by Telegraph Luxury Travel Editor and John O'Ceallaigh, The Telegraph, March 8, 2017
Donald Trump’s recent phone call to president Tsai Ing-wen may have further complicated relations between China and Taiwan but prospective visitors shouldn’t be deterred from exploring Taipei. Still only visited by about 38,000 Britons a year, this Taiwanese city - safe, pristine and welcoming - is one of the easiest capitals to navigate in Asia.
My own visit was motivated by a desire to see the National Palace Museum, Taipei for myself. A showcase for over 600,000 artefacts that were transported for safekeeping from mainland China to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, it is a sprawling repository for some of the most exquisite Chinese artworks in existence - representing some eight millennia of heritage - and a destination those with an interest in Chinese craftsmanship should endeavour to visit at least once in their lives.
Built in the style of a Northern Chinese palace and set on a verdant hillside on the outskirts of the city, the museum is a dramatically beautiful, multi-tiered complex with vast galleries dedicated to luminescent jades, lustrous lacquerwares and paraphernalia ranging from snuff bottles to rare bronzes to intriguing oddities such as an intricately detailed miniature boat, carved from an olive pit. Its unusual version of a Rosetta Stone or Mona Lisa, meanwhile, is a small cabbage, made of coloured glass and adored by the Taiwanese.
Alongside the Taipei 101 skyscraper (the world’s tallest building until it was usurped by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), it is perhaps the only attraction in the city with some broad degree of international renown, a void that I found refreshing. This is a city you can explore without the obligation of scurrying to a litany of “must-visit” attractions.
Vaguely following concierges’ recommendations, my own ramblings took me to the immense Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. A white-marble edifice with cobalt-blue octagonal roof, it is here that the city’s protracted changing of the guard ceremony takes place. Spread beneath it, Liberty Square is an immense plaza that houses both the National Concert Hall and National Theatre, complementary venues topped with ember-orange curved roofs. It’s an immense, imposing and impressive space, and was almost entirely empty during my weekday visit.
Beyond those attractions, Taipei’s other recognised lure is its dining scene. Found throughout the city, night markets feature a proliferation of food stalls offering oyster omelettes, grilled squid, chilli fried chicken, mochi and more idiosyncratic dishes such as pork blood cake. Visitors with little time often choose to visit Shilin, the city’s oldest and largest night market. Vegetarians, who are likely to feel deprived by the lack of suitable dishes on offer, might instead prefer to visit Din Tai Fung . The international chain originated in Taipei, and its smattering of branches in the city - entirely casual and all exceptionally good value - remain some of the most popular dim sum restaurants in Asia.
And in terms of where to stay, the recently opened Mandarin Oriental Taipei has done much to enhance the city’s appeal to high-end travellers. Inspired by the grandest of French chateaux, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful properties in the entire Mandarin Oriental portfolio. Crowned with a dazzling, four-metre-high chandelier composed of 50,000 crystal beads and fragments of amber, its lobby is unexpectedly majestic and the attention to detail throughout is superb.
Common areas are finished with hand-forged steel, bronze and vintage verdigris; among the most spacious in the city and also beautifully styled, bedrooms also feature the full contingent of expected electronica and suite guests are also provided with access to a discreet club lounge where unlimited glasses of Ruinart form an agreeable part of the breakfast buffet.
Though few and far between, some shortcomings were in evidence during my stay too. Locals’ predisposition for eating in groups in private dining rooms meant my own dinner in traditional-Chinese restaurant Ya Ge’s depopulated a la carte dining room was a somewhat sombre affair despite the interesting complexity of the dishes on offer. The location, in a business district by the domestic airport, is likely to appeal more to local commercial travellers than leisure visitors from further afield.
They are, however, relatively minor impediments considered alongside the overall calibre of the property and the quality of service - at all times sincere, courteous and efficient. It’s an appropriately refined base from which to explore a city that, for many visiting without longstanding assumptions about the destination, will be unexpectedly sophisticated, convivial and surprising.
Rates for Mandarin Oriental, Taipei (+886 2 2715 6888) start from TWD10,000 (£265) per night.
This article was written by Telegraph Luxury Travel Editor and John O'Ceallaigh from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].