The Taiwan Tourism Bureau's International Spotlight program is designed to inspire and attract 'slow travellers', the kind of people who prefer to take their time, and who feel no compulsion to see each and every attraction. In addition to covering parts of the north and central part of the island, the program introduces the scenic, culinary and shopping highlights of Greater Tainan.
Located just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Tainan is a relic-packed city which served as the island’s political and administrative center between the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1624 and 1885. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Taiwan was a neglected backwater of China’s Qing Empire. The weather is reliably dry and comfortably sunny between October and March. For anyone who likes to be outdoors, whether in an urban setting or deep in the countryside, Tainan and wintertime go together perfectly.
Tainan is already well known to tourists on account of its fabulous temples, fascinating fortresses and delicious street food. The pace of life here is far more relaxing than in Taipei; a great many visitors are happy to do little more than wander at random, on foot or with a hired bicycle. But, of course, those who explore with the assistance of a guide, or read up before setting out, will come away with a far better understanding of this ancient city and its many treasures.
The International Spotlight Southern Region has its own trilingual website where anyone considering a trip to the south can find theme routes and descriptions of historic neighbourhoods. One such zone lies around Zhongzheng Road and Haian Road. A must-see hereabouts is Shennong Street, perhaps Taiwan’s most traditional thoroughfare. As recently as the 19th century, before human land-reclamation efforts and natural sedimentation pushed the coastline further west, this part of the city was a stone’s throw from the ocean. A few of the old two-storey houses, built by merchants to serve as both homes and warehouses, have been turned into shops or bars.
Far more modern yet still of considerable historic interest are landmarks which date from Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. What's now Tainan Meteorological Observatory is said to be the oldest Japanese-era official building surviving in Taiwan. Locals have nicknamed this 1898 structure 'the pepper pot' on account of its circular shape. Among the items displayed inside are old seismographs.
The Old Union Hall (also known as the Former Tainan Meeting Hall, pictured below) and the adjacent Wu’s Garden is a superb spot for a picnic. The former is a 1911 French-influenced structure that hosts occasional exhibitions. The latter dates from the 1820s and is named for Wu Shang-xin, a salt tycoon who owned this land and commissioned the garden’s creation.
Tainan folk are hardly exaggerating when they quip their city 'has a small shrine every three steps, and a major temple every five steps'. The Confucius Temple offers a sense of eternal tranquility, while the Martial Rites Temple (also known as the Official God of War Temple) is equally gorgeous. The former is dedicated to the sage now regarded as China’s greatest philosopher, while the latter honours Guan Gong, a general who lived and fought in China more than 1,800 years ago.
To the delight of those who have several days to explore Tainan, nanspot.tw goes well beyond the usual tourist haunts. There are directions to Xihua Tang, an ancient Buddhist house of worship, the Great South Gate, a holdover from when Tainan was encircled by a protective wall, and the Temple of the Lord of the North Pole.
The majority of Tainan’s attractions are within 20 minutes’ walk of the TRA Station, which itself is linked to the high-speed railway by frequent shuttle trains. However, visitors should make at least one trip outside the downtown, ideally to Anping. This is where the Dutch established their trading colony in the early 17th century, and the bastion they called Fort Zeelandia is now a captivating ruin. This part of the city abuts the ocean, so it is no surprise that oysters and shrimps feature in the dishes enjoyed by many visitors.
Riding a bicycle from the Confucius Temple to Fort Zeelandia takes around 20 minutes. An alternative form of transport is city bus no. 2, which stops at Tainan TRA Station, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature and Confucius Temple en route to Anping. Having got that far, visitors may wish to explore the coast, parts of which have been incorporated into Taijiang National Park.