Taipei’s integrated network of buses and subway system makes it extremely easy for English speakers to get around town. Just buy an Easy Card and go!
Compared to other capital cities, you just don’t see too many western tourists in and around Taipei.
The issue of getting to Taiwan possibly explains that, as Taiwan is not a major destination, nor a major stopover point such as Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok. Which is a pity, because Taipei (and Taiwan in general) is an interesting travel destination with plenty of things to see and do.
Over the past 10 years Taiwan’s public transport and tourism infrastructure has matured to the point where getting around is no longer difficult for non-Chinese speakers. In Taipei, before the MRT (subway) extended across most of the city, you had to catch buses as the main form of public transport. It used to be that signage was only in Chinese and you had to make a guess as to which stop to get off at. It was also a bit of a guess as to whether you paid as you got on or off.
The buses now include the names of each stop in English and Chinese, and most buses display the name of the next stop on an LED sign at the front near the driver. The bus stops themselves have the English names of each destination written on route maps. Buying tickets too is hugely simplified by the stored-value EasyCard or “Yo-Yo Ka” which is compatible with the MRT system. You can buy these at the office of each MRT station. Whether to pay when you get on or off the bus? Well, if you can’t read Chinese, just watch the locals.
2011 UPDATE: It seems that some of the Taipei bus companies are helping out with English-speaking commuters. As mentioned above, it was often not very clear if you should pay getting off or on the bus. If you can read Chinese, you will notice a sign near the doors that basically reads “pay as you get on” or “pay as you get off” with the only clue for non-Chinese readers that the characters for get on “上” or get off “下” will be lit.
Well, make way for a new era of convenience, as at least one bus line (the 611 from Mucha) has upgraded their signs with English subtitles. You can see in the photo below. Now there are no excuses not to pay…
Despite such recent improvements, there are a huge number of places to visit just using the MRT system alone. Check out the MRT network map here.
What’s even better are the tourist information booths available at the bigger MRT stops, which contain all kinds of maps and brochures for things you can see and do around town. The availability of English versions is not always reliable but has improved significantly. See what you can find at the airport on your way in too.
The tourist information booth at Taipei’s main train station is staffed by English-speaking employees who will help you understand train schedules, ticket prices, and even write down the name of your destination in Chinese, which helps to buy tickets on the intercity train network.