The Longshan Temple.
An Rong Xu
Herbal cures, secret sauces, and cinematic streets make for an enlightening time in Wanhua.
Taipei is on more and more travelers’ lists lately, drawing visitors in with its Michelin-starred dining, high design, and under-the-radar appeal. The Taiwanese capital city is a case study in urban juxtaposition: Night markets and refined dining rooms, packed tea shops and cool cocktail bars, centuries-old temples and soaring skyscrapers. And while it may be tempting to follow the neon lights straight to the 101-story Taipei 101 tower or Immense’s ultra-sleek atelier, in this town, it’s worth starting from the beginning.
The city sprawls outward from Wanhua, its first district, established in the early 1700s thanks to its strategic trading position at the juncture of the Tamsui, Xindian, and Dahan rivers. The modernization found throughout the rest of Taipei barely exists in well-preserved Wanhua. If there’s anywhere to get a taste of “Old Taipei,” this is it.
My first stop – and usually the first for others in Wanhua too – is the Longshan Temple, a shrine built by immigrants from China’s Fujian Province in 1738 and dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. It’s one of Taiwan’s oldest and most famous temples, known for its striking bronze dragon pillars and the matchmaking powers of one of its many resident deities, Yue Lao, the god of marriage and love. Worshippers come to Longshan to pray for everything from romance to good fortune to health. Past devotees often used to head next door to Herb Alley, a covered market with vendors hawking traditional concoctions for all sorts of ailments. While many Herb Alley shops shuttered over the years, one family found a way to reinvent themselves. Locals come to the Wang family’s shop, LaoJiAn Healing Herbar, for bespoke herbal teas designed to combat millennial maladies, such as burnout and hangovers.
Curative mixology at LaoJiAn Healing Herbar.
An Rong Xu
Inside the modern space, I sit down at a wooden bar with a science-lab-like wall of herbs behind it and fill out a short questionnaire about my personal habits, such as how much sleep I get and how stressed I feel. After a quick consultation, Brian Wang, the shop’s third-generation owner, determines the combination of herbs I need to combat my insomnia – chameleon plant, Asiatic pennywort, dandelion, honeysuckle, and a dash of mint – and carefully brews my tea, serving it in a ceramic cup as large as a soup bowl.
I’ve had Chinese herbal cures before, and they’re often bitter, but this is easily drinkable – the shop’s mixtures are milder to please today’s palate. On my way out, I pick up a bottle of chilled herbal milk tea (a pleasant alternative to the saccharine bubble tea confections found across Taiwan) and receive my tea formula and ingredients list so I can brew my own prescription at home.
A pork belly snack from Yuan Fang Guabao. An Rong Xu
Despite its name, many of the Huaxi Street Night Market’s stalls open at 4 pm, in time for a late-afternoon lunch. Launched in 1951 as Taiwan’s first night market for travelers, Huaxi operated as a red-light district until the government outlawed prostitution in the 1990s. (There was also a time when Huaxi earned the nickname “Snake Alley” for its questionable snake-meat restaurants, but that’s well in the past.)
Today, travelers and locals navigate Huaxi’s bustling arcade in search of the trio of stalls with Michelin Bib Gourmand status: Chang Hung Noodles, for savory, soupy bowls of pork-cheek noodles; Yuan Fang Guabao, specializing in traditional steamed buns stuffed with fatty pork belly and garnished with ground peanuts and cilantro; and my favorite, Wang’s Broth, where minced, braised pork marinated in a secret umami sauce sits atop a bowl of fluffy rice. Huaxi merges into a larger network of night markets on adjacent roads, where hungry travelers can keep wandering in search of bean curd pudding and barbecue seafood skewers.
An Rong Xu
Rejuvenated by tea and street food, I walk a few minutes east of the Longshan Temple to the Bopiliao Historic Block. It’s hard to miss this distinctive stretch of red-brick buildings, which add a pop of color to the district’s mostly gray concrete structures. Bopiliao’s architecture is some of Taipei’s oldest and most eclectic, a mix of Qing Dynasty and Japanese styles spanning the eighteenth century to the early 1900s. It’s rare to see these complete blocks of traditional buildings in Taipei; most of the older ones have been demolished to make way for towering skyscrapers and apartments housing the city’s growing population.
As Wanhua’s fortunes waned, Bopiliao was left to decay until 2003, when the city government began restoring the dilapidated buildings and transforming the block into a heritage and cultural center. They did such a good job that Bopiliao now doubles as a film set. Inside many of its buildings, visitors can browse artifacts and interactive displays to better understand the significance of the area’s history.
I end my day a ten-minute drive away at Ximending, a popular shopping district on Wanhua’s northern end that’s packed with young Taiwanese people popping in and out of trendy boutiques and taking pictures on rainbow crosswalks and in front of colorful murals. The area is known as “the Harajuku of Taipei” – and in a district revered for its history, it feels like a harmonious bridge between old Taipei and new.
In the city’s central Songshan district, about a 20-minute drive northwest of Wanhua, visitors find nothing but opulence at the 303-room Mandarin Oriental, Taipei – from the lobby’s polished marble floors and massive chandelier to the 1,700-piece art collection and Michelin-starred Chinese at Ya Ge restaurant. Concierges arrange private visits to some of the city’s best galleries, secure coveted reservations for the hotel’s afternoon tea, and book Taiwanese-inspired treatments at the multilevel spa. Virtuoso travelers receivebreakfast daily and a $100 dining or spa credit.
Artisans of Leisure
Artisans of Leisure’s private Taiwan tours include a five-day Taipei deep dive, with market tours, cooking classes, temple and museum visits, and day trips to surrounding national parks. The customizable itinerary means travelers can easily add Wanhua experiences like the ones in this story; plush overnights at the Mandarin Oriental sweeten the stay. Departures: Any day through July 5, 2025.
Spend eight days in Taiwan on a bespoke private tour with Remote Lands. Highlights include three days in Taipei for Longshan Temple visits, Ximending sprees, and night-market pursuits; a road trip along the island’s rugged east coast to the Taroko Gorge; and a temple-centric jaunt to the port city of Kaohsiung. Departures: Any day through March 1, 2025.