As the old capital of Taiwan, and the heartland of Taiwanese food and culture, Tainan has its own history, industry, and landscape to explore. Taiwan’s fourth largest city still has a lot of laid-back charm which can be best enjoyed by avoiding long weekends.
By Stuart Hill
As a stop on the Taipei to Kaohsiung high-speed rail line, Tainan is pretty easy to reach within a relatively short time from each city. A local bus system can take you to the key sites around Tainan and beyond. Walking is also a good way to see the main downtown attractions.
You can pack a lot into a busy weekend, keeping a focus on the AnPing Port historical district and Tainan’s downtown areas around the city’s 7-way turning circle. If you have a few more days, you could add a trip to the ChiMei museum, Tainan’s estuary mangroves, or the old salt farms (and museum). If you have a week, you could totally slow down the pace and spend more days eating, visiting temples and Tainan’s many historical buildings.
Tainan is still easiest to visit using a car or scooter, combined with site-seeing on foot. Generally weather is good all year round, and because of its location in Taiwan’s south the city tends to be warmer than Taipei. Located so close to the sea, autumn, winter and spring months can be cool at night, and the city has much better airflow than you’ll find within the Taipei basin. Summer is going to be hot, so be careful about keeping hydrated and protecting yourself from the sun.
10 Things to See and Do in Tainan:
1. Get a Taste for Tainan Food
Tainan is famous as a place for authentic Taiwanese food, which is typically lighter in flavor than what you typically find in Taipei. Generally anywhere where there are people queuing is a safe choice — even in the most modest-looking food stands.
2. Imagine the Tower of Red-Haired Barbarians
ChihKan Tower or Fort Providentia (Provintia) was originally built by the Dutch on aboriginal land. While the original fort was destroyed, new pavilions were built during the Qing dynasty on the site as a religious and educational center. The place is very photogenic, and many people visit to take photos in front of Emperor Qianlong’s nine steles and the surrounding gardens.
3. Visit the Dutch Fortress of AnPing
Significantly destroyed from its original form, with sections rebuilt by the Japanese, Fort Zeelandia represents the heart of the Dutch colony in Taiwan. And also their defeat to the Ming loyalist Koxinga (Zheng Cheng Gong) who is also strongly celebrated in Tainan. The surrounding areas of AnPing Harbor contain other buildings of historical interest.
4. Take a Stroll Along the City Streets
Even without any specific objective in mind, or direction to take, Tainan streets can be an interesting place to simply wander. Many areas are typically narrow, some lanes hide small boutique shops and old-school apartments, while other areas are like tree-lined boulevards, punctuated with parks and temples.
5. Revisit the Prosperity of Tainan During the Japanese Period
In its glory days, the Lin or Hayashi Department Store was the center of Tainan’s “Ginza district”. The beautifully restored building today features a few places to eat or grab a coffee. Its retro feel has the flavor of Taipei’s Song Yan Eslite store, but considering its status as the second department store to be built in Taiwan, perhaps a little more street cred. Closes at 10 pm, and crowds are controlled on busy days.
6. Discover a Place to Relax
Don’t let anyone hear that you can’t find anything to eat in Tainan. Beyond a range of local delicacies, and places like Lily’s Fruit Store, Tainan also has some small cafes, cake shops and quirky places to chill. The Narrow Door Cafe, with its namesake entrance, has been around for years.
7. Travel By Barge Along Tainan’s Green Tunnel
Close to the site of where Koxinga (Zheng Cheng Gong) finally defeated the Dutch in Taiwan, Tainan’s “Green Tunnel” is a pleasant barge ride along a mangrove canal. The return trip takes about 30 minutes, but on weekends and public holidays you can wait twice as much to get a ride. However, the scene is worth the wait — and if you understand Chinese the guides are enthusiastic about describing this local flora and fauna. Roughly 15 minutes away on foot is the protected nature reserve which attracts migratory birds throughout the year.
8. Pay Your Respects to Zheng Cheng Gong (Koxinga)
Koxinga or Zheng Cheng Gong has arguably had the biggest impact of any individual on the history of Taiwan other than that of Chiang Kai Shek. A fairly nondescript shrine is dedicated to Koxinga and his story, as the son of a Japanese mother and (pirate) Chinese father. That he successfully defeated the Dutch on Taiwan with a well armed armada — ostensibly in the name of the Ming Dynasty government — represents a turning point for the development of Taiwan by the Chinese.
9. Learn About Tainan’s Role as Taiwan’s Salt Supply
Like the salt industry itself, the salt farms and nearby Taiwan Salt Museum have seen better days, but the history of salt manufacturing, trading and taxation, still make an interesting story. Salt is no longer manufactured here commercially, but in its heyday Taiwan salt was a major commodity of national importance.
10. Share the ChiMei Love of Greek Gods
To get inside you need to book about 1 month in advance, but the museum’s grounds are also worth a visit. Outside among the sprawling property are various statues and other forms of sculpture. Lining the bridge are statues of Greek gods in various degrees of undress, while the fountain offers a water show every 20 minutes or so.