Tainan is Taiwan’s oldest city and former capital. Its traditional narrow alleys, gorgeous old houses and old temples contrast starkly with Kaohsiung, Taipei and Taichung. Tainan represents the old and traditional Taiwan! The place has been inhabited for over 20000 years. Pursued by dynasties and empires throughout its history, the city has come so many times back from near oblivion that the Taiwanese call it the phoenix city. Today, Tainan is a vibrant city, with layer upon layer of heritage. What else could you ask for? Loads of art, friendly people, and delicious food complete the feast.
- 1 Where is Tainan and How to Get There
- 2 Where to Stay in Tainan
- 3 Places to Visit in Tainan
- 4 Where to Eat and Have Coffee
Where is Tainan and How to Get There
Tainan is a coastal city overlooking the Formosa Strait. As you know, the island of Taiwan is not big and has a state of the art public transport system. Thus, you can reach Tainan from all over the country. It took us 10 minutes on a super cool fast train to go from Kaohsiung to Tainan. There is only one high-speed train line in Taiwan. It runs all the way to Taipei through the densely built west coast, where Tainan is. It’s quite a futuristic journey, almost entirely through urban areas, so you feel within one giant metropolis. It takes a bit less than two hours to go from Taipei to Tainan on a fast train. From Taichung to Tainan it’s approximately 45 minutes on the same train. Those of you a bit nostalgic can also take slow trains from Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung.
Where to Stay in Tainan
Tainan has hotels for all tastes. The best and only 5-star hotel in the city is the splendid Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. It’s the tallest building in Tainan, with outstanding views, and all that you expect from a luxury hotel. Our other recommendation is a hostel in the middle of the old town. Laile Hostel has 8 tastefully decorated rooms with private bathrooms in a beautifully restored old traditional house. You get personalized service, great local tips, and class. If you are looking for a budget hotel, your best choice is Lai Chi Te Hotel, strategically located in a back alley inside the West Central District. The hotel has comfy beds, private bathrooms, and professional service. Most of the historical sites are here.
Places to Visit in Tainan
Without a doubt, getting lost in old alleys is amongst the best things to do in Tainan. All you have to do is walk, and your mind travels in time. Since Tainan has managed to preserve its historical heritage, the atmosphere is quaint and authentic. To discover the Tainan from the early 20th Century, walk along Shennong Street. Old houses converted into bars and shops line the alley. Nights are particularly interesting since the shops lit their lanterns, and the hip and young come to the street to chill. The area near Hai An Road is full of the best old streets in Tainan. Snail Alley and Blueprint Culture & Creative Park are worth checking out. We loved discovering authentic old houses and cool new cafes and interacting with people. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the language: the Taiwanese are fantastic and have a great sense of humor!
Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia)
The Dutch colonized part of the island of Taiwan from 1624 to 1662. It was all about trading with the Ming Dynasty and the Japanese and exploiting people and resources. Fortunately, they built beautiful structures, like the Chihkan Tower in historic Tainan. Built in 1653, the Dutch called it Fort Provintia. As you can imagine, through its more than 350 years, it suffered attacks and earthquakes. The tower’s current appearance is mostly from a full restoration carried out last century when it got its name: Chihkan Tower Tainan. Look for the 9 bases over the turtle-shaped stone called Bixi. Be sure to check out for concerts and events, especially at nights when the tower is lit and looks beautiful.
The Confucius Temple in downtown Tainan is a beauty like no other. We are talking about a temple built in 1665 as part of the highest educational institution at the time on the island of Formosa. As you can imagine, the temple was reconstructed several times along its long history. The Japanese ruled the island from 1895 to 1945 and used the temple as a fort. The temple got a full reconstruction in 1917, getting most of its current appearance. The temple comprises of 15 buildings and several old trees. Take note that this temple is alive and very much used by locals. Thus, admire it while being respectful.
Imperial Era Buildings
As mentioned above, the Japanese ruled Taiwan for 50 years. The island of Formosa was Japan’s first colony, given by the Qing Dynasty (a.k.a. China) after the First Sino Japanese War. Thus, they wanted to modernize the country and boost its economy. Probably that’s why they built such beautiful buildings. To our amazement, some of the best imperial era buildings on the island are in Tainan, attractions you must not miss. Take note that these buildings are scattered all around town. No worries, Tainan is small, and you can go to most of its attractions on foot or biking.
