There's one Taipei filled with food vendors, who hose down dishes on narrow streets lined with historic buildings. There’s another Taipei that’s gleaming with shiny, record-setting skyscrapers, equipped with some of the world’s fastest elevators. It’s this juxtaposition of old and new that best captures life in the capital city of the subtropical island of Taiwan. Before you visit, file away these 25 facts about Taipei:
1. While mining sulfur in the summer of 1697, Qing dynasty official Yu Yonghe described the muddy marsh that is now Taipei as a basin lake which formed because of earthquakes. He also deemed it “inaccessible and unvisited.”
2. Now, within Taipei’s 105 square miles, there are 9555 neighborhoods, 456 villages, 1,043,797 households and 2,702,809 residents [PDF].
3. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan have stayed in Taipei’s Grand Hotel, a 14-floor Chinese-style palace nestled in Yuanshan (Round Mountain). The 500-room landmark was established in 1952 and ranked one of the world’s top 10 hotels by Fortune in 1967. The building is decorated with more than 200,000 dragons, including a century-old bronze one plated in 24-karat gold. And underneath the hotel? Two secret tunnels rumored to have led to the Presidential Office and the Shilin Official Residence—one that’s 220 feet and another that’s 279 feet long.
Lunar New Year (this year on February 8) is the biggest holiday for the Taiwanese. The place to shop for all your celebration needs? Dihua Street Section 1 in the Dadaocheng area near the Tamsui River. The historic district, which dates back to the Qing period, is lined with traditional shops selling medicinal herbs, teas and wholesale fabric.
5. When it opened in 2004, the 1667-foot-tall Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building. Although Dubai’s Burj Khalifa stole the title in 2009, the 101-floor structure (which has an additional five floors underground) now has a different claim to fame, thanks to Popular Mechanics: "World's Toughest Building." A 730-ton damper helps steady the Xinyi Road tower, which sits 660 feet from a fault line on an island often hit by typhoons. Contained inside the massive structure: a 828,000-square-foot mall, including a 1200-seat food court and three-star Michelin restaurant. To ring in 2016, a 238-second, $1.51 million fireworks display, designed by French pyrotechnic company Groupe F, launched from the skyscraper.
6. Taipei’s bike share program, Youbike, which began in 2008, now has 200 stations with 6538 bikes and 55.8 million rentals since the program's launch. The best part? The price for a 30-minute rental is a mere 15 cents.
7. Unique architecture peppers the Taipei skyline—including two new buildings scheduled to open this year. Currently on the horizon is the Taipei Performing Arts Centre in Shilin, which features a large orb protruding from an otherwise-minimalist framework. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten of OMA, it will house a 1500-seat "grand" theater, an 800-seat "multiform playhouse," and another 800-seat "proscenium playhouse."
The other structure is the Tao Zhu Yin Yuan Tower, also known as Agora Gardens, conceived by archibiotect Vincent Callebaut. The residential tower in Xinyin twists 90 degrees in a double helix form to accommodate its eco-friendly vertical farm design.
8. Just this month, Taipei-born Tsai Ing-Wen made history when she was elected the first female President of Taiwan. The 59-year-old Cornell University and London School of Economics graduate will become the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world when she takes office May 20.
Of the 1,769,428 motor vehicles registered in Taipei, 970,865 of them are motorcycles [PDF]. Locals call the sea of vehicles going down a ramp a “motorcycle waterfall.”
10. Food is such an essential part of Taiwanese culture that locals often greet each other by asking, “Have you eaten yet?” And nowhere is that foodie fascination more visible than in Taipei's night markets. The most famous is the Shilin Night Market, with more than 500 stores and vendors, where the competing scents of chicken cutlets, oyster omelets, pan-fried buns and stinky tofu pull visitors in every direction.
11. Another sign of Taipei’s food obsession? The two most famous pieces of the 696,373 objects at the National Palace Museum are meat and cabbage. The 7.4-inch tall Jadeite Cabbage has two insects on its leaves, symbolizing fertility, while the 2.2-inch Meat-Shaped Stone, made of jasper, is a replica of stewed pork.
