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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.