I would say I have a bird’s eye view of the Taiwanese capital, but I’m not sure most birds fly this high. I’m standing on the 101st-floor rooftop of the Taipei 101 tower, which, until 10 years ago, was the tallest tower in the world at 1,667 feet. A year ago this was not possible, but the Taipei 101 opened its rooftop to the public last summer, and now I’m higher… by 187 feet… than the Empire State Building.
Taipei 101 is the quintessential centerpiece of the capital city skyline, but it also holds symbolic value for an island state with a very complicated history.
Established in 1912, the Republic of China (ROC) was a sovereign state in mainland China that fought against the Chinese Community Party and ultimately lost. Japan’s 50-year rule over Taiwan ended after World War II, and the ROC and a million-plus Chinese residents relocated to Taiwan and eventually implemented a multi-party democracy. China claims the island as its territory, forcing countries to adopt a One China policy, but the Taiwanese government currently operates like an independent nation that, last year, became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Now imagine how pissed the Commies got when their capitalist little brother suddenly enjoyed a major economic boom. Starting in the 1960s, the so-called Four Asian Tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong) experienced decades of growth and industrialization. As a symbol of Taiwan’s economic emergence, construction started in 1999 on the record-setting Taipei World Financial Center, which changed its name to Taipei 101 by the time it opened in 2004. It remained the tallest building in the world until the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010, but Taipei 101 is still the world’s tallest “green” energy-conservation building.
I arrived at Taipei 101 for a second time — bad weather forced the cancelation of the original ticket — and made my way through several levels of luxury fashion stores to the fifth-floor entrance. In the past, only a few special guests were allowed on the 101st floor, Barack Obama and Will Smith among them, and even now only 12 guests are allowed each day at a cost of NT$3,000 ($100) each.
Four guides met the group on the fifth floor and proceeded to take us up. We started in Taipei 101’s ultra-fast elevator to the 89th floor observation deck. Reaching speeds that topped 3,300 feet per second, the elevator climbed all 84 floors in well under 40 seconds. In fact, the acceleration is so fast that it requires air pressure control technology similar to an airplane cockpit. It’s hard to imagine a better prelude to the skyline adventure.
Two floors up, the original observation deck sits on the 91st floor, and most visitors still head here for an outdoor view and cheaper tickets ($10). This is where daredevil Felix Baumgartner did an unauthorized base jump in late 2007 when it still topped the tallest towers list.
To reach the rooftop, however, our group had to take another elevator up about 10 floors and then a few flights of stairs. Before stepping out onto the rooftop, we had to put on harness vests, and then once outside, the guides used a rope to attach the harnesses to the railing that runs along the outside of the rooftop. The rope apparently keeps guests from falling or jumping from the 101st floor (thanks Felix), though the winds on certain sides of the spire were definitely motorcycle-on-the-Autobahn strong.
The oversized spire takes up most of the space on the rooftop, leaving a relatively narrow space between the spire and railing for the group to explore. Movement is relatively limited as the rope attachment only allows you to move as quickly as the person in front of you. Like a chain gang, the group started walking along the perimeter, with long pauses as fellow guests apparently tried to set world records for taking the most selfies in a single spot. We made a few trips around the entirety of the rooftop over the course of about 30 minutes.
The views cover the entire city, from the urban riverways to the surrounding mountain peaks, offering an unobstructed 360˚ outdoor view of a culturally rich capital set in a nature-ringed basin that once housed an ancient lake. Taking in the city as a whole is arguably more impressive than focusing on specific spots, most of which were very far down from our position. This made it more difficult to make an emotional connection with everything we saw, but I never before experienced such a high outdoor vantage point, and it was certainly different and unique.
After taking in the view of the gods, I set out to explore the rest of the city on a three-day unlimited use metrocard for $13. I started with the city’s famed night markets, which, for the uninitiated, are outdoor street markets that date back to medieval China. Night markets are everywhere in Taipei, including the freaky Snake Alley on Huaxi Street. This former red-light district sells everything from snake meat to deer penis wine, so I obviously stayed the fuck away and opted instead for the Shilin Night Market. The century-old Shilin is packed with hundreds of stalls selling dishes like herb-stewed ribs and scallion pancakes as well as inexpensive fashion that ranges from traditional to streetwear, including fake Supreme shirts. Shilin is, however, the most touristy night market because of its global popularity.
Taiwan is also a gastronomic hot spot. The country’s most famous native son, André Chiang, became a global chef with the now-closed Restaurant André in Singapore. In 2014, he opened Taiwan’s reigning hot spot, Raw, working in collaboration with head chef Alain Huang to reinterpret Taiwanese cuisine in a creative, art-forward setting. Though not as coveted a reservation as Raw, Mume actually ranks higher on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list (18 spots higher at No. 18), and it brings its own reinvention to Taiwanese food by utilizing European techniques. Hong Kong-born chef Richie Lin is a veteran of such esteemed kitchens as Noma, Quay and Per Se, and he puts his wide-ranging skills to use crafting dishes that straddle the line between tradition and innovation.
The quintessential Taiwanese food experience is a visit to the original soup dumpling mecca, Din Tai Fung. Several locations exist in Taipei, but the original is the Xinyi Branch, and try to arrive early to avoid what are typically long-ass lines. Also worth consideration is the innovative farm-to-restaurant Gen Creative that leans into the cultural diversity of its three chefs, who hail from Taiwan, South Korea and Guatemala, respectively.
Mume has one Michelin star, Raw has two, but the only three Michelin star restaurant in the city is Le Palais on the top floor of the Palais de Chine Hotel. This is Cantonese food at its finest, from elevated dim sum and crispy roast duck to its signature barbecue pork and artisan teas. The prices are all over the place, meaning you can actually make it through a meal without having to hawk your laptop, but many of its signature dishes must be ordered several days in advance.
Though most of the Chinese moved in as the Japanese moved out in the 1940s, Taipei still has some Japanese influence. On the culinary side, Da-Wan (my personal fave) is a casual, party-style steakhouse serving the best cuts of wagyu beef cooked on a Japanese charcoal grill in front of you. Shoun RyuGin (photo below), an offshoot of Tokyo’s three Michelin star Nihonryori RyuGin, serves a Japanese-style kaiseki menu showcasing Taiwanese produce. The restaurant also boasts a world champion sake sommelier who will absolutely blow your mind.
Mixology fans should also visit the Indulge Bistro Taipei for exceptional cocktails often made with unusual ingredients. The current menu centers on the interaction of metal, wood, water, fire and earth with mankind. Indulge is currently ranked No. 21 on the World’s 50 Best Bars, which describes the cocktails as “theatrical serves, brimming with imagination yet never out of step with narrative.”
For those wondering where to stay, your best bet is to find a hotel or hostel near the Zhongxiao Fuxing Station in the center of town. The station, located in the heart of a bustling commercial zone, is home to the Bannan (east-west) and Wenhu (north-south) lines, which are among the best for getting around town.
As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Taiwan banned international travelers on March 19. Despite sitting just 81 miles off the coast of mainland China, Taiwan has been a model for containing the virus without shutting down retail or restaurants. As of May 10, the country only experienced 440 confirmed cases and six deaths. Reports suggest it will make a strong push to promote new tourism when the ban ends presumably in the near future.