Yes, Hualien is a city, but it’s also a place where – if you’re prepared to travel the wider county – nature can steal the show. After all, it’s here that you’ll find one of Taiwan‘s most beautiful National Parks, Taroko. Indeed, many visitors choose to skip town altogether and disappear into the countryside. Yet this relaxed coastal city offers plenty of attractions to make for a memorable stay. So the next time you find yourself on Taiwan‘s East Coast, hang out in Hualien City for a while, using our guide to help you get the most from your stay.
Wander around Hualien Railway Culture Park
There’s a fascinating history to train travel in Taiwan: in 1887, little more than a decade after the first commercial railway opened in Shanghai, mainland China, its first tracks were in business, built under the watch of Qing Dynasty governor Liu Ming-Chuan. The section reaching Hualien was completed under the Japanese rule of the island, in 1911. What’s amazing about the Railway Culture Park, apart from your chance to learn the whole story, is the presence of preserved Japanese steam locomotives, including a hulking Nishia, made in 1936.
Drink tea at Miao Kou Red Tea
Famous for its hearty snacks and brass tubes – through which piping hot cups of tea are dropped from the first-floor kitchen – Miao Kou is open 24 hours and always attracts a crowd of devotees. Expect to queue and don’t expect delicate Chinese brews – this is as close as Hualien gets to a greasy spoon, but it’s an unmissable Taiwan experience. Your brew will be presented to you on a paper cup; meanwhile, irresistibly kitsch floral-pattern crockery is used for serving the omelette sandwiches, peanut soup and Taiwanese macarons, a shop favourite with a gooey marshmallow centre.
Sample street food at Dongdamen Night Market
Taiwan’s diversity of street food is dizzying: you’ll encounter delicious flavours and combinations you probably won’t have ever tasted before: there’s peanut ice-cream roll; syrup-smothered (potato-like) taro balls; jet-black garlic and chilli iron eggs (hard-boiled, in soy sauce); and chicken stew-filled ‘coffin bread’ (hollowed loaf). More than 400 stalls sizzle with woks and bubble with broths at Dongdamen Night Market, in the old Hualien railway station on the eastern edge of town. It might just be the best spot in the region to fill your face.
Check out local art at Fogstand
This joint Taiwanese and American art gallery and studio (with an artist-in-residence programme) showcases contemporary work by emerging creatives, runs workshops and encourages international art exchange. There are two galleries – in Hualien and in Hamline-Midway in St. Paul, Minnesota. Shows have included conceptual pieces by Aberdeen artist John Nicol and Singapore artist Kaifeng Chun and films focused on memory and place by Taiwanese artist Jin Da Lin. It is a thought-provoking and memorable place for anyone interested in notions of identity and belonging.
Visit the Martyrs Shrine
Here used to stand a Shinto temple, built in 1915 by order of Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa, ruler of Japanese Taiwan. It was demolished in 1981 and replaced with the current Taoist building, which remembers local martyrs who died resisting invasion. Among them: Koxinga, a Ming loyalist who fought against the 17th Century Qing conquest and the Dutch invasion of Taiwan; also Liu Yongfu, who resisted the first Japanese and became president of the short-lived Republic of Formosa. Aim to spend an hour or so in this meditative, peaceful place.
Relax at Pine Garden
Set within a lawned garden overlooking the city and the Mei Lun River, this ivy-festooned mansion is the best-preserved Japanese military building in Taiwan. Built in 1942, it served as the regional headquarters of the Japanese Navy. Kamikaze pilots were blessed here with cherry wine, sent especially by their Emperor, before embarking on suicide missions. In 1945 it became a resort for vacationing US troops and in 2000 it opened in its current location as a historical attraction. Come to enjoy the swoony Pacific Ocean views.
Walk the old railway lines
This short stretch of Hualien’s abandoned old railway has been repurposed as a hipster shopping street. You can still see the tracks in the cobbles, overlooked by fashionable clothing boutiques and cafes. The area is a honeypot for teenage and twentysomething Taiwanese revellers who gather in the cafes of an evening. Mingle with them as they swap stories over barista-prepared cappuccinos and be sure to wander the street before heading for food at nearby Dongdamen Night Market.
Browse the Hualien County Stone Sculpture Museum
Naturally sculpted stones have been venerated in China since ancient times and were classified according to their beauty as far back as the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty’s reign. It’s still common to see Gong Shi or “scholars rocks” outside temples and smaller stones in family shrines, often sitting on a bespoke-carved rosewood pedestal. This modern museum and garden are devoted to Gong Shi and to artificially carved stone, including hardstone carving (which is one of China’s oldest arts) and contemporary work.
Chill at Nanbin Park
With its oceanside location, its running path and its cycleway, central Nanbin Park is a godsend for locals seeking recreational downtime. Top tip: it’s at its best early in the morning, when the sun rises golden over the sea. The park, dotted with sculptures depicting daily life and marine animals, is bordered by a long grey beach, with coarse sands perfect for ambling along, making those calf muscles work. For more sunbather-suitable sands head north of town, near the Qingshui Cliffs.
Head to Taroko Gorge for river trekking
The Taroko Gorge is a canyon measuring 3km (2mi) deep, forged by the foaming Liwu river through the mountains west of Hualien. Speckled with shrines and temples, it’s a beautiful place for a drive-by visit or a more adventurous river-bed hike. It’s a fun challenge, clambering over boulders, wading through smaller streams, swimming in icy pools and hot springs and disappearing into the beauty of the landscape. Top tip: come without valuables, as you’ll get wet. In winter months, it pays to overpack warm clothes, as things can get chilly here.
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