Taiwan's modern capital is a frenetic place of markets and malls, temples and high rises. Once a rice-growing valley, it now sprouts buildings, including the world's tallest. While it doesn't have the geographic focus of, say, a Hong Kong Harbor, it does have a range of sights scattered across one of the world's cleanest and safest cities. Malls, with perfume samples wafting into the busy aisles, rise next to ancient temples, where the smell of incense drifts over the devout chanting prayers. Traffic is often bad but the subway system is easy to use and makes getting around this sprawling city a breeze. Access to the port town of Keelung is easy on frequent and fast commuter trains.
Keelung. This city on the northeast coast has long been the main port for Taipei. Although other ports are bigger and busier, Keelung (population 400,000—sometimes spelled "Keelong") retains a sense of history amid the bustle. In the mid-1600s, it was a Dutch fort protecting their traders. Since then it has seen many other groups come and go. It's easy to spend a couple of hours here wandering around the market and hillside parks. Access to the port town of Keelung is easy on commuter trains, and everything is close, including the port where cruise ships dock and the train station, should you head to Taipei.
Baimiwong Fort. A good place to view the port and ocean is the scenic remains of a 19th-century Qing Dynasty fortress. Walk among the gardens that surround the old gun emplacements and watch the fishing fleet motoring in with the catch from the East China Sea.
Dianji Temple. In the middle of the market is a place for a quick moment of contemplation. Offerings abound and you may hear the hypnotic rhythm of prayerful chants. Visitors are welcome.
Miaokou Night Market. Join the crowds milling about the vast and chaotic collection of yelling vendors, sizzling woks, and slurping diners near the center. Keep your eyes and nose open and if you see something that looks good, point at it and pay. Note that the smell which makes you think the trash needs taking out is really stinky tofu, a wildly popular snack.
Zhongzheng Park. Towering above the trees is the giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy casting her serene and welcoming gaze to sailors out at sea. Observation platforms offer sweeping views of the city and harbor.
Taipei. The money from the billions of products bearing the "Made in Taiwan" label can be seen all over this huge metropolitan area. You can easily get a feel for the rich Chinese cultural past, the recent turbulent history, and the rampant modern affluence at diverse stops across town.
Wherever you go in Taipei, the subway—the MRT—will get you there fast, in air-conditioned comfort. You can either buy fare cards at machines or ticket windows. Most trains, like those to Keelung, pass though Taipei's main station, where you can transfer to the MRT or disembark to explore the city. Trains from here back to Keelung run every 20 minutes, but make certain you get a train that terminates in Keelung, because many on the line bypass the city and go on to other parts of the country.
Botanical Gardens. To escape the crowded streets and general urban hubbub, spend some time on the winding paths of the gardens, where intricate plantings thrive in the subtropical climate. Find a bench with a view and watch others revel in the serenity.
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Each morning a huge flag is raised in honor of Chiang Kai-shek at this vast complex and parkland. If you arrive early enough, you can see hundreds of people practicing their martial arts before heading off to work. The two classical style buildings at the entrance are the National Theater and the National Concert Hall.
Children's Recreation Center. You can't miss this surprisingly fun amusement park: not only will the delighted shrieks of children breaking away from their parents to run for the entrance get your attention, but you, too, might feel the draw of the rides glimpsed within. It's all a classic amusement park but with a Chinese twist. 181 Zhongshan North Rd. Admission charged.
Fine Arts Museum. Art is central to the culture, and the museum displays works by contemporary artists as well as visiting exhibitions of top art from around the globe. The bucolic area around the museum is popular with Taipei families. Admission charged.
Longshan Temple. This is the Buddhist shrine where Taipei's faithful honor their ancestors, meditate, and seek guidance. In one area you'll see elaborate and colorful offerings being constructed, in another, small groups of people discussing spiritual matters, and in still another, simple music being played for the prayerful. After spending some quiet time inside temple, wander out to the surrounding neighborhood. 211 Guangzhou Rd.
Martyr's Shrine. Against the backdrop of classic Ming Dynasty temple architecture at the somber shrine, soldiers change the guard on the hour, every hour. Beian Rd. Admission charged.
Miniatures Museum of Taiwan. For something offbeat, but which still gives a nod to Taipei's food-growing past, visit this museum where you'll be amazed at creations like a grain of rice carved into the shape of an elaborate chandelier. 96 Jian-gwo North Rd.
National Palace Museum. Thousands of years of Chinese art and history are on display at the museum, which is filled with treasures. Only a fraction of the 600,000 plus collection is on display at any time, but many pieces rotate through. The print collection evokes the mood of a China long past and long gone. 221 Chih-shan Rd. Admission charged.
Taipei 101. At 1,671 feet, this is the world's second-tallest building (the tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, just topped out at 2,257 feet). A structure of superlatives, the building's distinctive facade evokes growing shoots of bamboo, and its elevators, the world's fastest, take visitors up to the 89th-floor observation deck. There's no better place to take in all of Taipei except, well, two flights up. The 91st floor observatory is an outdoor deck where you can hear the waves of noise generated by this metropolis. 7 Xinyi Rd. Admission charged.
As is common across Asia, shopping is the number one activity for locals young and old. In fact some malls and major department stores never close—just in case somebody needs a new Prada handbag or wiz-bang cell phone at 3 AM. Start at the mall in Taipei 101, a soaring space filled with high-end shops. The design is as exquisite as the goods on offer.
Near Taipei Main Station is Nova, a flashy high-tech bazaar where those in search of the latest gadget will be beguiled by the wares being peddled by the myriad of vendors. Shing Kong Life Tower, ZhongXiao West Rd.
Near the traditional precincts of Longshan Temple, you'll find the lively Ximending Shopping Area where the cult items of tomorrow are on sale today. Pastel Japanese imports mix with bold-colored homegrown items in a cacophony of goods where teens and students pick, choose, and reject with abandon. See what you discover here along Kunming Street and Xining South Road.
One of the best areas for browsing is on ZhongXiao East Road. International department stores mix with bookstores, designer shops and little boutiques selling unusual and delectable teas.
A quick walk north of Taipei Main Station, boutique-lined Zhongshan North Road is mannered and gracious. This tree-lined boulevard has some of the most exclusive stores in Taipei and it's one of the best places to window-shop. Look for the many opulent bridal shops along the street. Taipei's answer to Bloomingdales, Idée, a trendy and stylish department store that gets a young crowd who want to define the cutting edge, is midway along the street. 14-15 Nanjing West Rd. and Zhongshan North Rd.