The first time I went to Yilan was when I was a child. I went with my family, including my cousins and aunts/uncles. In fact, this trip is still one of my most distinct childhood memories!
We had gone to Yilan to “play with water” (玩水), i.e. have fun in a river park. A part of this involved taking off your shoes and crossing a bridge. This sounds fun, but was quite painful, because the bridge was scorching hot from the summer heat. So just imagine a bunch of kids running across the bridge as fast as our little legs could carry us (not very fast 😫). You can imagine why this experience is “seared” into my memory.
Anyways, this past New Years break, I went to Yilan with the boyfriend (👦🏻) and we also “played with water”… in the form of… 🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️🌧️… torrential downpours (豪雨). As you can imagine, there were ups and downs to this trip.
🌏 Where is Yilan?
For those who don’t know, Yilan County is in northeastern Taiwan. On a clear day, you can see Yonaguni (part of Okinawa). This is also the part of Taiwan that claims the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands (or at least has fishermen who want to fish there).
Yilan is extremely accessible from Taipei–to the point that people even commute between these two places. While you can take a train there that goes around the northern tip of the island, thanks to a tunnel through Taiwan’s central mountain range, buses can take you there directly.
You’re also spoiled with choice if you take a bus. There are two bus companies (首都客運 Capital City bus and 格瑪蘭客運 Kamalan bus) that do this route and they make stops around Taipei. This means that no matter where you are in Taipei, you can find a stop close to you that goes directly to Yilan. Not to mention that the different parts of Yilan County are also served by their own direct bus lines to Taipei.
Our trip to Yilan City took 90 minutes, which shocked our host. She said it should only take 60 minutes. There were probably delays due to the rain and traffic from it being the first day of the New Year break. On our way back, we took a bus from Jiaosi (northern Yilan County) and that was only 40 minutes! 😱
As a plus, we also benefited from a New Year’s break discount, since the government wanted to promote use of public transportation during the holiday.
🤔 Yilan in the Winter?
Unless you have a car, Yilan in the winter is likely to be a demoralizing march through heavy rain. Northern Taiwan is very rainy in the winter, and Yilan is THE rainiest part of that. You won’t be able to go on the hiking trails, admire views from the mountains, or go to the coastline. Guishan Island is also closed until March. So yeah, your options are limited.
We tooked buses around, which is even more complicated in the rain. Your feet will end up wet and dirty from all the time you spend hunting down the right bus stops, which involves checking if the stop serves buses in your desired direction, being misled by locals and apps which tell you that a bus stop exists when it doesn’t, and so on and so forth. Then you have to drag your luggage through the rain 😫
However, (probably not a coincidence) Yilan has plenty of indoor attractions. So I’ll talk about those. I’ve grouped these geographically from north to south:
- Yilan City
1. Toucheng 頭城
During the Qing Dynasty, Toucheng was the commercial center of the Lanyang Plain. The port city traded with cities on the West side of the island and on coastal China. Due to a variety of reasons, it eventually lost this advantageous position, but remains a charming town filled with historic buildings and great food!
I happen to have a friend from this town who recommended lots of things to do here (Thanks Yuyu!).
🏛️ The Old Town
The “old town” or rather “old street” (頭城老街) is pretty small, so even in the rain, you can walk around without too much suffering. For instance, here is a residence of a merchant family:
The house was strategically built next to a river pier, where ships loaded and unloaded goods. The house served as a storefront and behind it was a courtyard (前店屋，後合院). People are still living inside.
While checking this out, we stumbled upon a cute cafe at the end. It had two shiba inus and some cute children. We spent the afternoon there relaxing, sipping tea, and reading.
This is a picture I took when we left:
You can also visit the Toucheng Township History Hall 頭城鎮史館. It is housed in the former residence of the principle of the elementary school. (Back in the day, school principles lived next to their schools).
Unfortunately, it was closed the day we went 😓
Here is a map of the historic buildings:
🔍 Lanyang Museum
First of all, Lanyang Museum is a really cool building whose design is inspired by local rock formations, though I’m ignorant and can’t tell you what those are:
But what I can tell you is that it’s a pretty neat museum that will help you understand Yilan’s history, culture, and nature. I left with a greater understanding of how nature (in the form of large amounts of water) has had a big effect on history and culture of the area.
