Chisinau to Kiev by Train: Well, That Was a Trip

Despite being separated by a mere 500 kilometers of distance between the two points, taking the Soviet-era sleeper train from Chisinau to Kiev took a whopping 18 hours.  And would I recommend it? Yes, yes, and yes again.

Taking an ancient, glacially-paced train — a train older than either of the two countries it was going between — was probably one of my highlights of visiting Chisinau.

Though to be fair, that’s because the majority of my time in Chisinau was spent navigating the hospital system attempting to get a rabies vaccination after a cat bite incident in Odessa… but that’s a story for another day, and it’s most certainly not Chisinau’s fault that I didn’t get around to doing most of the best things to do in Chisinau.

Nor is it Chisinau’s fault that I didn’t take out my proper camera and took only crappy cell phone shots the entire 3 days I was there… but I digress again.

Sadly, this is the ‘best’ photo I have of Chisinau

Not a ton of travelers opt for this train due to time and budget concerns and a lack of information out there, so I’ve broken down the information that was missing on the internet here  to help people who plan to make this journey between Chisinau and Kiev by train in the future.

Bus vs. Train? Breaking Down Getting from Chisinau to Kiev

Upon arrival at my hostel in Chisinau, I was given a map with the arrival and departure times of buses. Traveling by bus from Chisinau to Kiev is by far the more popular option. But after a memorable #Experience in Romania and the marshrutka from hell from Ganja to Sheki in Azerbaijan, I’m a bit allergic to bus travel.

So when given the option between a 10 hour overnight marshrutka to Kiev and a sleeper train of indeterminate length and roughly twice the price… I opted for the train in a heartbeat, not even thinking about the price.

The train station in Chisinau is a happening place

The train journey is not the popular choice because it is both a longer journey (in my case, nearly by twice the time) and it’s more expensive. I paid 650 lei for my bed in an open sleeper car, whereas a bus ticket will cost around 300 lei. A bus takes approximately 10 hours between the two cities, and my train took 18 hours.

I’ll Take the 21:19 Train to Moscow

Attempting to purchase a train ticket between Chisinau and Kiev is a little intimidating because the people at the train station ticket counter don’t speak English. Knowing a tiny bit of Russian will help. I speak Russian with the complexity of an early toddler and through that and some gesturing I was able to get a ticket for the train to Kiev.

If you don’t speak Russian, I recommend asking your hotel or hostel receptionist to write down what you want in Russian or Romanian. Barring that, you could always use Google Translate if you have a SIM card or the language file already downloaded on your phone to use offline (guide how to do that here). This is highly useful for traveling through Russian-speaking parts of the former USSR. This tip also came in handy in Taiwan when I had to translate Chinese as the camera can automatically ‘translate’ things, making you feel like you’re from the future.

The departure times between Chisinau and Moscow as of July 2018.

However, in my bumbling Russian, I was able to get what I wanted across. There were three departures on the day that I booked my ticket, all heading towards Moscow and making stops in Kiev along the way. Despite the ongoing war in Donbass between Russian and Ukrainian forces, trains are traveling between the two countries as scheduled.

The woman at the ticket counter told me my train was due to arrive the next day at around 15:00. I’m not sure when the other two trains would arrive in Kiev. Theoretically, according to an out of date blog post, the morning train would arrive somewhere around 2 in the morning, whereas the 23:00 train arrives past noon the next day.

Comparing those times to my experience, I’d say those times are off, though. Unless it follows a very different route or I accidentally took a train with countless local stops and the other train is an express train, I have a hard time buying that. I’ll leave that gap for other intrepid travelers to fill in – if you find out, comment below and I’ll update this post accordingly.

When at the train station, be sure to check out the Monument to the Victims of Stalinist Repression in front

All Aboard the Slowest Train of Your Life

From start to finish, it took a whopping 18 hours to span 500 kilometers, including a perplexing 9 hours to traverse Moldova… which, given the size of this tiny landlocked country, practically defies physics.

On Soviet train, Moldova leaves you!

The train departed at 21:19 exactly on schedule and chugged along through Moldova making countless stops, finally reaching the border with Ukraine around 6 AM. Luckily, unlike the night train to Istanbul, all the passport-checking takes place on board the train.

The train itself is spartan but functional, as befits a Soviet-era train. The train has bunk beds, where the bottom level has a luggage compartment underneath it that can be lifted up. The top bunks can be folded away and typically are, as it’s rare for the train to hit capacity (no need to buy tickets in advance save for the fact that the ticket line moves quite slowly). There are also bed/seat combinations on the side, so that each “section” can fit 6 people.

You’re given two sheets, a mattress pad that is actually quite comfortable, a pillow and pillowcase, and a towel if you’d like to wash your face or something on the train. There is hot water available and you can borrow glasses to drink tea or coffee out of (I assume you have to bring it yourself — my nice seat mate kindly shared his coffee with me in the morning, because people are angels). There was a restaurant car on my train in theory, but I didn’t check it out personally. The bathroom was actually one of the cleanest I’ve seen on a train, though of course, it’s strictly a BYO TP and hand sanitizer kind of affair.

One of the few photos I took on the train.

I wish I had taken better pictures but I am a shitty wannabe train blogger. I blame the combination of boarding a pitch black train, drugging myself in order to sleep, and then having a series of weird encounters with border officials and random people as soon as I woke up.

I arrived in Kiev around 3:10 PM the following day, pretty much exactly on schedule – if not a few minutes early.

