Kaoshiung and Tainan, the main cities in the southern region of Taiwan, have been getting quite a bit of attention lately thanks to government efforts to promote the region to overseas tourists. The historic heart of the island has seen plenty of new hotels as well as redevelopment of existing tourist infrastructure in recent years. Being slightly more than a 3-hour high speed train ride from Taipei, it makes sense to spend a couple of days in the southern cities. This is after all where Taiwan’s capital used to be. Those who make the effort to come here are ultimately rewarded with a different side to Taiwanese culture. People tend to speak Minnan (Hokkien) here compared to Mandarin and the tropical climate also means plenty of sunshine as compared to the usually dreary weather up north. If you are thinking of visiting Kaohsiung and Tainan and have no idea where to go, this suggested itinerary can hopefully help you.
If you are also heading up north, check out this Taipei itinerary
Day 1 – Kaohsiung
The most common entry points to Kaohsiung are either via the Kaohsiung International Airport which is only 15 minutes from town or the Zuo Ying High Speed Rail Station. If you are arriving by the latter, you may be pleased to note that one of Kaohsiung’s top attractions – the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas – are situated close by. Chances are you’ll have your luggage in tow so it may be wise to check-in to your hotel first (check out my recommended lodging below).
After obtaining your bearings, start your day at Cijin (Qijin) District. Touted as one of the city’s tourism hotspots, the elongated island by Kaohsiung harbour is great for outdoor pursuits such as cycling. While here, you can check out the shops by the beach or head to Chihou Fort and Chihou Lighthouse. Both were constructed by the British in the 19th century and marked the beginnings of the city as a port. Entrance is free for both attractions.
Afterwards, head back to the mainland and make a short stop at the Former British Consulate at Takow. It’s perched on top of a hill and is one of the oldest colonial mansions in Taiwan. Inside, visitors can find a museum as well as a cafe. The view over the city and the harbor is also fantastic.
Take an early lunch at Duck Zhen (鴨肉珍) at 258 Wufu 4th Road in Yanzheng District which is known for its excellent duck rice. What makes the dish special is the sauce so make sure to order the duck rice which comes soaked in sauce rather than have the duck separately.
After grabbing a bite, it’s just the right time to make the short stroll to Pier 2 Art District. The shops will start opening by this time. Taiwan has plenty of cultural and creative zones around the major cities and this is Kaohsiung’s answer to that. Inside, you’ll find plenty of small shops selling knick-knacks, the occasional art gallery as well as plenty of outdoor art works. If you are looking for a spot from where to take nice selfies, this place offers plenty of possibilities.
Take the MRT and stop at the Formosa Boulevard Station to see the Dome of Light installation. This particular station frequently makes it to various lists of the most beautiful subway stations in the world. The stained glass fixture is counted as among the largest in the world. The dome comes in 4 sections representing the various elements: water, fire, earth and light.
Head out to the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in the city outskirts. Kaohsiung’s most recognizable attraction is best visited in the afternoon just when the sun is shining on the frontage.
Day 2 – Kaohsiung to Tainan
Start the morning with an optional excursion to the gigantic Fo Guang Shang Monastery in the outskirts of Kaohsiung. There is no shortage of temples in Taiwan but to be frank, this is one of the grandest modern temples I have ever seen. The most impressive portion of the temple is the grand pathway with pagodas on either side that leads to a giant Buddha statue. The reason why I call this an optional trip is because unless you have your own car, it may take you a bit of time to get there and back. The most convenient way via public transport is the #8501 bus which departs from the Zuoying THSR station. Expect a trip of around 1.5 hours each way. Alternatively, it’s 40 minutes away by car from Kaohsiung’s city center. If you have your own car, it would make sense to head to Tainan after visiting Fo Guang Shan due to its location in the northern outskirts of Kaohsiung.
Should you decide not to do the trip to Fo Guang Shan, your morning should be spent traveling to Tainan after having your fill of Kaohsiung. Taiwan’s 4th largest city and former capital, Tainan lies immediately north of Kaohsiung and because or urbanization, the two cities are almost contiguous to each other. Tainan is Taiwan’s cultural heart with plenty of age-old forts, temples, museums, historic alleys as well as good eats. As such, I recommend spending around 1.5 to 2 days in this city to fully explore what it has to offer.
