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Taiwan - When and where to visit
The early summer sunrise forms a beautiful backdrop in mountainous regions of Taiwan © Rich Matheson
As you’d expect of a country that straddles the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan is wet and warm. Seasons are distinct in terms both of temperature and the likelihood of rain. Daytime highs of 38°C have been recorded in urban areas during the summer. In December and January, northerners shiver as the mercury hovers around 10°C. The south doesn’t get so cold, but jackets and gloves are essential if you’re out early in the morning.
Taiwan’s annual average rainfall is 2,471mm. The north gets more than the south; the north’s wet season is longer but less pronounced. A few places near Keelung receive close to 6,000mm of rain in a typical year. Taipei (an average of 170 rainy days per year) is noticeably wetter than central Kaohsiung (92 wet days each year). The ROC’s outlying islands are relatively dry: Kinmen gets just 1,049mm of rain a year. Snowfall is uncommon below 2,000m in the northern half of Taiwan and below 3,000m in the south.
Taipei gets 1,408 hours of sunshine per year. Kaohsiung gets 2,082 hours, while in Tainan – where they used to produce salt by using sunshine to evaporate seawater – the annual average total is 2,264 hours. The days are relatively short, even in summer. In Taipei in early July, the sun rises about 05.10 and sets before 19.00. At the end of December, the times are around 06.40 and 17.20.
Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau publishes detailed English-language forecasts on their website.
For those that can handle the heat, summer in Taiwan is especially vivid due to the abundance of flowers and butterflies © higrace, Shutterstock
Even if you’re sure you can endure the heat and humidity of a Taiwanese summer, avoid July, August and early September because of the typhoons that blow in from the Pacific. From late June to the end of August, thousands of local college students crowd Kenting National Park and Green Island. Yet for those who can handle the temperatures Taiwan’s summers are wonderfully vivid: the skies are blue, the rivers are full and mountain peaks are clearly visible from the lowlands, and butterflies and flowers are abundant. Overall, October to March is the best period to visit because temperatures are comfortable and there’s little chance of getting caught in a downpour. That said, it can get downright frigid in the mountains. Because of landslides, mountain areas are occasionally inaccessible during the summer wet season. The best times of year for high-altitude hiking – or any kind of mountain exploration – are October to November and the early spring. During the colder months, excursions to Penghu County and Orchid Island are less pleasant and more prone to delays. People with very sensitive respiratory systems should avoid Taiwan’s southern lowlands during the winter because air quality declines during the season’s long dry spells. Also, don’t come around Lunar New Year – accommodation rates go through the roof, trains get booked out and the roads are jammed with sightseers and people visiting relatives.
In artistic terms, the 200-year-old Baoan Temple in Taipei is without doubt one of Taiwan’s finest places of worship © topimages, Shutterstock
Your first impressions of Taiwan may be of overcrowded urban areas and a bewildering lack of English once you leave the airport but with a little nudging the door to the treasure house opens. Taiwan not only has a tremendous range of attractions – cultural, scenic and ecological – but also great depth in every category. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough to do justice to its mountains, museums, minorities, temples or birds.
A personal top 6: nature and the outdoors
Hualien to Taitung by Highway 11 is many cyclists’ favourite but the inland route brings you closer to the region’s indigenous population.
Little Liuqiu Island
The coral chunk, Little Liuqiu Island, is near enough to Kaohsiung to make an excellent day trip, yet far enough from ‘mainland’ Taiwan to have a completely different vibe.
New Central Cross-Island Highway
The high-altitude road that connects Sun Moon Lake with Yushan National Park and Alishan more than justifies renting a car or hiring a driver.
Straight, empty roads link sandy beaches, crumbling coral houses and superb windsurfing spots are what make up Penghu County.
Taiwan’s number two peak in terms of height is a world-class three-day hike offering stunning vistas.
You’ll understand why Taroko Gorge is called a ‘must-see’ as soon as you reach Swallow Grotto or the Tunnel of Nine Turns.
A personal top 6: culture and man-made attractions
The fervour and colour of Taiwan’s tang-ki and zhentou are unforgettable.
Staggeringly quaint villages scarred by Cold War battles.
Get lost in the backstreets of Lukang; Taiwan’s living museum.
National Museum of Taiwan History
Whether you know nothing about Taiwan’s past or have immersed yourself in the subject, you’ll find this museum very satisfying.
National Palace Museum
The cream of the artistic output of one of the world’s oldest and most accomplished civilisations.
Tainan’s Martial Rites Temple
The most exquisite shrine in a city famous for temples. Tainan is a place of supreme tranquillity and refinement.
The city of Kaohsiung is an excellent starting point for a weekend filled with adventure © sean pavone, Shutterstock
Spend weekdays exploring the countryside, the mountains and little towns like Lukang and Tamsui; spend weekends and national holidays in the major cities. Many scenic spots are all but deserted in the middle of the week; room rates are lower and there are some discounts on admission charges. Note that many museums close on Mondays.
A long weekend
As many Asia-based Western expatriates are discovering, a long weekend in Taiwan is very feasible. Fly to Taipei for culture or Kaohsiung for outdoors adventure. The capital has more than enough shops, restaurants and museums to keep you out of mischief, and for glimpses of tradition you needn’t go beyond the city limits. Baoan and Longshan temples are among Taiwan’s most interesting shrines. Dihua Street, where business is still done the way it was a hundred years ago, nicely counterpoints the city’s department stores and boutiques. Central Kaohsiung has its attractions but if time’s limited, speed away from the city, either towards the hills, or down to the beaches and beautiful hinterland of Kenting National Park.
Try to hit at least two but not more than three of the following: Taipei, Tainan, Taroko Gorge and somewhere in the high mountains. If you restrict yourself to the northwest, you’ll probably be able to take in the woodcarving centre of Sanyi and possibly an indigenous village. Those staying in the south should get their own transport, and drive or ride towards Taitung. The return leg to Kaohsiung can be via Kenting National Park.
Ease yourself in with a full three days in and near your city of arrival, then rent a car or a motorcycle for a week so you can traverse the Central Mountain Range by whichever road takes your fancy. When you reach the east coast stop at a hot springs if the weather’s cool, or a mountain creek if it isn’t. Spend up to three days in Taroko Gorge. To find solitude or something close to it, arrive on Green Island or Orchid Island on a weekday. Consider hiking into the eastern part of Yushan National Park before heading back to western Taiwan by any mountain road you haven’t already seen. If you’ve no intention of braving the roads, get to grips with the bus schedule or find a tour operator who can transport you to and around the hills. Do this because if you leave having seen only the places served by trains, you won’t have seen the best of Taiwan.