Taiwan’s oldest city and former capital until 1887, Tainan boasts many historical and cultural treasures, and is just under two hours south of Taipei by Taiwan High Speed Rail (note that Tainan’s THSR station is outside of the center, so you must continue by taxi or free shuttle bus, or you may prefer the slower and cheaper TRA train, which stops in central Tainan and takes from three hours and 30 minutes).
Conveniently located next to the railway station in the heart of the city, Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel is an excellent choice for those arriving by train. With 38 floors, this cylindrical glass tower is Tainan’s tallest building, making it a landmark that stands head-and-shoulders over everything else. Its 336 guestrooms and suites are the largest in the city, with those on upper floors enjoying stunning, far-reaching views.
This five-star hotel is mannered and eff icient, with many amenities tailored to business travelers, but the outdoor heart-shaped swimming pool reaffirms the Shangri-La’s love for all its guests. Those wanting extra indulgence may upgrade to Horizon Club, where privileges include a higher standard of accommodation, personalized services, and access to the Horizon Club Lounge: an exclusive oasis where you can enjoy anything from gourmet breakfast to complimentary evening cocktails and appetizers.
Located on the hotel’s top floor is Shanghai Pavilion, a sleek fine din- ing restaurant serving authentic Huaiyang and Cantonese cuisine as well as regional Taiwanese specialities. Every plate was a delicious and harmo- nious work of art, from a clear chicken soup with hand-carved beancurd in the form of a delicate chrysanthemum flower to steamed local milkfish with chili pepper. The signature dish made the biggest impact: slices of tender pork belly layered together to form a monumental pyramid, filled with tangy homemade Hakka pickles—a delectable architectural triumph.
Tainan is famous for its temples, including the island’s first Confucian Temple. Dating from 1665, this serene temple complex dedicated to the great philosopher Confucius served as Taiwan’s first official chool. You’ll still see Tainan’s large student population coming here to pray, with the hopes of getting good grades. Enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation, and, afterward, refresh with shaved ice, condensed milk, and tropical fruit from the nearby Lily Fruit Store, a popular and traditional Tainan-style fruit stall established in 1947.
Another historic store worth visiting is Hayashi Department Store, which, when it first opened in 1932, was considered integral to a new era of Taiwanese style, fashion, and culture, but sadly this glorious era was to be short-lived. Damaged by American air raids during World War II, after the war it took on the mundane task of being offices for the Tai- wan Salt Factory. It wasn’t until 1998 that a proposal was made to restore the building to its former use and glory.
Reopen since 2013, it’s once more a show-case of the best of Taiwanese and global design. The first floor foodhall sells Taiwanese teas, sweets, and other edible goodies, with upper floors carrying creative handicrafts, gifts, fashion, and accessories. Those reaching the top floor can reward themselves with a delicious cone of brown sugar ice cream served with a salted pretzel-like breadstick from the rooftop café and sake bar.
Tainan has a lively and famous night market, but I instead recommend Cheng Hsing Street. This small street has numerous informal-style restaurants and is currently a dining hotspot with locals. Nearby Shennong Street is often considered the best-preserved street in Tainan. Rather than being an echo of the past, the traditional buildings that line this narrow pedestrian-only street are home to stylish bars and creative shops. Although none are specifically gay, these cool venues attract young and hip locals of all sexual preferences. If you’re seeking an exclusively gay environment, the best option in Tainan is Green House, a large and popular gay sauna.
Finally, no trip to Tainan would be complete without heading out to the suburbs to Ten Drum Culture Village. Like similar projects in Taipei, here a disused sugar refinery has been restored and reinvented as a new cultural landmark. What’s unique about this place is that it’s home to the Grammy Award–nominated Ten Drum Art Percussion Group. Visitors enjoy a loud and energized twice-daily performance from the talented, world-renowned musicians.
Accompanied by video and lighting effects, the drummers demonstrate their breathtaking drumming dexterity, speed, skill, and stamina. I read that Ten Drum performers must be capable of striking 150 to 180 beats per minute for several minutes at a time, while at the same time maintaining a posture that would challenge a gymnast. The toned, shirtless performers I saw definitely had the physiques of gymnasts.
Afterward, visitors may join a rudimental percussion class, to learn a lesson on how to bang your own drum. You may also visit the “drum fac- tory” to watch artisans work on drums of all shapes and sizes, tightly stretching water buffalo hides over wooden drum cases. There are also ecological trails, a café-bar, and a craft and design shop.
If this is a typical example of what “Made in Taiwan” means today, then that label is surely setting a new standard.
