, about 18 miles away.
You'll find very little directly at the Keelung port because it is a relatively industrial area. However, there are a few shops a short walk away near the bus station. A large night market selling food and goods is about a 20-minute walk away.
If you're not interested in taking the hour-long bus or train ride to Taipei, there are a handful of sites to see in Keelung within walking distance of the port, including the Dianji Temple, Miaokou Night Market and Zhongzheng Park, where you'll find a nearly 74-foot tall statue of Guanyin.
Getting to Taipei from the port of Keelung is easy. The train station is a five-minute walk away, and trains take about an hour to get to the Taiwan Central Railway Station. From there, you can take an MRT subway or metro train or grab a taxi.
The MRT system pretty much covers the beaten path (most places within city center are within a 20-minute walk of a station). In each station, you'll find bilingual wall maps pointing out that neighborhood's main attractions.
Taxis also wait outside the ship and can be hired for an entire day to take you from site to site. Keep in mind, most drivers speak limited to no English, so you should have a map of points of interest with Chinese characters to refer to.
Taxi drivers in and around Taipei have a reputation for honesty, but double-check that any taxi you get into has the meter going. Within Taipei, look for the "English Taipei Tourist" logo on taxis, which guarantees the driver will know some English.
Watch Out For
If you're visiting Taiwan in late spring or any time during the summer, the weather will be hot and humid. Temperatures range from mid-80s to mid-90s with high humidity. Make sure you've got enough water with you at all times, and carry a hat or umbrella to protect you from the sun.
Like so many other Asian metropolises Taipei is an intriguing blend of old and new, with skyscrapers close to Buddhist temples and old school night markets not far from modern malls.
One of the city's newest -- and most impressive -- attractions is the 1,667-foot (ground to spire) Taipei 101, the world's third largest skyscraper. With 101 above-ground floors (plus five underground) the structure has come to represent modern Taiwan. Visitors can head to the 89th floor for an indoor observation deck or the 91st floor for an outdoor observation deck. Both offer 360-degree views of the city. Observation deck tickets can be purchased in the fifth-floor shopping mall.
For something more traditional, the Longshan Temple is Taipei's most important temple. Dedicated to Guanyin (the Buddhist representation of compassion), the temple is located in the Wanhua district, one of the city's oldest. Though it originally dates to 1738, Longshan Temple was mostly destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt in traditional Taiwanese style. After visiting the temple, be sure to browse the numerous traditional street shops or consult one of the many fortune tellers in the immediate area.
Taipei's National Palace Museum is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions and houses one of the world's largest collections of Chinese historical artifacts, relics and artworks -- more than 696,000 pieces strong -- that encompasses more than 8,000 years of Chinese history. Bear in mind, the museum is always packed; the earlier you arrive, the fewer tourist groups (mostly visitors from the Chinese mainland) you'll have to contend with. Free daily tours are offered in English at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Another popular tourist attraction, and one of the most photographed, is the somewhat over-the-top Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, with its whitewashed facade and blue tile roof. Located in Liberty Square, the monument honors Chiang Kai-shek, the former president of the Republic of China. Inside, you'll find a collection of items related to the late president, like his two Cadillacs. The hourly changing of the guard is a popular occurrence; find yourself a spot on the fourth floor a bit early for the best viewing spot.
Taipei, and Taiwan in general, are famous for their traditional night markets, which are not only open at night. Vendors sell everything from food, clothes and electronics to massages and Chinese herbs. Be prepared for an onslaught of your senses and polish up your haggling skills before you go. Two of the most popular with tourists are the Raohe and Shillin night markets.
Been There, Done That
One of Taipei's most unique museums is the Shung Ye Museum, which tells the story of Taiwan's aboriginal cultures. You can learn about the different tribes and see a variety of artifacts. Make sure to check out the decoration exhibit, which includes displays on facial tattooing. (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
For a bit of Chinese architecture, visit the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine, dedicated to the country's war dead. The shrine was built in the style of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing; it houses the spirit tablets of some 390,000 soldiers and civilians (mostly from mainland China) killed in a variety of battles and wars. Hourly changing of the honor guards are a popular with tourists. (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on March 28, March 29 and September 2)
You'll find beautiful Asian-style gardens at the Taipei Botanical Garden, including 17 garden areas highlighting plants like bamboo, ferns and Chinese Zodiac plants, as well as a peaceful lotus pond. (Open 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
If the view of Taipei spread out below at Taipei 101 wasn't good enough, hop on the 2.7-mile Maokong Gondola, which runs between Taipei Zoo at the bottom and the Maokong area of the city at the top. Be sure to grab a glass-bottomed car, and stop at the Zhinan Temple Station stop to visit a modern Buddhist temple and for the best city views. At the top of the route are numerous tea houses and restaurants.
With such a diverse cultural history, it's no surprise that Taipei's culinary offerings are equally varied. You'll find all your favorite Chinese dishes; the Japanese influence means there's lots of sushi on hand, as well. For traditional Taiwanese dishes, you'll want to give a beef noodle soup or stinky tofu a try.
A Taiwanese Classic: Tao-Yuan Street Beef Noodle Shop is centrally located near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and serves up this traditional Taiwanese dish in a variety of styles. (15 Taoyuan Street; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily)
A Taste of Japanese: Though a bit pricey, you'll find an excellent selection of sushi, sashimi and cooked dishes at Malu. Another bonus: Many of the servers speak English. (No.31, Lane 583 Ruiguang Road; open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for dinner)
Dumplings Galore: Dumpling chain restaurant Din Tai Fung operates several locations in Taipei. It is the place to go for Chinese dumplings but also serves excellent chicken soup. All locations are very popular, so be prepared to wait 30 minutes or longer to be seated. (Open from 10 a.m. daily)
For those brave enough to give stinky tofu a try, your best bet are the night markets where vendors selling the malodorous snack are common.
Staying in Touch
Your best bet for staying in touch while in Taipei is to use a city-wide service called "Taipei Free Public Wi-Fi." You must have a smartphone, and online preregistration is required (www.tpe-free.taipei.gov/tw). Then, when you're in the country, just look for hotspots with the Taipei Free logo. Many hotels offer guests free Wi-Fi; step into a hotel lobby to check whether Wi-Fi is available.
Most cruise ships that visit Taipei offer a long and short version of a basic "best of" tour.
Half Day: Usually five to six hours, the shorter Taipei city tour takes passengers to the city's two most popular attractions -- National Palace Museum and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Also included are the Martyrs' Shrine and a Taipei 101 photo stop.
Full Day: The longer version of the tour, which typically runs eight hours, includes all of the same stops as the half-day tour, plus stops at two temples.
Something Quieter: For cruisers who want a respite from hustle and bustle, a half-day tour to the quaint village of Chiufen is another option. Located closer to the port of Keelung where ships dock than to Taipei, Chiufen was once the center of gold mining in Taiwan but is now just a small village offering a glimpse into the country's past. (4.5 hours)
For More Information
On the Web: Taiwan Tourism Bureau or Taipei Department of Information and Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
--By Dori Saltzman, News Editor