street food taipei

A Little Food… Vegetarian Survival Guide to Taipei, Taiwan

My 15-hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan offers travelers, but it was plenty of time to eat my through the city’s best vegetarian street foods and night markets! Having traveled the world for more than a decade, eating vegetarian everywhere from Myanmar to Bosnia to the Middle East, you pick up a few tricks to find safely vegetarian eats—particularly in cultures with vibrant street food scenes and night markets.

Although I experienced moments of strong culture shock when I first landed in Taipei, I knew I would miss a huge part of the culture if I skipped the street food. So, I made it my mission to travel the city in search of tasty eats. Instead of focusing on feeling lost throughout the day, I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats—and I found many.

Here’s a guide to some of the best vegetarian food not only in Taipei, but at the Shilin Night Market as well.

Vendor in the Shilin Night Market in Taipei.
Vendor in the Shilin Night Market in Taipei.

Can You Find Vegetarian Food in Taiwan?

It’s both easier and harder than you would imagine to find vegetarian food during your visit to Taipei. The city has a large population of vegetarians (close to 2 million), mostly because of its strong base of Buddhism. While many of those vegetarians practice year-round, others observe vegetarianism on the first and 15th day of every lunar month. The harder part finding vegetarian food comes down to the language barrier—if you don’t speak or read Mandarin you will be at a loss to easily recognize the vegetarian street food stalls, and even more to easily communicate your diet. Use an app, or screenshot your dietary needs so you can easily communicate at mealtimes. Also, I honestly never try to pronounce the phrases after finding no one ever understood me during my weeks traveling in China. Back then I resorted to having a guesthouse write it out for me and showing that slip of paper every time I needed to eat.

I am vegetarian 素食者
我吃素的
I eat vegetables 我吃素
I don’t eat meat 我不吃肉
I don’t eat fish 我不吃魚
I do not eat dairy products 我不吃乳制品

If you’re vegan in Taiwan (or all of Asia really), also be warned that fake meats may use milk powder or eggs as a binding ingredient. Since veganism is less common in Asia, locals generally don’t think to mention it.

Fun Vegetarian Street Foods

Bean curd filling in a semi-sweet pastry. It was neither dessert nor a savory lunch. Solidly in the snack department!

When I first landed in Taipei, I grabbed a bubble tea and just began to wander. I had many hours to fill in my day and I figured that getting a lay of the land was a good first step, especially if I wanted to avoid the suspiciously meaty street foods and successfully track down vegetarian eats.

One of my first successes was also a lot of fun: A busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a bustling sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole tray of steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings. The man poured what looked like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scooped in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked, the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.

The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats. When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent—if harried smiles—as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste, and a third with sweet creamy custard. These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101, and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned. Then I knew I needed to up my game and find a lot more interesting vegetarian street foods in Taipei!

Street food vendor at the Shilin Night Market in in Taipei, Taiwan
Street food vendor at the Shilin Night Market in in Taipei, Taiwan

To be truthful, the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats. I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.

What I also learned is that Taipei is a place where vegetarians should have a plan and be armed with the best knowledge if they’re going to actually find the vegan and vegetarian eats. The sheer, overwhelming number of food options means that you’re better off using Google Maps to star the locations of the best restaurants and street food carts, or you may never locate them unless you read Mandarin script.

A few tasty options include:

