It's a common dilemma facing the business traveller who doesn't want to come home empty-handed -- finding a unique memento or gift that genuinely represents a destination on a tight schedule.
Unless, that is, that traveller is visiting Taiwan, which practically specialises in great finds that are hard to get anywhere else. Taiwan may be best known internationally for its technology, but it produces a wealth of time-honored local crafts, from carefully cured teas to colorful ceramics and bamboo carvings. And it also has a thriving contemporary culture, with hundreds of independent designers and labels crafting bold and beautiful apparel, accessories and lifestyle goods. Whether you gravitate towards the traditional or examples of cutting-edge chic, Taiwan's shopping districts will have much to offer.
The other thing that defines shopping in Taiwan is accessibility, making it perfect for the time-short traveller. The capital Taipei is packed with all-in-one department stores, regenerated urban spaces that serve as art and design hubs, and pop-up markets. And virtually all of them are connected by the excellent MRT subway system.
Here are four of the top city-center shopping experiences that can all be navigated in a single day for a 'crash course' in Taipei's shopping possibilities -- provided you don't linger too long to browse at any one stop!
One of Taipei's oldest thoroughfares, Dihua Street is lined with historic shops that have dealt for decades in traditional products such as herbal medicine, incense and dried seafood. However it's undergone a recent renaissance with a number of stylish boutiques popping up in the street's lovely old buildings. Check out Artyard for gorgeous ceramics and textiles from local labels like InBloom, or Urban Renewal Station 155 ('Cooking Together') for delectable local spice mixes, dried fruit and other culinary treats.
This huge city-center complex, converted from Taiwan's first modern tobacco factory, is a fantastic blend of retail, exhibition and green spaces, where art displays rub up against speciality shops and cafes in old warehouses. It's also home to a culture-focused branch of the Eslite chain, best known for its bookstores. Eslite Spectrum -- named by the international media as one of the world's 'coolest' department stores -- has one of those, but also much more. There's an entire floor of artisanal creations from the likes of Oribagu (origami-inspired bags) and Hsu & Daughter (handmade leather goods). Some designers run workshops on site where you can have jewelry or accessories made to order -- or even have a go at making some yourself. If you visit Songshan on a weekend, you might be lucky enough to catch one of its regular pop-up handicraft markets.
Another example of Taipei's knack for making the most of old industrial spaces, Huashan was created out of a former winery. It's more compact than Songshan and has a slightly more whimsical character all of its own. Highlights include Xiaoqi, which boasts a stellar collection of stylish, inventive houseware, and a few venues that blur the lines between shop and café --like Never Ending Story, which carries figurines, stationery and toys based around the fairy tale-like characters of renowned Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy Liao.
The warren of lanes around Chifeng Street was once where people came to get hardware and auto parts, and indeed there are still a few metalworkers around. But they've been joined by a host of trendy shops, cafes and bakeries that are attracting a stylish young set. Among the newer arrivals are Old Lifestyle, a treasure-crammed antique shop; Ethnic Fashion, which collects vibrant handmade textiles, jewelry and accessories from Taiwan and farther afield; and O'Ringo, a celebrated maker of high-quality gentlemen's shoes.
With their balance of the creative, cultural and just plain fun, Taipei's unique breed of shopping destinations lend themselves equally well to an hour or two of quick browsing or a full day of intensive exploration. Regardless of how much time you have to spare, it's easy to come home with a highly original gift or keepsake that speaks to Taiwan's long legacy of craftsmanship, and the vibrancy of the current creative scene.