Visitors to Taiwan may experience language difficulties, and sometimes struggle to find foods they are familiar with. But having to go to bed early because there's nothing to do is never a problem.
Unlike in the U.S. and northern Europe, where downtowns often look deserted before 9 p.m., the centers of Taiwan's major cities bustle and hum with people, cars, and motorcycles/scooters until midnight or even later.
One reason for this is the weather. Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan has a hot and humid climate that for much of the year encourages people to stay in air-conditioned buildings during the day and to venture out only when it cools down after dusk. Another is the long working day many locals put in. Visitors should not be surprised to find the sidewalks crowded at 9-10 p.m. Many boutiques and bookstores are still open at that time; when they do close, the action shifts to night markets, eateries, and pubs. As far as many Taiwanese are concerned, nocturnal activity in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung, the three biggest cities on the island, revolves around shopping, eating, drinking, dancing, and singing. Visitors do all of these, and also like to engage in a sixth pastime - sightseeing. Even if you can't dance, loathe singing, never drink alcohol, and are on a rigorous diet, you'll still find plenty to keep yourself entertained.
Taipei Seen from On High
Taipei is visually striking when seen from on high, especially in the evening. The obvious choice for enjoying an eagle-eye's view of the city is the tallest building in the world - the Taipei Financial Center, also known as Taipei 101 on account of its 101 stories. This is the 508-meter-high steel-and-glass skyscraper located in the chic and modern eastern part of the city. Visiting the enclosed viewing deck on the 89th floor and the outdoor-viewing platform on the 91st floor has become one of Taiwan's hottest tourist attractions. The observatory is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and tickets cost NT$350 per person.
If the weather is favorable, also consider hiking the mountains and foothills close to the city in the late afternoon to take in the twinkling lights of Taipei and its suburbs. Favorite spots are in Yangmingshan National Park, including the summit of the 1,120-meter-high Seven Stars Mountain, and Chinese Culture University. You can also hike the trails of Sihshou (Four Beasts/Animals) Mountains, situated on the south verge of the East District, or take in the evening views from one of the many hillside teahouses at Maokong, located in the southern city district of Wenshan (Wunshan).
Note: Do not go hiking anywhere in Taiwan - even a half-day escape to Yangmingshan - unless you have proper footwear. Also, carry some water and snacks, and bring waterproofs or an umbrella in case the weather changes for the worse, which it often does, and quickly. Always take great care; if you expect to descend in the dark, carry a flashlight. If you're depending on public transportation to get back down to the city, check the time of the last bus.
Back on street level again, it's time to mingle with the masses at a night market. Close to Taipei 101 is Raohe Street Night Market, where there are snacks a-plenty, inexpensive clothes, trinkets, and many other types of goods. However, the sprawling mini-city that is Shilin (Shihlin) Night Market attracts far more people, and having covered-over and air-conditioned sections it's an all-weather affair. To get there take the MRT to Shilin District's Jiantan station.
Night markets typically run from dusk to about midnight. If jetlag - or sheer curiosity - is keeping you up later than that, there are still several cultural-exploration options, including some that do not revolve around alcohol.
Convenience stores are ubiquitous in Taiwan's cities; almost all stay open around the clock and provide local-style hot foods. In Taipei, a far more elegant option for combining printed-word browsing with food and liquid refreshments can be found on the corner of Dunhua South Road and Anhe Road, location of the former flagship 24-hour branch of Eslite Bookstores, the leading local chain. A new and much larger flagship outlet officially opened in January this year on the East District's Songgao Rd., Comfortably appointed and boasting an impressively eclectic selection of books in Chinese and English, it's easy to linger there until dawn. There is a cafe on the premises.
English-speaking visitors to Taiwan are fortunate in that Western movies are almost always shown in their original language, with Chinese subtitles. Details on current showings, along with theater names and addresses in Chinese (useful when hailing a taxi), are posted in all three locally published English-language newspapers. If you can't find a copy of one of these newspapers - which are also good for restaurant reviews and live-music listings - at your hotel, you should be able to pick one up at a convenience store.
