Ask any Taiwanese person what city to visit and, almost uniformly, the answer would be – Tainan. It is the oldest city in Taiwan. It was the capital of the island from 1662 until 1887.
Naturally, with age comes rich history. Tainan is known for its centuries-old fortresses, temples, charming alleys, cultural heritage and traditional lifestyle and cuisine. By some accounts, there are over 500 Buddhist and Taoist temples within city limits. Many of them are among the oldest and most important in the country.
Curiously, Tainan sees a lot of local tourism, especially around holiday times, but not many foreign visitors. Nevertheless, some foreigners regard Tainan as an appealing place to live, and there is a strong expat community there.
A brief history of Tainan
Tainan is the birthplace of Taiwan. The southern coastal city, known to its residents as the Phoenix City or the Capital City, is the island’s oldest city and is home to more than a quarter of the national historic sites. Its streets witnessed the complicated history of comebacks, redefinitions, and renewals during past 300 years.
Tainan was initially established by the Dutch East India Company as a ruling and trading base called Fort Zeelandia. The fortress was built over ten years from 1624 to 1634 during the period of Dutch rule on Taiwan.
In 1661, the Ming loyalist Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) launched the Siege of Fort Zeelandia, defeating the Dutch and driving them out of Taiwan. He established the Kingdom of Tungning (the Kingdom of Taiwan) on the site of the former Dutch colony. Tainan became the capital of the Kingdom and remained so until 1683 when Qing Dynasty annexed Taiwan. Afterward, it remained the capital of Taiwan Prefecture under Qing Dynasty rule until 1887, when the new provincial capital was eventually moved to Taipei.
Tainan remained the political, economic and cultural center of Taiwan up to the late nineteenth century. In the 1960s with the redevelopment of Kaohsiung port, Tainan was overtaken by Kaohsiung as the economic center of southern Taiwan. Interestingly, while the city struggled through the second half of the twentieth century, surrounding rural areas, especially the south river region, benefited from national priority development programs. By the mid-1990s, there was a growing awareness of the need to protect Tainan’s historical and cultural treasures. Since then, the government and civil societies have worked to protect city’s heritage. It is an ongoing struggle to preserve its past while reviving its old business center.
In addition to city’s historical and cultural attractions, the surrounding area is stunningly beautiful and is known for fishery and produce growing. In spring, the Taiwan International Orchid Show is held in Houbi’s Taiwan Orchid Plantation. Every year on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the spectacular Yanshui Beehive Rockets Festival attracts visitors from across Taiwan and the world. In summer, there is a number of activities to choose from: firefly watching in Meiling, Baihe Lotus Festival, or visiting Qigu Mangrove Forests Reserve. In autumn, maples on the hills of Hongyeh Park (Red Leaf Park) turn red making it a dream spot for any photographer. In winter, Guanziling mud springs provide much-needed warmth and soothe sore muscles after long walks.
Those streets were made for walking
After years of traveling, we adopted a particular way of getting acquainted with every new destination. We get somewhere in the middle of a city and simply start walking. Forget about obligations of hitting every site mentioned in tourist guides, do not worry about missing a landmark or take a picture at the spot that is on every visitor’s agenda. Trust me, a hidden treasure might await just around the corner. Or not. In this case, another corner is already waiting ahead. Breaking from constraints of a meticulously planned itinerary is liberating.
Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) conveniently connects Tainan with Taipei and other West Coast cities. We seized the opportunity to combine first-time riding HSR with spending a day in Tainan.
In less than two hours of combined travel (train plus taxi), we found ourselves in the middle of the city.
We didn’t have any particular list of landmarks or historical sites in mind. However, it was not a completely random street pounding either. The original plan was to walk from the city center (roughly from Confucius Temple) toward Anping District where the city’s history began.
On a map, it looked like a reasonable distance that we could cover on foot in… let’s say… 6 hours. We knew that inevitably we would stray from the path to take some pictures, then even more pictures. We are all aware how it goes. Suddenly a temple with amazing creatures on the roof jumps out of nowhere.
250+ pictures later, the walk would resume only to almost immediately been interrupted by some random street scene. Another half an hour gone, but the reward is this perfect shot of a neighborhood musical performance which is, by the way, was so professional and enjoyable that we could stay there even longer.
Lo and behold, the sun was getting closer to the horizon, and the map showed that we walked 7 km with 4 more still left to get to the planned finish line… and come back. With so many distractions along the way, we were not going to make it back in time for the last train.
We decided to turn back. At the moment, we found ourselves standing on a bridge overlooking what could be best described as oriental Amsterdam.
Enjoy the photos 🙂
Tainan, we are definitely coming back to get more of your hospitality, charm, and wisdom.
- Taxis are not as readily available as in Taipei
- Public buses are not as frequent as in Taipei
- Looking for lunch or dinner in Tainan? Try Du Hsiao Yueh (or Tu Hsiao Yueh according to the sign above the entrance) on Zhongzheng Road. They are proud to serve authentic Tainan cuisine which they cook right in front of you at the corner on the first floor. The word of caution: portions are tiny, so if you are hungry adjust your order accordingly.
