What’s the deal with Zhongshan?
The swirl of lanes caught in the crosshatch of main streets ringing Zhongshan MRT is Taipei’s most fascinating district. It’s a wonderful mish-mash of handsome brick buildings, mammoth shopping malls and secret alleyways stuffed with cafés, vintage clothing stores, corner temples and funky restaurants. On one side of the road, you have luxury branded shops and five star hotels, while on the other street hawkers peddle egg cakes and cheap summer dresses. You can switch tempo just by turning a corner: the back lanes are always green and mellow, flush with flowers in window boxes, while the high streets throng with shoppers.
Zhongshan is also half-Japanese, for this is where you’ll find the highest concentration and the absolute tastiest Japanese food, whisky and cocktail bars in Taipei, and cutting-edge fashion in a string of shopping complexes. There’s history too in a smattering of heritage structures preserved and reworked into a dance studio, an art gallery, a cinema and a string of bite-sized bistros.
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If you only do one thing…
Breathe in the seductive scents of cypress and fir at the Lin Tien Barrel Store, which has been handcrafting wooden pails, giant bathtubs, steamer baskets, rolling pins, ladles and cooking chopsticks since 1928. Mr Lin’s family business is a slice of real living history.
Light installation at Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei. Photograph: Flickr/Michelle Lee
Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei for an always-curious line-up of exhibitions by local and international creators, housed in a marvellous repurposed elementary school from the Japanese colonial era. The gift shop is Taipei’s quirkiest – anyone for a psychedelic, plushy cutton pumpkin?
Hide from the sun
Escape from Taipei’s blistering heat in the air-conditioned, wood-panelled splendour of Eslite Spectrum. The city’s coolest new shopping mall has mood lighting and six floors of designer crafts, silverware, scents, boutique fashion, and excellent eating options. The top floor is dedicated to books; there’s even a comfy English-language reading lounge!
I Want Ice So Much. Photograph: Flickr/Johnson Wang
Hao Xiang Chi Bing (‘I Want Ice So Much’) is a super-cute Japanese dessert shop where locals queue up for creamy mango shaved ice. Come on a weekday to grab a tatami mat pew.
The massively popular Chuan Yu Xiao Chi Fang ( ‘Sichuan & Chongqing Small Eats’) is like a rustic cottage crossed with a greasy spoon café. Order their two classics: kou shui ji (chicken in chilli oil) and the infinitely moreish tu dou si (shredded potato).
You’ll be very happy with the mouth-watering unagi (grilled eel rice box) at Fei Quan Wu, an unassuming but top-rated Japanese joint. Order while you wait for a table.
The menu at Mia Cucina, serving vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine, is massive. Go simple and order the garlic lemon pasta and save room for one of their naughty cheesecakes.
Sit under the spreading trees and fairy lights in the garden of Spot Café Lumiere, housed in a lovely white colonial villa that was once the US ambassador’s residence, and enjoy a chilled North Taiwan Lychee Beer.
It’s all sexy shadows, mauve walls and black curtains at the underground Mud Bar. If you’re feeling like something creamy, order the Dutch East India: a silky blend of Jenever, egg white and pink peppercorns.
Danish microbrewery Mikkeler’s hole-in-the-wall offers no nonsense streetside seating and 12 rotating flavours on tap. They have an afternoon ‘unhappy hour’ frpm 2pm to 4pm, for cheaper cups.
Make a date at Bar Otani, a hushed, crypt-like Japanese martini bar where the only light comes from flickering candles. Shhh…
How to get to Zhongshan
Zhongshan MRT station (on the red and green lines) puts you right at the centre of the action.
What else is nearby?
Taipei Main Station is a 10-minute walk directly south, and the marvellous old merchant area of Dihua Street and the Danshui Riverside lies a 20-minute stroll to the west. A mere zip in a taxi south-east takes you to Xinyi, home to shiny skyscrapers including Taipei 101.