Once a polluted factory town, no one expected that within a few decades Kaohsiung would be Taiwan’s creative nexus. The Dome of Light public artwork sparked international interest when it was unveiled in 2008 and went on to become one of Taiwan’s most recognisable landmarks. Ten years later, the opening of the $350 million National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts cemented the city’s reputation as a major arts destination.
Most travellers arrive in Kaohsiung via the bullet train from Taipei, which zooms down Taiwan’s west coast in around one-and-a-half hours, but Kaohsiung’s Siaogang Airport has recently added several new routes from major Asian hubs, making it easier than ever to fly to the city direct. You’ll mostly be using the metro, or KMRT, to get around – they connect most major sites, including the airport. For other areas, taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. Pick up a pre-paid EasyCard to facilitate journeys on public transport.
Check in to a quirky “design hotel”
Considered one of Kaohsiung’s best budget options, The Tree House is a completely different hotel depending on which room you’ve booked into – futuristic and metallic, wood-panelled and cosy, or Art Deco chic (be aware that some rooms lack windows, in common with many Taiwanese hotels). Oh, and there’s a rooftop pool. The surrounding area comprises some of Kaohsiung’s top attractions, including Liu He Night Market, Formosa Boulevard and Love River.
Browse seafood and souvenirs at an atmospheric night market
Despite the name, Liu He Tourist Night Market has many more locals than tourists, who come here to enjoy some of the region’s best seafood. Try crispy crab, shrimp, octopus, or fried squid on a stick, and join local families at the tables spread out in the middle of the street. After dinner, browse reasonably priced magnets, toys and postcards at the souvenir stalls, but save more creative gift purchases for your visit to Pier-2 (see below).
Take a cruise on Love River
Once an open sewer, Kaohsiung’s clean, serene Love River is a symbol of the city’s transformation. During the day, locals patronise the laid-back cafes and cycle tracks along its banks, but it’s at night that it truly comes to life. Jump on a solar-powered “Love Boat” or electric gondola and admire the technicolour Wufu and Jhongjheng bridges sparkling on the surface of the water.
Eat a hearty breakfast in the centre of town
Most Taiwanese cities don’t get going until around 12 pm, so finding a great breakfast spot is notoriously difficult. Fortunately, central Kaohsiung has a few exceptions to the rule. Meiling Breakfast Restaurant serves traditional options such as fluffy dan bing (egg crepe) and Taiwan-style quiche; for Taiwanese-Western fusion breakfasts, check out the Canadian-owned Magic Spoon Brunch House.
Be captivated by the Dome of Light
Routinely appearing on “World’s Most Beautiful Metro Stations” lists, Formosa Boulevard KMRT has become one of Taiwan’s most famous landmarks, owing to the 30-metre wide glass dome lighting up its interior. Created by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata, the Dome of Light is split into four sections, each representing different metaphysical and spiritual themes. It was hand-painted in Germany before its 1,152 panels were shipped to Kaohsiung for final assembly.
Reverse your fortunes at a kitschy temple complex
From Formosa Boulevard, take the Red line north to Zuoying Station and then walk for 15 minutes to Lotus Pond, a fabulously gaudy collection of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist temples mostly built in the 1970s. Structures of note include the 24-metre statue of Taoist deity Xuantian Shang-di, and the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas – enter via the dragon’s mouth and leave via the tiger’s to convert your bad luck to good fortune. To recover from kitsch overload, rest your eyes at the City God Temple, an intricate wooden Taoist temple built in the 18th century. Finish with lunch at Ha Luo Market, a traditional covered market selling both raw goods and ready-to-eat options. Try a “lunchbox” stall, where you can mix and match marinated meats, stir-fried vegetables and rice.
After changing at Formosa Boulevard, take the Orange line west to Yanchengpu and the Pier-2 Art Center. Like many similar spaces across the country, these old warehouses have been converted into galleries and craft shops that showcase the work of Taiwan’s finest creatives. Massive outdoor installations hang suspended between buildings and scattered on the lawn of the park, a disused railway station that is a popular hangout for local families. For one of Kaohsiung’s most atmospheric experiences, buy a kite from one of the vendors here and launch it as the sun begins to set. For dinner, the Pier-2 Night Market (Saturdays only) sells treats such as fried chicken, bubble tea and QQ balls (deep-fried sweet potato mash).
Take in a show at the world’s biggest arts venue under one roof
Designed by Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo, the 3.3-hectare National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts is the world’s largest arts venue under one roof. Costing NT$10.7 billion ($350 million), the sail-like structure houses five performance spaces and Asia’s biggest organ, with over 9,000 pipes. Concerts held here range from contemporary dance to opera to Mandopop – check the official website for details.
Delve into Taiwan’s manufacturing history at the National Science and Technology Museum
After a generous breakfast in central Kaohsiung, take a taxi to the National Science and Technology Museum. This vast building has enough high-quality exhibitions to keep travellers occupied for days, but if you’re short on time head straight for the Industrial History of Taiwan section on the sixth floor. This fascinating display charts Taiwan’s heyday as a manufacturing superpower, from canned food to tennis rackets, bicycles and computer parts.
Immerse yourself in sand and sculptures on Cijin Island
For lunch, take a 5-minute ferry ride to Cijin Island and its famous “Seafood Street” (Miaocian Road), lined with stalls selling every type of fish and shellfish imaginable. The street is also home to the imposing 17th-century Tianhou Temple, the oldest in Kaohsiung. After lunch, walk or cycle along the south coast of the island to check out its unique collection of contemporary art installations, such as the Instagrammable Rainbow Church.
Dine with locals at Ruifeng Night Market
Kaohsiung’s biggest – and arguably best – night market is in the trendy northern district of Zuoying. With over 1,000 vendors selling everything from matcha toast to stinky tofu, you could easily spend a few hours here.
Check off your bucket list at Fo Guang Shan
Despite only being built in 1967, the sheer scale and majesty of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist monastery has earned it a place on many travellers’ bucket lists. The main focal point is the 36-metre high statue of Buddha, but exploring the surrounding halls yields other delights. The Fo Guang Shan Treasury Museum is filled with ancient relics, and the imposing main hall contains three beautiful bronze Buddha statues surrounded by 14,800 smaller Buddha images. As it’s a whole-day trip from the city, we haven’t included it in this weekend itinerary, but if you have more time it’s worth a visit.