  • Stinky Tofu: You will know when you pass a cart selling stinky tofu as it really is a pungent smell. It’s also delicious and so worth trying while you’re in town. There are several stalls selling this in the Shilin Night Market, and that’s your best bet to try it.
  • Sweet Potato Balls: You might not easily recognize these since they are small, fried round balls, but they are tasty and vaguely taste of sweet potato. You can easily track these down in the Shilin Night Market.
  • Milk Balls: When I spotted a small crowd around the fried milk balls, I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter. So worth it.
  • Vegetarian Dumplings: If you need an afternoon pick-me-up or late night treat, a street food cart, Shàng Dǐng HuángJiā , is directly across the street from Taipei Main Station and sells pan-fried vegetable dumplings and buns. Location here. Do yourself a favor and heap on some fresh chili sauce for a revelation.
  • BBQ Rice Sticks: I actually first found these as a breakfast option in China, and then was delighted to see Taipei offers this simple vegetarian street food as well. Expect a small patty of rice and you can select a topping, then it’s grilled up hot and fresh.
  • Fried Mushrooms: You will have no trouble finding these stalls at any night market in Taipei, just look for the mushrooms depicted on the street food cart!
  • Savory Scallion Pancakes: Savory pancakes are completely different than the sweet pancake treats mentioned earlier—these are oily and often have egg and are a tasty (if not particularly healthy) option to fill you up.
  • Sugar-Glazed Fruit: You will have no issue spotting the many places selling sugar-glazed fruits. Kids in your group will likely be entirely more adventurous eaters if you promise them the chance to naw on one of these after you eat.
  • Jelly Ice: Across all of Asia you will find shaved ice and textured jellies a very popular option. The jellies are flavored with local favorites—everything from tamarind to green tea—and then served mixed with icey bits. I dislike this dessert, but I am in the minority so you should try it!

Street eats, decorative fruit, at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

Candy coated sweets at the Shilin Night Market in in Taipei, Taiwan

Fried milk balls at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars—we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease! For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.

Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Taipei

There is a small but growing list of great places vegetarians and vegans can eat in the city. Although street markets are a cultural experience you should seek out, sometimes you might just want a great sit-down restaurant. Here are a few to consider:

  • Hoshina Udon: You can’t go wrong with single-menu restaurants, and the fact is even meat eaters in your group will love this vegan option.
  • Brother Su Vegan Kitchen: Your best bet for vegan Taiwanese dishes if you want to sample the best local flavors.
  • Plants Eatery: Western-style vegetarian and plant-based dishes are a treat if you just need a break from local food.
  • Shàng Dǐng HuángJiā: This is the street food cart mentioned above, which is conveniently located across from Taipei Main Station, that sells delicious pan-fried vegetable dumplings and buns.
  • Yang Su Ting Loop Train Vegetarian Hot Pot: Hot pot is one of those experiences you have to do at least once, and it’s hard for vegetarians to ever experience. Add to that the fact that it’s conveyor-belt style, and this is a fun and “only in Asia” experience.

This post shares a handful of other favorites from a traveler who knows the city well.

No matter how long you have in Taipei, there is no excuse for not eating well. This is a foodie city and even vegetarians can find wonderful new dishes to sample either on the streets or in the restaurants. My whirlwind visit netted just 15 hours of exploring, but that was plenty to find my way to the best vegetarian street food carts, as well as the famous Shilin Night Market.

Long Layover visit Taipei 101

A Little Advice… What to Do on a Long Layover in Taipei

My 15-hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan was long. Once you hit 10 hours in a city, you reach that in-between length of time where your options both expand and contract. It’s probably not long enough to justify renting a hotel room, but that leaves you either spending your long layover at the airport—in this case at Taoyuan International Airport —or undertaking an exhausting marathon of sightseeing in Taipei.

Although my layover in Taipei was way longer than I would normally choose, I had little choice in the matter so I embraced the craziness of filling that much time without a homebase. I explored the city based on three key recommendations from my Taiwanese friend Ben (met him in Belize actually!). He suggested an itinerary that could fill about 10 of the 15 hours on my long layover, giving me time for transport to and from the airport, and to get myself all checked in again for my flight.

What to Do in Taipei During a Layover

Touring the city is the most natural answer as 10+ hours truly is too long to spend at the airport. Other reasons to visit Taipei itself on a long layover? It’s so dead simple to travel between the airport and the city, the city has fantastic transport around the major sights, and Taipei’s food scene is worth experiencing.

My three key recommendations as the baseline for any long layover include:

  • The National Palace Museum for city history and context
  • Taipei 101 for the sweeping views and national pride
  • Shilin Night Market for culture and fantastic street eats

These three spots are a bit spread out, so if you’re on the shorter side of a long layover (say a 10 hour layover), you’ll just want to do these three things. But if you have more time to fill (as I did), then you simply spend more time in each neighborhood, and add in a few great restaurants earlier in the day (because visiting the night market is non negotiable!).

Once I got over my culture shock upon landing in Taipei, my game plan shaped up nicely. Getting around Taipei is easy—the metro system is fantastic and each of these classic tourist destinations is easily accessible from the metro system. I included transportation and travel tips alongside each site in case you find yourself on a long layover in Taipei too!