Crossing Between Moldova and Ukraine

I exited Moldova with only a slight hitch. My border stamp, which I got at the Palanca border crossing commonly used between buses between Odessa and Chisinau, was so faded it almost looked as if it weren’t there.

I heard a flurry of a language I couldn’t understand with the words “Tiraspol” being bandied about — evidently, they thought that given the lack of entry stamp, I had entered via Transnistria. Eventually, they were able to detect the tiny hint of a Moldovan entry stamp (side note: I really hate it when this happens) and I was given my exit stamp.

After a quick and awkward pause for customs entering Ukraine (in which I thought I was being asked to get off the train because, again, toddler-level Russian, and began to change out of my sleeping shorts in front of a border guard), they quickly checked my baggage and ascertained that I hadn’t brought in too much alcohol in from Moldova.

I then waited for the Ukrainian passport control to come and stamp me in. The guards made some awkward comments on my appearance (oh, the joys of traveling while female) and then proceeded to ask me if I was sure if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ukraine (despite the fact that my entry stamp into Odessa a few days back was staring them right in the face).

This is the happy face of someone who didn’t take a bus.

All in all, it was a less pleasant experience than the super-smooth Palanca border crossing from Odessa, which had free Wi-Fi as well as the only land border Duty Free shop I’ve ever seen, but it was nothing crazy.

Just be aware that they don’t see a ton of people who are not Moldovan, Ukrainian, or Russian nationals doing this route so you may have to answer questions about visas that should seem obvious.

Welcome to Ukraine

Not long (I think – I was still blinking off the effects of my sleeping pills) after crossing the border into Ukraine, we pulled into a small city and instantly a flurry of activity began. People began boarding the train, selling kielbasa, soda, and SIM cards — ah, the trifecta of life’s necessities.

But here’s where the story takes an interesting turn.

I met a mysterious man in all yellow who addressed me in Russian. I repeat: all yellow, shirt, jeans, and all. Upon finding out I was foreign, his demeanor changed into something extremely exuberant. When I answered that I was American, he grew even more animated, and began shuffling through his briefcase through a series of tattily-laminated documents translated into several languages, the text of which read quite a bit like a standard spam e-mail and had a bunch of American-sounding names in it that, of course, meant nothing to me.

He began reading out the text of this spam-like document to me in English at full volume for the entire train to hear, flourishing his hands and shouting “your excellency,” trying to shake my hand with a suspicious forcefulness (which held what looked like a deck of laminated Tarot cards but were probably cards of Orthodox saints).

I was confused and still slightly drugged so I began yelling what I thought was “no, goodbye” in Russian over and over again… before realizing that I was babbling in Bulgarian. Whoops.

My seatmate — a young Russian backpacker about my age — looked on, bemused but looking prepared to intervene if necessary. When the man left, he cracked a smile.

“Welcome to Ukraine.”

Am I The Only Person Who Didn’t Like Tbilisi?

Not every place you travel to can be a home run, but even I was surprised by how much I ended up not enjoying Tbilisi.

I had heard such great things about the Georgian capital that I was almost certain it was going to be the highlight of my month traveling the Caucasus.

I sandwiched a week in Tbilisi in between Azerbaijan (which I wasn’t looking forward to but ended up loving) and Armenia and found it my least favorite city of the trip by a good margin. When I returned to Tbilisi for a few days after a week in Yerevan – my favorite city in the Caucasus – I tried to give it a second chance. Still no dice.

Let me pop in a quick disclaimer here. I try to keep things fairly positive, or at least neutral, on my blog, especially when I discuss traveling to off the beaten path places where tourism would do great things for the economy.

I live in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I’ve read articles that slam Sofia as a shitty place just because the sidewalks are busted or someone wasn’t able to find the city center (which is, quite frankly, kind of shocking).

I’ve heard people call it bleak and joyless, and it bothers me. I’m defensive of this city because I love it so much, and I know that for some people, reading this article about Tbilisi will stoke the same feelings. And that’s okay – you have every right to be annoyed by this post, or to love cities that I just didn’t like. My opinion is not the be all, end all.

I can partly chalk this up to a bad first impression. Our first taxi experience in Georgia involved our driver racing through the pouring rain at 140 km/hour, splitting the middle lane as if it were nothing more than a silly suggestion, to the point where we were squeezing headlong between trucks.

We got pulled over by the cops and exited the situation suspiciously quickly (I have a feeling a bribe changed hands). Then he refused to take us to our final destination, trying to kick us out of his car in the driving rain, all the way on the outskirts of Tbilisi.

We finally got him to summon us a new cab (who then also didn’t want to take us to our destination, for reasons I still don’t understand – it was a very normal and central location in the center of the city).

This wasn’t an isolated experience – basically every taxi ride that we didn’t organize in advance with Yandex was a huge pain in the ass.

Terrifying drivers aside, Tbilisi still didn’t grow on me. One thing I value highly in my cities is walkability, and Tbilisi just doesn’t have that in my opinion. The sidewalks seemingly switch from one side of the street to the other at complete random, making you cross the street at the mercy of its insane drivers.

There are countless places where there are just no crosswalks or street signs and suddenly, you need to Frogger your way across several lanes going in both directions, except unlike in Vietnam, it actually feels like drivers are out to hit you.

Either that, or there are underpasses where you need to go underground in order to cross the street safely, something that as a woman I feel uncomfortable doing at night (important side note though: on the whole I feel like Tbilisi is very safe for female travelers).

