The oldest city in Taiwan, Tainan (台南 Táinán) is famous for its temples, historic buildings and snack food. Located on the southwestern coast of the country, it has had a complicated past, first starting as a Dutch colony before passing through Chinese warlords, Japanese occupiers and then into Kuomintang hands. This rich history and heady mix of traditional folk culture gives Tainan far more character than the bigger Taiwanese cities, and is a good contrast to the international Taipei. It may be even more under-appreciated compared to the current capital, but is well worth a stop on a round-island trip for a quintessentially Taiwanese experience for both stomach and soul.
To truly understand the history of modern Taiwan is to trace its beginnings to Tainan. Tainan (and the start of a non-agrarian Taiwan) began in 1624 when the Dutch East India Company set up a colonial base in the Anping District (安平區 Ānpíng qū). The island of Formosa was strategically placed along major trade routes, and so the Dutch were keen to start building up a trading post and fort known as Fort Zeelandia. They were soon besieged by Ming loyalists led by Koxinga, and their surrender ended 38 years of Dutch colonial rule, bringing Taiwan under Han Chinese influence. However, Koxinga's own rule was similarly short-lived as he died four months after the takeover, yet he lives on as a local folk hero and religious icon of sorts. His grandson gave up control to the Qing dynasty, though Tainan continued to be a Chinese backwater until the Second Opium War in 1858 forced the reopening of Anping port to foreigners, with British merchants stimulating growth in the city.
Upon secession of Taiwan to Japan after the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, city leaders tried to declare independence (perhaps the first attempt at formal self-governance) although that failed and anti-Japanese sentiment grew into the Tapani Incident in 1915, when Aboriginal and Han Chinese fighters stormed several police stations in Tainan county. The armed uprising was brutally crushed, marking a turning point in relations between the local population and their occupiers as Japan started policies to peacefully integrate Taiwan into the nascent Japanese Empire. Modern infrastructure and urban planning transformed Tainan, befitting the largest Taiwanese settlement and capital at the time. The odd impressive colonial building can still be found around the city, standing out against other less inspired post-war architecture.
After the island was handed back to the KMT and subsequent retreat from the communists, the capital was shifted to Taipei, and Tainan residents were harshly treated under the slightest suspicion of opposition to the new regime instituted by Chiang Kai-shek. Tainan and the rest of southern Taiwan remain fairly pro-independence to this day, since they have not actively thought themselves a part of China for the last century or so.
The city is currently the fifth largest city on the island after New Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung and Taipei with a population of over 1.8 million. For a city of its size by population, Tainan's size by land area is exceptional. Very few buildings are more than 5 to 6 stories in height and most are between two and three stories. Instead, wandering the older winding back alleys holds a lot of charm. Tainan is also extraordinary for its number of temples and shrines, Buddhist and Taoist, large and small, and you'll likely find one hidden around every other corner.
Modern Tainan is centered around the local TRA train station and Zhongshan Road, which runs through West Central District, though Anping District is the historical heart of Tainan. Anping is home to the Anping Old Fort (安平古堡；Ānpíng gu bǎo), the Anping Tree House (安平樹屋 Ānpíng shù wū) (a warehouse with massive banyan trees growing out of it), and numerous restaurants and food stalls. Qigu District in the northeast is noted for its history of salt production and the district's salt fields are also a popular attraction. Yanshui District is infamous for its notoriously fiery fireworks festival. Beyond the city center, the surrounding region is one of the major agricultural centers in Taiwan, and the amount of fresh produce may have inspired much of Tainan's snack food culture.
Like other Taiwanese cities, most people in Tainan, including taxi drivers, cannot speak English well (except for high school and college students), though some of the older generation can converse in Japanese. However, to help visitors get around, there are free tri-lingual (Chinese, English and Japanese) map-guides available at the railway station. Hokkien or taiyu is spoken by many residents of the city, and the Tainan accent is considered the standard pronunciation for the Taiwanese dialect.
For flight options beyond the Taiwan Strait, the closest international airport is in Kaohsiung. From there you can take a train, bus, taxi, or rental car for a 45 minute to one hour journey to Tainan. Flying into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport is also another choice, though you don't have to go into Taipei proper and can just take the HSR train (1h30m and NTD1350) from Taoyuan.