amba Taipei Ximending, 77 Wuchang Street, Section 2, Wanhua District, Taipei City. Cool four-star hotel with 160 guestrooms, and lots of inventive, eco-friendly design details. Its café-restaurant and bar are decorat- ed with retro, industrial-style furniture. Located in the vibrant Ximending neighbourhood, it’s close to the Red House gay venues. Their second property amba Taipei Zhongshan opened April 2015, with amba Taipei Songshan opening in 2016. Rates from TWD 3,000 (approx $90) +15.5% tax and service charge. www.amba-hotels.com
W Taipei, 10 Zhongxiao East Road, Section 5, Xinyi District, Taipei City. Striking five-star hotel with 405 guestrooms, panoramic outdoor swimming pool, bars, restaurants and design boutique. Cosmopolitan and gay-friendly, it’s one of the city’s most happening hangouts. Located in the downtown Xinyi District, many of its rooms have stunning views of neighbouring Taipei 101 skyscraper. Rates from $300 +15% tax and service charge. www.wtaipei.com
Abrazo, No. 53, Lane 290, Guang Fu South Road, Da’an District, Taipei City. This popular, industrial-style gay bar has a great ambiance and a good-looking crowd. It’s especially busy at weekends, when guest DJs hit the decks. www.facebook.com/abrazotaipei
Bear Junkies, 2/F 192 Kunming Street, Wanhua Dis- trict, Taipei City. This friendly bar is favoured by an older, beefier crowd, including pandas (Asian bears). Open 4P.M.-1A.M. www.facebook.com/bearjunkies
Café Dalida, 1/F Red House, Lane 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. Popular gay bar in the Red House courtyard, with outdoor area, friendly staff, and occasional DJs. www.facebook.com/cafedalida
Commander, 2/F Red House, Lane 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. This tiny venue is Taipei’s original BDSM themed bar. A larger and better-equipped second branch has opened approximately a ten-minute walk away. www.facebook.com/commander.tw
Funky, B1, No. 10, Section 1, Hangzhou Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City. This popular gay dance club attracts a young, predominantly male crowd. The music is a mix of Asian pop and Western hits. www.facebook.com/funky-club
G-MiXi, 1/F Red House, Lane 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. Busy gay bar-restaurant in the Red House courtyard, offering alfresco drinking and dining. www.facebook.com/gmixibar
Matt Bar, No. 11, Lane 121, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei City. This gay karaoke bar has bold, modern décor, and is popular with locals and gay tourists from Japan, Korea and China. The walls are decorated with gay artwork by leading Japanese manga cartoonists. www.facebook.com/mattbar.club
Mudan, 1/F Red House, Lane 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. This popular gay café- bar with outdoor seating in the Red House courtyard is ideal for drinking and people watching. www.facebook.com/mudan-taipei
PARK, B1F, 153-2 Yanji Street, Da’an District, Taipei City. A cosmopolitan lounge bar with an extensive bar and cocktail menu, it’s popular with a young mixed, gay crowd. www.facebook.com/park.tp
XOXO, No 66-1, Yanji Street, Da’an District, Taipei City. A new addition to Taipei’s gay bar scene, this large and stylish venue opened in October 2014. It attracts a young and hip crowd of gay men and their friends. www.facebook.com/taipeixoxo
Modern Toilet, Lane 50, Xining S Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. One of Taipei’s most famous and popular theme restaurants, diners sit on actual toilets to eat Taiwanese and international food served on miniature toilet-shaped crockery. www.moderntoilet.com.tw
National Palace Museum, No. 221, Section 2, Zhishan Road, Shilin District, Taipei City. This vast museum is home to the world’s premiere collection of Chinese art. The collection came from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, evacuated during the Chinese Civil War, and has remained here ever since. Crowds come here to see treasures including the famous jadeite cabbage. www.npm.gov.tw
Red House, No. 10, Chengdu Road, Wanhua District, Taipei City. European-style red-brick building, built in 1908 as a marketplace. In 2002 it was renovated as a cultural arts center, housing design shops, art exhibitions, and live performances. Numerous gay bars and shops are located in the adjacent courtyard, hence it’s considered a hub of Taipei’s gay community. www.redhouse.org.tw
Taipei 101, No. 7 Section 5, Xinyi Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City. The world’s tallest building until 2010, this imposing skyscraper remains a city landmark and a centrepiece to Taipei’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Visitor may enjoy panoramic views from indoor and outdoor observation decks, or shop for renowned global brands like Prada and Dior in its upscale shop- ping mall. www.taipei-101.com.tw
Taiwan Design Museum, No. 133 Guangfu S Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City. Located within Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, a former tobacco factory built in 1937 that’s now a center of Taiwanese creativity. The museum collection includes furniture, bikes, teapots, computers, toys, and other objects to show- case the best of Taiwanese and global design. www.tdm.org.tw
Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, 89 Section West, University Road, Tainan. Luxury five-star hotel with 336 guestrooms and suites in a 38-story glass tower–Tainan’s tallest building. Amenities include a large fitness club and spa, gourmet rooftop restaurant, and a heart-shaped outdoor swimming pool. Guests may upgrade to Horizon Club for extra services and exclusive amenities. Rates from TWD 3,645 (approx $110). www.shangri-la.com
Green House Sauna, 5F-3, No. 147, Section 2, Chung Yi Road, Tainan. This spacious and popular gay sauna has a large steam room, dry sauna, darkrooms, and cabins. www.greenlove.idv.tw
Hayashi Department Store, No. 63, Section 2, Zhongyi Road, Tainan. Dating from 1932, this historic department store reopened in 2013 after an extensive refurbishment, and is once again a hub of Taiwanese style, fashion, and culture. After shopping for gifts and goodies, head to the top floor to enjoy anything from a glass of sake to a cone of brown sugar ice cream. www.hayashi.com.tw
Ten Drum Culture Village, No. 326, Section 2, Wenhua Road, Rende District, Tainan. This former sugar refinery is now an ecological and cultural center, home to Grammy Award–nominated Ten Drum Art Percussion Group. Enjoy an energized show of drumming dexterity in the on-site theatre, then explore the old industrial buildings, take a percussion class, and visit the drum factory. www.ten-hsieh.com.tw