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my mental state in Georgia was not fantastic. I was over-traveled and seriously missing Sofia.

But I was able to push away my exhaustion to fall in love with Azerbaijan, particularly Nakhchivan and Ganja – neither of which are particularly ‘easy’ places to travel, given that so few tourists pass through these parts.

And after Tbilisi, I found myself head over heels with Yerevan, finding it super livable and bookmarking it for a longer stay in the future. So why couldn’t I do the same for Tbilisi?

As I found myself editing my photos of Tbilisi today, I found myself feeling such an overwhelming sense of blah. Despite spending a total of 10 days in Tbilisi and giving it a solid chance, I just didn’t get it.

I found the food uninspiring and dull, as if Georgians were ethically opposed to including more than one color on a plate (which is weird because I’ve really enjoyed Georgian food in Turkey).

The khachapuri that everyone raved about was just bland and salty. My friend ordered a mushroom dish and quite literally got served just unseasoned mushroom caps.

The prices for food in Georgia were expensive compared to other places in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Georgian wine was fine, but it didn’t live up to the hype (I enjoyed wine in Armenia more).

Part of it, I think, is expectations. I had high expectations for Tbilisi and was strongly considering moving there at some point in the future, as Georgia has extremely permissive visa rules for Americans: a 365-day visa, in fact, meaning you can effectively move there without doing a single piece of paperwork. That appealed to me greatly, so it was extra disappointing when after visiting Tbilisi I realized I’d never be happy living there.

Meanwhile, having had low expectations for Azerbaijan, I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. Most people only visit Baku and as a result, aren’t huge fans. I liked Baku but ended up loving the rest of Azerbaijan. Armenia also blew me away. I think Tbilisi suffered by being compared to its neighbors – had I only visited Tbilisi, perhaps I would have felt differently.

I have to give the city its credit: there are definitely some cool pockets of Tbilisi, and I can see why a lot of people enjoy the city — there are a lot of interesting things to do in Tbilisi, even if the city doesn’t rub everyone the right way.

There’s a thriving hipster scene centered around Fabrika, a combined hostel/workspace/creative hub. Shio Ramen has literally some of the best ramen I’ve eaten outside of Japan and New York. I would consider going back to Tbilisi for their bao buns alone.

I had a genuinely good day out at Turtle Lake and the Ethnographic Museum. 9 Mta has an excellent variety of craft beer and is located in a vibrant part of the city, and the city is clearly growing and changing quickly.

Things seem to be getting better for Georgians, or at least moving in the right direction. During my time in Tbilisi, young Georgians were protesting corruption and succeeded in ousting their Prime Minister mere weeks after Armenia’s more-publicized Velvet Revolution.

As a country that has seen war in the past decade (In the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Tbilisi itself had Russian tanks roll up within 30 kilometers of the city limits) Georgia has done a great job recovering its image and promoting itself as a safe and desirable place for tourism in a way that other post-Soviet and post-Communist countries have not. That’s no small feat.

But I also feel like tourism may have come too quickly for Tbilisi, corrupting a city that wasn’t quite ready for the waves of tourists coming in on cheap flights. This is not meant to dissuade anyone from visiting and seeing for themselves — I think that every place deserves an opportunity to be experienced. As a travel blogger, I don’t take influence lightly, and I know that the words I say have an impact on how people perceive faraway places. To counter my opinion, I know that plenty of people number it among their favorite cities, and perhaps it was a confluence of bad luck, bad timing, and my own personal preferences in a city that left me so disappointed in Tbilisi.

I’m sure one day I’ll come back and give Tbilisi another chance – after all, there is so much more to Georgia than just one city. And I’m fully prepared that I’ll change my mind. I’ll just need some therapy to get over the driving first.

Ultimate Taipei Itinerary: 5 Days in Taiwan’s Lovable Capital

I spent two weeks in Taiwan in January and it was – and still is – one of my favorite new travel destinations of 2018. From the absolutely incredible street food to the mountain of wonderful day trips it’s possible to do easily from Taipei thanks to their excellent metro system, I was never bored in Taipei – and I stayed there for about 12 days.

Of course, most people have to maximize their vacation time, and so I’ve created this Taipei itinerary for 5 days traveling at a leisurely pace. However, if you only had 3 or 4 days in Taipei, you could certainly use this Taipei itinerary as a framework for planning the rest of your trip by picking and choosing what is most essential to you. Or, if you want to see even more, you can combine some of these days into one and then add a few of these excellent day trips from Taipei.

I’ve previously written about some of the best things to do in and around Taipei so feel free to substitute items out from this 5 day Taipei itinerary with other ideas from my list. Also, you can combine this with my 2 day Taichung itinerary in order to plan a perfect full week in Taiwan.

Taipei Itinerary, Day 1: Arriving & Eating

I’ve purposely kept day 1 of your Taipei itinerary quite light on activities as I’m assuming you’ll be tired from your flight or arriving in the afternoon or evening.

Get into the city

First, decide if you want to pick up a SIM card or pocket WiFi in the airport before you leave, to make life a little easier. I bought a SIM card because my phone is unlocked, but many people who don’t have SIM cards – or are traveling in a group and don’t want to buy multiple SIMs – find pocket WiFi devices far more convenient.

You can book it online and simply present your mobile voucher to pick it up 24 hours a day at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, upon arrival, making it ultra-convenient!

Here is the pocket WiFi rental service I recommend!

Now, time to get into the city.

