Ancient Capital of Taiwan
Located in the southern tropical region of Taiwan, Tainan (literally means “Taiwan south”) served as the political and economic center of Taiwan for more than two centuries. Tainan City is also where the name Taiwan got its name when there’s a lagoon hundreds of years ago. The shape of the lagoon looks like a “big bay”, which is pronounced in Hokkien as “Tayouan” in Dutch romanization. The Chinese immigrants, Japanese pirates, and European traders all came here to look for better opportunities on Formosa or, in modern spelling, “Taiwan”. The recorded history of the island began right from here in 1624 and it has sprawled into other part of the “beautiful island” (or Formosa, named by the Portuguese in the 16th century) since
One of the Most Exciting Destinations to Visit
In fall of 2023, Tainan once again captures the interest of international visitors. The National Geographic announced the “Cool List 2024” and dubbed Tainan as one of the 30 most exciting destinations to visit in 2024. This long-lived city never lacks tourists domestically or internationally. The article will simply bring in more holidaymakers in the future because of the rich heritage and modern charms you can easily find in its old neighborhoods. The privileged magazine mentioned that Tainan’s skyline is made of temple roofs and soaring pagodas while the facade of historical houses fairly decorates the older streets and lanes without much renovation. The entire city might be sluggish in economy but spirited with pride.
Gourmet City of Taiwan
Speaking of snack foods, nobody would deny that Tainan is the creator of traditional Taiwanese cuisine and a major hub of street foods. You can find plenty of culinary delights almost every block away from where you stay.
Mentioned in the NatGeo article are “coffin bread” and “peddler’s noodles”. The coffin bread is hallowed-out toasted bread with something like chowder inside. The chef puts the lid back to make it look like a square box similar to South African bunny chow. The word “coffin” might be related to death in local culture; the truth is, however, coffin also connotes “being promoted and gaining wealth” out of its underlying meaning in Mandarin Chinese “shēngguānfācái”. Eating this snack food may not bring fortune but will definitely bring you back to the 1950s of Sakariba, a famous food market, in central Tainan.
The peddler’s noodle is also well-known in this old city. It’s said that a local fisherman created this treat during the off season to make a living. Mr. Hong Yutou, the creator, carried the noodles on ”shoulder poles” to tout business along the street and this proved to be a very successful delicacy. Now this peddler has moved into a fancy restaurant and passed on to the fourth generation. The peddler’s noodles, or “danzai noodles” in Mandarin Chinese, seem to become a pronoun of Tainan snack food and many have copied that success and gather even more attention among foodies.
Gourmand Paradise in the South
Gastronomes won’t be simply satisfied by the aforementioned local goodies. If you ever get a chance to visit Tainan, you shouldn’t just grab a sandwich or drink soy milk for breakfast. The coolest thing here is to have the “beef soup” like what savvy locals will do. This delectable dish is normally served in early morning though some of the eateries offer 24/7 beef options. To get the best taste, the chefs only use the freshly slaughtered cattle beef slices in a bowl before pouring the boiling beef bone stewed broth into it. This might be just garnished with shredded ginger or chopped scallions. Gourmets are always amazed by the refreshing taste of broth and sweet, succulent cattle beef. Most insiders also order stirfired mustard greens to go with that top breakfast choice. You wouldn’t find this delicacy outside Tainan because most of the cattle pens are in the suburbs of Tainan City.
Get Some Historic Vibe
Tainan has much more to offer other than foods. As an ancient city in Taiwan, Tainan has a myriads of old temples and historic sites. The Shennong Street has drawn lots of public attention thanks to the close collaboration among shops and the closely-knitted local community along the 250-meter or so length. Most of the buildings on the street didn’t alter their facade too much and people believe those buildings can trace their history back to the Qing-era in 19th century.
Though those proprietors may sell something very different from ubiquitous boba to ornate gloves, visitors can still indulge themselves in the tranquil narrow lane festooned by big red traditional lanterns. The night time is especially recommended as the best time to visit because you wouldn’t want to miss the shady light that casts mysterious shadows while keeping a sense of solitude especially during the weekdays.
