One of the benefits of long-term travel is that it gives you a chance to really get to know the places you visit, to delve beneath the surface and uncover some of the sights and experiences that you would probably breeze right by if you were on the strict timeframe of a conventional holiday. In our previous life, Tony only received 10 measly paid vacation days per year, so it’s unlikely that—had we splurged on a trip to Taiwan—we would have spent 9 full days in its capital city. But with more time on our side, we were able to really get stuck right in and explore to our heart’s content.
I won’t lie: neither of us had thought we would spend so many days in Taipei, and certainly part of the reason for our lengthy stay was the poor weather we experienced while there (we kept waiting for it to get better before finally just putting on our rain jackets and being done with it), but there’s also no denying that Taipei exerted its own unique gravitational pull on us. It certainly wasn’t a city that we minded spending an extra day (or 4!) in, and the additional time really let us see something of the city other than its more famous landmarks. Although Taipei is a modern, fast-paced urban environment, it has an underlying cuteness and charm that seems enmeshed in its very DNA. You only need to get lost wandering down one of its many cramped alleyways or random side streets to discover that there are plenty of places where artistic expression, imagination, and creativity are celebrated and given free reign.
During our week and a half in Taipei, we were lucky enough to stumble upon several of these places simply by happenstance, but for those of you on a tighter schedule, here’s a rundown of the places we found where you can get your quirk on!
The Red House
We stumbled upon The Red House while wandering dumbfounded around one of Taipei’s cinema districts. True to the city’s Asian roots, Taipei has bits that are divided into highly specialized segments, such as entire streets that only sell sports shoes or electronic goods, or in this case, contain a plethora of movie theaters. Tired of the constant drizzle that had been plaguing us and chilling our bones for days, we headed to the Ximen cinema district that has over a dozen movie theaters all within a 5-block radius of one another. In the end, we couldn’t deal with the redundancy of all these theaters in one small space, especially as they all were charging the same prices, all seemed to be showing the same three movies (save for the one shady budget movie theater we found on the top floor of a building that also housed a bowling alley that looked straight out of the early 1980s), and almost all of them were keeping identical schedules, meaning that the one movie we were interested in seeing (Skyfall) wasn’t showing anywhere within the next 2 hours. Call me crazy, but I don’t really see the point of so many identical establishments offering identical services situating themselves within such a circumscribed area when Taipei is such a big city!
So, we nixed the idea of escaping the weather with a movie and decided to head back to our hostel. Only, on our way back to the metro, we caught sight of The Red House, whose red brick, pseudo-European architecture was so incongruous amongst all the glistening, granite skyscrapers, we just knew we had to head over and check it out.
Turns out that The Red House was built at the turn of the 20th century and used to act as Taipei’s central marketplace. Over the years it underwent several transformations, including a stint as the city’s main playhouse for theatrical productions. These days, although a section of the building is reserved for plays and arthouse film screenings, the bulk of the structure is now devoted to an indie, crafthouse boutique market filled with myriad artsy stalls filled with paintings, sculptures, clothing and other painfully cool (and adorable!) accessories. We spent a good hour poking around the shops checking out all the carefully crafted and wildly creative products on offer, chatting with the artists and dreamers behind it all who were running the shops. Every shop we went into was so bright and cheery, it completely made us forget the depressing weather outside and by the time we left, our spirits were restored as we had been fully infected by the unadulterated whimsy that permeates The Red House’s halls. We both agreed that if we were lucky enough to live in Taipei, we would probably spend a lot of time and money here, but even as tourists it was a great place to pick up some one-of-a-kind postcards and get a taste for the city’s thriving artistic community.
Su Ho Memorial Paper Museum
Perhaps seeing all those innovative designers and artists went to our heads, because our next offbeat selection in Taipei was a visit to the Su Ho Memorial Paper Museum. I am a self-professed lover of “real books” and have a somewhat unhealthy addiction to stationary, while Tony has gone so far as having taken a college course devoted to book-making, which is to say that we are obviously a pro-paper household. Pair this with the juicy detail that the museum is devoted to a founder of a local paper company who died in a plane crash in China, and this was one museum we simply could not miss!
The museum is devoted to the art of papermaking, and contains a permanent exhibit that traces the historical roots of paper (with particular emphasis on the materials used in Taiwan), as well as a rotating creative exhibit that features artistic works done by local artists. While we were there, there was a rather avant-garde mixed medium exhibit that involved video, crayon, charcoal, and—of course—plenty of paper, which was pretty out there and not really our cup of tea, though if modern art is your thing, then you might enjoy scratching your head over it more than we did! Having seen pictures of some of the previous exhibits that have featured, I felt like we pulled the short straw, but I suppose that’s the chance you take with revolving exhibits.
The building the museum is housed in is in and of itself a huge attraction as it was a beautiful, airy space comprised of exposed bricks and dark wooden beams, which definitely made it feel more like an art gallery than a museum. Unfortunately no photos were allowed on the main floors of the building, and the museum is rather small, so at $180NTD (~$6US) admission is a bit steep.
That said, the real highlight of our visit was the interactive paper-making seminar we got to take part in. The course takes place on the roof of the building in a funky little outdoor studio, and we got the chance to literally get our hands dirty as we soaked, squeezed and sifted pulp and formed it into our own sheets of paper. The main floor of the building actually has a room containing a small-scale paper factory, and we were able to watch as our paper was essentially baked until it had coalesced into a unified sheet that took on a buttery pumpkin color. We had a great time horsing around during the course and accepted our certificates proclaiming our paper-making proficiency with pride.
Taipei Story House
Our last fanciful stop during our time in Taipei was a visit to the Taipei Story House. Built in 1913 by a tea merchant, the TSH is the only Tudor-style house in Taipei and now houses a museum that holds exhibitions on various Taiwanese points of interest.
Set off a busy 4-lane street, stepping onto the grounds of the TSH was like teleporting half a world away. The quaint-yet-slightly-wild garden and cheery yellow siding on the home would be perfectly apace in England, and we would have likely been entirely satisfied just poking around the grounds, which are completely free to visit. But when we discovered that the current exhibit was all about candy, we decided that was something worth paying to see!
The exhibit itself was rather kitschy, but it was also insanely cute and we did learn a bit of interesting trivia about Taiwanese sweets, such as which sweets are used to celebrate certain important milestones and the different natural flavoring and coloring agents that are used to produce some of those crazy Technicolor hues you see. We even got to have our fortunes told in one room, but unfortunately, they were in Chinese, so the future remains as mysterious and murky as ever…
All in all, we had a great time uncovering some of Taipei’s more eccentric attractions. None of these places are the ones that would leap to mind when you think of the city, but they certainly helped provide us with a more nuanced perspective on Taipei’s artistic leanings and we loved getting a feel for its fun, slightly kooky side. While it’s all well and good to visit the sites and attractions a city or country is most famous for, it seems that these are too rarely the things that are fun and unusual or make a city unique. Moreover, we’ve found that when you stray from the path and simply set out and explore, this is when you often get the truest glimpse of wherever you are visiting and open yourself up to the possibility of being completely surprised.
Now you tell us: What’s your favorite “quirky” attraction that you’ve encountered on your own travels?