For instance, Yilan’s abundance of water makes it suitable for duck-breeding. This helped me see why the ducks I “encountered” at an organic rice paddy in Miaoli ducks shipped in from Yilan. (The ducks eat snails and other pests.)
Yilan’s abundance of rainwater, combined with it being in a fault zone, also makes it suitable for hot springs as there is more than enough water that seeps into the earth and gets heated by the geothermal heat.
And… all this water also makes it a good place to go “play with water.” 💡 In fact, the water park my family went to was completed in 1994! So it would have been a new tourist attraction when we went.
2. Jiaosi 礁溪
There isn’t much to do in Jiaosi except for the hot springs, but for us that was more than enough. In fact, if you’re in Yilan during the rainy season, it’ll probably be the highlight of your trip.
♨️ Hot Spring Hotel
There are plenty of hot spring facilities around the city, but we opted for a hot spring hotel with a private bath on the last night of our trip.
Our room cost $112 for the night, including this huge bath and breakfast (the true “Bed, Bath, and Beyond!” experience for my North American readers 🤓).
Unlike their neighbors in Japan and Korea, Taiwanese people don’t like being naked around each other. Unfortunately, this means most hot springs require you to wear a bathing suit. But on the bright side, there are plenty of establishments that provide private baths and they are often much more affordable than private baths in, say, Japan.
You just have to book a few months in advance to nab more affordable places. I’m not sure how much they cost in other parts of Taiwan, but I definitely want to incorporate more hot spring hotels into our Taiwan trips. It’s a great way to end a trip– relaxing in hot springs together after walking around (we walked nearly 40 kilometers from Dec 29-Jan 2). We also talked about our new year resolutions 😊
👣 Foot Baths
We didn’t go to those, but we did stumble upon this free “foot bath cafe”:
It was our first time seeing a foot bath that had coffee tables! We wondered why there aren’t more of these. And… it’s free! Interestingly, even though it’s connected to a Family Mart, you don’t have to buy anything there to use it. You can also ask Family Mart for little mats to sit on, so your butt doesn’t get wet from the seats, i.e. the blue thing I’m sitting on:
There was also a “check in on FB and we’ll give you a little gift” thing, so we got free bottles of water. I do recommend buying a drink from the cafe upstairs though!
We had been considering getting a Taiwanese foot massage 腳底按摩 but all the places charged around 500NTD for a 50min massage, which seemed kinda steep. This foot bath had a similar effect to foot massages: your feet feel rejuvenated… and they look beautiful:
Apparently this “smoothening” effect occurs because the springs are alkaline, but that’s what I read on tourism websites, so not sure if it’s true.
I should mention that this foot bath is steaming hot. 👦🏻 was able to put his feet in right away, but I had to slowly work my way in, first bottom of my feet, then feet, then ankle-length, then shins. I also took out my feet every now and then to give my feet a “break.” By the last part, my entire body had warmed up and I was sweating 😅
🍘 Formosa Pearl Tea House
This place isn’t actually in Jiaosi, but is about a 15-minute drive out. You can go here for lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, as long as you make a reservation beforehand. We went for afternoon tea, and it was “an experience.”
The “entrance” to the place is actually a small gallery in a separate building that you’re supposed to check out before the meal/tea part of the experience. You then walk through the garden (they open a gate for you) to get to the building where food and drinks are served.
Definitely not for a budget traveler, as it was 350NTD per person not including two-way taxi fare, but we had a good time and 👦🏻 loved the tea so much he even made some to go. He also packed up the leftover figs.
Interestingly, the Chinese name of this place is 掌上明珠, which literally means “bright pearl in your hand” but apparently means “beloved daughter.” A professor at Yilan University I recently got in touch with through Yale alumni work recommended it.
3. Yilan City 宜蘭市
Lots of historic sites here and otherwise fun things to do.
🚂 Around the Train Station
The train station is adorable:
The little parks around the train station as well as the former bus terminal are also really cute. They are the work of Jimmy Liao, a Taiwanese illustrator and children’s book writer who is from Yilan.
🍢 Dongmen Night Market
A night market under the bridge.