Be sure to check the current exchange rate before you leave the airport, and plan on spending about NT$1,500 for a modest day of sightseeing and eating . You can also book one-day tours from the airport but if you’re a bit adventurous it’s totally doable solo.

Getting to the City Center from Taipei Airport

Before you leave, find the lockers in each terminal and lock up any of your carry-on luggage that you don’t need for the day. If you are checked through to your next flight, your checked luggage will be handled by the airline during your layover.

Then get into the city. The express train is by far your best bet as it’s just 40 minutes and costs the same as the commuter train. There are also buses, which is how I did it years back. All options cost under NT#160, so you’re not going to break the bank any way you go. This is a good transport guide, and explains how to get an iPass or EasyCard, as well as how to use the metro system. Once you’re in the city center, you can easily use Google Maps accurately for the best routes, or grab a subway map/app.

The Taipei National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum Taipei, Taiwan.
Entrance to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world, and it sits perched on a lush green hillside above the nearby gray cityscape. The museum is vast and it is truly one of those “choose your own adventure” type museums. There was no way I could (or wanted to) wander through every room, so instead I picked out those artifacts I most find intriguing.

For me, that’s intricate carved trinkets rather than pottery, and ornate ancient scripts written by the hand of people who have died hundreds of years ago. The museum has an entire room dedicated to delicately carved curio boxes (much like a women’s jewelry box of today). The drawers and doors on these were puzzles and this is where the emperors and royalty stored the valuable trinkets bestowed upon them through the centuries: ivory carved elephants, jade tigers, wooden figurines, and precious stones.

This is the “hardest” of the three layover spots to visit and that’s only because you have to transfer from the metro to the bus. But the National Palace Museum is very touristy so once I was on that side of town there was a fair amount of English spoken.

Quick Travel Tips: Taipei National Palace Museum

Where: Take the Wenhu metro line to the Jiantan stop, walk directly out of the building and straight ahead to the curb. Find the bus signs for the Red 30 or 304—take either of these two buses to the National Palace Museum stop (less than 10 minutes); it stops right in front of the museum, but sit near the bus driver and he’ll tell you when to exit. Also, if you’re visiting this before/after Taipei 101, there is a convenient 30-minute shuttle bus between the two!

When: Open between 8:30am to 6:30pm, and some Saturdays offer free extended evening hours.

Cost: Adults: NT$350, Concession: NT$150

More details: Official site for the National Palace Museum

Taipei 101: Taiwan’s Skyline Masterpiece

Taipei 101 shooting up into the sky in Taiwan
Taipei 101 shooting up into the skyline in Taiwan.

Nations around the world compete for the status of owning the tallest building in the world and Taiwan couldn’t stay out of the competition. Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s contribution to the tallest buildings in the world, and it may be one of the prettiest.

The building is layered in pagoda-like tiers from top to bottom—it’s almost like an Asian wedding cake, complete with a single candle-like point thrusting from the top and bringing the total height to a staggering 1,671 feet. The building dwarfs all of the nearby city buildings. When I exited the metro, I craned my neck upwards and wove my way through the streets to the slim and elegant building. There was no missing it once you’re in the neighborhood.

Observation decks ring the top of Taipei 101 and free audio guides describe all of the surrounding city buildings, hills, and tunnels, expertly sharing the evolving history of Taipei and its suburbs.

Quick Travel Tips: Taipei 101

Where: Taipei 101 is on the blue line at the “Taipei City Hall” MRT stop. There are free shuttle buses from this metro stop, but it’s actually a short walk from the metro stop (10 minutes or less). Also, if you’re visiting this before/after the National Museum, there is a convenient 30-minute shuttle bus between the two!

When: Open from 10am to 10pm (last visitors allowed up at 9:15pm).

How much: NT$600; student and military discounts available

More details: Official site for Taipei 101

Shilin Night Market

 Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.
Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

I love markets anywhere in the world and Taipei’s vibrant Shilin Night Market doesn’t disappoint. This nightly market takes over several city blocks with mazes of food stalls, clothes booths, kitschy plastic knick knacks, and heaving hordes of people. There is also an indoor portion of the night market. This is the portion of your long layover where you fill up on food before heading back to the airport. If you’re iffy about eating street food, learn the basics of eating it without getting sick, then start snacking.

