It’s time for a pop quiz. What are the largest cities in Taiwan? Taipei, of course. You’ve used the capital as a stopover to the mainland of Asia numerous times. But, after that, you aren’t quite sure. You’re horrified to admit that despite all of these trips, you’ve never left—or even considered leaving—the northern tip of the country. But you’re not the only one. Only a small portion of Taiwan’s visitors ever reach Taichung or Kaohsiung, much less anywhere in between. You’re finally going to change that.
Kaohsiung sits on the southwest coast overlooking the Taiwan Strait. What started as a small trading village in the 17th century grew into a scrubby port town under Japanese and then Chinese rule. The Harbor Capital is now the third-largest city in Taiwan. Once you learn that there’s a high-speed rail from Taipei, waterside parks, and one of the most popular night markets in the country, you’re surprised that Kaohsiung doesn’t receive more visitors. Add warm air and sea temperatures, and you’re absolutely shocked.
The original core of Kaohsiung isn’t along the banks of the Love River or the slope of Yushan, the highest mountain in Taiwan. It’s actually on Cijin Island. The long, slender island acts as a natural breakwater in the harbor. This is where fishermen first set up their homes. The Qing Dynasty built the Cihou Lighthouse in 1883 to aid larger ships entering the harbor. The Cihou Fort was created to guard the entrance, as well. While the Cijin Tianhou Temple, the oldest temple in the city, is dedicated to Mazu (the goddess of the sea) to protect those out fishing. All of these sites—plus a coast-hugging bike track, gray-sand beaches, and open-air seafood restaurants—now draw people to the island. Both ferries and an underwater tunnel make it easy to visit.
Once you’ve fallen in love with Cijin Island, you can start to explore the rest of the city. Its tallest building, 85 Sky Tower, offers gorgeous views from the 74th floor. Dream Mall is the largest shopping mall in not only Taiwan, but all of East Asia. It’s worth a stop for a ride on the Kaohsiung Eye ferris wheel. Abandoned warehouses have been turned into the Pier-2 Art Center with great galleries and exhibits. While Shoushan National Nature Park, the site of affectionally nicknamed Monkey Mountain, is home to Formosan rock macaques, the only primates native to Taiwan.
Then there’s the snacks at the Liuhe Night Market. There’s an outpost of the Michelin-starred dumpling chain Din Tai Fung. There’s bubble tea at airy cafes every few feet. And there’s a cool design hotel called the Tree House. By the time you leave Kaohsiung, you’ll not only wonder why it took you so long to travel here, but how quickly you can come back. You’re already checking connections through Kaohsiung International Airport.