Normally I’m all about the MRT, Taipei’s lightning efficient and ultra cheap subway system, which is probably the best metro system I’ve ever used in the world. But if you are arriving at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, which most flights arrive into, the bus is actually the better option.

You will want to look for bus 1819, which runs 24/7 every 15-20 minutes or so (and every hour between 2 AM and 6 AM). The bus will take you all the way to Taipei Main Station, where you can easily catch the MRT to take you to wherever you are staying.

The airport bus cost 125 Taiwanese dollars, which works out to be about $4 USD, and it took about an hour to go from the airport to the center.

Need more info? I’ve written a full guide to getting from Taoyuan Airport to the city center here.

Alternately, if public transit stresses you out – especially where you don’t speak or read the language – you may want to opt for an airport arrival transfer. These transfers are highly rated and inexpensive for the quality of service. Book yours today here.

Check into your hotel or hostel

If you are staying in Taipei for 5 days, you’ll want to pick a location that is central. Here are my recommendations, broken down by budget.

I personally stayed in Shilin near the night market for my first 5 days in Taipei and then spent my remaining days in an Airbnb in Xinpu, which had a more local vibe. Honestly, the neighborhood you stay in doesn’t matter that much in Taipei because of how excellent the MRT is. So as long as you are close to an MRT station, it is pretty much impossible to go wrong!

I’ve broken down where to stay in Taipei into three budget ranges, which can roughly be defined as follows:

  • Budget: Under $25 per night for a dorm bed
  • Mid-range: $50-100 per night for a hotel room
  • Luxury: $150+ for a hotel room

Budget: For a super-affordable stay with excellent aesthetics and a good location, I recommend LuckyOne Hostel in Datong. The hostel is very well-designed in a way that I wish more hostels were — simple things like the top bunk being high enough that the person on the bottom bunk can sit comfortably, reading lights and outlets next to each bed, etc. have all been considered in the design. Check rates, availability, and reviews here.

Another great option is Ximen Duckstay Hostel (the name is hilarious, I know) which has an amazing central location in Ximen, one of the  most bustling areas of Taipei in the evening. The rooms are small but well-designed, with designated places to keep your luggage to keep the floor clear, privacy curtains, reading lights, etc. There’s also a hostel bar so it’s good for solo travelers who want to socialize, as Taipei doesn’t have the best bar scene. Check rates, availability, and reviews here.

Mid-range: Taipei is home of one of my favorite affordable hotel chains, citizenM ! I love booking rooms with citizenM because I know that I’m going to get a well-designed room at an affordable price, without having to pay for a bunch of luxuries I won’t use. The deisgn is fun and quirky, with a real sense of personality that is missing from many hotel chains. You always know when you are stepping into a citizenM and I love that. The location is also great. Check rates, availability, and reviews here.

Luxury: If you’re looking for luxury meets a dash of quirkiness, I highly recommend Eslite during your stay. Located in Songshan Creative & Cultural Park, this 5-star hotel is beautifully appointed with tons of amazing details like unending shelves of books in the lobby (swoon!). With perks like private balconies, enormous beds, sunken bathtubs, in-room sound systems, you can stay in style at Eslite without paying an insane amount. Check rates, availability, and reviews here.

Head to a local night market

What better way to introduce yourself to Taiwan’s foodie capital than by heading straight to a night market on your first night? While night markets can be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated, they are simply a must-do in Taipei, even if you are a picky eater.

The reason why street food is so much better than other types of food is that vendors truly specialize in one single dish, preparing it to perfection night after night until it is the best version of itself it can possibly be.

In my opinion, Shilin Night Market is a must on any Taipei itinerary – whether you’ve got one day or five. I actually strategically picked my hostel to be in Shilin during my first 4 nights in Taipei (I’d later stay near the Xinpu metro). This was perfect because I would take the MRT to central Taipei during the day, but when I’d go back to my hostel in the late afternoon to rest my legs before dinner, I wouldn’t have to get back on the MRT to get dinner – I could just stroll all the street stalls.

If you prefer a little guidance, you can take an affordable night market tour that covers 12 different tastings at a local, little-touristed market- this tour only runs on Sundays, however, so plan accordingly!

This Ningxia night market tour is offered three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and may be a good alternative.

While Taipei locals and expats will tell you Shilin is the most ‘touristy’ night market, I think that term is a bit overblown. I visited in January, which is pretty off-season, and the crowd seemed to be almost entirely locals.

There are definitely more ‘under the radar’ night markets such as Raohe (check out a complete guide to night markets by a Taipei expat here) which may be more convenient for where you are staying.

For your first night market, I’d say pick somewhere close by your hotel – if you have 5 days in Taipei, you’ll have time to sample more than one night market.

So, what do I recommend you eat at the night markets? While I’m far from an expert, here are a few of the dishes I enjoyed the most: suckling pork wraps, steamed leek buns, flame-grilled beef sprinkled with cumin, pepper pork buns, takoyaki (octopus ‘dumplings’ covered in Japanese toppings), and enormously long French fries dipped in wasabi mayo.

Oh, and if you think you smell a sewer leaking, don’t fret — that’s just someone cooking up some stinky tofu, Taipei’s most notorious – and nefarious – street food. I wasn’t brave enough to try it! Supposedly, it tastes better than it smells – which I would hope – but I never tried it.

One thing to note about the night markets is that there is not always a ton of English spoken, but there’s usually some English signage. If you’re worried about a language barrier — or just want some guidance on what the tastiest things to eat are! — a night market food tour would be a fantastic choice.