Tainan Airport has largely diminished in traffic after the high-speed rail was built, but Uni Air still has daily flights to the outlying islands of Kinmen (50 min) and Penghu (30 min). International flights from Hong Kong (90 min) are run six times a week by China Airlines. It is a cheap taxi ride from the city center, and also reachable by the local bus number 5. The airfield is shared with the Republic of China Air Force, so the airport terminal is far enough from the runways to require shuttle buses in between. Flight schedules may vary depending on military exercises.
Tainan is a major stop on the Taipei - Kaohsiung High Speed Rail line (about NTD1500 one way from Taipei). Travel time is 1h45m from Taipei. The Tainan HSR station is a bit outside of town (NTD400 by taxi), and you might think it's the wrong stop altogether since the station is surrounded by parking lots and open rice paddies. There are free shuttle busses running from the city to the bullet train terminal.
You can also take the TRA (slow train) into Tainan TRA station in the city from the THSR station (NTD25 each way). Besides the THSR, standard TRA rail from Taipei can take 3.5-6 hours depending on the type of the train. For example, a class 1 (4 hours) ticket from Taipei will cost NTD758. On the Southern line, trains run very frequently to Kaohsiung (1h and NTD70-100), to Taitung (3h and about NTD500) and, less frequently, to Hualien.
Tainan has good inter-city bus connections with other cities in Taiwan.
The best way to travel around the city is by car, bicycle or motorcycle. There are taxis and buses (公車 gōngchē), but they are not so convenient for non-Chinese speakers. There is a scooter rental shop next to the Tainan City TRA (slow train) station. Rentals cost around NT$600 per 24 hours. Whether a rental shop will check for a license varies from shop to shop.
All inner city bus routes pass through Tainan Station (train). There is a tourist information booth at the Station with friendly staff (English speaking) who can show you how to use the bus system. On Sundays there are two free sightseeing bus routes (88 and 99) which can take you to and back from all the major historical sites.
If you do take a taxi just make sure you have a map you can point at or the business card of the location you're headed. The taxi drivers are very helpful, but be aware that sometimes even Chinese speakers take roundabout ways.
One should take note that there are thousands of scooters and motorbikes packing the streets and if you injure someone while you are driving in Taiwan, the local laws require you to pay for whatever the person you injured cannot. Try getting your insurance company to write a waiver for you to be insured before driving in Taiwan.
- Eternal Golden Fortress (億載金城 (Yì Zài Jīnchéng)), 16 Nanwen, Anping District. 9AM-5PM. A 19th-century coastal fortress.
- Anping Fort (安平古堡 (Ānpíng Gǔbǎo). 8:30AM–5:30PM. In the early 17th century, European seafarers came to Asia to trade and develop colonial outposts. In 1624, the Dutch occupied today's Anping and took ten years to build a fort named "Fort Zeelandia." After 1662, because Koxinga and his son lived here, it was named "King Castle," "Anping Castle" as well as "Taiwan Castle." The Japanese rebuilt it and named it "Anping Old Fort." Today, the only Dutch remains are th ruins of a semicircular bulwark and a section of the outer fort's brick wall; the root of an old banyan tree on the wall remains a witness to the fort's long history. (Taken from the ticket) Its commanding views of the ocean make it a popular place to watch the sunset. NT$50.
- Anping Tree House (安平樹屋 (Ānpíng shù wū)), 108 Fort St., Anping District (entrance through the back door of Old Tait & Co. Merchant House). Anping Tree House was originally the warehouse of Tait & Co. During the Japanese Occupation it was the office and warehouse of the Japan Salt Company. After World War II, the salt industry in Anping declined, and this area was abandoned. The aerial roots and branches of banyan trees wrapped around the building, combined with the soil, red brick and partial concrete wall creates an unusual sight. (Taken from the ticket) NT$50.
