At 395km (245 miles) long, the island of Taiwan is a paradise of superlative road trips. It’s known as Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island), and from hot springs to pristine beaches to cosmopolitan cities, it’s obvious why.
While it’s easy to get around Taiwan – nearly all scenic spots and popular destinations are accessible via public transportation – travelers wishing to see the entire island without worrying about train and bus schedules should consider a road trip. Driving is an ideal way to get off the beaten track and see beautiful scenery, all at your own pace.
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These top itineraries stop at the best places in Taiwan, each boasting its own famous food and attractions, highlighting the allure of the country as a holiday destination while also offering an authentic experience of life in Taiwan. Be on the lookout along Taiwan’s country roadways, for instance, where you may catch a glimpse of binlang girls – beautiful, scantily clad women in neon-lit glass booths who sell betel nuts.
You can complete all nine trips in two weeks – and circumnavigate the island too! Fueled by night markets, bubble tea and incredible scenery, these are the best road trips in Taiwan.
Drive or ride the Maokong Gondola to Zhinan Temple © Getty Images
1. Taipei and vicinity
Best road trip for those short on time
Taipei–Wulai; 45.5km (28 miles)
Drive to the top of the mountains in southern Taipei for extraordinary views of the capital. Stop at Zhinan Temple, a Taoist temple dedicated to Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, and nicknamed “Temple of 1000 Steps,” thanks to its 1275 steps. Afterward, sip tiěguānyīn, an oolong tea, from one of the area’s tea shops.
Next, drive to Shenkeng, which is famous for its chòu dòufu (stinky tofu). Don’t let the odor stop you from indulging in fermented tofu cubes, deep-fried and topped with a mild chili sauce and a cold heap of pickled cabbage.
Continue the journey to idyllic Wulai, home to the Atayal, Taiwan’s second largest aboriginal group. Sample Atayal food, like mountain boar, zhutong fan (rice steamed in bamboo tubes) and colorful mochi, along the cobblestoned Wulai Old Street before admiring the nearby Wulai Waterfall, which flows into the Nanshih River (a cable car whisks visitors to the top), and soaking in the milky sulfuric hot springs, just off Wen Quan Road.
Planning tip: This short trip is easily done in half a day, but take a more leisurely tour by reversing the tour, driving straight to Wulai, then stopping in Shenkeng for dinner and finishing up in Maokong, where many of the tea shops are open until the wee hours of the morning. While you can ride the Maokong Gondola to Maokong, driving offers more flexibility – the cable car stops running in the early evening.
See the quirky rock sculptures on the wind-whipped coast of Yehliu © Getty Images
2. North and northeastern coast
Best road trip for classic Taiwan
Taipei—Jiaosi—Taipei; 242km (150 miles); allow two or more days
This northern Taiwan drive includes a bit of everything – funky geological formations, night markets, tea shops, lanterns, hot springs and one of Taiwan’s best beaches.
Start with a drive northeast to the wind-whipped coast of Yehliu, where quirky rock sculptures at Yehliu Geopark have naturally emerged. Backtrack a short distance to the fishing village of Keelung, famed for its temples and bustling Miaokou Night Market near the harbor.
A short drive east is Jinguashi, a former gold-mining town on the slopes of Mt Jilong, site of the Gold Museum and a former POW camp during the Japanese Occupation. Make the short drive to Jiufen. It’s worth taking your time to meander through narrow, laddered Jishan St, adorned with red lanterns.
Time your visit for sunset to watch the sun sink below the mesmerizing mountainscape and Shenao Bay while sipping piping hot pots of tea. Cap off the day by launching lanterns from the nearby hamlet of Shifen or its neighboring township, Pingxi, two mountain towns you can easily walk between. Stay overnight.
On day two, drive to Toucheng, both for the black-sand beach and the Lanyang Museum, which has exhibits on the Lanyang Plain and hot springs. Next, drive to Jiaosi, the epicenter of Taiwan’s ecotourism. The scenic drive is memorable for mountains that tower over emerald-green rice fields, coastal cliffs and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. (Look carefully and you might see a dolphin or whale!)
