Although I’ve visited many quarters of your city, it’s usually with a specific aim largely unrelated to the place itself. I often venture out to see, do, or discover something new in Taipei, but not as often about Taipei.
Taking the time to learn about our surroundings is something many of us do as tourists. We meticulously read up on each place we visit, learn all the novel historical facts, and go forward armed with knowledge. We visit places not to do something else, but as a worthy destination in itself.
But when it comes to our own city, or one we’ve been living in for a while, the impetus to discover is not as strong. That’s not to say that I’m no longer curious about my surroundings, or that I don’t try to learn more about this city – I am, and I do. But, admittedly, I don’t dig as deep or as often as I know I could.
Perhaps you’ve also been in the situation where something catches your eye -be it a building, shop front, or monument- but you keep walking on by because you’re busy, or on the way to somewhere else? Consequently, by not finding out how it came to be, you miss a learning opportunity.
How then, can this situation be redressed? Well, besides making a more concerted effort to discover more, you can sign up for a free walking tour of your city.
In Taipei, the best known, and most reputable one is Like it Formosa. They recently invited me to review their Golden Age Tour, which is a free walking tour of Taipei’s Ximen and Dadaocheng areas. Having had a great experience with them when I joined their tour to Taipei’s Gay Pride Parade, I was excited to check this newest tour route. Here’s a snapshot of my experience:
Like it Formosa’s Golden Age Tour
Like it Formosa is an independent Taiwanese organization which offers travelers, locals, and expats walking tours of Taipei. It’s free to attend, although tips to the guides are greatly appreciated. The Golden Age Tour is held every Sunday at 3:00pm, and starts at Exit 5 of Ximen MRT Station. Like it Formosa describes this tour as follows:
The Taipei Free Walking Tour / Golden Age walks you through places where once Taiwan’s literati and artists gathered, and gives you a peek of how Dadaocheng has transformed over the years into a creative hub where traditions clash with innovations.
Here’s what you can expect to see on the tour:
I’ve been to Ximen dozens of times, and Dadaocheng a couple of times, but some of the sights on the Golden Age Tour I’d either never seen, or had never properly delved into. I won’t give too much away about each place, lest I take away the excitement for you of learning about it on the tour. So I’ll just give a brief overview of each main place, which will hopefully be enough to spark your curiosity!
Table of contents
- Zhongshan Hall (中山堂)
- North Gate (北門)
- Taipei Post Office (臺北北門郵局)
- Tianma Tea House (天馬茶房)
- Sin Hong Chuun Tea House (新芳春茶行特展)
- Dihua Street (迪化街)
- Xia Hai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟)
- Ningxia Night Market (遼寧街夜市)
Zhongshan Hall (中山堂)
Zhongshan Hall is the first stop you’ll go on the tour. Originally called Taihoku City Public Auditorium, the building was erected in 1928 as a tribute to mark the ascension of Japanese Emperor Showa.
After Taiwan was handed over by the Japanese to the Republic of China (ROC) at the end of World War II in 1945, the building was renamed to its current name in honor of the founding father of the ROC, Sun Yat-sen.
Historically, Zhongshan Hall was a reception area to welcome visiting foreign diplomats and notable guests. However, now the hall’s numerous auditoriums serve as a space for musical and dance performances, ceremonies, and exhibitions.
Opposite Zhongshan Hall you will see the Retrosession Memorial Wall. It stands as a monument to celebrate the defeat of the Japanese. It reads: “Congratulations for the victory against the Japanese Government.”
The large grounds found in front of Zhongshan Hall is now used to hold public events and festivales, and is a popular place for local youths to practice skateboarding.
This will all be explained more thoroughly by your tour guides, who are basically walking encyclopedias on Taiwanese history! On my tour, the head guide was Anna, and the assistant guide was Wade. Both were so friendly and knowledgeable, and were all too happy to answer any questions myself, or the other group members had.
I should tell you a bit about the other group members too. Right at the beginning of the tour, we were all asked to briefly introduce ourselves. In my group, there was a mixed bag of people: tourists from Korea and the Phillippines, Taiwanese locals, and a bunch of fellow Aussies on exchange here. There were couples, people who brought along just one or a big group of friends, and those who went alone (well, just me!).
Absolutely everyone is welcome, so don’t feel nervous to come along. One of the best things about the tour is the chance to meet new people, which after the good part of the day together, comes quite naturally.
North Gate (北門)
When you approach the North Gate, you may be surprised to see that is nestled in between two busy roads. It seems starkly out of place with the rest of its surroundings, especially when you learn of its important function back in the day.
The North Gate was built in 1884 during the Qing Dynasty, and served as a divide between notable and normal people. Only dignitaries were able to enter through the North Gate, and everyone else required to enter through the South Gate.
If you were to simply look at the North Gate’s rather modest structure, it would be hard to imagine what a significant role it played hundreds of years ago. Learning more about its history really opened my eyes. In particular, I enjoyed finding out about how people bribed their way through the North Gate.
Taipei Post Office (臺北北門郵局)
Also known as Taipei Beimen Post Office, Taipei Post Office was the first one built in Taiwan by the Japanese. It is one of 23 post offices the Japanese constructed in Taiwan during their period of colonisation. The architecture has quite a baroque feel, reflecting the influence of Western design during that time.
