This year, Taiwan’s centennial thrust the large island off the southeast coast of China back into the spotlight. Better known for its rocky political history — Taiwan occupies 99 percent of the land affiliated with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, the opposing party to the mainland People’s Republic of China — Taiwan has oft been overlooked as the peaceful Asian retreat that it actually is. Long known as Formosa, which means “beautiful island,” this 250-mile stretch of land is a mix of bustling cityscapes and tranquil meadows, expansive lakes and sweeping gorges, and mountainous plains and sandy beaches. As you make your way through Asia, take time for a weekend stopover in this small slice of the Pacific. There’s plenty to do, and more importantly, there’s plenty to eat. Make no mistake — Taiwan is certifiably a food capital of the east.
First things first: food. Head over to the bi-level Lao Zhang Beef Restaurant for your introductory Taiwanese meal. This noodle soup shop is ground zero for slurping an assortment of stewed beef and handmade noodle combinations among masses of locals going about their day. A selection of appetizers (bean curds, long beans) whet the palate, then steaming bowls of noodles arrive at the table without respite. Broths can be made fiery or mild with curry or tomato bases, though my favorite was the lawei niurou mian, or spicy-flavored soup.
After lunch, make your way down to Taipei’s Xinyi business district. If you get lost along the way, just look up and locate Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa stole the title in 2010), and a symbol of Taiwan’s steady economy. Claiming a height of 500 meters, the tower sits 101 stories above the ground, boasts the world’s fastest elevators, and indoor/outdoor observatory decks for a 360-degree view of the city. More impressive, in July 2011, the building was awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification, becoming the tallest LEED building in the world.
If shopping’s your bag, the Xinyi District houses a cluster of malls and shopping centers like the upscale Taipei 101 Mall, the nine-story Bellavita, and Japanese Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department stores, while for the literary-inclined, popular Eslite bookstore is open 24 hours a day. Once just a mess of marshland, the Xinyi district is now considered the heart of the city, with the Taipei International Convention Center (which just hosted the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition), Taipei World Trade Center, and The National Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall within its bounds.
Once you’re hungry again, brace the lines outside of Taipei’s most popular eatery, Din Tai Fung, and savor the perfection of their dumplings. As you enter, sneak a peek at the 30-plus guys working furiously to knead, stuff, twist, and mold every dumpling into mouthwatering beings. Then, climb the narrow back staircase to one of four floors for a meal you won’t soon forget. The award-winning restaurant, founded in 1958, has since expanded further into Asia, Europe, and the United States. Their small steamed pork buns (“xiao-long-bao,” which means “juicy dumplings”) are an exercise in simplicity, but don’t miss their sung lu dumpling — pork laced with truffles.
Since you spent your day exploring the Xinyi District, return once more after dinner for a cocktail at the glamorous W Hotel. Opened last year, the space features a modern and sexy indoor/outdoor lounge that overlooks both a glittering pool (pictured) and a glittering cityscape. Nooks abound, couches can be reserved for larger parties, and a DJ spins electronica until the wee hours. When you’re finished there, head to Barcode, another highly stylized watering hole that draws Taipei’s most young and fashionable.