This is the night market & bike tour I recommend!

If you want a more in-depth and private food tour experience, I recommend booking a private food tour, which you can set for any day or time during your trip as it’s customized to your schedule!

This food tour includes eight tastings and two drinks and you can schedule it at any point during your trip.

Check tour itinerary, prices, and reviews here.

Taipei Itinerary, Day 2: The Top Sights

If you have 5 days in Taipei, luckily, you don’t have to rush to see all the tourist musts in a quick manner. Rather, you can explore the city leisurely at your own pace.

I’ve included just a few of the main places to see in Taipei on today’s itinerary, so spread it out leisurely and feel free to walk between sights to get to know the city better (or hop on the MRT if your feet are getting tired!)

Not keen on walking? Alternately, you can opt for a private guided tour of Taipei by car or a hop-on, hop-off bus to make getting around even easier.

Otherwise, this day of your Taipei itinerary is mostly walkable (I’ll make note of where you may want to hop on the MRT), so put your most comfortable shoes on and let’s get to it!

Start in Taipei’s most famous square

Start the day at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall MRT station, which is a great place to start the second day of your Taipei itinerary with some of the most important sights in the city. Take exit 5 to The massive Liberty Square is the nexus of several buildings, all of which are beautiful and crucial to understanding the history of Taiwan.

Standing tall above the square, you can’t miss the beautiful, imposing Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall.

The square’s most famous building – the eponymous Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall – is a stunning marble-white building standing 76 meters tall, towering above Liberty Square. This building’s construction incorporates Chinese symbols, hence the reason for its unique shape. For one, the white building is shaped like an octagon, as the number 8 has symbolism within Chinese culture as being associated with good fortune and wealth. There are two sets of stairs, each with 89 steps – Chaing Kai-Shek’s age upon death – leading to a large statue memorializing Chiang.

Below the Memorial Hall, there is a small museum that shows the development of Chiang Kai-Shek’s life and political career, as well as information on Taiwan’s history and Chiang Kai-Shek’s role on the development of the Republic of China (ROC).

There are some other buildings that are also important to take note of (and are also quite photogenic) in Liberty Square. You won’t be able to miss the ornately adorned National Concert Hall and National Theater, standing across from each other as if mirrors.

Lastly, you’ll want to stop by to photograph the scenic DaXiao and Dazhong Gates, located on the side entrances to Liberty Square. Each is composed of 5 arches – the middle arch which frames the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall perfectly – these gates are popular amongst photographers and Instagrammers. You’ll want to dedicate at least 1 hour to exploring and photographing this area, more likely 1.5 hours.

Have pork braised rice for lunch

One of the most traditional and beloved dishes in the Taiwanese kitchen, you can’t miss trying braised pork rice during your time in Taipei. One of the most well-known places in central Taipei to try pork braised rice is Jin Feng near Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Usually packed with a combination of locals and tourists, a bowl of pork braised rice costs around 30 Taiwanese dollars, about $1 USD.

You may have to wait, or you may get lucky and arrive at a time when there are no lines. If you don’t want to wait in line or you don’t eat pork, there are several other restaurants in the area.

Get some peace and quiet at the Taipei Botanical Gardens

I’m a huge fan of botanical gardens in cities. Back when I lived in NYC, I used to spend at least one weekend a month enjoying the peace and quiet of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The great thing about Taipei’s Botanical Gardens is that it’s completely free to enter, and since it’s a mere 20-minute walk from Liberty Square and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, it’s a nice detour.

I visited in January, so understandably, nothing that exciting was blooming in the middle of Taiwan’s winter (even though it being Taiwan, its winters are relatively mild). That said, even with the lack of blooming flowers, I still felt like it’s totally worthwhile to visit the botanic gardens. My favorite part was the pond in the middle of the park – Lotus Pond – which has a great view of the water and the National Museum of History (which you can definitely add to your Taipei itinerary if you want – I didn’t personally check it out as I’m not a huge museum fan).

Marvel at the 18th-century Longshan Temple

There are several traditional Chinese folk temples in Taipei, but Longshan Temple is one of the oldest and most famous. It was built in 1738 by Fujian settlers, who arrived in Taiwan during the Qing dynasty. However, it has been reconstructed several times: fires, earthquakes, and most recently WWII-era bombings have all done considerable damage to the original structure of Longshan over the centuries.

To this day, Longshan Temple is extremely active with locals who make prayers according to the local customs.

One unique custom I noticed is that Taiwanese people were throwing small painted pieces of wood to the ground repeatedly. As it turns out, they were using something called jiaobei or “moon blocks”, which are small, painted pieces of wood that look almost like sections of an orange. They are thrown in pairs and the way they fall to the ground as a unit is used to divine the future.

In addition to the jiaobei blocks, I saw people lighting candles in prayer and making offerings. It was a really unique experience for me as someone who has never experienced Chinese folk religion firsthand before. Entrance for visitors is free, but please dress respectfully as you would with any place of worship.

Hang out in Ximending

Take the MRT to walk to the Ximen metro stop to get to the heart of Ximending. Bustling, bright, and just a tad chaotic, Ximending is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Taipei. Nicknamed “the Harajuku of Taipei,” this is where Taiwanese come to walk, shop, and eat. In reality, it really reminded me of Osaka’s Dotonbori district, but that’s beyond the point!

If you’re hungry, follow the queues for a hint. You’ll likely see a line at Hot Star Fried Chicken or T.K.K. Fried Chicken, which are two of the most-loved foodie spots in Ximending.

