I don't know a relative or a good friend who lives in Taipei so the idea I had of the city is the one I got from guide books. This made me picture it like any other Asian cities dotted with temples and its downtown full of modern skyscrapers. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a city like no other. On top of the monuments, shrines, notable buildings, great shopping and good food scene, I found the less touristy aspect of this trip unforgettable.
Here is my Taipei top three.
Soaking in Beitou. I don't remember how long it took us to get to Xin Beitou by train from Taipei city center but you'll know you've reached the Beitou area when you start to smell the sulfur in the air. Asia Pacific resort has a free pick-up and drop-off service to/from the MRT station but we decided to hike it. The walk was rewarding because we saw points of interest along the way - a museum, an outdoor hot springs, and a geothermal valley. As a rule, one should shower first and thoroughly wash the bodies before getting in the geothermal pools, with nothing on. There are three pools at the spa's baths - hot, mild and cold. In the beginning, the hottest of the pools felt like scalding hot but I was okay after a few minutes. On top of the relaxation effect, we were told there are great health benefits to geothermal and sulfuric hot spring which activates the body's self healing mechanism. The only challenge was that the signs are in Chinese so be very careful when going into the baths because most outdoor pools are not coed.
Sipping tea on the slopes of Maokong. It was the first time I heard of Ti Kuan Yin, a kind of oolong tea found in Taiwan. This tea has a fragrant aroma and the taste is quite strong with a hint of toasted nut and a sweet aftertaste. This was recommended by our server at a Maokong restaurant. He also showed us how to properly rinse all the tea wares, how to awaken the tea and how to properly brew the Ti Kuan Tin. We were told not to steep the tea for longer than 3 minutes if we want a less strong taste and smelling the tea is a big part of the whole tea experience. A teaspoon full of loose leaves can be reused for 5 to six times. To get to Maokong, take the cable cars called Gondolas from the Taipei Zoo MRT station. An added bonus is the great view of the city since Maokong is high up on the hills.
Shilin Night Market.The Shilin Night Market is a must see when in Taipei. You can find here almost anything - food, foot massage, hair salon, shoes, clothes, and the stinky tofu. Before going to Taipei, sampling the stinky tofu was on our list. The smell, I can deal with the smell. But when I saw what it looks like uncooked? I couldn't get over what it looks like. In short, we chickened out and did not try the stinky tofu. Bring lots of paper towels.