An ice cold bubble tea is the ideal accompaniment for wandering the market while you scope out where to start sampling Taipei street food. The selection of meat, tofu dishes, sweets, and fruit are overwhelming, and the mingling scents of street eats permeate the market. If you’re a meat eater, you will truly have a ball sampling everything from fresh grilled prawns to “paper pork” to cow tongue pastries. That’s not to say that vegetarians can’t find fun treats, it just takes a bit deeper wanderings to find stinky tofu, sweet potato balls, and scallion pancakes. All travelers will love the jellied sweet desserts and sugared fruit.

The market gets into full swing around dusk, so out of the three long layover activities, the night market has the shortest time frame of operation. More vendors open as the night progresses, but even at dusk there is plenty to see if you’re crunched on time.

Quick Travel Tips: Shilin Night Market

Where: The Shilin Night Market is on red metro line, get off at the Jiantan stop and the walk the market (just across the street from the Jiantan exit). The market runs all the way to the next stop on the red line, Shilin so you can take that stop back!

When: Head there at dusk or later, once the sun has firmly set the market really begins to bustle.

Tips: Go hungry because there is a truly huge selection of foods to sample and make sure your camera’s battery has lasted this long for fun market shots.

Layover Success—Now Catch Your Flight !

Wherever you are in Taipei, it’s now time to catch the metro line back to the Taipei Main Station—this is the same basic place where the airport bus dropped you off, or where you metro’d into the city center as this is the central point for the metro lines.

Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get lost finding the return bus terminal for international airport-bound buses, Taipei West Bus Station. The station is tricky to find—get a map from the information kiosk in the metro before you even head out for the day and keep in mind that it’s near the underground mall K12 and Z3 exits and MRT exit M5. Otherwise take the metro to the airport if that’s your best option.

With the bus, if you tell the driver your airline he will drop you off right precisely where you need to be to catch your flight to some other exotic location! And if you still have a number of hours to kill at Taoyuan International Airport during your long layover, you can find a lot to do: themed airport lounges, Cultural Experience Areas in Terminal 2, art exhibits with pieces on loan from the National Museum in Terminal 1, a small movie theatre in Terminal 1, and more.

How do you spend a long-layover in a new city? Do you sleep through it or sightsee?

A Little Culture Shock… The Day a Taipei Starbucks Saved My Sanity

Hugging the ice-cold bubble tea to my chest, I continued wandering up and down the streets, looking for any sense of normalcy. The bubble tea lady was so smiley and friendly just moments ago … but she didn’t speak a lick of English. And I was confused. Overwhelmed. I was profoundly lost in a way I rarely experience after so long traveling the world.

As I walked among the tall city buildings, I passed surprisingly few other people. I kept a clear mental map in my head of where I was in relation to the huge main bus and metro terminal just two blocks to the right and one street behind me.

Main metro and bus station in Taipei.
The bustling main metro and bus station in Taipei.

I was lost enough that I considered bailing on my long layover in Taipei.

I can just go back to the airport … there’s no shame in going back to the airport. It’s only a 15 hour layover. What else can I do? I don’t know where I am. The metro is confusing. No one speaks English. NO ONE. What was I thinking?! Landing here without even a map.

Crap. Crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap crap.

Anxiety had rooted deep inside me. I could feel little pieces of fear bubbling up to the surface.

I was hungry and so very, very tired.

And alone.

And a little scared even though I wasn’t in danger, which made me all the more confused.

I hadn’t spoken English to someone who comprehended it in hours.

Foreign words on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan.

I couldn’t even see a café or restaurant. Just a bizarrely commercial area with all of the shop fronts still locked up tightly closed; the lettering on the windows a bizarre pattern of incomprehensible lines and squiggles.

I was too overwhelmed to even start the pity tears, instead continuing my confused and aimless wandering.

Until I saw it.

Shining like a beacon of recognition I gave no thought to ditching my bubble tea in a nearby trash can as I all but fell over myself in my haste to suck in a hasty breath of the rich and warm aroma of roasting coffee that hits you the moment you pull open the door to a Starbucks anywhere in the world. The décor and interior looked like a standard issue Starbucks, and the ringing greeting of a “Hello, how are you?” nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Oh thank god, I thought. Thank god, thank god, thank god.