The main station in the city, Tainan Station, is conveniently located in the heart of town and is around 15 minutes walk to the tourist attractions. It makes sense to stay around the area. I stayed at the Shangri-la’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel Tainan which offers a free shuttle bus to the sights nearby. You can start off at the Chihkan Tower (also known as Fort Provintia, Admission: 50 TWD). The site originates as a Dutch fort built in 1653. It was later destroyed by an earthquake and had to be rebuilt. This explains the Chinese facade. Inside, you’ll find a museum as well as a viewing deck which gives you an overview of the surrounding gardens.
Afterwards, head out to the Confucius Temple which is a short cab ride or a 13 minute walk away from Chihkan Tower. The center of learning dates back to the 17th century. Travelers around East and Southeast Asia can note similarities in places like Hanoi with its Temple of Literature. From here, it’s also a short walk to the Koxinga Shrine a few blocks away. It’s a small family shrine erected to commemorate the ancestors of a noble man in the 17th century. It offers a good glimpse at the architecture of the time.
It might be searing hot by this time in the afternoon, a perfect excuse to head over to the Hayashi Department Store. Much more than a shopping center, this commercial establishment dates back from the colonial Japanese era and has a distinct old world charm. From the tiled chessboard floors to a perceptible art deco interiors, this department store today caters to well-heeled travelers and you can find plenty of knick knacks inside as well as a restaurant on the topmost floor.
If you haven’t had enough of Taiwan’s “art districts,” you can end your day at Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park – Tainan’s very own. It’s a shopping hub of quaint indie stores, art galleries as well as plenty of street art. It’s worth a stroll even for just an hour and is at its liveliest at night.
End the day at one of Tainan’s lively night markets. The Garden Night Market is the biggest and is open on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays while Dadong Night Market is open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
Those looking for nightlife options will be pleased to note that one of the local watering holes, TCRC (located near the Matsu Temple) frequently makes it to the list of Asia’s top bars. It’s a bit difficult to get a seat from 10pm onwards as was my experience so do come earlier or at least leave your name and number (waiting time can be 2+ hours).
Day 3 – Tainan
Spend the day exploring Tainan’s equally historic Anping District. While here, the Anping Old Fort is a must-see. It’s a Dutch fortress that has been turned into a museum. It also boasts of nice views of the city especially on clear days. Admission is TWD 50. The dilapidated Anping Tree House nearby has become somewhat of an attraction due to social media. The site is filled with the overgrowth coming from the banyan tree and has plenty of “instagrammable” spots.
If you are having lunch in the area, I would recommend trying 周氏蝦捲 (#125 Anping Road) for its battered shrimp dish – akin to a Taiwanese style tempura.
One of the more unexpected activities in Tainan is the mangrove swamp tour which can be done on a boat. One ride on the Sicao Green Tunnel costs around TWD 150 per person. You’ll be on a raft along with approximately 14 other people with the ride lasting 30 minutes. Although the river is quite short, it’s highly scenic and in certain segments, you’ll see the mangroves from both sides joining together to form an arch and create a natural shelter from the sunlight. Do note that the location is a bit out of town so you’ll need your own transport to get here.
Another optional excursion you can do is visit the grandoise Chimei Museum located in the city outskirts. Even if you have no interest in art exhibits, the exteriors are pretty impressive and is not dissimilar to the royal palaces in Europe with a large fountain and a bridge flanked by statues on both sides lining the entrance to the museum.
Spend your last evening in Tainan strolling through atmospheric Shennong Street. Here, you’ll find quirky establishments such as a namesake bar where there are no standard operating hours, a cafe filled with dolls and vintage sofas brushing elbows with trendy restaurants. Add in the neighborhood shrine and temple and you’ve got yourself a perfect hangout for Taiwan’s hipsters.
Where to Stay in Kaohsiung and Tainan
In Tainan, I stayed in Shangri-la’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel Tainan for its free shuttle bus to several tourist attractions and location close to Tainan Station. For families, this hotel offers family rooms that can easily fit 4 people. This is also among the most affordable Shangri-la properties in the world.
In Kaohsiung, I stayed in the ultra-chic Silks Club Kaohsiung. I particularly loved its Japanese sensibilities and its designer artwork in the rooms and throughout the public areas.