New high-tech wealth and a flurry of upscale shops, clubs, and restaurants that have opened in the capital city are sparking a “Taipei is the next Shanghai” buzz. It’s not quite there—yet—but visitors will appreciate a more reliable transportation system as well as friendly locals who speak better English than their mainland counterparts. After winter’s chill and before summer’s monsoons is the best time to go. Plan on a five-day stay, after which it’s an easy jump to other Asian hot spots.
1. Bring some Ambien for the eighteen-hour flight to Taipei. China Airlines flies direct from JFK (from $837; 800-227-5118), with a refueling stopover in Anchorage (reindeer jerky makes an excellent snack).
2. The most stylish of the megahotels is the 856-room Grand Hyatt Taipei (from $172; 886-2-2720-1234) in trendy Xinyi. For less bustle, try the chic 84-room Les Suites Taipei Ching-Cheng (from $210; 886-2-8712-7688), with flat-screen TVs and a lovely garden.
3. It’s a 37-second elevator ride to the 89th-floor observation deck of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building. From here, you’ll see the massive Chiang Kai-shek memorial and the Yang Ming Shan mountains. On the way down, skip 101’s shopping mall and instead head to the trendy Dragonfly Gallery boutique for cool finds like a Czech-designed Libera crystal candleholder ($140) or funky aluminum-and-steel brooches ($82).
4. When the National Palace Museum completes its two-year renovation in June, much more of its 700,000-item collection will be on display; look for fourth-century Chin Dynasty calligraphy and intricately carved jadeite from the Ch’ing Dynasty.
5. Book a table at Moga (886-2-2704-9646), a tiny fusion restaurant serving Japanese-style Italian cuisine, like pasta with sea urchin and Hokkaido king crab. For something more authentic, slurp world-famous pork, shrimp, and red-bean-paste dumplings at the no-frills Din Tai Fung (886-2-2321-8928).
6. Once an epicenter for purveyors of fresh reptile blood and venom, the Huashi Street Night Market (a.k.a. Snake Alley) now is more of a street carnival, with vendors hocking everything from peanuts to live pigs. Old ladies offer foot rubs, and a couple of places still chop up snakes and turtles, but it’s more about spectacle than shopping.
7. The young and hip eschew karaoke for Champagne 3’s two-level dance floor and D.J.’s like Victor and Stone. At the down-at-the-heels club Wall, mostly Taiwanese groups play everything from rock to reggae.
8. Dedicate two days to adventure. Take the express train from Taipei to Hualien (three hours, $14), then a bus to Taroko Gorge (one hour, $6), where the Liwu River cuts through 3,000-foot marble cliffs. Hike the Baiyang Trail to a spectacular waterfall, then relax at the comfortable Grand Formosa Taroko hotel (from $185; 886-3-869-1155).
9. Consider hiring a driver ($60 at Jan Ming Travel Agency; 886-2-2518-9977) to take you back to Hualien. On the way, buy a bag of highly addictive betel nuts from one of the many roadside shacks. The nuts are bitter and pungent, but for a couple bucks, you get a massive caffeine-like infusion and a bright-red tongue.
10. Part two of the adventure: From Hualien, take a puddle jump to Taichung ($62 on Mandarin Airlines; 886-2-2717-1230), then a bus to Sun Moon Lake (45 minutes, $5). The Taiwanese come here to relax and reflect; wake up early one morning to watch the mist rise off the tree-lined lake from your balcony at the teakwood-and-stone Lalu Hotel (from $479; 886-49-285-6888; thelalu.com.tw)—it’s the perfect way to prep for the long plane ride home.