Mountains, skyscrapers & night markets in Taiwan

My first visit to Taiwan came about rather spontaneously through a work trip in March 2019. Before this opportunity arose, I knew very little about this tiny island located just off the east coast of mainland China.

Since then, I’ve already returned for a second trip, and did have another planned later this year before the Coronavirus pandemic struck.

Read on to find out why this relatively niche travel destination has left such a lasting impact on me, and why I can’t help returning again and again…

Taipei

The view from halfway up Elephant Mountain (Xiangshan)

Taipei is Taiwan’s capital city; a sprawling concrete metropolis rearing up between rolling, forest-clad mountains. I had never been anywhere like this before, where urban sprawl and natural beauty co-existed side-by-side in a pleasant, albeit somewhat strange, harmony.

From the minute I stepped foot outside the plane, I felt welcome in Taiwan, and that is almost completely down to the people there. Everyone I met was incredibly friendly; happy to point me the right way when I asked for directions, and all with a smile on their face. The people of Taiwan whom I met on my trip were so full of respect for, and showed so much kindness to, visitors such as myself, so much so that I immediately felt comfortable and at ease (despite this being my first solo international trip to the other side of the world).

Another thing I noticed right away when I arrived was how clean Taipei was, in terms of both rubbish on the streets and air pollution. A major hub in East Asia, the city prides itself on its eco credentials, serving as the country’s political, cultural, educational and economic centre.

As such, there are a plethora of things to do in Taipei. For breathtaking 360 degree views of the city, take the 37-second elevator (travelling at a dizzying 60km per hour) to the 89th floor of Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taiwan World Financial Centre. Taipei 101, which held the title of the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010, is the best place to get a birds-eye view of the city and its surroundings. In my opinion, the best time to go up to the viewing platform is about half an hour before sunset, so you can see the city’s transformation from day to night. Although beware – Taipei is subject to a lot of haze, particularly in the summer months, which may inhibit your view out across the city. So, make sure to check how good the visibility is before you head up there.

If you fancy getting out of the city and exploring Taipei’s natural beauty spots, check out Elephant Mountain (Xiangshan) – a 183m high mountain and hiking trail, with viewing stations which provide panoramic views of the city below. A word of warning – there are a lot of stairs. But, the views are definitely worth it once you get to the top.

And if nature is your thing, then take a trip to nearby Yangmingshan National Park, famous for its cherry blossoms, sulfur deposits, hiking trails and hot springs. Yangmingshan is also home to Taiwan’s tallest dormant volcano, the Seven Star Mountain.

Beware the stairs...hiking up Xiangshan

Other places of interest to explore in Taipei include its many memorial halls and museums, as well as the city’s National Theatre and National Concert Hall. There is a thriving shopping area around Taipei Main Station, including the Taipei Underground Market and the original Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. Other popular shopping destinations include the Zhongshan Metro Mall and the Guang Hua Digital Plaza.

Taipei is also home to many temples housing Buddhist, Taoist and Chinese folk religion deities. Xinsheng South Road is known as the ‘Road to Heaven’ due to its high concentration of temples, shrines, churches, and mosques.

Kaohsiung

My second trip to Taiwan saw me travel down to the south of the island to Kaohsiung, where I spent just under a week exploring the city (while I wasn’t working, of course). I loved my time in Kaohsiung, and saw a lot more of the nightlife here than I did during my trip to Taipei.

One of my favourite experiences was visiting one of the city’s many open-air night markets. All types of foods, drinks and local delicacies – most of which I had never seen before and, quite frankly, some of which I’m not all that keen on seeing again – were available to try and buy as you walked through the stalls bustling with families, groups of friends and locals out for a quick bite.

While it probably isn’t the place to spend a great deal of time if you’re particularly squeamish (cue, roasted duck heads), I would absolutely encourage you to try some of what’s on offer to get a truly authentic taste of Taiwan. Besides, you never know until you try, right?

Kaohsiung’s main landmarks include the 85 Sky Tower, standing at 378 metres tall, the ferris wheel of the Kaohsiung Dream Mall, and the city harbour, which is the largest in Taiwan. The city is well-known for its malls and shopping streets, and its newly-developed leisure parks: the Pier-2 Art Center, E-DA Theme Park, Metropolitan Park, Museum of Fine Arts and Tarako Park.

If you’re after something a little more agricultural, check out the views from Monkey Mountain (Shoushan) which is completely made up from coral reefs, walk next to the Love River (also known as the spine of Koahsiung), visit the Dapingding Tropical Botanical Garden in the Siaogang District, or venture out to nearby Yushan National Park.

