by Mark Heng
Taipei: This vibrant city is the region's political, socio-cultural and financial capital. Always dynamic, the city has managed to strike a balance between business and beauty, chaos and convenience. It is a fun place to explore, with a comfortable semi-tropical climate. Taipei is a city perfect for exploring, with sights that range from Qing dynasty temples and grand museums to modern shopping malls in ultraconsumerist Ximending and bustling night markets. Downtown Taipei is culturally divided into Western Taipei, the bastion of old Taipei life with its narrow streets and road side vendors, and Eastern Taipei, characterised by classy malls, chic boutiques, posh restaurants and stylish cafés that represent the city's metamorphosis into a cosmopolitan metropolis.
Taipei 101: Taipei's crowning jewel can be seen from all around the city. Standing at 508 metres high, this is currently the second tallest skyscraper in the world and impossible to miss. Here, the world's fastest elevators zip visitors up to the 89th-floor observation deck in a mere 37 seconds (1010 metres a minute!) The tower was designed to resemble bamboo rising from the earth, which is recognised in Asian cultures for its fast growth and flexibility. It is rich in symbolism – as a centre where earth, sky and the four cardinal directions meet, as well as that of the evolution of technology and Asian tradition. The lower levels hold the spacious and swanky Taipei 101 mall.
National Palace Museum: This reputedly houses the world's largest and finest collection of Chinese art, historical artefacts and antiquities. When the Communists were advancing on Beijing in the final years of the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalists brought what they could from the Forbidden City to Taiwan, saving these treasures from destruction in the Cultural Revolution. While the interior of the museum may not match the grandeur of its collection, the sheer volume and beauty of the treasures it holds make it a must-see for visitors. Exhibits of paintings, calligraphy, statues, ceramic and jade are rotated frequently, dating back to Chinese prehistory.
Kaohsiung: Taiwan's second largest city is known as the Harbour Capital because it boasts one of the largest ports in the world. This city is famous for the lovely promenades of the Love River, as well as beach and harbour attractions, as it great for exploring on foot. Taiwan's largest mall, the Dream Mall, is home to the Kaoshiung Eye and an amusement park on its roof. The Cijin District is a narrow island in Kaohsiung's harbour which serves as a natural breakwater. Besides Chihou lighthouse and forts, Cijin is also a worthy visit to dine at one of the many seafood restaurants selling freshly caught seafood, prepared on the spot after you have made your choice.
Tainan: Taiwan's oldest city was the island's capital during imperial times, and is famous for its intricately-decorated temples, historic buildings, and snack food. Chihkan Towers (Fort Proventia) is Tainan's most famous landmark and historic site. Its rich architecture has survived many historical periods, and the complex holds various kinds of steles, stone horses, weight lifting rocks, stone weights, and nine stone tortoises carrying royal stele carved in both Chinese and Manchurian. The Anping District is the historical heart and harbour of Tainan, home to the old Anping Fort, Tree House (a warehouse with massive banyan trees growing out of it), and a wide range of eateries.
Hualien: The serenity of this city's parks, gardens and temples have made it a popular destination. It is considered one of the most pleasant cities in Taiwan, and is known for its peaceful scenery, fresh air, and for featuring aboriginal cultures. Many tourists pass through the city to tour the famous Taroko Gorge, which is located a few miles north of the city.