Many popular tourist attractions in Taipei are historical landmarks. This guide introduces six historical places to visit in Taipei – including Longshan Temple, Bopiliao Old Street, Ximending Red House, Taiwan Presidential Palace, 228 Peace Memorial Park, and National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall – with bits of Taiwan history through a storytelling, and explains why you should not miss these places when visiting Taipei, Taiwan.
When I was climbing the stairs to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s most popular tourist sites, I overheard a conversation between a mom and her kid. She was explaining to her son that Chiang Kai-shek was “Taiwan’s national hero,” and the place was built to celebrate his “great achievements” for “his country.” (Bear with me. You will understand all the quotation marks I used after reading this post.)
How could a foreign vacationer have known that Chiang Kai-shek is the most controversial political figure in Taiwan if no one told her otherwise? Although my intention is not to go over the details of Taiwan’s long history or discuss politics, I think it is essential to understand some critical moments of Taiwan’s history and cultural significances as a traveler. (Otherwise, you might miss the mark, like the mom I encountered at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.) That’s how I like to travel, anyway. Since you are reading this, I assume you do, too.
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CliffNotes: Taiwan History
First, let me share some critical moments in Taiwan’s history. Since the 17th century, Taiwan had been occupied by various imperial and colonial powers, which influenced the country’s diverse and complex cultures and heritage. This timeline should help you understand the background of the six historic sites in Taipei in a broader context.
Most importantly, pay attention to [the ruling parties].
1368-1644 [Ming Dynasty]
- The Ming Dynasty ruled today’s mainland China (it was before China was called as such). Taiwan was also under Ming’s rule.
- 1644 – The Qing Dynasty seized the control of China, driving the Ming Dynasty out of power.
1624-1661 [Dutch Formosa]
- The Dutch came to rule southern Taiwan (Tainan; the ancient capital of Taiwan) under the Dutch United East India Company.
- The Spanish ruled the nothern tip of Taiwan (1626-1642) until the Dutch eventually took over the entire Taiwan island.
- 1661 – Ming warlord General Koxinga (鄭成功; Zheng Chenggong) retrieved to Taiwan. He defeated the Dutch and kicked them out of Taiwan.
1683 – 1895 [Qing Dynasty]
- The Qing Dynasty eventually took over Penghu and Taiwan. In 1700s, many Chinese, especially from the Fujian Province of China, immigrated into Taiwan.
- 1858 – The Treaty of Tientsin with Britain and France forced the Qing to open Tamsui Port to international trade.
- France occupied northern Taiwan for a brief period between 1884-1885.
Taiwan was officially declared a province of China.
China lost a war against Japan over control of Korea. Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Taiwan and the Penghu Islands were handed over to Japan.
1945-Now [Republic of China]
- Imperial Japan lost WWII. The Republic of China Nationalist Government from mainland China took over Taiwan.
- 1945 – The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) went into the Civil War with the Chinese Communist Party in mainland China.
- 1947 – The 228 Massacre occurred in Taiwan. The ROC government violently suppressed the anti-government movement in Taiwan.
- 1949 – KMT lost the Civil War. The ROC Government and National Revolutionary Army retreated to Taiwan. President Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law.
- 1971 – The United Nations General Assembly voted to admit the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), which forced out the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Longshan Temple (龍山寺)
Longshan Temple (also spells Lungshan Temple) is the oldest and largest Buddhist & Taoist temple in Taipei, and one of the most visited temples by locals and tourists in the city.
During the Qing Dynasty, many people from mainland China immigrated to Taiwan. At that time, only three out of ten survived the nautical trip through the Taiwan Strait. The survivors wanted a sacred place to worship and thank God for their well-being in their new home. In 1738, Longshan Temple was built and played a crucial role as a religious place and heritage of local culture for the Chinese immigrants.
There are three doors to the temple: left (Tiger door), center and right (Dragon door). In Taiwanese culture, the dragon symbolizes everything good – power, money, spirit, etc. – whereas the tiger symbolizes evil and bad luck. Therefore, the Taiwanese believe that the best way is to enter through the Dragon door to receive blessing and exit from the Tiger door to ward off evil. The entrance in the center is saved for the gods and only occasionally open for VIPs (i.e., politicians, State visits, etc.)
While the Buddhist deity Guan Yin is the main God located in the center hall, Longshan Temple worships many different Taoist deities.
Being an island country with the largely Chinese immigrant population, the most important and powerful God among the Taoist deities here is the Goddess of Ocean “Mazu (媽祖),” which locates in the middle of the rear hall in the temple.