Kaohsiung Harbour (credit: tingyaoh)

Whether you venture to the North or South of the island, Taiwan certainly has something for everyone – and I have only scratched the surface of what this incredible place has to offer. When it’s possible, I can’t wait to reschedule my trip out here and explore some more!

Kicking back in Malta

Lying 50 miles south of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, the island of Malta is a popular holiday destination for couples, families and, well, pretty much anyone. Spanning an area of just 122 square miles, Malta is the world’s tenth smallest sovereign country. But don’t let its size fool you, this tiny island has something to offer everyone and is the perfect place for some much needed rest and relaxation.

Marsaxlokk fishing village

Beautiful beaches, glorious sunshine and pretty ports, Malta isn’t short of picturesque scenery that leaves you feeling relaxed and fulfilled. Head to Marsaxlokk fishing village on the southern tip of the island on market day to sample fresh seafood caught that morning, and once you’ve had your fill wander through the stalls filled with trinkets and goods sold by the locals.

Make sure you visit Malta’s Blue Grotto, where you can take a short boat trip out to the caves to glimpse the piercing blue hues in the water around the island’s southeast coast. This is a really popular diving and snorkeling spot attracting around 100,000 visitors every year. Don’t let the crowds put you off though, as it really is worth the trip.

And if boat trips are your thing, then why not make a day out of it and catch the ferry over to one of Malta’s sister islands, Gozo. The ferry ride to Gozo takes around 25 minutes, and if you book an organised tour you’ll be met at the dock by an open top bus which will take you to the island’s capital, Victoria (Ir-Rabat). Here, you can weave through the cobbled streets, ducking inside the many shops and stop at one of pretty the open air cafes for a bite to eat. Take a trip up to the Citadel, where its towering fortifications provide superb views across the whole island. St George’s Basilica stands in a square in the heart of the Old Town, and the tiny winding streets around St George’s are some of the oldest in town.

Many of the boat trips to Gozo will also stop off at the striking Blue Lagoon on the island of Comino on their return leg. Here, you can swim for hours in the island’s crystal clear waters, and if snorkelling is your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice with an abundant variety of sea life on display. A word of warning: it does get very busy at peak times in the main lagoon, and with more and more tour operators mooring up in the bay it can spoil the tranquility. However, if you’re prepared to take a short walk around the bay’s headland to a quiet stretch of coast it really is stunning, and provides a really relaxing, wholesome place to whittle away a couple of hours.

While it would be easy, and completely understandable, to spend all your time in Malta on the island’s idyllic coast, there is plenty more to see inland. One of the biggest pulls to Malta is its capital city, Valletta, which was named the European Capital of Culture in 2018. It’s definitely worth a day trip to the city to glimpse the mid-16th century baroque to modernism architecture of the Old Town, and have a look around its unique collection of churches, palaces and museums.

One of the buildings of significant historical importance is St John’s Co-Cathedral, which visitors can enter inside for a small fee, and which holds the only signed work and largest painting by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Take a stroll through the picturesque Lower Barrakka Gardens and gaze out over the port city’s 100m high fortifications, built by the Maltese Knights as a magnificent series of bastions, cavaliers and curtains.

Prepare to navigate a few steps in Valletta, with the city fortifications standing at 100m tall

It comes with the territory of holidaying on a Mediterranean island, but the seafood on offer in Malta is really something. Caught fresh and prepared with local flair, there’s little better than a delicious seafood platter to top off a day of sunbathing or exploring one of Malta’s many cultural hotspots. Due to Malta’s history of British colonisation, it’s really easy to find something familiar on the menu. But if you feel like pushing the boat out (so to speak…) then tucking into some fresh, local seafood is definitely something you should try while on the island.

Malta also has its fare share of decent nightlife for those who like to make an evening of it, with popular hotspots such as St Paul’s Bay and nearby Bugibba offering an array of restaurants, bars and clubs to suit all manner of tastes. The bottom line is, Malta has something to tickle the fancy of anyone – from a tranquil, relaxing beach break, to a cultural exploration of its many historical and cultural delights, to catering for those who prefer to party through the night and sleep throughout the day.

A weekend getaway in Prague

Prague has become one of the major tourist destinations in Europe, receiving more than 20 million visitors yearly. And it’s clear to see why, as it really does have something for everyone; history, architecture, great food and, of course, more varieties of beer than you could count on your fingers and toes.

I visited Prague in November for a weekend getaway with my boyfriend, staying for three days and two nights. With the city being fairly small in comparison to the likes of London or New York, and very easy to get around, it was an ideal amount of time to spend in the city centre and we fit a lot into a few days.