This is also the neighborhood where you’ll find some of Taipei’s… quirkier eating options, like Modern Toilet. I ate there purely for the novelty of eating out of a fake toilet bowl – and I was surprised that, for a gimmicky restaurant, my meal was actually not bad. The ice cream, however, was another story – and seriously, how can you mess up ice cream?

If you’re not hungry, this is still a great place to stroll around and people watch, especially in the pedestrian area that is car-free.

Enjoy tea and scenic views on Maokong Mountain

For this next place, you’ll need to hop on the MRT and make your way to the Taipei Zoo station.

To get there independently, just take the MRT to Taipei Zoo (last stop on the brown line) and then catch the Maokong Gondola to the top, which will cost 120 Taiwanese dollars (about $4 USD) each way.

Pro Tip: I actually recommend buying your ticket online here – it’s cheaper, allows you to skip the line, and includes a free night sightseeing bus if you would like.

At the top of the mountain, you can have your choice of famous Taiwanese teas (no, not bubble tea!) as well as try dishes that have been seasoned with tea – certainly something unique you won’t find in the rest of Taipei. Meanwhile, you’ll have amazing views as Taipei’s lights – including the beloved Taipei 101 – come to life after dark.

Taipei Itinerary, Day 3: Explore Taipei’s offbeat side

This day is all about immersing yourself in what Taipei has to offer by making the most of the city’s sprawling MRT system. While it looks like you’ll be bouncing all over the map today, in reality, the MRT makes everything super fast and easily accessible.

Today is all about hot springs, boardwalks, street food, and creative parks!

Start the day at Songshan Creative and Cultural Park

Creative parks are a uniquely Taiwanese phenomenon. Somewhere between pop-up market, nature park, and selfie wonderland, you simply must put one of Taipei’s creative parks on your Taiwan itinerary.

Songshan Creative and Cultural Park is located on the grounds of a former tobacco factory, and in its place a sprawling arts complex has arisen. In the heart of the complex is Eslite, which hosts a trendy luxury hotel, a large bookstore, vinyl shops, and creative workshops.

There is also a huge garden at the heart of Songshan which is great for strolling around and enjoying Taipei’s usually-mild weather. We had a spate of a lot of sunny, warm days despite traveling in January so it was a really lovely space to walk around.

One thing we noticed all over the place in Taipei is that dog owners love to carry their dogs in what look like baby carriers – apparently, this is because dogs are not allowed on the floor of many shops, but all that is moot when you carry the dog in a stroller!

See the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

A brief walk from Songshan Creative Park, you shouldn’t miss the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, one of the most important buildings in Taipei. Similar in style to the National Theater and Concert Hall, this building commemorates the “National Father” of the Republic of China (the formal name of Taiwan). 

Stroll around trendy Zhongxiao

Zhongxiao is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Taipei and it’s a great place to stop if you need to shop a bit while you’re in Taipei. The area around Zhongxiao Dunhua is great for people with an eye for designer fashion, and there are also several delicious restaurants in this area. I opted for delicious Korean fried chicken at Cheogajip but of course this being Taipei good food is never hard to find!

Make your way slowly through Zhongxiao, stopping to shop, sip of coffee, or snack on your way over to Huashan 1914 Creative Park (or hop on the MRT if your feet get tired).

Oh, and if you’re obsessed with Hello Kitty, right by Huashan 1914 is where you’ll find the Hello Kitty themed café. But remember that like many themed cafés, there is a minimum – the minimum here was 300 Taiwanese dollars, about $10 USD, so I gave it a pass as I’m not really a Hello Kitty person. In fact, it’s pretty much antithetical to my personality, but I’m a good sport.

Check out Huashan 1914 Creative Park

Overall, Huashan was really cool, but I was a bit sad to see that their upside-down houses display that was so beloved by Instagrammers had been dismantled! So if that is one of the reasons why you want to go, be prepared that it is no longer there, as the parks rotate out their displays frequently.

However, we did stumble across a Canada-themed (I know, I’m confused too) pop-up craft beer bar with a lovely, super friendly bartender who kept us full of samples of different craft beers!

The creative parks are always changing their pop-up shops and featured galleries, so don’t go expecting any one particular thing or you may be disappointed. They’re a uniquely Taiwanese experience though, so be sure to visit at least one.

Hop on the metro to Beitou Thermal Valley

Taipei is unique in that it is a capital city with actual volcanoes right in the city limits, including the largest volcano in Taiwan (Mt. Qixing). Alongside those volcanoes are volcanic hot springs, which are beloved by locals and fun for tourists to experience.

To check out some hot springs without ever having to leave the comfort of the MRT, head out to Beitou on the red line. There, you’ll find plenty of geothermal activity to take part in. For a local experience, head to Beitou Park and soak your feet in the free hot springs with all the locals (be sure to wash your feet first or you will rightfully earn their ire!)

From there, it’s a short walk to the aptly-named ‘Hell Valley’ where you will most definitely not want to rest your feet in – you’ll see what I mean when you see it! The water is so hot it is on the verge of boiling, about 90 C, so it’s more of a geological curiosity than an actual hot spring to enjoy. The smell is also quite hellish, so be prepared!

From there, you can visit the cheap (about $1 for entry) public Beitou Hot Springs or check the local hotels in the area to see if they have any day passes available to their spas and springs.

