Taiwan’s earliest name internationally was Formosa – Portuguese for ‘Beautiful Island’. The Portuguese sailors who came up with that were definitely calling a spade a spade, and it really is a gorgeous little gem of an island! Most of Taiwan is mountainous, and the highest of them, Yushan, is just shy of 4,000m – on such a small landmass, that makes for some dramatic scenery; the west coast is quite flat and home to most of the population in a string of buzzing cities connected by bullet train, the mountains run down the centre, and the east coast is beautifully rugged.
The people are friendly, and they love to eat – days exploring temples or mountains followed by evenings exploring with your taste buds make for good times. Taiwan may not have a huge reputation as a travel destination globally (although it is very popular with Japanese and Korean tourists), but it should do and it deserves to be on your list. Most visitors arrive by air (Hong Kong-Taipei is one of the world’s busiest routes), but for overlanders the route is by ferry to/from China.
How to travel to and from Taiwan overland
Obviously there are no road or rail links, so overlanders must reach Taiwan by sea. I first did this in 2008 from Okinawa, Japan, but sadly that ferry stopped running just a couple of months after I used it and Japan – Taiwan overland is no longer possible. On the other hand, at that time there were no ferries from China, whereas now there are several options – these connect with the Chinese ports of Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Pingtan. See my ferries to Taiwan page for details.
Be aware that if you intend to travel by ferry to Taiwan and then also leave by ferry, you must have a double-entry visa for China already in your passport before reaching Taiwan. There are no Chinese embassies in Taiwan and you won’t be able to get a Chinese visa once you’re there. If you’re already in China, Hong Kong is a good place to score a double-entry Chinese visa and is only a few hours by train from Xiamen and Fuzhou.
Overland travel within Taiwan
Taiwan has good roads and a well-developed railway system. The Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) runs down the heavily populated west coast, connecting up the main cities of Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung; you can book bullet train tickets online on 12go and you can sometimes get discount tickets by booking online here (buying tickets in person from machines or counters at the stations is also perfectly straightforward). The older conventional railway (TRA, Taiwan Railways Administration) does a full loop of the island, also running down the sparser east coast and with a few branch lines running inland to mountainous areas. Roads and buses will get you anywhere the trains can’t, and public transportation in Taiwan is both impressive and impressively cheap.
Some Taiwan Highlights
Go hiking – Taiwan’s mountainous terrain, abundant nature, and well-developed transportation make it a great place for hiking. The mountains surrounding Taipei have some great trails with fantastic views over the city, and are one of the main reasons I love the place so much!
Check out the mountain towns of Jiufen and Shifen for an easy day trip from Taipei (you can book direct shuttle buses here, see here for a guided tour, or see my Jiufen hiking page here for DIY transportation details)
Taroko Gorge – if you only have time for one trip out of Taipei, make it this dramatic gorge on the east coast.
Explore the night markets – an atmospheric and accessible way to try out a range of Taiwanese food.
Check out seedy Snake Alley and nearby Huaxi Market & Longshan Temple.
Eat Michelin-starred xiaolongbao dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Seriously, I still dream about those dumplings; they’re amazing.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Taiwan
Search for hotel deals in Taiwan. Airbnb’s also a great option in Taiwan, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link
For planning rail travel, see the TRA and THSR sites; you can book tickets online with 12go and you can sometimes get discount tickets by booking online here
Unlimited tourist SIM card for airport pickup
Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (an important point, as I found out the hard way in Bangkok)
How to take the ferry to Taiwan. Also visiting China? Make sure you have a VPN (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?) before you get there – I always use Express VPN
My guide to Taipei’s night markets, and all my Taiwan posts
For hiking inspiration, check out my pages on hiking in Taiwan, and see these two excellent blogs for more ideas – bikehiketaipei and hikingtaiwan have both covered significantly more ground than I have.
For further reading, these blogs are also good: Taiwan Off the Beaten Track, Over the City: Hidden Taiwan, Synapticism
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