You’re spoilt for choice with places to stay in and around the city centre, ranging from hostels to hotels to Airbnbs. We stayed here, a lovely little reasonably-priced hotel just off of Charles Bridge in the Malá Strana district which served as a great base for us to explore from.

Because we were right in the heart of the city, pretty much everything on our list of things to see was in walking distance. We must have covered in excess of 20km per day exploring the cobbled side streets of the Old Town, or hiking up to Prague Castle.

Food, glorious food

We took some time to mosey through Prague’s Old Town, armed with a hot cup of mulled wine from one of the many vendors dotted around the square. The Old Town Square is full of enticing food stalls and restaurants serving local delicacies such as Halušky (potato, sauerkraut and bacon) and ghoulash, which I would absolutely recommend giving a try.

A word of warning, though – Old Town Square is notoriously expensive for food due to the amount of tourists that flock to it, and it’s easy to pay more than you should for a meal. A hunk of pork and Halušky to share ended up costing us the equivalent of £40 because we asked for ‘two servings’ instead of weight in kilograms – a rookie error, sure, but a useful lesson in avoiding some of the more obvious eating spots where you’ll likely be overcharged (even so, the pork was delicious).

Continuing on the topic of food, make sure you try a traditional hot dog with sauerkraut from one of the many stalls within the city centre, and have you really been to Prague if you haven’t tried a Trdelník? These ‘chimney cakes’ are made from rolled dough which is wrapped around a stick and grilled over charcoal, then dusted in sugar and walnut mix (I had far too many of these but, while in Prague, it would be rude not too, right?).

If you’re looking for something with a little more luxury attached, and don’t mind paying a little extra, then look no further than Restaurant Mlýnec, a Michelin-recommended restaurant which overlooks Charles Bridge. We had our anniversary dinner here, and the food was exquisite – make sure you try the degustation menu, which gives you a taste of five or six authentic Czech dishes and a wine-pairing option. Lahodné!

Castles, clocks & culture

We did many of the classic touristy activities during our time in Prague, including watching the chiming of the famous anatomical clock (I found the figurines a little creepy, if I’m honest) and meandering through the local market.

We also hiked up to Prague Castle; according to the Guinness Book of World Records the UNESCO monument is the largest ancient castle in the world, built in the 9th century. The view from the Great South Tower is definitely worth the 280 steps to the top and is the best place to snap that classic photo of Prague’s red roof skyline. Stop by the vineyard in the castle grounds where you can enjoy more great views (and more mulled wine).

There are plenty of other things to see and do in the city centre; visit the Lennon Wall – a graffiti-style wall art piece dedicated to Beatles star John Lennon; take a walk down the ‘world’s narrowest street’; or wander across Charles Bridge and look out onto the picturesque River Vltava which bisects Malá Strana and Prague Old Town. Try out the many varieties of Czech-brewed beer by taking part in a beer tour, or by dropping into a pub or two as you explore Prague’s many cobbled streets (we did the latter).

We also took a trip to Wenceslas Square in the newer business centre of Prague. By coincidence, we had booked our trip on the same day that the Czech Republic was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, which culminated in the overthrowing of communism and the crowning of democracy in the country. In the centre of Wenceslas Square a huge stage had been erected for musicians in front of a growing memorial shrine of candles and flowers, on the spot where Czech students and friends Jan Palach and Jan Zajic set fire to themselves in 1969, in protest to the crushing of the Prague Spring.

It was a very moving day to be part of, witnessing the celebration of independence and democracy, but coming to the square also served as a poignant reminder to me of the struggles so many go through to secure what I, ashamedly, all too often take for granted.

As I said at the start of this post, I visited Prague in the middle of November so it was pretty cold (hence the scarves and coats) so we stuck to mainly wintery activities.

However, I’ve heard that Prague’s beer gardens are incredible in the summer time, so I’ll definitely be returning in the warmer months to try them out! All in all, if you’re looking for somewhere that offers culture, architecture and some great food and drink all for a reasonable price, then Prague should be at the top of your weekend getaway list.

Sightseeing, bike rides & cheesecake in New York

The Big Apple, The City of Dreams, The City So Nice They Named It Twice…we’re all familiar with the idealist accolades of romance and magic surrounding New York City. In excess of 65 million visitors a year flock to see one of the world’s most famous cities in the flesh (or concrete…). So, you could be forgiven for thinking NYC could perhaps be too good to be true, and may be little more than an expensive and overrated tourist trap.

Before I first visited New York, people told me I would either fall in love with it completely, or hate it. Fortunately, it was one of the most awesome cities I’ve ever set foot in. Of course, growing up I had caught many glimpses of New York City in various films and TV shows, and had always longed to go there and see if it was really how it seemed ‘in the movies’. In some ways it was like stepping straight onto a filmset seeing the hanging street signs and fire escape-clad apartment buildings, while in others the modern, metropolitan side of NYC shone through the classic New York exterior.

