Open any travel guide to Taipei and you’ll find that night markets are one of this city’s main features. Food is inevitably one of the most important considerations that travelers may have when picking out a destination (at least that’s how I see it), and food is something that the Taiwanese do well.
I mentioned in a previous blog post that Taiwan’s food scene is vibrant and it is made even more exciting with the injections of foreign culture into its culinary vocabulary. The cuisine is a mix of just about any influence from all over the world, from traditional Chinese home-cooked dishes to skewered meats, tofu dishes, seafood, and even swanky steaks and full course tasting menus. However, one trademark Taiwanese food institution is the night market.
Night markets are energetic food and shopping havens that abound in urban areas since they cater to the busy working class population. More often than not, the Taiwanese come home from work exhuasted, and therefore, have no more time to prepare food for the family. From that necessity, the concept of xiaochi was born. Xiaochi are takeaway dishes that serve as hot meals that provide quick nourishment to night market patrons. Night markets in more metropolitan districts, however, have evolved to cater mostly to tourists. Hence, they serve xiaochi but often with foreign interpretations or twists. Some of their offerings may not even be Taiwanese at all.
I have visited several night markets during my stay in Taipei and here is a list of my favorites, in order of preference:
I love Ximending because of its crazy and frenetic mix of old-fashioned Taiwanese street food, fast fashion brands, modern Taiwanese pop culture stores, traditional sweet, and desserts shops, and just about any kind of restaurant, cafe, or teahouse imaginable.
I love that Ximending is brightly lit with fluorescent lights, neon signs and jumbotrons, giving it a vibrant glow even at night. It was in Ximending that I felt the safest, and despite the crowd of people which I’d normally hate, I loved being in the thick of things in this market. My top picks from this market are Modern Toilet, egg waffles, and Hot Star fried chicken.
How to go: Ximending Market is accessible either by the Ximen Station (Blue Line) or the NTU Hospital Station (Red Line). The latter is quite a walk but it’s the closest stop when you happen to find yourself craving something in Ximending. Click here to view map.
I was given a map of Ningxia Night Market’s famous stalls and must-eats by my friend Ping, one of the attentive staff at Star Hostel. She sent me the Google Map (check it out via this link) via e-mail and it has all the delicious traditional Taiwanese snacks and dishes that she highly recommends to the hostel guests. Ningxia is appreciated by the locals because it still has that old-style appeal and it is also less inclined to subscribe to food trends and whatever is being hawked in other markets simply to please tourists. Here, you can find establishments that have been around for quite some time now, and are offering honest to goodness traditional Taiwanese grub.
A word of warning, though: because it does not really have to posture itself as a tourist spot as it is a local haunt, Ningxia may not look like the best representation of what a night market is, so proceed with caution. I happened to think that some of the stalls are quite dingy and unsanitary-looking, that’s why I was very selective what I was putting in my mouth. I ended up buying gratin scallops and shrimp served grilled on clam half shells. It was so sinfully delicious that I went back for more. After swigging a huge bottle of probiotic drink from the nearby convenience store, I went for Yuan Huan’s famous oyster omelettes (which I ate by the metric tons in Penang, Malaysia), and it was just as I would love it – briny and swimming in their special sweet sauce.
How to go: Ningxia Market is accessible either by the Shuanglian Station (Red Line) or the Zhongshan Station (Red Line).
I am a bit ambivalent about Shilin, even though most guidebooks and online guides say it is one of the more popular ones. My issue with night markets is that you only find about 20-3o different dishes, and they would repeat again and again as you progress through the different stalls. You don’t really need to venture deep in the heart of Shilin, because it’s all the same stuff, just in different locations. Chicken chops, grilled wagyu cubes, grilled king mushrooms, stinky tofu, more chicken chop, skewered meats, hotpots, fruit, octopus balls, yakitori-style sticks and so on.
Shilin is massive, and though it has quite a mix of stalls that sell clothing, gadgets, knockoff sneakers, and other sundries, it gets old pretty quickly once you see the same stuff again and again, as if having deja vu. Also, I was quite disappointed to find out that nobody sells freshly cooked penis-shaped waffles there anymore. I had been looking for those damn waffles everywhere, to no avail.
Shilin is also pretty chaotic. The first night I went there (I went twice), some cops were rounding up illegal vendors and it was quite scary seeing them making a commotion and scattering in all directions. We had Max in his stroller and some people damn near hit him with their merchandise as they fled from the police. A few minutes later, the illegal vendors were back where they were, possibly because the cops left and they were done with their duty for the night.
How to go: Contrary to belief, Shilin Night Market is better approached via Jiantan MRT (Red Line). The market is quite a long walk from its namesake Shilin MRT Station.
Not far from Ningxia is a row of small stalls that do not really constitute a night market in its strict Taiwanese sense, but I’m adding it here as a category anyway because I think it is worth mentioning on its own. The vicinity of Shuanglian MRT comes alive at night, and it becomes home to a bustling street food culture that can be considered as having a good mix of local and foreign patrons.
We wandered around the place and saw the following: a really good Japanese restaurant where the staff spoke ZERO English and we had to point to the menu to order; a Shiba Inu cafe (Yes, as in you can order tea or coffee and pet their adorable shiba inu doggos), and some busy local food stalls that sell noodles, duck, and congee.
How to go: Get off at Shuanglian Station (Red Line) and follow your nose and your tastebuds to where great food is.
I’m not sure if Maji2 (read as Maji Square) qualifies as a traditional night market, but what it actually is is a hipster playground for adults that has several stalls that serve trendy and cool food items. There is a Thai food stall, a Colombian arrozeria, a dumpling stand and several others. Maji2 is part of the Taipei Expo grounds, and it is a bit upscale compared to other traditional night markets. It even has a collective where artists can sell and display their handicrafts and products. There is also a very swanky deli and organic foods supermarket, which also happened to serve some pretty tasty-looking food.
How to go: Get off at Yuanshan Station and walk a couple meters until you see the expo complex, and the entrance to Maji2.
I initially thought that night markets go on until the wee hours in the morning, but I was hit with the realization that they shut pretty early, as do most things in Taipei. The city becomes a ghost town past 9:30PM, and night markets stop peddling their wares at the stroke of midnight.
So there you have it. I hope this helps you narrow down your itinerary for Taipei’s night markets. Also, there are several others that I didn’t get to try, like the famous Raohe and Shida Night Markets. If you do try them, let me know what you think. Xie xie!