- Chihkan Towers (赤崁樓 (Chìkàn Lóu)). Chihkan Tower is the landmark of Tainan and its most famous historic site. In 1653 the Dutch built "Fort Provedentia" in the area, and the Chinese named it "Tower of Savages" or "Tower of Red-haired Barbarians." Chihkan Tower is its official name today. Even though Chihkan Tower has survived different historical periods, it retains its rich and graceful architectural aspects. Crammed with various kinds of steles, stone horses, weight lifting rocks, stone weights, ponds with colorful fish and nine stone tortoises carrying royal stele carved in both Chinese and Manchurian, the courtyard looks like an outdoor museum. Chihkan Tower is particularly attractive at night. (Taken from the ticket) Location: 212 Sec. 2, Min-Tsu Rd., Central District. Hours: 8:30AM-9PM. NT$50.
- National Museum of Taiwanese Literature. Located in a restored colonial-era Japanese building, even with the limited English on display this museum is fascinating. The coffee shop is good too.
- Confucius Temple. A serene destination surrounded by a small park. Explore the temple, then go to the incredibly popular shaved-ice store right on the opposite side.
- Guanziling. One of Taiwan's best-known hot springs
There are over two dozen night markets of various sizes in and around the city. Regardless of size, night markets all possess an abundance of stalls selling clothing, shoes, jewelry, toys, food and drink. Some even have live entertainment.
Most night markets are only held on certain days of the week. Check before going.
The biggest and most famous night market, the Garden Night Market (花園夜市 huāyuán yèshì) is open on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. There are tons of food stalls and game booths, but be warned that this market can get very busy (i.e. mosh pit busy) on some days.
Mangrove reserves. Tainan is located near a significant mangrove reserve, which serves as a migrating ground for the rare black-faced spoonbill. Trips to these reserves can be arranged through a local expat group called 'Barking Deer Adventures' 
- Tainan Park (台南公園), GongYuan North Rd. Beautiful park in a central part of the city. Great for a relaxing walk or a stay of a few hours. It has many beautiful trees and flowers as well as a pond.
Preserved Plums(酸梅 suānméi) are a popular item.
Shinkong Mitsukoshi department store Ximen branch provides first class shopping experience. The department store focuses on both high end products and mainstream fashion. Luxurious brands such as Chanel, Hermes, Ferragamo can be found in the department store. Men's fashion includes Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Polo Raulph Lauren, Nautica, Esprit and more. There's also a movie theatre inside. Two food courts offer various Asian, western cuisine and fast food chains.
Beimen Road is considered to be the "downtown" of Tainan. It is here where you can find the main train station and also all the intercity bus terminals. It stretches from the National Tainan Second High School, by the Tainan Park (previously known as Dr. Sun Yat San Park). South of the main train station is where you can find various boutique stores that mainly focuses on Japanese fashion and sport equipment stores (a popular place to visit for local students). It is also on Beimen Road where you can have maybe too much technology. Countless electronic stores offer the selection that is very hard to be competed. Sony, being the predominant electronic brand in Taiwan, is found in virtually every shop. Note that the laptops purchased in Taiwan comes with standard U.S. keyboard with Chinese alphabets. Most of electronics on the other hand has English as optional language for operation. Da-han art supply shop is a great little store for the artists. It is here where you can find most of the art supply you need for your next masterpiece or even just a relaxed Sunday afternoon drawing.
On the other side of railway and back entrance of the station is Tainan's landmark; Far-East department store and Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. The department store focuses more on midrange consumers. Downstairs food-court offers good selection of restaurants and Hong Kong-based supermarket, Wellcome.
Also close to Beimen Road is the Shinkong Mitsukoshi department store Chung-San branch, and another Far-East department store where the Times Warner Movie Theatre is situated. Chung-San Road, Beimen Road, and the train station make up the core of Tainan.
Tainan is often known as "the City of Snacks" (小吃城). In addition to the wide variety of food available at night markets, the city also has an abundance of street vendors specializing in tasty and cheap dishes.
Tainan specialities are:
- Coffin toast (棺材板 guāncaibǎn) - fried bread stuffed with various ingredients, such as chicken, beans, seafood, vegetables and milk-based sauces
- Oyster omelette (蚵仔煎 kèzǎijiān / o-a chen)
- Oysters and thin noodles (蚵仔麵線 kèzǎi miànxiàn / o-a mi soa~)
- Rice cake (碗稞 wǎnkē)
- Dan Zai Noodle(擔仔麵 dānzǎi miàn)
- Elite Cake (狀元糕 zhuàngyuan gāo)
Don't forget to try the shrimp rolls (zhou-shi) down along the canal.