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30 thoughts on “Tainan Walkabout”
Tainan seems like an awesome destination, Elena! How many days would you recommend staying there to explore the place city properly?
Great to hear from you, Agness :). Obviously, every person is different, and there are various ways to explore Tainan. Hence, I can only state my personal opinion. I think you would need 3 days at minimum. It would require a very tight schedule. Since I do not like to be in a hurry and have a tendency to stop at random places to take pictures, window shop or admire some interesting street scenes, I would prefer spending 5 days there. Also, I would highly recommend renting a bike to visit Anping District (the Golden Castle, the Old Fort, etc…) and, perhaps, going even further to Sea Goddess Temple (depends on your biking skills and the weather). Here is the link to the T-bike information. Cheers!
I had no idea that Tainan has such a rich cultural and historic heritage – thank you for the introduction and overview of the city. So many incredible temples and fortresses – I’m glad to hear that the government is stepping in to preserve the most important historic attractions.
We have the same approach to exploring cities as you! We love getting dropped in a random part of a new city and walking to find our way around and explore. It’s the best way to take in parts of the city you wouldn’t otherwise see! 🙂
Thank you, Meg :). Tainan was a revelation. Actually, I was amused (and slightly ashamed) how little we know about Taiwan. From aborigines to high-speed train – visiting Taiwan was one of our most fulfilling experiences to date.
wow what a difference from Taipai Tainan is. I love that it’s still so deeply rooted in tradition and culture. I need to go visit someday
I found Tainan much more interesting than Taipei. In fact, I liked it so much that next time in Taiwan I am going to be based there instead of Taipei.
I love Taiwan and although the East coast is preferred destination, Tainan has its magic. The temples, fortress and even Confucius school are simply amazing.
Agree :). Tainan has some uniqueness and charm that makes it special.
I know several people who’ve been to Taiwan recently, and they’ve all raved about the island, its sites and food scene. Tainan looks like a wonderful place to visit – loved all of your unique car photos!
Thank you, Claudia :). Taiwan deserves all praises. What impressed me most though is how friendly and hospitable locals were.
I had only scant awareness of Tainan but would love to visit one day. Many cities found their historic cores abandoned for years as communities developed in the suburbs. I’m so glad that Tainan kept their history and architecture intact and that it’s flourishing once again.
Mid 20th century was the uncertain time in Tainan’s history. The city lost its status and importance courtesy of a new port growing further south. Later, Tainan government developed a program of restoring and preserving historic parts of the city.
I LOVE your idea of just walking in a city. I may have to steal that from you. I’ve never been a major tourist person anyways. I’ve never heard of this city, but it sounds like a great experience and a really authentic one at that. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Susanna 🙂
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this city! Sounds like a beautiful place to visit when in Taiwan. Those temple roof tops are stunning. I don’t think I would be able to look away either!
Those roofs are amazing pieces of art. If you look closely, there are so many details, figures, colors. It takes hours to look through all of them. Fantastic experience!
Thanks for the tour, always nice to catch a glimpse of a place I never knew existed. I was about to ask about the food.. until I scrolled the last of the photos. Looks excellent. 🙂
Food was fantastic in Tainan (as is everywhere in Taiwan in general) 🙂
I love visiting historic cities. There’s something cool about seeing the juxtaposition of the old with the new, the historic and the modern. From looking at your pictures, it looks like Tainan is no different.
Thank you, Astrid. Yes, Tainan truly has it: the backdrop of modernity with historic buildings taking front row.
Didn’t get to see Tainan on my recent trip to Taiwan … next time! Also, I was there during the test air raid drill in Taipei … the push notification of the attack warning red signal to my phone plus the sirens freaked me out a bit, since I didn’t know beforehand about the test!
Thank you, Bill. I read about the latest drill in Taipei in the news. We left just days before it took place. Can’t say I feel that I miss the opportunity to experience it 😉
I love Amsterdam – can see the similarities with ‘Oriental Amsterdam’. The food looks amazing in Tainan, to be honest its not a place I have heard of so thanks for enlightening me
Thank you for your comment :). I hope you would visit Tainan one day.
I loved the temples in Tainan! The details and colors were amazing… We took a city bike to Anping, it was indeed a bit far for walking😉.
Thank you, Lotte, for your comment. Agree, city bikes are so useful in Taiwan. As for our little adventure… we just have to visit Tainan again 🙂
Gotta love a good walking city and Tainin certainly offers that 😉 I love the history of the place too. From the Chinese background to other influences I am fascinated with the entire country, let alone this town. One of my dreams is to ride the bullet train. Gotta do it once 🙂
Thank you, Ryan :). The high-speed train was an unforgettable experience. Inside the train, I couldn’t feel any speed at all – you know, just a scenery changing outside the window. When we were standing on the platform waiting for our train to arrive, another one passed in the opposite direction and the whole station shook. It was so…
I would definitely need to do that high speed train 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, Ryan 🙂 Japanese Shinkansen is what everybody are raving about, right? Taiwanese high speed train is a worthy competitor.