Fun fact: the post office is now open around the clock. So head here if you have the urgent need to post something at 3am.
Tianma Tea House (天馬茶房)
Tianma Tea House is no ordinary tea house. As you’ll learn, it was the starting point of the 228 Massacre.
If you’re not familiar with the massacre, your tour guides will inform you about it in further detail. I was quite surprised to learn how this unassuming tea house saw one of the country’s most defining events go down.
Sin Hong Chuun Tea House (新芳春茶行特展)
The first stop in the Dadaocheng section of the tour is Sin Hong Chuun Tea House. Markedly different in both significance and architecture to the aforementioned Tianma Tea House, Sin Hong Chuun Tea House was once the grounds of the biggest tea factory during the Japanese colonial era.
According to the tea house’s website, the building once served as a “tea shop, tea refinery, warehouse, and residency for the owner.”
You’ll have a chance to wander around inside for a bit, and fortunately, there’s quite a lot to explore. Namely, there are displays housing historic tea-related objects, and antique pieces of furniture used by those who frequented the tea house.
Dihua Street (迪化街)
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Dihua Street is one of Taipei’s most interesting and entertaining streets. It is the oldest street in the whole city. Dihua Street was constructed in the 1850’s, but sections have been in existence since since the Dutch colonial rule from from 1624–1661.
It has since undergone numerous conservation efforts to retain its architectural and cultural integrity.
Despite having seen over 160 years of change, the street uniquely retains its sense of old world charm. Moreover, it continues its legacy as an epicenter of commerce in Taipei. There, you’ll find stalls upon stalls selling goods like Chinese medicine, dried fruits, nuts, sweets, freshly cooked delicacies, and fabric.
Dihua Street is undoubtedly at its most vibrant during the Lunar New Year. It’s an incredible experience you can read more about in my article, An 800m Wander Down Dihua Street’s Lunar New Year’s Market.
Xia Hai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟)
The Xia Hai City God Temple, built in 1856, was once revered for blessing prosperity and peace. These days, the temple is frequented by young people who come to pray for a happy love life or good job. I found it to be the most fascinating place on the itinerary because there was so much to take in. The beautiful architecture, the solemness of the people praying juxtaposed with the bustle of the crowd, the elaborate offerings on display… it all transfixed me.
When I went, I was fortunate to see 發爐 (fā lú).發爐 describes when a fire appears in a temple’s censer. It is considered significant not only because it is rare to witness, but also because it is believed that the fire is lit by the gods.
As soon as word caught on, people flocked to this censer to pray. It was really a spectacular sight to see.
During this point in the tour, you’ll be given a 15 minute break to use as you please. The rest of my group chose to wander around the surrounding streets and pick up some snacks, but I wanted to take a closer look at the temple.
Most of my group didn’t end up going into the temple, but I did on the grounds of research…
Alright, you got me – let’s just say, I could do with a bit of a leg up in the love department! No harm to praying to that, right?
First, join the queue at the right-hand side of the temple to collect a small bundle of incense sticks. These are offered free of charge, however in front of this area on the inside you can buy fancier sticks for a small fee. (To the right of the free sticks you can also line up for complimentary tea!).
If you also choose to go inside and the line looks intimidating, don’t be put off. There’s a man on crowd control making sure everyone keeps moving forward, so it’ll only couple of minutes to make your way in.
If you’re unsure of how to pray, just take cues from the locals in front of you.
As it was the weekend, the whole area was ridiculously packed, so if you visit the temple by yourself and would rather avoid the crowds, try going on a weekday. Personally though, I think the crowds add to the experience.
We took a lovely picture of the whole group in front of the temple once everyone reconvened. Doesn’t everyone look so cheery? You can see Anna in the front holding Like it Formosa fans, but unfortunately Wade was taking the picture. And me? I’m somewhere in the back peeking out!
Ningxia Night Market (遼寧街夜市)
The very last stop on the tour is Ningxia Night Market. The tour finishes around 5:30 pm, so it’s the perfect time to grab some delicious night market foods for snacking, or for your dinner. You’ll find all assortment of night market fare such as stinky tofu, skewered meats and vegetables, Taiwanese pancakes, desserts, and even roasted duck.
You’ll notice Ningxia is quite different from the huge and tourist-heavy Shilin Night Market. The stalls in Ningxia Night Market are contained only to one stretch, and you’ll mainly find locals perusing there.
I can honestly say I had a really wonderful time on the tour. Not only did I get to fulfill my objective to discover a bit more about this city, but I also got to meet a bunch of awesome people I’m still in contact with. Not too bad for a free walking tour, eh.
If you’re still deliberating going or not, what’s there to lose? It’s an excuse to get out of the house, meet lots of new people, and expand your mind.
To come back to my original point I made at the beginning of this post, being a tourist in your own city is something we should all strive to do more often. Curiosity, after all, is what keeps us adventurous and mentally nimble.
The best thing about curiosity is that it’s easy to satiate. All you have to do is go that one step further.
Interested in going on the tour?
For more information about the tour, visit Like it Formosa’s Golden Age info page.
This post was sponsored by Like it Formosa. All words and opinions are my own. All photos were taken by Monica Mizzi, unless otherwise stated. Please contact me directly if you’d like to use any photographs. –