Initially, expats may find their lifestyle in Taipei is full of ups and downs. The city isn't necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing – marked by monoliths of glass and steel, congested boulevards and the pollution common to most major metropolises.
As a gateway between East and West, the cultural inconsistencies prevalent in Taipei can make it difficult for expats to carve out a niche in the city. For all their admiration for Western pop stars and ideology, locals often disapprove of pastimes that are fairly normal in the West. Drinking alcohol is taboo unless done in a bar or nightclub, being loud in public is looked down upon and complaining is a social faux pas.
Still, once expats become used to their surroundings they will find ample things to see and do in Taipei and get a better idea of the kind of lifestyle that they want in Taiwan's capital.
A plethora of parks, nature reserves and rolling hills sit on the city’s edge. Further away, deserted beaches and countryside are begging to be explored during weekend breaks. The food culture is rich and unique, and shopping in Taipei is an experience in itself, whether at major malls or night markets.
Shopping in Taipei
Shopping in Taipei will delight the discerning bargain hunters. The historical districts in central and west Taipei have many small stores lining the bustling, narrow streets, especially around the main station. Eastern Taipei has more open spaces and features shopping malls and large department stores. A number of these can also be found in the cosmopolitan Xinyi District, which is home to Taipei 101.
Nearly all of the high-end designer labels are found in shopping malls, which include the American-styled Breeze Center and Dayeh Takashimaya, which has a courtyard aquarium. Most shops open mid-morning at about 10am and close at 9pm. The Eslite Mall in Dunhua South Road is open 24 hours a day.
The Jade and Flower markets on Jianguo South Road are open during the day on weekends. The Jade Market, one of the biggest in Asia, offers good deals on gems.
Technophile expats will be in their element at the Guang Hua Digital Plaza. Affordable, top-of-the-range electronics such as laptops and cameras are sold in stores and stalls throughout the building’s six storeys, and tech giants often unveil new products at the plaza.
Visiting a night market is a quintessential Taiwanese experience and a popular leisure activity. Held outdoors, the endless food stalls, game arcades and trinket peddlers create a carnival atmosphere. While they aren’t known for especially good quality, bargains are easy to find.
Night markets are more than a shopping destination. They are an entire cultural experience that reveals much of the city’s hidden and traditional character. As the sun sets, thousands of stalls open to sell everything from pets to DIY tools and paper fans.
Markets run from 6pm to around 10.30pm. While some markets operate in the streets, others make use of purpose-built open areas.
Some of the most popular markets are Shilin Night Market which has been open since 1899, the Raohe Street Night Market and Snake Alley, where patrons can watch snake handlers or, for the brave, try snake meat.
Nightlife in Taipei
Although drinking culture isn't especially prevalent in Taiwan, expats have a variety of options when it comes to the nightlife in Taipei. There's a wide selection of bars, nightclubs, karaoke venues and tea houses all over the city
Karaoke isn't just a source of entertainment in Taipei, but is something of a way of life. Casually referred to as KTV, it is popular for birthday celebrations, staff functions and weekend entertainment. Entire buildings are dedicated to karaoke with multiple floors of rooms that can be rented by the hour. Food and beer are usually sold on the premises, and many establishments are open 24 hours a day.
Another popular pastime in Taipei is tea drinking. Taiwan produces spectacular teas, most notably fragrant Oolong tea and the richer Tieguanyin tea, both of which are popular exports. There are dozens of tea houses in Taipei where expats can experience the local take on tea culture.
Eating out in Taipei
Expats unaccustomed to Asian cuisine may baulk at delicacies such as stinky tofu or Thousand Year Eggs (duck eggs kept underground for six months until the yolk is green and the white turns to jelly) but there are many other options for those with less adventurous tastes.
Conventional dishes include fried rice, noodles, steamed buns with meat fillings, dumplings and simmering pots of vegetables and meats.
Street food is cheap and delicious, and Taiwanese-style omelettes with a variety of fillings are a popular breakfast on-the-go. Take-out meals from street stalls or small neighbourhood shops are extremely cheap and it is not uncommon for people to live on a steady diet of this type of fast food. Night markets are great for snacks such as calamari and skewered squid.
Expats may find it difficult to get used to Taiwanese food. The good news for those who want to cook something familiar is that a variety of supermarkets sell Western food. Jason’s, Carrefour and Costco are popular with foreigners. Italian restaurants and chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds are also common.