Recently, Foxconn chairman and a billionaire Terry Gou (郭台銘) announced his decision to run for the Taiwan presidency. He claimed that the Goddess of Ocean came to his dream and commanded him to release people from suffering. As ridiculous as it sounds for a person like me who is not from this culture, this episode goes to show how important the Goddess of Ocean culturally is.
The temple also worships the Education God (文昌帝君), Love God (月下老人), Birth God (註生娘娘), God of Wealth (財神爺), etc. If you would like to ask for anything, you will go in front of the God who controls your wish, state your name, date of birth and your home address to make a wish. You might also see people throwing two red divination blocks on the floor. They are asking if God would grant their request. The answers on divination blocks are yes, no or maybe. To confirm yes, you need to get three consecutive yes, showing the front in one block and the back in the other.
Also, people present different offerings, depending on the God they make a wish to. For the Education God, the Taiwanese often offer three of these things together: Green onion (蔥 “Cōng” in Chinese sounds similar to 聰明 “Cōngmíng,” which means Smart), Sticky Rice Dumpling (包粽 “Bāo zòng” in Taiwanese = 中 “Zhōng” means Enter the college), and cake (蛋糕 “Dàngāo” in Chinese = 高 “gāo” means High). Get it?
Location: Open Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: Bannan (Blue) Line, Longshan Temple, Exit 1
Hours: 6 am – 10 pm
Bopiliao Old Street (剝皮寮老街)
Bopiliao Old Street, also known as The Bopiliao Historic Block, is located in Bangka (also called Monga), a quintessentially Taiwan retro place. The area uniquely features various architectural styles that reflect diverse cultures and different periods of history that the building was constructed.
The community was first created in the early Qing Dynasty, and soon became one of the most prosperous commercial areas in Taipei. Bopiliao means skinning deer block. Back in the days, deerskin was the symbol of fortune and success, and the area’s business served the market demand for the rich.
During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese expanded the area by constructing more buildings and adding new roads to connect the area with different parts of the city. Today, you can still see the prominent Japanese colonial architecture defined by archways, verandas and red bricks.
Over time, the historic architecture in this area has deteriorated. In the early 2000s, the Taipei City Government initiated a restoration project to protect the heritage in this historic neighborhood and established the Heritage and Culture Education Center as well.
Location: Open Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: Bannan (Blue) Line, Longshan Temple, Exit 3
Hours: 9 am-6 pm (outdoor area open until 9 pm) Closed on Mondays.
Heritage and Culture Education Admission: Free
Ximending Red House (西門紅樓)
Ximen Red House is a heritage site built in 1908 by the Japanese. It was the first government-built public entertainment and shopping center in Taiwan.
Ximending means the West Gate (Ximen) surrounding area. When the Japanese came to Taiwan, they saw the needs to expand the city center to accommodate growing populations. They announced the urban development plan, but the local Taiwanese did not welcome the idea to demolish the city walls and gates. However, no one cared enough about Ximen because the neighborhood used to be a ghetto/graveyard where people dumped corpses. Therefore, it became the first urban area to be developed by the Japanese. Ximen also got demolished whereas the Japanese had to compromise to keep the other four city gates.
The Red House became the first urban shopping center, where the Japanese came to shop and entertain. Since then, Ximending continued to be a hot place and the busiest tourist attraction even until now.
When you visit the Red House, pay attention to its architecture. It is one of the most well-preserved historic buildings in Taiwan. Apart from using red bricks, which is the typical Japanese-era style, the main hall shapes Octagon, representing people from all around the world, and connects to the cruciform building. Inside, you will find a teahouse, theater, craft & gift shop and exhibitions.
Also, Ximending nowadays is the central gathering place for Taipei’s LGBTQ community. They flock to hang out at the bars behind the Red House. The annual gay pride parade, which is the biggest in Asia, takes place in Ximending. Taiwan passed referendum No. 748, which legalizes same-sex marriage. With this historic decision, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
Location: Open Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: Bannan (Blue) Line, Ximen Station, Exit 1
Hours: 11 am – 9:30 pm (Open until 10 pm on Fri. & Sat.) Closed on Mondays.
Taiwan Presidential Palace (中華民國總統府)
Taiwan Presidential Palace is a historical landmark built during the Japanese occupation. At first, it was used as the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan. The ROC Nationalist Government later renamed as “Chieh Shou Hall (介壽館)” to celebrate the 60th birthday of late President Chiang Kai-shek. In 2006, it was officially renamed as “Presidential Office Building” as a gesture to celebrate democracy in Taiwan.
