But it doesn’t take much to discover the unique Taiwanese charm. A short drive out to Taiwan’s Northern Coast—roughly 45 minutes away from Taipei—will give you a short but rich glimpse into the island.
The Yehliu Geopark is a strange sight, one that jars first time visitors who are used to Taipei’s clean-cut urban planning. For thousands of years, the ocean tides and tectonic plates have played with the coast to create a scenic 2-kilometer limestone stretch jutting out into the ocean. With rock formations that have appropriately earned their bizarre names (‘Dragon’s Head’ and ‘Fairy’s Shoe,’ to name a few), the park is one of Taiwan’s proudest natural attractions.
It’s a short stretch, but different sections can pass for different planets and are all worth exploring on foot. On one end, you can find an entire troop of mushrooms surrounding the famous Queen’s Head, and on another end, you’ll see the Candle Rocks and the Honeycombs. A lot of the touristy fun comes from spotting and renaming all the rocks you pass, as the further along you walk, the stranger they start to look.
Keep following them, where they will lead you right to the ocean cliffside. As the Pacific Ocean waves crash, you’ll see newer and stranger rock formations are start to form.
After Yehliu Geopark, drive eastward towards the former mining town of Shifen. At the heart of the town are the Shifen Old Streets, a spiral mess of lanes and alleyways that all lead to the Pingxi Line Train Station. During the Japanese era, train was used to transport coal across the country. Now it runs on pure nostalgia.
Apart from the train, the strongest remnant of Shifen’s coal mining history are the paper sky lanterns. They were originally used to send coded military information between soldiers in the town and the mountains. The practice later evolved into a form of prayer, where grieving families would send up messages to their beloved dead. Nowadays, the sky lantern tradition is much more optimistic, where you can write down your hopes and dreams and send them up to the sky.
Not too far from the Old Streets is another of Taiwan’s great natural sights. Simply follow the old, rusted train tracks and you’ll find yourself before the Shifen Waterfall. Typhoon season is a typically down time to go travelling, but the heavy rains make the Shifen Waterfall especially amazing. With the sound of thunder and the illusion of broken glass, the Shifen Waterfall is an incredible sight that breaks the stillness of the Keelung River.
But maybe the richest town within an hour’s drive of Taipei is Jiufen (or if you prefer the older name, ‘Chiufen’)—and that’s not just because it was built on gold. As the local women scrubbed their potted woks with sand from the hills, they discovered gold dust which jumpstarted the town. A gold rush and a tourist boom after, Jiufen is a bustling little town steeped in art, history, and tea.
These days, what keeps the mountain village alive and bustling is nostalgia. You’ll notice it as you walk along the narrow streets, where red paper lanterns hanging from generations-owned stores and stalls exude a uniquely dated charm. It’s along these cramped kiosks where you’ll be able to have your fill of some Taiwan’s best street food.
Jiufen has an other-world element to it, one that makes you feel as if you’re moving through a period film. Which also isn’t a coincidence—fans of Spirited Away can follow Chihiro’s journey all the way to Jiufen’s Amei Tea House, which served as the inspiration for Yubaba’s Bathhouse.
With its incredibly intricate architecture and the sweet aroma of authentic Taiwanese tea, it’s no wonder why the Amei Tea House is a popular artist’s retreat spot—rumor has it even Miyazaki himself came here to work! Take a breather over some afternoon tea and enjoy the scenic view of Keelung Mountain, before you head back home.