Taipei on a budget

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Taipei is one of the most affordable getaways from Hong Kong. Rebecca Keiller provides the lowdown on how to make the most of the Taiwanese capital on a budget

Spending the weekend in Hong Kong isn’t cheap. Chances are a couple of fancy cocktails, an exercise class and a boozy brunch can easily set you back $2,000. For the same amount of dough, you can’t help wonder if you can get more bang for your buck elsewhere.

Taipei is perfect for a weekend escapade. It’s got everything going for it: great food, a fashionable nightlife scene, beautiful countryside just a day trip away and, best of all, it remains delightfully cheap. Here are some suggestions for your Taipei itinerary that we promise costs less than an average weekend in Hong Kong.

Where to go
To witness gorgeous nature within the city limits, venture up to the quaint village of Maokong, nestled atop a hill with spectacular views over the city. The best way to the top is undoubtedly the Maokong Gondola (english.gondola.taipei), a 4.3km cable car between Taipei Zoo and Maokong that costs $12. Once at the peak, settle down in a hilltop teahouse, sip on a steaming local Taiwanese brew and watch the sun set over the skyline below. If you happen to have an EasyCard metro pass, you can skip the queue to buy a ticket for the ride.

If Maokong has you hankering for more of the local countryside, just an hour northwest of Taipei, Bali district features a picturesque car-free riverside route stretching along the coastline. Best tackled on two wheels, you can hire a bike at one location along the route and return it at another. You can book your rental in advance (klook.com) for a bargainous $21 and payment can be made online. 

Taipei 101 may be iconic, but visiting its observatory isn’t particularly wallet friendly and it doesn’t even provide the best snapshot of the city. For that, you really want to find a spot that lets you see 101 itself. Where Hong Kong has The Peak and Cape Town Table Mountain, Taipei has Elephant Mountain, which offers easy access to incredible views. Grab a few friends, some convenience store beers and tackle the steep 20-minute hike to the top. You’ll be puffing, but it’s worth the effort to see Taipei laid out beneath you – and it costs nothing.

For contrasting images of old and new, find the tucked away South Village (愷愷켓닷). Once a housing complex for Kuomingtang soldiers following their flight from the Mainland, these one-story dwellings have been converted into a free history museum, boutique shops and a number of cafés. Despite being just a 10-minute walk from Taipei 101, most tourists don’t know about this fascinating slice of Taipei history.

Eating on a dime
For good food on the cheap, look no further than Taipei’s myriad markets. The city boasts a huge number of them and they provide mouthwatering delights, not to mention a good dose of local culture. One of Taipei’s largest markets, Shilin Night Market is a feast for the senses. For $8 (book via klook.com) you can join a 2.5 hour guided tour that includes
five snacks from the market and a local guide to navigate you through the stalls.

Luroufan (魯흄飯), a popular Taiwanese staple, is a simple bowl of rice covered with minced braised pork. Simple but delicious, ask a local where to find the best bowl and chances are you’ll be pointed in the direction of Formosa Chang (fmsc.com.tw). Recognisable thanks to the founder’s grinning image, a dish at this Taiwanese restaurant chain can cost as little as $8. Portions aren’t huge but you’ll be pleased to have an excuse to try out the shredded chicken, pork ribs and veggie side dishes too.

If you’ve been in Hong Kong a while or spent much time elsewhere in Asia, chances are you’ve had the opportunity to taste the sweet delight that is bubble tea. Nothing compares to the bubble teas found in Taiwan, and in Taipei nothing compares to the bubble teas found at Chun Shui Tang (뉴彊慊, chunshuitang.com.tw). The teahouse chain, which opened its doors in Taichung in 1983, not only claims the original bubble tea in Taiwan, but more importantly, is still widely considered the best. Grab a cup of pearl milk tea ($17) as a thirst quenching refreshment when visiting other sites around town.

Din Tai Fung (dintaifung.com.tw) may not be the most original suggestion for dining in Taiwan, but the chain’s xiao long baos (soup dumplings) are constant crowd pleasers. If you’re in Taipei, you’d be wise to make a pilgrimage to where it all started. The first-ever branch, located near Dongmen MRT, still retains remnants of its original 70s charm. With dumplings and noodles costing $23 per dish, it’s a no brainer.

Bathing on a budget
Taiwan is renowned for its therapeutic hot spring spas, a legacy from the Japanese occupation that lasted from 1895-1945. Said to rejuvenate the body and treat common ailments such as arthritis, eczema and chronic fatigue, you don’t have to be a high roller to enjoy the water. For budget bathers, the public hot springs at Beitou are popular amongst tourists, offering five different temperature baths in a communal outdoor area. The quaint mountainous village is just a hop skip and a jump from the New Beitou MRT stop and bathing costs a mere $10 for two hours. Other districts popular among locals for a soak are Yilan and Wulai, south of Taipei. A number of luxury hotel-spa resorts promise to relax your weary bones – but expect to pay for the pleasure. For the best combination of luxury and value, Volando Urai Spa (volandospringpark.com.tw), in a beautiful natural setting, only requires you to splurge around $192 for the gender segregated public bath. A shuttle departs seven-times-a-day to and from Xindian MRT Station.

Where to stay
Perfectly situated in the heart of Ximen, Wow Hostel is clean and friendly with an edgy rustic-come-modern vibe. For $150 a night, the extremely hospitable staff go out of their way to ensure you get the best experience during your visit. Just three minutes walk from Zhonghualubei Station, it’s one of the city’s most convenient locations for accommodation. 8/F, 42 Hanzhong St, Wanhua District, 108 Taipei, Taiwan, +886 2 2331 0530; ximenwow.com.

Getting there
Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) offers companion fares to Taipei Taoyuen and Kaoshiung airports for $1,209 (inc tax) until October 31 2016. Once you arrive, head for the Taiwan High Speed Rail train ($26, thsrc.com.tw). Trains depart frequently, the seats are comfortable and it’s hands down the most efficient, no-nonsense way into the city. If you’re looking to travel beyond the capital, consider a three-day unlimited travel pass ($88).

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