A half-hour drive south is Luodong. Stop at the National Center for Traditional Arts, a folk museum that provides an interactive look at folk arts. Spend the evening in Jiaosi, soaking in the odorless sodium-bicarbonate hot springs – an experience so invigorating you might find yourself spending the night at a coastal hot-spring hotel before taking the roughly one-hour drive back to Taipei.
Detour: Dolphin- and whale-watching tours launch from Toucheng. Some sailings include a stop at Turtle Island, an active volcanic island 9km (5.5 miles) from the coast that is now an ecological park. The number of daily visitors to Turtle Island is limited, and advance reservations are required to secure a permit. Visits to the island are only possible from March to November; the best time to see bottlenose dolphins and the occasional whale is April to August.
Admire the pottery along Yingge Old Street in Yingge, the capital of pottery production in Taiwan © Getty Images
3. Northwest adventure
Best road trip for cultural immersion
Taipei—Taichung; 174km (108 miles)
Sansia has one of Taiwan’s most popular Taoist temples, Tzushr Temple, and some of the best examples of late Qing Dynasty and early Japanese colonial period architecture can be found on Sansia’s Minquan Old Street. Take a short drive to Yingge, the capital of pottery production in Taiwan, to admire the pottery along the cobblestoned Yingge Old Street and at the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum.
Drive southwest to the coast and then south to Miaoli, the heart of Hakka culture in Taiwan. Stop at a tea shop to grind your own léi chá – green tea leaves, sesame seeds and peanuts ground to a fine powder. Stop by the Sanyi Wood Carving Museum and admire Miaoli’s shops crammed with wood carvings of Buddhas, Taoist saints, furniture and knicknacks.
Planning tip: This drive could be done in one long day, but a stay in Taichung is a treat. Taichung has many theme and “love” hotels, like Chateau Hotel, which features over-the-top rooms with private pools and waterfalls and rainbow-lit Jacuzzis, and RedDot, which has a slide leading to the lobby.
4. Sun Moon Lake
Best road trip for nature lovers
Taichung—Sun Moon Lake; 84.7km (52.6 miles)
Sip bubble tea at Chun Shui Tang, the teashop where the iconic milk tea with tapioca bubbles was invented. Explore the bustling Fengjia Night Market, one of the most famous night markets in Taiwan, before departing for the alpine Sun Moon Lake.
Located 748m (2454ft) above sea level, Sun Moon Lake is a must-see destination: a freshwater lake separated into two parts by an island, yielding a body of water that resembles a moon and a sun. Definitely stop for a boat or bike ride around the 2-mile Xiangshan Bike Trail, which runs the circumference of the lake.
Hikers can hike along 14 trails adjacent to the lake. The lake is also a place to spot butterflies (Taiwan has the highest concentration of butterflies in the world).
Most travelers venture to Chiayi to visit Alishan National Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto
5. Drive in the clouds: Chiayi and Alishan
Best road trip for history and beauty
Sun Moon Lake—Alishan; 146km (90.7 miles)
The southern town of Chiayi is full of hometown hospitality. The southern branch of the National Palace Museum is here. The collection between the two branches includes ceramics, jade, paintings, calligraphy and Chinese art, much of which was secretly shipped before the Nationalists fled from mainland China in 1949.
Most folks venture to Chiayi to visit Alishan National Park, braving cold temps and strong winds at the 8169ft (2490m) summit of Zhushan to watch the sunlight burst through clouds. Alishan was originally settled by the Tsou, one of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes, and is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Taiwan.
Along this Western Taiwan drive, pineapple and banana plantations on the outskirts of Chiayi give way to bamboo fields at Alishan. The vertigo-inducing road to Alishan Forest Recreational Area has many sharp twists and turns on winding roads through forests of red cypress, cedar and pine trees, but it’s worth it.
Planning tip: There are many blind turns, so drive defensively and assume there’s oncoming traffic. The roads are less busy during the week. The weather on Alishan can be unpredictable, so dress in layers and prepare for all types of weather.