In 1912, the Japanese held a design competition for the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan. The winning design by Japanese architect Uheiji Nagano turned out to be unsuitable for building. Another architect, Matsunosuke Moriyama, was called in to modify Nagano’s design. During the process, the iconic center tower was decided to heightened from six stories to 11 stories.
While the original construction was completed in 1919, the architecture went through multiple repairs and reconstruction after the 1935 fire and US air raids during WWII. After China took over Taiwan, the ROC Nationalist Government also made some structural repairs, which converted the original dome tower into a flat steel roof. Over time, the steel roof corroded black. Finally, the Taiwanese government decided to replace it with copper, which turned green that you can see today.
The square in front of the Presidential Palace is a protest hot spot. When the Taiwanese feel the need to communicate with their government, they like to shout at their president directly. If you hear about any major protest in Taipei, avoid this area.
If you are interested in checking out an exhibit inside, the Presidential Palace is partially open in the morning. No reservation is required for weekday visits. Bring a government-issued photo ID (e.g. passport) for security check. Check the full open house schedule and book your visit here.
Location: Open for Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: Songshan Xindian (Green) Line, Xiaonanmen Station, Exit 1 or Bannan (Blue) Line, Ximen Station, Exit 1
Hours: Partially open 9 am – 12 pm (Closed on Sat. & Sun.)
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228 Peace Memorial Park (二二八和平公園)
The February 28 massacre, often referred to as 228 (er er ba), is a historically significant incident in Taiwan.
After Japan lost WWII in 1945 and left Taiwan, China took over Taiwan. At first, the Taiwanese welcomed the arrival of the Republic of China (ROC) government. However, they soon became resentful of the political corruption, economic depression and handling of the locals by the ROC government. The government officers also hated the fact that Taiwan resembled Japan, the invaders they just kicked out of their country in mainland China.
At the time, Taiwan had already been modernized by the Japanese while mainland China had not been civilized yet. In 1947, KMT-led ROC was into two years of the Civil War against the Communist Party. Since the ROC ruling, Taiwanese lives suddenly had become harsh. The ROC forcefully took away resources (e.g., rice) from Taiwan to mainland China to support the war. The inflation was so bad that 40,000 yuan became 1 yuan. The tension between the local Taiwanese and the government was brewing hot.
The tipping point came on February 27, 1947, when a Taiwanese widow was selling smuggled cigarettes in front of Tianma Tea House and got caught by two bureau investigators. Because tobacco was under the control of the Tabacco Monopoly Bureau, the investigators confiscated the cigarettes and earnings from the widow. The widow begged the officers to return her money as she has children to feed. Instead, she got beat to bleed. The witnesses got upset and surrounded the officers, which triggered one of them to shoot in the air without an aim in an attempt to scare off the angry crowd.
Unfortunately, the bullet hit and kill a teenage spectator on the balcony of the Tea House. Now the matters got worse. The outraged crowd chased the officers to the police station to no avail.
The next morning on February 28, the Taiwanese marched to the Presidential Palace demanding justice. Unexpectedly, the Governor of Taiwan, Chen Yi (陳儀), orders to shoot machine guns at the masses. The survivors ran to the nearby Taiwan Radio Station, which broadcasted their story to the entire nation. Now entire Taiwan was in an uproar.
Taiwan became out of control of the ROC Nationalist Government. A group of Taiwanese elites and representatives demanded political reform. On the surface, the Governor of Taiwan promised to investigate the 28th incident. Secretly, he telegrammed the KMT leader Chiang Kai-Shek in the Nanjing government asking to send troops. Chiang was already sensing he might lose the Civil War. He desperately needed a place to retreat in the worst-case scenario and could not afford to lose Taiwan. He sent the military to Taiwan to regain control.
Two weeks after the 228 incident, Chiang Kai-shek’s military arrived in Tamsui in northern Taiwan. They violently suppressed Taiwan from the north to the south by indiscriminately killing innocent locals. It is said that the military shoot at whomever they saw on the street if they could not speak proper Mandarin Chinese (Taiwanese at that time spoke Taiwanese or Japanese, not Mandarin Chinese). The death toll was high, estimated to be 10,000 to 20,000. However, no one knows precisely how many were killed.
In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law in Taiwan. During the 38-year martial law period, the Taiwanese government imprisoned and killed Taiwanese elites, which is called “White Terror.” No one dared to speak about the 228 incident for almost four decades.
The Taiwan Radio Station at the time of 228 is now 228 Peace Memorial Park and Memorial Museum. If you are interested in learning more about the 228 incident, you can stop by Taipei 228 Memorial Hall (台北二二八紀念館).
I also recommend watching Formosa Betrayed (2009). This Hollywood thriller, starring James Van Der Beek, highlights the White Terror in the 1980s. As you know the background now (by reading this post), this movie would be entertaining.
