On setting foot in Xinyi, you would be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in Manhattan. Yellow cabs whizz by with little regard for pedestrians; a browse around the shops suggests a fondness for high-end brands. And as Taipei’s financial district, it glitters with skyscrapers – the 508-metre, bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 was once the world’s tallest. In 2020, it will be joined by the US$1 billion, 280-metre Taipei Sky Tower. Home to two luxury hotels and a shopping mall, the tower is a bold statement to potential visitors: come on in, we’re open.
It’s remarkable considering that Xinyi officially came into existence less than 30 years ago. A 1920 map of the area shows nothing but undeveloped marshland – after the land was annexed by Taipei in 1938, it was mostly used to grow crops. In 1981, work started on the Xinyi Planned Area, intended as the city’s new governmental and financial centre, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the city government founded Xinyi district, carving out parts of neighbouring Da’an and Songshan districts to do so. Today, Xinyi’s high-rise properties rank among the world’s most expensive.
Despite its wealth, at ground level Xinyi retains a kooky charm that is quintessentially Taiwanese. Canteen-style “lunchbox” restaurants serve garrulous locals crowded around boxy CRT televisions, and incense emanates from the Buddhist and Taoist shrines at every storefront. A journey from north to south reveals manicured gardens with tall trees and koi-filled ponds. Head east along Xinyi Road, past the buskers and street-food stalls on Xinyi Plaza, then south to find the trailhead leading to the deep forests of Elephant Mountain, which has superlative views of the skyline. It’s best to time a visit to the mountain with sunset – which is crowded but picturesque – or New Year’s Eve, when fireworks launch from the tiers of Taipei 101.
Songshan Cultural and Creative Park
This sprawling cultural complex epitomises Taipei’s transition from manufacturing hub to design capital. Originally a 1930s tobacco factory, Songshan closed its doors in 1998, reopening in 2011 as an arts centre championing local talent. Check out inBlooom, founded by Taipei University of the Arts graduate Qiuqiong Yu, where you can browse printed gifts from 100 Taiwanese suppliers. They also offer a 30-minute print-your-own experience, where customers can customise their own tote bag or T-shirt. When you’ve finished shopping, sip an Instagram-worthy coffee at Café Sole before taking in the neo-Baroque Eco-Pond outside – the statues are based on the tobacco factory’s female workers.
No. 133, Guangfu South Road, +886 2 2765 1388, songshanculturalpark.org
An eight-minute walk
Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
Western-educated doctor Sun Yat-Sen was instrumental in ending dynastic Chinese rule, becoming the first president of the Republic of China in 1911. Though his ruling Kuomintang party were eventually overthrown on the mainland, they retained power over Taiwan and it is for this reason that many see him as the father of the nation. His neoclassical memorial hall, designed by local architect Wang Da-Hung, cuts an imposing silhouette, even against Xinyi’s busy skyline. Arrive on the hour to watch the smartly clad guards perform an elaborate changeover. The surrounding gardens are prime people-watching territory, especially in the late afternoon when groups of elderly Taiwanese practice tai chi and giggling teens dance to Mandopop.
No. 505, Section 4, Ren’ai Road, +886 2 2758 8008
A four-minute taxi
Located in the basement of the ATT4FUN shopping mall, this interactive gift store is dedicated to Japanese animation behemoth Studio Ghibli. A life-sized plaster tree sprouts from the floor, covering the ceiling in a sparkling canopy of pinecones and baubles; press a button on the trunk to illuminate a snoozing animatronic Totoro (of “My Neighbour Totoro” fame). Photo opportunities abound – pose inside a grinning Cat-Bus or next to the sinister masked No-Face from “Spirited Away.” For kids, kawaii treats abound: from backpacks to plush toys.
110 Songshou Road, +886 2 7736 1005, facebook.com/dongurirepublic.tw
A three-minute walk
Taipei 101 Observatory
On a clear day, the views from this 89th-floor observation deck stretch beyond the city boundaries, where the suburbs knit into the surrounding forest. Its rear view is even more impressive – the “damper,” a 660-ton steel sphere, steadies the tower during earthquakes and high winds. In April this year, the dam-
per recorded the largest movement in its 15-year history, moving 20 centimetres during a 6.1 magnitude quake. The tower’s elevators are also an impressive feat of engineering, with a top speed of 38mph. Zoom downstairs to get your luxury shopping fix at the five-storey mall, which stocks international brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
110, Section 5, Xinyi Road, +886 2 8101 8898, taipei-101.com.tw
A one-minute walk
Jimmy’s Moon Bus
Ideal for those with kids, this lovely public art installation celebrates Taiwanese author Jimmy Liao’s children’s book, When the Moon Forgot. Glimmering gold moons reflect in a still pool; inside the bus, sculptures modelled on Liao’s illustrations tell the tale of the boy who finds the moon fallen from the sky and nurses it back to health. It’s not large, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity, particularly when the bus lights up at night.
No. 100, Section 5, Xinyi Road, +886 2 2729 2000
A nine-minute taxi
Xiangshan Hiking Trail
One of Taipei’s biggest draws is its proximity to nature – few places embody this as well as Xiangshan, or Elephant Mountain, a verdant oasis that cuts right through Xinyi’s skyscrapers, and offers a fantastic view over the district. Within minutes of starting the 600-step climb to the peak, the jungle closes in and you’re surrounded by fragrant camphor trees and nodding, blood-red hibiscus flowers. Information points explain the medicinal and economic significance of various plants. There are intermediate viewpoints for those without the time or energy to reach the top, including a group of boulders deliberately placed for photo opportunities. Dedicated hikers can turn right just before the peak for a trail that snakes deep into the jungle, taking in numerous temples along the way.
Alley 342, Lane 150, Section 5, Xinyi Road
A ten-minute taxi
Tonghua Night Market
Compared with the better-known night markets in Taipei’s northern districts, Tonghua attracts few tourists, which allows for leisurely browsing of stalls and chatting to sellers. Chow down on juicy, meat-filled steamed bao buns, fried balls of “popcorn” chicken, or try a local favourite: rice sausage. Taipei’s answer to hotdogs, the offering comprises a sweet sausage in a compacted sticky rice “bun,” sprinkled liberally with garlic. For dessert, order an ice-cream roll: neat balls of taro, coconut and pineapple ice cream are placed in a crepe and sprinkled with coriander and peanut brittle shavings. Watching the process is half the fun.
Alley 1, Lane 40, Linjiang Street, Da’an District
Images: Emily Lush