Pubs and Bars
Western notions of nightlife tend to revolve around drinking and dancing. A good start to that kind of outing can be made in the area around National Taiwan Normal University. Perhaps the single most popular watering hole there are 45, so named because it is at 45 Heping East Road, Sec. 1.
The Combat Zone - a cluster of bars dating from the Vietnam War, when the main U.S. base in Taipei was nearby - can be found on Shuangcheng Street, not far from Minquan (Mincyuan) West Road MRT station. Despite its name, the neighborhood is not especially raucous. Several of the pubs there also do good Western grub - especially noteworthy in this respect is Malibu West (9, Lane 25, Shuangcheng Street).
In the last few years, two newer establishments have made quite a splash: Carnegie's (100 Anhe Road) and The Tavern (415 Xinyi [Sinyi] Road, Sec. 4). The former attracts hordes of men and women looking to let their hair down; the latter is very much a sports bar, with satellite TVs showing events from around the world.
Lounge bars burst onto the scene a few years back, and their popularity seems to be holding. This is perhaps because Taiwanese tend not to guzzle beer, and are willing to pay higher prices for drinks if the ambiance is right. Bliss (148 Xinyi [Sinyi] Road, Sec. 4) has won plaudits from both Western and local clientele.
KTV (short for "Karaoke TV") is a quintessential East Asian experience. Even if you never sing outside the shower cubicle, and have no desire to belt out a few numbers in front of your friends/clients/suppliers/co-workers - though their cajoling and a few drinks will probably change your mind - do accept at least one invitation to join a KTV party. You'll almost certainly have a good time! The KTV provides private rooms, so you won't have to sing in front of a large group of tipsy, heckling strangers - save those in your own group, of course.
There are so many KTVs, and they vary so much in terms of comfort and cost, that it's best to ask for some recommendations before selecting one.
Headed South - Kaohsiung and Taichung
The nightlife scene in Kaohsiung and Taichung - Taiwan's second- and third-largest metropolises, respectively - may not be quite so hip as Taipei's, but there's still more than enough to fill one's plate of desires.
An evening in Kaohsiung could begin with a stroll through Liouhe Night Market, and then perhaps a taxi ride to the Han-Hsien International Hotel for drinks at the Skyline Bar. Situated on the 42nd floor of one of the city's tallest buildings, this cozy little watering hole (open from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.) offers tremendous views over downtown Kaohsiung and the harbor. The hotel is located at 33 Sihwei 3rd Road.
The Love River, Kaohsiung's main waterway, has been beautified in recent years, and the lower section - in particular the area around Wufu 4th Road and the Municipal Film Archives - is perhaps the best place in the city for an evening promenade.
Wufu 4th Road remains the heart of Kaohsiung's nightlife scene, but there's no shortage of places in other parts of the city. One notable establishment is Roof Lounge (15F, 165 Linsen 1st Road), which has an enticing menu of Southeast Asian dishes, a dance floor (completely sound-insulated from the spiffy lounge area), and an outside balcony ideal for a romantic rendezvous.
The peaks of the hills that abut the city of Taichung, which sits in an open-ended basin, are not nearly as imposing as those in Yangmingshan National Park, but Mt. Dadu does offer some great views of both city on one side and coastline on the other. There are quite a few restaurants and cafes up there; to find them drive westward away from downtown to section 3 of Jhonggang Road.
If you like crowds, Jhonghua Night Market is the place for you. Hundreds of vendors gather around the intersection of Jhonghua Road and Gongyuan Road from sundown to around 2 a.m.
Those who prefer barstools to the plastic stools usually found in night markets should try the Concession Restaurant & Pub (170 Wucyuan West Street). This jazz bar is decorated in a style that recalls the Shanghai of pre-Communist yesteryear. Also notable is Champs Elysees, on the first floor of the Howard Prince Hotel Taichung (129 Anhe Road). Larger and livelier than most hotel-lobby bars, this classy place also boasts excellent food.
Other Points on the Compass
If you should find yourself in one of Taiwan's smaller cities - Taitung or Hualien, for example - don't despair of finding quality nightlife venues. There are night markets (though perhaps not every evening), 24-hour convenience stores, late-closing eateries, and plenty of the street-side activity that locals may regard as humdrum but which many visitors find exotic and memorable.