While I was in New York, I made it my mission to see as much as I possibly could in the four days I was there – managing to get round the majority of must-see sights, some of which were worth queuing for a lot more than others. There are a thousand and one ways to explore a city like NYC, but here I’ll talk through how I went about getting the best out of my short trip, and hopefully give some tips on the best things to see and do if you only have a few days here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

New York is a crazy, busy and incredibly fast-paced city to visit, and it can be somewhat overwhelming when you first arrive. To save wasting precious time on your trip spending too long figuring out what to do, where to go, and how to get there, plan your trip in advance to remove the stress and allow yourself to relax and get on with your travels.

If sightseeing is your thing, and boy is there a lot to see in this city, then I would suggest investing in a sightseeing pass before you go. Depending on which one you choose, it will give you access to a whole host of landmarks, sights, day trips, bus tours and even deals to certain restaurants, among other things. I chose this one, and it saved me over £100 on entry fees as well as removing the faff of queuing up to buy entry tickets. It also has an app where you can create your own custom itinerary, a really helpful tool that allows you to plan each day exactly how you like it.

You can waste a lot of time in New York going backwards and forwards between places, especially if you’re a Brit like me and haven’t quite mastered the grid system (although it is pretty foolproof). New York is also made up of five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. I tried to group together the things I wanted to see and do geographically, to save sitting on one of the open bus tours going round the same loop again and again just to get to the other side of town. Even Manhattan itself can feel like a concrete jungle.

Perhaps start by splitting it into Downtown, Midtown and so on. Alternatively, if planning isn’t your thing and you prefer to wing it then be my guest – you will probably stumble across many of NYC’s hidden treasures while wandering along your own path. So, without further ado let’s jump straight in.

Downtown

  • The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
  • Ground Zero & 9/11 Tribute Museum
  • One World Observatory
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Wall Street
  • Staten Island Ferry
  • Battery Park
  • South Street Seaport
  • Downtown bus & walking tours

There’s an abundance of things to see and do in downtown New York City. Historic and iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge rub shoulders with more recent additions Ground Zero and the One World Observatory, making it the perfect place to start your exploration of NYC.

And as well as seeing the sights, take time to walk through the hustle and bustle of the Manhattan Farmers Market, stroll along the harbour or take respite in one of the many coffee joints in the area.

Midtown

  • Empire State Building
  • Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre
  • Times Square
  • Macy’s
  • The Vessel
  • Broadway
  • Bryant Park
  • Grand Central Station
  • Radio City Music Hall tour
  • New York Public Library
  • Madison Square Garden
  • Flat Iron Building

We were lucky enough to stay in Midtown Manhattan, just off of Times Square (Luma Hotel) which provided a great base from which to get around the city, but also offered a multitude of things to do.

TIP: If you have limited time and want the best view of NYC, then make sure you go up the Top of the Rock – from here you can actually see the Empire State in the skyline, and you get a better view of the city from the top.

In addition to visiting all the sights on the list above, we had a brilliant time exploring the nightlife here – ending up in Swing 46, a super cool Jazz club with an awesome live band playing. Dallas BBQ is the place to go for a huge and hearty, and reasonably priced, American feast (we’re talking wings, steaks, burgers, corn bread, you name it – they’ll have it!), while Juniors is the best place to go for cheesecake.

If you eat anywhere in Midtown Manhattan, though, make sure it’s Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Here, hopeful Broadway stars serenade you over your pancakes with musical favourites and pop classics – it really is a fantastic show, and the food’s great too.

Uptown

  • Central Park (Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain)
  • Central Park Zoo
  • Harlem
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • Museum Mile
  • Carnegie Hall

My favourite part about Uptown Manhattan was by far Central Park. We hired some bikes and cycled round the whole park, stopping off at John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields and Bethesda Fountain, as well as the odd ice cream on the way round. It was like being transported to a calm, peaceful oasis – I truly didn’t feel as if I were in one of the busiest cities in the world.

We also traveled past Uptown Manhattan into the Bronx to watch a baseball game at the Yankees Stadium, which was pretty cool. I would definitely recommend doing this if a game is on when you go – tickets were cheap and there’s a great atmosphere in the stadium!

New York city captured my heart and imagination like few others, and although it’s been less than a year since I last visited I’m already aching to go back and explore some more. I’m of the opinion that you could visit New York a hundred times and still find something new or surprising each time. This is a definite bucket-list destination, and one that will leave a slightly different imprint on each person who walks its streets.