The best hotel in town is Grand View Resort Beitou and they have a fantastic day pass deal (book online here) which includes full use of outdoor their mineral water pools, traditional sauna, steam rooms, and stone spa – plus a shuttle service from the MRT metro. It’s a great way to squeeze in some relaxation into your 5 days in Taipei!

End the night at Tamsui Old Street

From Xinbeitou metro, take the MRT back to Beitou, then take the red MRT train to the end of the line at Tamsui. From there, it’s an easy walk along the waterfront to enjoy the historic neighborhood of Tamsui on the edges of Taipei City.

All along the boardwalk, you’ll find classic Taiwanese street food on offer, from bubble tea to all the fried goodnness. The boardwalk area is also extremely beautiful at sunset, overlooking the beautiful bridges and mountains in the area. My favorite bridge is the Tamsui Lover’s Bridge, which looks beautiful silhouetted against the sky as it gets dark.

bridge at sunset - Tamsui lover's bridge is one of the best things to do in Taipei

Taipei Itinerary, Day 4: Take a day trip to Shifen and Jiufen

If you have a whole 5 days in Taipei on your itinerary, it’s not a bad idea to use at least one of them to do a day trip outside of the city to see some of Taiwan’s beautiful nature right at your doorstep. 

I’ve written a complete guide to visiting Shifen Waterfall and Shifen Old Street here, and I’ve also written a guide on how to get between Shifen and Jiufen using public transit.

Shifen Old Street - the train goes through the center

While I found it all pretty easy to DIY, I know sometimes taking public transportation can be overwhelming in a foreign country, especially when there is a language (and reading!) barrier.

For people who prefer to take a guided tour, this private tour covering Shifen, Yehliu, and Jiufen will take you to all the top sights without the hassle and make sure you don’t miss anything along the way.

Save stress and time! Check out this private Jiufen, Shifen, and Pingxi tour here.

Alternately, this guided bus tour is similar, allows time for Shifen Old Street, Jiufen, and Yehliu Geopark, and is quite affordable to boot – check it out here.

However, do note that neither of these tours includes Shifen Waterfall, and instead swap out Yehliu Geopark, which I didn’t have a chance to visit on my trip.

Since I’ve covered these sites in more depth on the pages linked above, I’ll just give a quick overview of today’s sights if you wanted to DIY it.

Take the adorable Pingxi Railway

The Pingxi line is famous for its railway that goes right through the center of several towns. Pingxi is also the location of the famous lantern festival that takes place each fall. There are several stops along the Pingxi line, which connects Ruifang with Shifen.

While I didn’t stop in Houtong, this village is easily accessed by the Pingxi line and is home to hundreds of cats that the town people take care of! This small village has become somewhat of a tourist attraction so if you’re a cat fanatic I’d recommend a quick stop there. Since you buy a day pass for the entire Pingxi line, it won’t cost you any extra to stop, and trains come about every 30 minutes.

Eat on Shifen Old Street

There are plenty of delicious places to stop for a snack on Shifen Old Street, which is full of vendors. There were lots of fried bits and bobs that I couldn’t recognize, as there usually are, plus other standards like grilled squid and sausages.

But of course, as usual, my eye was drawn to the bamboo steamers and the delicately-skinned xiao long bao that I am completely addicted to.

Let off a lantern for luck

One of the most touristy things to do in Shifen (but secretly also the most fun), I think you can’t miss a visit to Shifen Old Street without letting off a lantern for good luck. To get a lantern, pick your colors (each represents a different meaning) and then paint your wishes on the sides of the lantern. Or, if you’re a narcissist like me, you can paint your blog name in a desperate bid for new Instagram followers.

Admire the marvelous Shifen Waterfall

Aptly called the “Little Niagara,” Shifen Waterfall is not nearly as large as the U.S.’s most famous waterfall – but it is insanely impressive nonetheless. It earned the nickname for its distinctive, beautiful horseshoe shape that mirrors Niagara in miniature. At 20 meters high and 40 meters high, it is quite a powerful and awe-inspiring sight to behold!

The waterfall is certainly the main draw, but the walk to the waterfall is also beautiful – you pass two beautiful suspension bridges, a super-blue river against a backdrop of beautiful green mountains, and endless photo opps.

It’s common to rent a little electric scooter for $200 TWD (about $6 USD) for the hour, but it’s actually not that far and you definitely could walk from Shifen Old Street if you didn’t feel comfortable riding a scooter or you prefer to save money and walk.

The gorgeous Shifen waterfall

Head to Jiufen

I’ve explained how to get to Jiufen from Shifen in depth in a dedicated post, so head over there to plan it out using public transportation if you’re not going on a guided tour.

Jiufen is supposedly famous for being the inspiration for Miyazaki’s famous anime movie Spirited Away, although I recently learned that that was just a rumor! Still, visit Jiufen and you’ll see why the comparisons abound.

Jiufen is a haven for foodies and strolling along Jiufen Old Street you’ll likely be completely overwhelmed by all the delicious street food on offer here. A few of the most famous offeirngs are the peanut ice cream rolls and the fish ball soups, but you can check a complete guide to the foodie must-eats of Jiufen here.

Other than snacking on all the food, Jiufen has beautiful temples to photograph and a gorgeous coastline where you can see a beautiful sunset from one of many of the teahouses up on the hill.

Be warned though that Jiufen can be very crowded at night. Even when we visited in January – not close to peak season at all – we got stuck in a very slow-moving line of people descending the narrow streets, which was not fun for this claustrophobe.