During two weeks in March or April, thousands of Japanese cherry blossoms bloom in Alishan, which brings even bigger crowds to the mountaintop. It’s best to spend the night in Alishan and wake up pre-dawn to travel to Zhushan to see the ephemeral sunrise spectacle, one of the must-see attractions in Taiwan.
6. Southwest Taiwan
Best road trip for quintessential Taiwan
Alishan—Kaohsiung; 173km (107 miles)
After the heart-stopping drive up and down Alishan, drive along Taiwan’s southwest coast for a leisurely look at southern Taiwan, where there are sunny skies, sophisticated food and plenty of arts and culture.
Take time to tour Tainan’s temples and canal-side cafes. Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s southern port city, has a rich maritime history, and one of the its most famous attractions is the Love River. Make time to stroll along the river, window shop and sample some of the best food in Taiwan at Liuhe Night Market.
Kenting National Park is famous for its beaches and laid-back vibes © Getty Images
7. Kenting and southern Taiwan coast
Best road trip for a beach vacation
Kaohsiung—Kenting; 110km (68 miles)
Taiwan’s version of a spring-break beach destination is Kenting, one of Taiwan’s best beaches. Located in the southernmost tip of Taiwan, Kenting offers sandy beaches, great waves for surfers, and a restful respite.
The beach town is home to surf shops and a night market, as well as the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium, which holds 15,000 marine creatures, including penguins, coral reef fish, sharks, giant kelp and seals, and Kenting National Park, famous for its beaches, coral reefs and laid-back vibes.
One of Taiwan’s most popular drives is through Taroko Gorge © Getty Images / iStockphoto
8. East coast drive and Taroko Gorge
Best road trip for stunning scenery and Taiwan backpacking
Kenting—Taroko Gorge; 323km (200.7 miles)
One of the most popular drives is through Taroko Gorge, a 19km (12-mile) marble gorge formed from the rushing Liwu River. Located in the Central Mountain Range in eastern Taiwan, Taroko Gorge was originally made of limestone, but immense tectonic forces and high temperatures a million years ago caused the limestone to turn to marble.
The expansive Taroko National Park is best explored by driving the Central Cross-Island Highway through the park. Make sure to stop along the way and explore the Swallow Grotto Trail, Tunnel of Nine Turns, Eternal Spring Shrine Trail, Guanyin Cave, Taroko Tower and the Bell Tower.
The park is the perfect place to spot black bear, Formosan macaque, wild boar and 100-plus species of birds. There are many hiking trails – perfect for backpacking – and roadtrippers can stay overnight in the park. Accommodations range from a five-star hotel to a hostel to camping.
Planning tip: The Central Cross-Island Highway and Suao-Hualien Highway are the main routes to access Taroko Gorge’s scenic terrain. The route, particularly from Suao to Hualien, is along steep cliffs. Taiwan has frequent typhoons and earthquakes, which can cause rock falls and landslides.
9. Northeast coast
Best road trip for coastal views
Taroko Gorge—Taipei; 154km (95.6 miles)
Drive along the Suao-Hualien Highway, the only coastal road in Taroko National Park. The exhilarating ride features the 21km-long (13-mile) Qingshui Cliffs, which dramatically rise 1000m (3280ft) above the Pacific Ocean on the left and the vast ocean to the right.
Continue driving north along Eastern Taiwan to Sanxiantai – an isolated island (once a cape) that features a picturesque ocean bridge with eight arches – before returning to Taipei for more exploring.
Tips for driving in Taiwan
- Renting a car is straightforward, but you need an International Driving Permit.
- Scooters are popular, but they are not advised. Scooters and motorcycles over 50cc require a driver’s license.
- Roads are generally well maintained, but be cautious of scooters, particularly in cities, as it’s not uncommon for them – and cars – to make left turns from the right lane, right turns from the left lane and U-turns in any lane.
- Drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts.
- It’s illegal to use a cellphone while driving.
- Road signs are in Chinese characters and romanization of Chinese characters, so reading Chinese isn’t necessary for driving in Taiwan.
- Street addresses are written in the following order: postal code, county, district, road, section, lane, alley, street, house number and, if applicable, building, floor number and apartment number.