12. When residents hear Beethoven’s “Für Elise” playing in the streets of Taipei, the whole neighborhood rushes outside … for the garbage truck. The “trash doesn’t touch the ground” system requires Taiwanese citizens to deliver their rubbish straight to the back of the truck five nights a week in government-sanctioned blue bags. This eliminates the accumulation of garbage in bins that can attract cockroaches and rats. The upside: The time waiting curbside often turns into prime time for neighborhood gossip.
13. After Typhoon Souledor hit Taiwan last August, photos of two Taipei mailboxes, which were blown to a tilt, went viral. By the end of the year, the red and green Chunghwa Post boxes on Longjiang Road ranked as Taiwan’s most popular tourist attraction of 2015, according to Yahoo-Kimo.
The Taipei metro system, which began operating in 1996, has a daily average ridership of around 2 million, as of a December 2015 report. But there's no cramming and pushing here: Thanks to the “Waiting Line” drawn on the ground, the locals line up in an orderly manner.
15. Oscar winner Ang Lee, who directed 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2008’s Brokeback Mountain and 2012’s The Life of Pi was born in Taipei on October 23, 1954. He gave his home country a shoutout in his 2013 Academy Awards acceptance speech.
16. Also born in Taipei: Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. She made history as the first Asian-American woman to ever be appointed to the President's Cabinet.
17. Bookworms, night owls, and anyone who falls in the middle of that Venn diagram should make it a point to visit the 182,986 square foot Eslite bookstore location on Dunhua Road, which has been open 24 hours a day since 1999.
18. The restaurant Din Tai Fung, which specializes in soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) started as a cooking oil company founded in Taipei in 1958. When profits stalled, the owners started to supplement their income by selling the dumplings. Business took off so well, they rebranded in 1972—and soon had locations in Australia, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States … and a Michelin star.
Taipei’s 1972 victory at baseball’s Little League World Series was just one of 17 championship titles for Taiwan—setting a record for the most wins, ahead of Japan with 10 and the state of California with seven.
20. The Formosan blue magpie is the official city bird of Taipei, as elected by the residents. The creature has a scratchy voice and a lengthy blue and white tail, and tends to reside in forests between 984 and 3937 feet above sea level.
21. Taiwanese airline EVA Air’s Hello Kitty planes operate 11 flights—including a direct flight to and from Houston—out of Taipei’s main international airport, the Taiwan Taoyuan Airport. Another two routes run from Taipei’s city airport, Songshan, to Tokyo and Shanghai. Amenities include more than 100 Hello Kitty-themed items, including napkins, cups, utensils, toiletries and rice crackers.
From December 6, 2013, to May 5, 2015, Taipei’s Maokong Gondola was also decked out in Hello Kitty after the beloved Sanrio character was chosen as its official mascot. Today, the cuteness is gone, but the 2.5-mile system is still worth checking out. It runs from the Taipei Zoo at the bottom up to Taipei's largest tea growing area, Maokong. Thirty-one of its cabins feature transparent floors, giving passengers a birds' eye view of the action happening underneath their seats.
23. Taipei’s Beitou district is known for its hot springs, which fill the air with the odor of sulfur. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, Japanese soldiers would bathe in the steaming waters, believing the springs would heal what ailed them. The Beitou Public Bathhouse was built in 1913 and was the largest bathhouse in Eastern Asia at the time. It was abandoned after World War II, and turned into the Beitou Hot Springs Museum in 1998.
24. Watch out, Silicon Valley: The number of tech companies in Taipei Neihu Technology Park has grown from 600 in 2001 to more than 3000 today. More proof of Taipei’s technological influence? YouTube cofounder Steve Chen and Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang were both born in the capital city.
25. No need to worry about international roaming charges in Taipei. The city has free public access Wi-Fi (there are more than 100 million registered accounts). The city is in the process of tripling the number of hotspots to 9000.