Arriving to Taipei Jetlagged

I floated through Taipei customs without a hitch—I had a ticket out of there in a mere 15 hours time, so the customs agent had no issue stamping me into Taiwan with a temporary entry visa.

It was 6:15am and eerily silent in the airport. At a stretch, I’d say five other people were wandering through the baggage claim area of the airport. Clutched in my fist was a ragged strip of paper with my scribbled instructions to myself: Take the bus to the main train station terminal in the center of Taipei and from there all of the major sites were easily accessible by metro.

Easy-peasy, I had thought to myself.

First sighting of Taipei after arriving in the city center.
First sighting of Taipei after arriving in the city center.

First task in any new country? Money. Thankfully ATMs look pretty similar anywhere you go, so I made a wild guess on the exchange rate since the deluge of rain pouring down from the sky in Bali the previous night took out the power and thus my internet researching skills.

The bus ticketing window was blessedly easy to find and the signage was in English, so I pointed to the ticket I wanted then proffered my fist full of money, letting the woman take the coins she needed to pay my fare.

An hour later, we were driving through the tall city buildings of Taipei when the bus driver pointed at me and then pointed at the door. He spoke not a word spoken, but it was clearly my cue to get off.

The sprawling building in front of me was a maze of business people rushing in and out of the metro terminal. I took a moment to drink in the huge TV screens filled with incomprehensible information. There was no information stand in sight. Overwhelmed, I turned quickly and headed into the city in search of food, wandering the streets until I found a friendly face hanging out from a window in the side of a building—surrounding her were photos of dozens of different tea combinations.

I pointed to something simple and again offered a handful of change—a few coins taken from my palm and in exchange I had a cold bubble tea in clenched between my fingers; a handy prop for myself as I continued my search for food.

Bubble tea from friendly Taiwanese

20 Minutes Later, Cozy in a Starbucks

The coffee and blueberry muffin—such a painfully western breakfast—calmed me immensely as I pondered my options. The food began to hit my system and the panic subsided; it even seemed foolish now in the brightly lit and comfortable Starbucks.

I whipped out my laptop and found a wifi connection. Between the ability to now scour the internet for information (and Gchat with my dad) and the English-speaking Starbucks barista, my confidence had returned (do you think they have to speak some English to get hired at Starbucks?).

And it hit me right then that I had just experienced a lovely little punch in the face of culture shock. Coupled with low blood sugar, the completely overwhelming new culture had me in a state of absolute and debilitating confusion.

But food and familiar comforts brought me back to a state of sanity. Instead of wanting to hightail it back to the airport, I wrote down the metro stops for the three tasks my Taiwanese friend had recommended: visit Taipei 101, explore the Palace Museum, and find vegetarian street eats at the Shilin Night Market.

This research step was clearly something I should have done before I landed in Taipei for a 15 hour layover. Normally when I land in a new major city, I have plotted out transportation from the airport and my first night’s accommodation. But without a guesthouse and a home base, I had literally landed in Taipei with no more than instructions to get into the city and the name of three activities and sights.

In some places that would have worked, but not Taipei. I had arrogantly assumed I would simply locate an English speaker and ask for directions. I had done this with success in many other cities in the world. But what happens when there isn’t a single soul in sight who speaks a common language?

Once I wrote down the name of the stops and the color of the subway lines I needed, I was back into familiar territory.

The culture shock was passing.

I had done all of this before.

A metro system is a metro system, and Taipei metro and bus network is actually awesome once you’re armed with more information.

I’ve been on the road for years now, and I didn’t see the culture shock coming. As a long-term traveler, I ask my mind to constantly adapt rapidly to a lot of new situations. And as a solo traveler there’s an added element because there’s no one to help sort the information or watch my bags while I go investigate something—no one to communicate with just for the mere comfort of being understood.

This was my mind’s way of telling me: slow down, don’t get cocky. There’s no shame in advanced planning to smooth over the first days (hours) in an entirely new country. I don’t have to prove I’m superwoman by landing in a new country and magically knowing everything. This is, at the core, what that Taipei Starbucks taught me. Even when you think you have it all figured out, it pays to stay humble and bring a learners mindset to the world around you.