The first building you should visit is the Hayashi Department Store, built in 1932. Go up to its observation deck for fantastic views and coffee. When it opened, Hayashi was the tallest building in Taiwan, and the first to have a lift. Then cross the street and take a look at the Tainan branch of the Land Bank of Taiwan, the former headquarters of the Old Nippon Kangyo Bank, built in the 1920s. The National Museum of Taiwan Literature, which occupies the former Tainan Prefectural Hall built in 1916 is nearby too. On the highest point in the city sits the Museum of Meteorology, the former Tainan Meteorological Station, a circular building like no other built in 1897.
Tainan City Art Museum
Tainan hosts an extraordinary museum that combines old and new. The Tainan City Art Museum is the best in the city and occupies two buildings a couple of blocks away from each other. The imperial one is named Building No. 1 and is the former Police Department built in 1931. Sutejiro Umezawa designed it in Art Deco Style. Don’t forget to check Building No. 2, a contemporary beauty designed by Chao Yung Shih and Shigeru Ban Architects, winner of the Pritzker Prize. Its delicate shape resembles that of the Delonix regia, Tainan’s official tree. The museum hosts Taiwan’s first art research center.
321 Art Alley Settlement
The 321 Art Alley Settlement and Tainan Park combine the best Tainan has to offer: nature, architecture, and culture. This place is beautiful! The Taiwanese authorities have done a superb job restoring the old Japanese settlement. The Japanese built residences for high officials in the area in the 1930s. It was the best neighborhood in the city, within walking distance to the luxurious Hayashi Department Store. The Chinese constructed a factory on the site when the Japanese left. Believe it or not, this factory kept somehow working until the early 1990s. The place slowly fell into oblivion until 2013 when the government began an extensive restoration and artists move in.
Today, 321 Art Alley Settlement is part of the gorgeous Tainan Park, also known by locals as Zhongshan Park, a.k.a. Sun Yat-Sen. The park dates back to the 1600s. Some of the trees that line its paths are quite old. Everyone in the city comes here, especially the elderly. Thus, visit in the morning, and you’ll get to see how locals live and exercise. Do not rush, the park deserves at least an hour. Several architectural jewels dot Tainan Park. We begin with the old Taiwan Railway Station, built by the Japanese. Continue north until you see the Tainan Cultural and Creative Park, with the Shangri La tower behind. The Center used to be the old Office of the Taiwan Governor-General Monopoly Bureau, so the contrast with the ultra-modern tower is great. Continue a couple of meters, and you will reach the park.
Inside the park, look for the one of a kind Zhongdao Chongwen Archway a remnant of the Qing Dynasty completed in 1815. The archway is next to Yan Lake. You can rent pedal boats here and enjoy the marble bridge and pavilion in the center of the lake. All you have to do now is walk admiring the different pagodas, bridges, pavilions, and houses that dot the area. Do not miss the Old Residence of Kuo Po Chuan, a meticulously preserved residence. Likewise, look for the ruins of another residence. Do not worry if you get hungry or thirsty. The park boasts two incredible coffee houses: the Film 321 Action and Café Ichi. Once rested, you’ve got many shops and art galleries to discover.
Anping Fort and Tree House
Before departing to Taichung, we spent some time in the coastal suburb of Anping. Here is where the Dutch built their first fortress in Taiwan, called Fort Zeelandia. The area encompasses the ruins of the original site, nowadays called the Anping Fort. However, the star of the area is the nearby Anping Tree House, an old warehouse set amongst huge Banyan Trees, numerous canals, and green areas. The nicest street in the area is the Anping Old Street. Eateries and shops line this beautiful pedestrian alley. What a great way to end our excursion to Taiwan’s most atmospheric city.
Where to Eat and Have Coffee
You won’t have any trouble eating or having coffee in Tainan. Everywhere you go, you’ll find good food. That said, a couple of places do stand out. Café Flaneur & Bistro is close to Shennong Street and offers both drinks and meals with an authentic atmosphere. Serving coffee and meals, to the east of the 321 Art District, is Café Ichi. You will recognize it from the lush passion tree canopy. For the most authentic bao in the city head to Klin Tainan Baozi, serving locals for more than 60 years. On the other hand, Pari Pari is for the hip. It’s a retro 70s Japanese style building with a fancy shop, loads of art, and a superb coffee shop on the second floor. For drinks, we’ve got two fantastic places. The TCRT is a posh bar so favored by locals that it’s better to book ahead. A bit more relaxed is Lola, close to the old city gate. They’ve got old vinyl records, books, movies, and the coolest vibe in Tainan.