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'I Found Peace (And The Best Street Food Ever) In Tamsui, Taiwan'

It's time to explore this hidden gem, especially since you can now go there visa-free
by Vinz Lamorena | Nov 27, 2017
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The sun was ready to set. It had spread its glow all over a town already paved in warm red bricks, bathing its pathways in golden streaks of light.

The crowd turned their gaze toward the nearby Yangmingshan Mountain. The breeze carried the scent of the sea, and the people who chose to rest closer to the water swung their legs onto the riverside railings. I was quick to follow their example, and as I took my seat, I saw tree branches frame the mountain’s edges.

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The view of Yangmingshan Mountain across the river

This riverside route is under the shade of decades-old banyan trees. Some people walk their poodles and ride their bikes under them. There are hundreds of this native tree along the port area, and their tiny hanging roots have created an enchanting natural chandelier.

I popped my headphones on and let Spring acoustics drown my senses as I spent a serene afternoon in Tamsui.

Tamsui Terminal Station

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The Tamsui station’s architecture is pretty much similar to what you’ll find around the northern district

This is the image of Taiwan embedded in my mind, courtesy of an unplanned trip to Taipei’s northernmost district that can be accessed via train. At one end of the red line is the Tamsui terminal station, where you hop off and immediately feel like you’re transported into an entirely different city.

The train station is already a magnificent sight on its own. From here, you’ll see the town’s European influences. There are a couple of interesting shops in this area alone. Right in front of the station’s second exit is 50Lan, a famous bobba tea shop which has been operating for the past 23 years and has over 50 branches all over Taipei.

50Lan’s Taiwanese Milk Tea (NT$110 or P220) has a prominent-tasting Oolong tea base and almost half the cup is filled with pearl sinkers. The original Taiwanese milk tea isn’t at all as sweet as the ones found in Manila.

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What else is there to do in this laid-back district?

Among the notable stalls in this station is Sushi Take-Out, where you’ll probably spot the cheapest Japanese bites ever. Fresh sashimi is sold for only NT$120 (or roughly P240), and you can see them slice the salmon firsthand.

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Craving for Japanese food? This take-out joint has the cheapest sushi rolls in town!

They also have packed rolls of the usual sushi variants including tofu, tamago, fish roe, and ebi. The convenience store-priced take-out stall also has original sushi concoctions, the most popular of which are the Tuna Salad, Shredded Seaweed, Pineapple Shrimp, and Pickled Mackerel rolls that can be tried for only NT$10 (or around P20 each).

Free taste and pasalubong lane

Everything can be easily reached by foot in this area. As Tamsui has a slower pace than the rest of the city, it’s a district where you can enjoy long walks. Just a crossing away from the train station is the end of the famed Tamsui Old Street, or as I would like to coin it: the free taste and pasalubong lane.

Tamsui Old Street isn’t quite like the other “old streets” that Taipei is known for. It’s not lined with red lanterns on each side, but the lane is crowded with adjacent buildings, each bearing a dizzying number of signages. The buildings are rich in pastel colors, a feature that will have you looking up as you stroll along.

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The towering buildings just invite you to look up

There are almost no spaces in between the brick and mortar on this street. The best treat of any Tamsui Old Street visit is trying out the different food products from each stall—the sellers readily hand out samples as you explore the area. The locals even say you can get full just walking through the street and tasting every bite-sized sample you find.

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Popular street food finds like the Custard Wheel Cake (NT$25) and deep-fried cuttlefish and mushroom bites (NT$100-200) can also be found here. I suggest you grab some while you take your time with pasalubong shopping.

The Waffle Wheel is a bit messy to eat

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 The deep-fried cuttlefish is a chewy street find 

Your NT$100 here is also worth more than it is at the Shilin Night Market, where prices have spiked due to the great number of tourists visiting the area. You can buy extremely soft handmade mochi that is indulgently loaded with filling for only NT$100 (or P200) for a 6-piece pack. That I ended up carrying six mochi boxes back to the city is a testament to their flavor.

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Tamsui’s handmade mochis flavors: matcha, black sesame, custard, yam, red bean, and chocolate

I also found the softest milk nougat I have ever tasted in my life in Tamsui. Delectably chewy and creamy, each nougat is hand-pulled to maintain that melt-in-your-mouth texture. There are tons of different flavors to choose from—there are nougats that are mixed in with chopped almonds, whole black sesame seeds, and there are even matcha and coffee flavored ones. These are definitely not the type to make your teeth hurt or harden over time. It’s priced at NT$100 per 150 grams, and the vendor might even generously give you an extra handful of nougat.

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The softest and creamiest nougat can be found in Tamsui—and it comes in lots of interesting flavors

The usual souvenirs like postcards (NT$20-90), magnets (NT$50-85), and keychains (NT$20-90) are sold at lower prices at this old street, so save all your souvenir shopping for this district. A lifestyle store called Check Fun has a lot of merchandise for geeks and contemporary art fans. They have individual corners dedicated for small Gudetama figures, Disney Tsum Tsums, Korean-inspired minimalist jewelry, and various pins, patches, and buttons designed by local artists.

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Disney lovers will love these plushies that are sold at Check Fun

There’s also a souvenir shop that’s filled with boxed Taiwanese snacks. And there’s no way you should leave the area without a bag of prawn crackers. The seafood sticks are crispy with a natural taste of briny sweetness that just gets better with every bite.

Xiao Long Bao is also considered as a street food here. The steamed soup dumplings typically cost NT$10 (P20) a piece at various stalls. Now this street find isn’t at par with the ones served at Din Tai Fung, but the dumplings are firm and chewy and its pork filling is made flavorful by chopped chives.


Historical and cultural sites

Now the trip to Tamsui isn’t exactly just a gastronomic one—it’s a romantic stroll (whether you’re holding someone’s hand or not) through streets that are filled with green spaces. The area has an evident park culture, where its residents take time to unwind in public spaces, enjoying the natural and architectural landscapes of the district.

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Along Tamsui Old Street is the 221-year-old Fuyou Temple, where countless passersby offer prayers. Even at a distance, visitors can easily see the colorful staircases right beside the Buddhist temple—and yes, this is a perfect spot for your next cheesy Instagram post. The street murals cover staircases and all nearby walls, and its vibrant colors are a juxtaposition to the temple’s worn-out traditional tones.

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The vibrant street murals are perfect for an IG moment

This northern town is where you’ll find traces of Dutch Formosa, where colonials built their brick Tamsui Church and Fort Domingo. The beautiful church gives tourists a glimpse of European architecture in Asia. It’s the same for Fort Domingo, too, which has been well maintained since the British left Taiwan. This structure, that was once used for battle, now houses different artifacts, and some parts of it feel like an upperclass English home.

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Walk along Tamsui River’s waterfront 

After getting a taste of Taiwanese bites and history, a Tamsui visit must end with watching the mesmerizing sunset on the waterfront, where one can witness the unhurried changing hues on the Tamsui pavement as light serenely peeks through the banyan roots. Then, you can enjoy the luxury of watching people quietly living their lives come and go, time slowing down in order for you to truly take in and experience the moment.

Photos by Vinz Lamorena

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