228 Peace Memorial Park Location: Open Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: Tamsui Datai Hospital, Exit 1
Taipei 228 Memorial Hall Hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Closed on Mondays and national holidays)
Taipei 228 Memorial Hall Admission: NT$20
Free Entrance Day: the month of February, Labor Day/ Military Day (May 1), Museum Day (May 18), World Human Rights Day (Dec. 10)
National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (國立中正紀念堂)
Many people visit Taipei Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and misunderstand that this memorial was created to celebrate the greatest leader and hero of Taiwan. Otherwise, why would a country have built such a beautiful square dedicated to the nation’s first president, right?
Who is Chiang Kai-shek?
Chiang Kai-shek holds many names. Chiang Chieh-shih (蔣介石) and Chiang Zhong Zheng (蔣中正) are the two most useful ones to know. In Taiwan, you will see many Zhongzheng Roads, named after Chiang’s name. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is also located in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District.
He was a political leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Commander in Chief of the National Revolutionary Army. The Chinese Nationalist Party is often referred to as KMT from its Chinese name, KuoMingTang (國民黨). Since his government and army retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Civil War, he ruled Taiwan as President of the Republic of China and Director-General of the KMT until his death in 1975.
Chiang Kai-Shek is the most controversial figure in Taiwan’s history. Although he is the first president, he never considered Taiwan as his country. When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the Civil War against the Chinese Community Party, the ROC Nationalist Government and troops retreated to Taiwan. He never thought (or wanted) to permanently stay in Taiwan. In fact, his dead body is still in a sarcophagus (located in Taoyuan, not in Taipei Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall) because he expressed his wish to be buried in China when the KMT recovered the country from the Communists, which never happened.
He never had any affection to Taiwan or care for the local Taiwanese. Furthermore, since the 228 incident, he killed millions of innocent Taiwanese. He persecuted and imprisoned Taiwanese elites and his political opponents during the White Terror.
During his regime, he had put the statues of himself in elementary schools. The elementary students had to vow “Good Morning, President Chiang Kai-Shek” every time they passed by the statues. They were brainwashed by memorizing his speech and learning about his “heroic” actions.
On the other hand, his supporters credited him for building infrastructures, such as highways and railroads, in Taiwan and laid the foundation for economic development. He also stressed the importance of education and built elementary schools.
Another part of his will was to build a memorial hall for himself. After Chiang’s death, Vice President Yen Chia-kan served as interim president. Soon, Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) succeeded to serve as the president from 1978 until his death in 1988. He followed his father’s wish to erect a memorial hall.
In recent years, the Taiwanese made efforts to desacralize Chiang Kai-Shek. Taiwan used to name many facilities, highways and roads after him. As part of the initiative, Chiang Kai-shek International Airport changed its name to Taoyuan International Airport. In 2006, the Presidential Palace also changed its name from the “Chieh Shou Hall,” which means “long live President Chiang Kai Shek.” A collection of his statues from schools was also all relocated and exhibited at Chiang Kai-shek Statue Park in Taoyuan.
Despite the reassessment of history, I think it is worthwhile to visit the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Whether he is controversial or not, he is a significant part of Taiwan’s modern history. Besides the Memorial Hall, the Liberty Square (also changed its name from Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square) is also a beautiful place to hang out and see the National Theater and Concert Hall.
You can also see the changing of the guards ceremony at the top of the hour from 9 am to 5 pm. It draws some crowds, so I recommend getting there 10-15 minutes in advance.
Location: Open Google Map
Nearest Taipei MRT Station: National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Exit 5
Hours: 9 am – 6 pm
A Guide to Taipei Old Town
Interested in more historic places? See the Glamor of Old Taipei during its Golden Age. Don’t miss Dadaocheng and Dihua Street.
Taipei Free Walking Tour: Historic Route
It is not difficult to visit all six historical landmarks individually on your own because they are all within the proximity and conveniently located near Taipei MRT. But the easier way, which I chose to do, is to join a free walking tour. Despite the rain, I enjoyed this 3-hour Taipei Historic Walking Tour by Like It Formosa. I am in no way affiliated with the tour group. But I’m sharing the sign-up link here because I believe it was a fun and educational way for me to travel must-visit places in Taipei.
What I shared in this article partly comes from the stories I learned from this tour and partly from research with the help of my local Taiwanese friends.
Whether you are planning for Taipei trip now or adding on your travel bucket list for future, be sure to check out my Taiwan Travel Tips and A Guide to Taipei Old Town: Dadaocheng & Dihua Street.
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