Our first stop was a wonton place right next to the entrance of the night market. Sadly the picture cannot capture how fragrant the soup was:
We then split up to line up for different stalls. 👦🏻 got us the famous 彭記蔥油餅 Peng’s Scallion Pancake, which were absolutely worth the wait. We gobbled them up immediately, so no pics 😅
I got us these local foods:
On the left is 糕渣, which was really interesting. It’s similar to crispy fried tofu, with the crispy skin on the outside, except the inside is softer than mochi and melts in your mouth. On the right is卜肉, which was also good. Seemed to be pork fried with cinnamon and other spices. Both are a little oily 😅
While I wouldn’t go to a night market by myself, I definitely think it’s fun with friends and for couples. As opposed to a restaurant, where you just sit and wait for the food to come to you, at a night market, you need to line up for different stalls, then come back together to share your bounty. There’s more teamwork involved and a greater sense of achievement. (Funnily, this Japanese blogger believes Taiwanese night markets are the best date spots!)
🌉 Memorial Hall of the Founding of Yilan Administration
This “memorial hall” is housed in a beautiful old house that was saved when locals campaigned to save the old camphor tree. (This is a common pattern in Taiwan — saving historic buildings along with old trees.)
The interior is very pretty. See this door for instance:
The house was built by Saigo Kikujirou, the son of 西郷隆盛 Saigo Takamori, a famous Meiji-era politician in Japan. “Famous” is an understatement. He’s considered one of the founding fathers of modern Japan, and there’s also a historic drama about him airing now in Japan.
I’m not sure how famous he is in Taiwan, but a couple of my Taiwanese friends were impressed by this Saigo-Yilan connection. Anyways, Saigo the son built this residence for himself when he was the governor of Yilan. Here are some pictures of him:
It also mentions that he built levees to control the water and that locals liked him for that reason. There wasn’t much other explanation, but I later learned at the Lanyang Museum the importance of “keeping water under control” 治水 in Yilan.
During the Qing dynasty, the local rulers had only made temporary levees that often broke, leading to huge loss of life and livelihood. After Saigo Kikujirou’s initiatives, flooding still occurred but was no longer life-threatening, so it’s probably safe to say that he was somewhat popular. After the Japanese left, the ROC government continued to reinforce these water-controlling mechanisms to make life easier for people in this area.
It’s really rare to find a “memorial” to the founding of a local government, but for people whose lives are so “exposed to the elements,” a strong government that can protectits people against the elements is probably pretty important.
🍷 Oldest Distillery in Taiwan
Near this memorial is the oldest distillery in Taiwan:
Unfortunately when we went it felt really touristy. Looking it up later, I found that they do tours explaining the history of the factory. It’s most famous for its red rice wine. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go back some other time to learn about this.
I did get this picture here though:
Yilan is famous for its green onions, another industry that is made possible by its abundance supply of water. Funnily, the township that’s most famous for green onion is called 三星, which is also the Chinese characters for Samsung.
🥃 Kavalan Distillery
Kavalan is a whisky company that makes some sort of award-winning whisky, not that I would understand anything about that. I mostly went because 👦🏻 recently got into whisky.
Normally, visitors can tour many parts of the distillery. However, as we went on New Year’s Eve, they weren’t in operation. So we only got to see a small part of it:
There were lots of interesting displays that showed how whisky changes as it ages and depending on what kind of cask it’s in:
They also host tastings (about 400 NTD) and “blend-your-own whisky” sessions (about 1000 NTD) that you can sign up for on their website. However, even if you don’t take part in those activities, they let you taste one type of whisky, and you get to smell the others. Interestingly, they also provide water to help you dilute the taste if it’s too strong.
An unpleasant aspect of this visit was that the place was PACKED with tourists just milling around. Everyone was probably looking for something indoor to do. Strangely, there were also lots of families 🤔
👋 That’s all for now!
There are other parts of Yilan that we didn’t get to visit this time, such as more of Yilan City and the township of Luodong. Luodong apparently has the largest night market in Taiwan, so that’s probably something to check out. It also has some factories, such as a pencil factory though you’ll need to sign up for the tours online.
We did go to Suao, but that ended up being a disaster. It’s famous for the cold springs, but you don’t want to soak in cold springs in the cold rainy weather. You also won’t see the port as it’s all fogged up. However, there is apparently a museum dedicated to the seafaring culture of the area (it was a military, commercial, and fishing port) that has good seafood as well. Definitely a part of Yilan to check out when it’s not so rainy.
We also couldn’t do things that were more suitable for families/groups. For instance, we had to pass on kiln-baked chicken in Jiaosi (e.g. 甕烤雞) and roast duck in Yilan (櫻桃鴨 一鴨五吃) as both of those require you to order an entire chicken/duck and we just couldn’t have finished them.