Day 5: Finish off your Taipei musts

Eat xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung

One of the most famous dishes in Taipei is xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings. These delightfully fun-to-eat dumplings can be found everywhere in Taipei, but nowhere are they more famous than at Din Tai Fung, a Michelin-starred restaurant in central Taipei.

While there is a Din Tai Fung in the Taipei 101 tower, the original branch is supposedly the best – you can find it on Xinyi Road near the Dongmen MRT.

Some inferior soup dumplings, because I suck at waiting and following my own advice and didn’t actually wait for Din Tai Fung!

The wait at Din Tai Fung is always really long – usually at least an hour, unless you start your day there when it opens at 10 AM.

Pro Tip: If you don’t want to go right when it opens, I recommend purchasing a fast-track restaurant voucher, which can reduce your wait time from about 2 hours to closer to 30 minutes!

Alternately, you could do this in the evening with a Din Tai Fung dumpling & night tour alternative!

Explore Yongkang Street

The intersecting street, Yongkang Street, is also really cute and well-worth strolling around after you’ve stuffed yourself silly with dumplings… and there are also plenty of places to eat here if you’ve saved room after your dumplings or if you have a superhumaly-large stomach capacity.

There are several cute cafés serving quality coffee, street food vendors serving up fresh-to-order snacks, and plenty of cute accessory shops, including a perplexing number of umbrella-only shops (how that is a viable business model I have no idea…).

Walk over to Da’an Park

Da’an Park is the largest park in Taipei and it’s worth visiting here to rest your feet for a bit and allow your stomach time to digest all the lovely dumplings you just force fed it. Taking up 64 acres in the heart of Central Taipei, it’s a welcome respite from the at times relentless activity of the city.

Da’an Park (also called Daan Forest Park) was created with the intention of serving a similar function to NYC’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park. It’s supposed to be the “lungs of Taipei,” offering locals a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown.

If the weather is nice, you can sit by the Ecological Pool and forget that you’re even in the heart of a metropolis of some 7+ million people!

Near the park, you can find the Grand Mosque of Taipei, the largest mosque in Taiwan. It was completed in 1960 by Chinese Muslims who came over to Taiwan from mainland China and lacked a place of prayer. In a country with tons of traditional Chinese temples, it’s quite unique to see!

Head up to the top of Taipei 101

I like to spread out some of the more touristy things over a couple of days, and to do some of the can’t-miss stuff last: which is why I’ve waited until the final day of this Taipei itinerary to tell you to go up to the top of Taipei 101.

It’s also close to your next stop, Elephant Mountain, where you’ll hike for an incredible view over the city (and of Taipei 101 itself).

The Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building for six years – until the Burj al Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building, came along. While I generally find massive skyscrapers to be not that awe-inspiring, I was insanely impressed by the Taipei 101. It is unique and beautiful, inspired by Chinese pagodas yet uniquely Taiwanese. Some people say it looks like a stack of Chinese takeout boxes, others, like a stick of bamboo – I saw a massive layer cake.

One of the most interesting things about the building is how green it is: it has a platinum certification in environmental-friendly design. Even more interestingly, it was built to withstands the typhoons and earthquakes that often rattle Taipei.

To give the insanely tall building structure, a massive 728-ton pendulum damper is inside, which allows the building to rock and sway in the event of strong winds and earthquakes.

Entrance to the Taipei 101 costs $600 NTD (about $20) so it is definitely one of the pricier activities in Taipei!

I suggest booking the ticket online via GetYourGuide. You can purchase the standard admission ticket for the same price as buying it in person, which allows you to conveniently collect your ticket at the self-service ticket machine and skip the ticket-purchasing queue.

Book your standard entrance ticket here and skip the ticket desk

However, you will still have to wait for the elevators, which can be up to an hour or so of waiting — some past guests have even said 2.5 hours!

For that reason, I’d strongly, strongly recommend a skip-the-line ticket, which allows you to skip all queues for about an extra $20 USD. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily pay 20 bucks to not wait two hours on my vacation!

Save time on your trip! Book your fast-track ticket easily & hassle-free here!

Whichever ticket you book, your entrance ticket allows you to go up to the impressive viewing platform on the 89th floor, using the world’s fastest elevator! At 37.7 mph, this elevator takes an incomprehensible 30 seconds to go all the way up to the 89th floor – truly insane (and a bit stomach-dropping to be honest!).

If you’re a Starbucks fan, the world’s tallest Starbucks is here, but you have to apparently make a reservation.

Visit Elephant Mountain for a sunset hike and amazing view

If you’ve seen iconic night shots of Taipei all lit up from above, there’s a 90% chance those photos were taken from Elephant Mountain, Taipei’s very own mini-mountain hike right off a metro line.

Simply take the MRT all the way to the beginning of the red line (Xiangshan). Try to time your arrival so that you get to the MRT station about 1 hour before sunset, as the walk to the hiking trail takes 10 minutes plus about 20 minutes to get to the viewing area at the top of Elephant Mountain (so about 30 minutes total).

This hike is extremely popular with tourists and Instagram lovers. It’s become quite popular to get a shot standing on one of the boulders overlooking Taipei, so if you want that Insta photo you’ll have to queue up (we waited about 20 minutes for our turn for a photo).

Hit one final night market

Of course, on your last night in Taipei, you can’t miss visiting a night market!

There are so many to choose from, but Shilin was my favorite, so I’d either head back here or check out a new one from your list. I found that even though I went back to Shilin several times, I never got bored, as I was always trying new things each time!