Sometimes your travel schedule works like a well-oiled machine. Connecting flights line up with Swiss precision and you move effortlessly from one flight to another without delays… sometimes. But on other trips you get more of a sense that “you can’t get there from here” and you are left waiting for 8 hours between flights.
Such was my travel schedule which left me with a scheduled 7 hour 55-minute layover in Taiwan. I had never been to Taiwan. Rather than sit in artificial lighting, eating at the food court and hanging out on airport wi-fi, I arranged a layover tour of Taipei sponsored by Viator (see other private tours in Taipei).
Layover Tour in Taipei
I had never done an organized layover tour before, but the idea seemed simply brilliant. If you have an 8-hour layover or greater this tour plans an itinerary that gets you 45 minutes from the airport, explores some of the major city sites and whisks you back to the airport in time to catch your next flight. The only catch is that you have to be functional after your first flight, in my case a flight scheduled to last 13 hours from San Francisco. I can sleep on planes so I was in great shape (check out my 10 Tips to Combat Jet Lag).
My flight arrived earlier than our 6 am estimated arrival time. I cleared customs which I would not have had to do if I had just stayed in the airport, but then again I would not have gotten another stamp in my passport nor would I have counted being in Taiwan. I met my guide Mark Lu and my driver in the arrival area by 6 am.
Advantages of a Private Tour
The first difference between trying to get into the city on my own and a private tour was obvious from the moment I saw someone holding up a sign with my name on it. I didn’t have to find the city bus or wonder where to go and I started learning about Taiwan on the way into the city. Mark’s command of English was great. He talked about the history of the island as it was colonized in turned by the Spanish, the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Nationalist Chinese. Mark has only been a tour guide for a few years. Previous to that he was an officer in the Taiwanese Navy.
One problem with starting a city tour at 6 o’clock in the morning is that many things are run by the government and don’t open up until 9 AM. Fortunately, the Bao’an Temple, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, is privately run and opened at 6 AM. We toured the temple complex as Mark explained to me some of the details of the Taoism religion. The tour normally also includes a stop at the nearby Confucius Temple which opens at 9 am but which was unfortunately closed the day of my visit.
Our next scheduled stop was the changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall which happens on the hour starting at 9 am, but we had to kill some time before that. While we waited we toured a local market. I love local markets and particularly local markets in Asia. I don’t always know exactly what people are eating but I love the scene. Motorcycles and pedestrians thread their way down the street which has not yet filled up in this early morning hour.
The Grand Hotel
We also visited the Grand Hotel, the first international hotel in Taipei. The Grand Hotel was built by Chiang Kai Shek’s 4th wife. It was the tallest building in Taiwan for most of a decade after it was completed in 1973. It is built in the style of a giant pagoda and is imposing. It has 490 rooms, 12 floors, and 3 restaurants. It has been where many foreign dignitaries have been housed over the years. It is built on Yuanshan Mountain on the site where the occupying Japanese had a Shinto shrine in WWII. The front gate is a great photo spot and the top photo on this article was taken there.
National Palace Museum
We saw the outside of the National Palace Museum which holds 696,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial art and artifacts collected by the emperors of China over centuries. The museum was originally housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The museum collection was moved several times during WWII to keep it out of Japanese hands and then later evacuated to Taiwan with the nationalist Chinese forces after they were defeated by the communists in the Chinese Civil War. The PRC considers that the collection was “stolen” and wants it back.
Unfortunately, the museum also does not open until 9 am.
Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall – Liberty Square
The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall sits in Liberty Square. The ground level houses a library and museum The Memorial Hall also houses a museum that interprets the history of China and of Taiwan during the time of Chiang Kai Shek. You can see artifacts like the presidential limousine.
To get to the memorial hall you climb 89 steps, one for each year in the life of Chiang Kai Shek. The massive doors of the hall opened at 9 am, ushering in crowds of tourists in time for the ceremonial changing of the guard. The figure of Chiang Kai Shek sits in a large marble chair reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial. Chiang Kai Shek looked on the guards displayed their proficiency with rifle choreography.
The Memorial Hall sits in a large park-like area which also houses the National Theater and National Concert Hall. A children’s choir was singing on the steps of the National Concert Hall during our visit.
Presidential Office Building
We stopped for a photo at the Presidential Office Building, the Taiwan version of the White House. This Baroque-style building was built during the time of the Japanese occupation for the governor of the island. It became the office of the president when the nationalists fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War.
We proceeded to Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world from 2004-2010 and is still the 9th tallest building. It is still the home of the world’s fastest elevator, which climbs to the observation floor in 25 ear-popping seconds.
The view from Taipei 101 was intermittent because of heavy clouds on the day of my visit.
Taiwan is a geologically active area so Taipei 101 was built to survive earthquakes as well as the occasional Tsunami. One of the interesting features of the building is hidden inside near the top. It is a large heavy counterweight which is suspended in the inside of the building. This weight helps dampen the movement of the building.
Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant
The final stop of the tour was the famous Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant in the same complex as Taipei 101. If there had been no view at all from Taipei 101, if there had been no temples open and we had missed the changing of the guard, the entire tour would have been worth it just for the pork soup dumplings alone.
Return to the Airport
The return trip to the airport was slowed by an accident on the highway. It made my guide and driver nervous but I let them do the worrying for me. They are, after all, the professionals. And that was really the theme of the tour for me. Not everything went smoothly. Not everything was open the day I was there or at the time I was there. But the entire time I was comparing my experience to what it would have been like if I stayed in the airport.
I recognized my seatmate on my flight out of Taiwan as someone who had flown in on the same flight as me from San Francisco. It was her first international trip and she had been afraid to leave the airport. While I was on a tour seeing world-class sites, she was trying to sleep on the airport floor. Mine was the better option.
6-Hour Layover Ultimate Taipei City Tour including airport pick up and drop off.
Full-day private tour by car and drive around the attractions of your choice. Airport pickup option.
this post was originally published at Taipei Layover Tour