Taipei is one of the great shopping cities of Asia, but while many visitors head to its ultra-modern department stores and fashion boutiques, for those in the know a more interesting experience awaits. Search out the city’s back alleys and neighborhood districts, and you’ll ﬁnd alternative shopping that showcases the best of Taipei’s energetic diversity.
A good place to begin is the specialty or themed shopping streets that have long been a feature of Chinese societies. There are certainly plenty in Taipei, especially in Ximending district. One of the best is Book Street (actually Chongqing South Road), particularly for reference and medical books, and all the materials needed for Chinese calligraphy. Then there’s Shoe Street (Yuanling Street), lined with giant shoe stores and sock shops, and the wonderful American Street (Lane 96, which runs off Kunming Road), featuring the latest in hip-hop clothing, bling, and hard-to-find hip-hop music discs. If on the other hand, you have a hankering for camera equipment, then Wuchang Street will satisfy your every need.
The most interesting of the specialty streets, however, is surely Dihua Street, an atmospheric laneway lined with houses from the Japanese colonial era. Here, ground-floor shops are devoted to traditional Chinese medicines and foodstuffs. The shops have narrow street frontages but extend back in deep, dim oblongs piled high with candied and dried fruit, roasted nuts and seeds. Medicinal dried seafood is everywhere: shrimp, squid, cuttlefish jerky and sea cucumbers in wooden drawers, from which they’re scooped out and wrapped in twists of brown paper. It’s a fascinating place to wander, and when it comes to buying, you can pick up traditional lanterns, bamboo homeware, and embroidery.
If you escape from here with your wallet unopened, it will be a miracle.
If you really want to challenge your senses, Taipei’s most famous traditional street is Huashi Street, known to foreigners as ‘Snake Alley’ thanks to its snake shops. You can watch as snakes are milked for their venom, or have them cooked up as a snack in one of the many little eateries. The street has become such a tourist attraction that painting and handicraft stalls have moved in, and it has lost some of its genuine edges.
Huashi Street lies near Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s major tourist sights. In the surrounding alleyways, you can pick up fat laughing Buddha statues, carved Chinese chops, elegant lacquered chopstick sets and hand-painted umbrellas. Owners lurk in the back of their shops, usually glued to a television set, leaving you to browse in peace. For the best souvenir shopping though, take the MRT a few stops northeast to NTU Hospital Station. On Hsuchow Street nearby, the Chinese Handicraft Mart is housed in a four-story complex crammed with the city’s greatest concentration of calligraphy and landscape-painting scrolls, ceramic teapots, porcelain and traditional silk clothes.
Rivalling specialty streets, Taipei’s street markets are many and varied. The biggest and oldest is Shilin Market on Chung Shan North Road, founded over a century ago as a fish market. These days, the crowds are more eager for great deals on clothes, shoes, jewelry, and souvenirs – and just about everything else, including hybrid goldfish with flowing orange or purple tails. Shilin is a night market, barely getting underway at 4pm and best enjoyed after 9pm, when pastimes such as shooting plastic cans for prizes, karaoke, and arcade games add to the raucous atmosphere.
The area is also packed with small shops, especially hip fashion boutiques for the young. Taipei’s street markets are also notable for their food. Shilin Market is just one of many where you can bag yourself a bargain meal from dozens of street stalls serving dumplings, fish-ball soup, grilled fish, pearl-milk tea or fried rice. Another great place to eat is the night market on Jao Ho Street in Songshan district. Seafood is the specialty here: everything from rich squid stew to prawn-topped noodles, or that Taipei favorite – omelet with oysters and green onion.
Jao Ho Street hosts one of the city’s newer markets and one of the most bustling. It continues with undiminished intensity late into the night and is just the place to hunt down bargain handicrafts, toys, CDs, electronic gadgets, and clothes. Rather unusually in Taipei, one section of this street market is devoted to second-hand and recycled items – perhaps the place to pick up an inexpensive extra suitcase to haul away your goodies.
Some Taipei markets focus on just one product, such as the famous weekend Holiday Jade Market on the corner of Chien Kuo and Renai Roads. Jade is a Chinese favorite, thought to bring its owner good luck, and you’ll encounter more of the green stone here than you’ve ever seen in a lifetime. You can hardly go wrong buying cheaper items such as small figurines or jade discs for necklaces, and you can also pick up amber, tiny pearls, and even dainty teapots. Unless you know your jade, beware of buying expensive statues and other major items, however, as quality can vary.
It isn’t all just about traditional goods in Taipei; contemporary consumer products also have their own markets: furniture on Wenchang Street, sports goods on Xinyi Road, bridal dresses on Aiguo East Road. The best for visitors might be Guanghua Computer Market on the corner of Civic Boulevard and Jinshan Road. This epicenter of high-tech consumerism covers six floors, selling everything from computers and cameras to security gear and mobile phones. If you escape from here with your wallet unopened, it will be a miracle.
Thing to do:
- Bargain-hunting crowds traverse the network of small shops on a Saturday evening at Shilin night market, Taipei.
- Quiet reflection at Longshan Temple, one of the city's major tourist sights.
- Stopping for refreshment at one of the stalls at Jao Ho St, one of the newer night markets. This vendor is selling traditional Taiwanese drinks including bubble milk tea (sweet milk tea with tapioca balls) and grass jelly.
- Get a whole new wardrobe or a made-to-measure suit at Jao Ho St night market.
- Markets usually begin during the late afternoons but really come into their own in the evenings.
- Visitors will find a vast array of food on offer, including many local specialties such as boiled noodles.
The smoky smell of burning incense sticks is a given in Taipei’s neighborhood temples. The city’s best and busiest is the 1738 Longshan Temple, an extravagance of gold and red decor. Your nose could lead you afterward to nearby Herb Alley, crammed with sacks of medicinal ginseng, aloe, and ginger.
If Taipei’s street snacks have inspired you, do a hands-on Taiwanese cooking course in the hills outside the city, where local chef Jodie teaches the basics of Chinese cuisine and its classic dishes. Afterwards, you can walk off your dumplings and sesame pancakes on one of Jodie’s scenic walking tours.
The smooth, sexy sounds of this chic lounge bar’s in-house jazz and blues band are guaranteed to relax you after a day’s hectic shopping. Tuesday nights see a special focus on Taiwanese music. As for the gourmet bar nibbles, they make music for your mouth and are a great accompaniment to cocktails.
Taipei Amusement Complex
Half theme park and half safari, the expansive Leofoo Village combines carnival fair, roller-coaster thrills, and fascinating animals. There are four distinctively themed areas: Arabian Kingdom, African Safari, South Pacific and the Wild West, each offering a unique flavor of fun. The biggest draw is, of course, the African Safari area, which features over 1,000 animals of 70 different species, including American black bears, Bengal tigers and African lions.
Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village
Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village, opened in 1986, is a 62-hectare, aboriginal-themed ‘edutainment’ park and home to Taiwan’s largest free-fall ride and largest European gardens and bell tower. The Aboriginal Village Park is an outdoor museum consisting of nine villages, each representative of a different Taiwanese aborigine community. The cultural buildings are accurate to blueprints drawn up by anthropologists from the 1930s and 40s, creating a living history experience.