- Andi's Party Corner sells traditional Austrian food and beers, an oddity in Tainan.
There's a massive (and crowded) night market at the corner of Hai-an and He-wei Roads.
- Imma Bakery, Shulin St.. Coffee house with breads, cakes, cookies, etc. An Israeli chef and Western style.
Pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶, zhēnzhū nǎichá) is a must drink in Tainan. Look out for shops, where it is made directly to order!
- Dirty Roger, Dongmen Rd. (close to the Railway station).Excellent small bar. Used to be very hip, still very good. Every Music imaginable.
- The Armory, Gongyuan Rd. Good for beers and sport
- Willies Second Base, for beers, sport, food and pool upstairs
- The Hangout Bar, 台南市公園路128-32號(No.128-32 Gongyuan Rd. Tainan), ☎ . 1800~0200. in Gongyuan Road is a nice bar to relax, play pool and watch sports. They also have good burgers and steak, free public computer and WiFi. 100.
- Eroos, 台南市神農街115號, ☎ . 9PM-4AM. Bar/lounge, very nice place to relax and have a drink. 100NT.
- Tin Pan Alley, Beimen Road (Across from Tainan Park on Beimen Road.). Great Partly outdoor Pub and Bar near Tainan. Wonderful friendly owners and delicious food ranging from Pizza to Felafel.
- Guang Hwa Hotel (光華商務飯店), 155 Beimen Rd Sec 1 (near the train station), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Free internet and breakfast. Double from NT$700.
- Cheng Kuang Hotel, 294 Beimen Rd Sec. 1 (near the train station), ☎ . The hotel is a little old, but the rooms are OK for the price.
- Tainan City Labour Recreation Centre, 261 Nanmen Rd, ☎ . Check-out: 11AM. Large single room including private bathroom NT$550/Double room. Open 6AM-midnight, hot water only from 6PM-midnight. They no longer offer dorm rooms.
- FuQi Hostel, No.76-2, Zhongzheng Rd., West Central Dist., Tainan City 700 (The hostel is on the 2nd and 3rd floor. The entrance is not very obvious, it's just a metal door with the name of the hostel on it.), ☎ . WiFi, free internet, kitchen, living room and laundry plus very helpful and friendly staff. Dorm Rooms for NT$450.
- City Hut 1828 (Dorm1828), No.28 Lane 18, Dasyue Road. 15 minute walk from the train station. NT600.
- Sendale Yong Fu - Tainan City 新大福軒館, 115 Yong Fu Rd Section 1 (behind Landis Hotel, 3 minutes by walking to New Life Square-Mitsukoshi Department Shopping Mall), ☎ , fax: +886 6 214-2799.
- Dynasty Hotel, 46 Chengkung Rd, ☎ , fax: +886 6 221-6711.
- Cambridge Hotel, 269 Sec 2 Mintzu Rd.
- Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, 89 Section West, University Rd, ☎ , fax: +886 6 702-7777. Five-star property near the train station (regular, not HSR). Free internet (wired).
- Tayih Landis Hotel, 660, Shi-Men Rd, Sec.1, ☎ , fax: +886 6 213-5555. 5 star property adjacent to an enormous Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. Nearby Confucius temple and the Chihkan towers.
- Evergreen Plaza Hotel, No. 1, Lane 336, Chunghua E. Rd., Sec. 3, Tainan City, ☎ , fax: +886 6 289-6699. 4-5 star property about 10 min south of the train station (regular, not HSR). Free internet.
- Kaohsiung — the port city that took over Tainan's place as the Harbor City, one hour south by TRA train
- Chiayi — the next northern city and natural jumping off point for the beautiful Alishan
- Taipei — back to the busy lifestyle of the capital
- Kinmen — if Tainan is the bastion of Taiwanese identity, then Kinmen is an interesting study at the opposite end of the spectrum as a pair of islands inextricably tied to the Chinese mainland