Anping Fort and Anping Old Street
When it comes to the first-grade historic site, we shouldn’t miss the Anping Fort and Anping Old Street, both of which are located in one of the oldest neighborhoods in central Tainan. Used to be set up on the tip of a long sandbank, these attractions are now surrounded by either century-old residences or modern condos. It may not be harmonious in this kind of city layout but this just proved how the history developed in this area – a mixture of the old and new. The Dutch came here to set up their trading base in early 17th century and built a stronghold in 1634. The Fort Zeelandia, an alternative name of Anping Fort, witnessed the great discovery stage of the Europeans in Asia.
The neighboring Anping Old Street area is the location of the first commercial street in the early history of Taiwan. Now visitors can sample the shrimp crackers, preserves, tofu pudding, oyster rolls, just to name a few, to the east of the Dutch fortification.
The castle, however, doesn’t look like what it used to be due to the drastic power shifts and weather erosion. From the three remaining walls in the complex, you can still feel the vibration of the vivid Dutch presence nearly four hundred years ago. Don’t forget to climb to the top of the red-tiled watch tower, which has become an icon of Anping Fort, to overlook where the original “big bay” comes from.
Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
As the oldest city of Taiwan, Tainan’s ancient tradition is certainly not inferior to any other cities on the island country. Recently Greater Taipei’s Pingxi District has been favorably reported by international media for their releasing the sky lanterns 15 days after the Lunar New Year, which is known as the Lantern Festival. In the south, its counterpart in Yanshui has also been greeted with loud applause.
Yanshui District, which is nearly an hour away from downtown Tainan, is an ancient commercial center and used to function as a port by a big inland sea centuries ago. Now it proudly boasts its joyous celebration of the annual Lantern Festival. The NatGeo article mentioned the rockets being let off from an apiary-like cart on that day to celebrate the Lunar New Year’s lantern festival.
This distinct culture is also copied by some other temples near central Tainan. If you don’t have time to travel far, the half an-hour-away Annan District has a glamorous huge temple, the Orthodox Lu-Er-Men Sheng Mu Temple, also arranges this type of beehive fireworks, plus the largest-scale firework display.
In downtown Tainan, the Puji Temple is noted for thousands of painted lanterns hung in the temple square and even extended into Guohua Street. Instagram celebrities and internet influencers alike won’t feel disappointed when hanging around here.
The Anping Fort opens from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with the admission of NT$70 for adults and NT$35 for concession. The shops and vendors of the Anping Old Street area generally opens from 10:00 a.m. on and we see much less people during the night there. On the contrary, the Shennong Street seems to be busier in the evening and quieter during the day unless in weekends.
How to get there?
Tainan City doesn’t have well-webbed public bus services compared to Taipei. Travelers can, however, simply make the most out of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle services “88 Tainan Loop Route” and “99 Anping Taijiang Route”. These two shuttle services can take you to almost all the famous scenic spots and historic sites in your itinerary. The fare starts at NT$18 per “section” of the ride or a day pass with unlimited ride is also available. The service interval is, however, around one hour, and it only operates on weekends or public holidays. Please check the latest bus timetable via Taiwan Tourist Shuttle website for the most up-to-date information.
Useful Tips While Visiting
Too hot in summer?
The heat in the south can be unbearable sometimes. But, don’t forget, Tainan is a gourmet city. Travelers can always find a bubble tea shop or shaved ice parlor to get away from the heat while taking a break. This old city has many big trees, especially banyans, offering abundant shade near temples or any open plazas. That’s why we love old cities!
Tainan has a lot more street foods to choose from. Some famous ones are milkfish, savory rice congee, eel noodles, shrimp rolls, winter melon tea, savory rice pudding, tofu pudding, Taiwanese meatball, braised pork over rice, rice dumplings “zongzi”, narrow-barred Spanish mackerel potage, etc. you’ll find it easier to find a local eatery or food stall than a fancy restaurant. Do as the Romans do. When you see a long queue, join them!
The widely-acclaimed travel agent Edison Tours, which is based in Taipei, started to include Tainan in their best-seller 5-day Best of Taiwan since summer of 2023. If you don’t mind seeing just a bit of the ancient city but are eager to travel around the island in your short visit of Taiwan, this tour can be an excellent option. Be sure to sign up for the tour as early as possible because the seats are sold out quickly.