I read somewhere that Taipei is the kind of city that people love to leave – not because there’s anything wrong with it (it’s a fantastic place to live and explore) – but because it’s so well-connected to wonderful places all over the north of Taiwan. Hell, if you get up early enough you could even do a day trip to the south of the island thanks to the High Speed Rail.
Whilst I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to writing blogs on some of the most popular day-trips to the likes of Jiufen, Shifen, Wulai and Yamingshan National Park, this blog will focus on one of the lesser-taken options – a day (or half day) trip to Keelung.
Keelung is located less than an hour from downtown Taipei (around a 30km / 50 minute journey on the train from Taipei Main Station), yet it doesn’t boast nearly as many visitors as all of places mentioned above. In this blog I hope to give you a brief history of the city, before showing you exactly what makes Keelung a worthwhile place to visit for a day.
Traditionally, Keelung was first inhabited by an aboriginal Taiwanese tribe called the Ketagalan. Legend has it that originally they lived on another island before being forced onto Taiwan by a child-murdering monster. Anyway…
It was almost 400 years ago – in 1626 – when the Spanish (based in the Philippines) travelled to Taiwan, building various fortresses in Keelung and turning it into an outpost of the Spanish East Indies. This occupation didn’t last long and sixteen years later – in August 1642 – the Dutch came to Keelung with four large ships and almost 400 soldiers. Whilst the Spaniards (and some aboriginals) were able to hold off the Dutch for six days, eventually they surrendered and the Spanish retreated to the Philippines. The Dutch controlled the city from 1642 until 1661, but fled when Ming loyalists, who were searching for an escape from the Qing victories in China, defeated them at Fort Zeelandia in the south of Taiwan. The Dutch re-took Keelung in 1964 (with the support of the new Qing dynasty in China), holding out until 1668, when aboriginal resistance (likely incited by the Ming loyalist Zheng Jing) forced them out once more. So… that’s as clear as mud, right?
In the next two hundred years Keelung would face British bombardment in 1842 (during the First Opium War) and fend of a failed French invasion in 1884-5 (during the Sino-French War). Most importantly, it also managed to open up for trade, allowing the city to develop rapidly with gold and high quality coal being found in the drainage area of the Keelung River. When the Qing dynasty handed Taiwan to the Japanese in 1895, the Japanese built Keeling Harbour, turning it into a very prosperous port (even more prosperous than Tamsui and Kaohsiung).
With the outbreak of World War II, and more specifically the Pacific War, Keelung became one of the first targets of the Allies and was almost bombed to nothing as a result. After the Surrender of Japan in October 1945, Taiwan was handed over to the Republic of China, who set about rebuilding the harbour and city of Keelung. It then flourished into one of the largest container ports in the world.
Keelung is a relatively quiet city of about 300,000 people. As I mentioned above, it doesn’t receive nearly as many tourists as some of the other popular destinations in the area. Still there is a lot to do there and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.
What to do / see
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen it all. I’ve only visited on two occasions and plan to go back soon to see more. From what I’ve seen, here’s a few favourites:
- Zhuptan Temple (now known as the Ghost Festival Museum)
Both times I’ve visited Keelung, Zhuptan Temple has been my first port of call – and both times there has been no-one else in sight (even on a weekend, which is almost unheard of). This temple is most famous for its association with Keelung’s Mid-Summer Ghost Festival. Whilst this festival is celebrated all over East Asia, with people believing their deceased relatives return for a visit, the traditions behind the Keelung Ghost Festival are truly fascinating – but probably much better explained by someone else. Still, I’ll give it a go…
As far as my brief internet research tells me, in 1853 a huge battle was fought in Keelung between disagreeing factions from Fujian, resulting in over a hundred casualties. When another conflict looked set to erupt, elders from both sides negotiated a truce and the bodies of the dead were buried together and worshipped. There were 11 families involved in the negotiations and these 11 families took turns in organising the Ghost Festival, replacing their armed conflict with parade competitions, processions and lantern lighting. During this month the temple is covered in incredible lights and I can’t wait to return next year to see it in all it’s glory.
For now, I’d recommend wandering around the back of the building for some fantastic views over the city below.
- Keelung Zhongzheng Park
Whilst the Zhuptan Temple is in Zhongzheng Park, the real highlight is the Goddess of Mercy – Guanyin Dashi – statue on the higher level. She’s 25 metres high and has two giant golden lions positioned either side of her. This is also one of the best places to get views over the city and harbour below.
The first time I visited here it was a rainy weekday and there wasn’t another soul in sight. On my second visit, it was a sunny weekend, and the place had transformed into a children’s amusement park. There were people all over the place. Moral of the story? Visit on a weekday.
- Khoo Tsu-song Old Mansion (Qìngyú Hall)
Qìngyú Hall is a historic abandoned / derelict building located on the hill overlooking Miaokou Night Market in Keelung. It was built in 1931 whilst Japan still occupied Taiwan – and whilst it is styled similar to a traditional Qing dynasty era Sānhéyuàn (a U-sided courtyard home), the western influences on the building are very apparent.
Getting there would be a challenge… if it wasn’t for the invention of Google maps, which will lead you right there. Effectively, you just keep heading up the stairs, which admittedly look like they are taking you nowhere, winding your way up between residential houses until you reach Qìngyú hall. Whilst the house is now dominated by Banyan trees and their roots, I really enjoyed talking photos here – as well as spending a few minutes looking across the city below. Whilst there is no roof and the floor is covered in rubble, you are still free to explore inside (you can’t miss the big holes in the ground, especially as they’ve now put warning tape across them).
Interestingly, I’ve been unable to find any information online about why this house was abandoned and left to fall apart. If you know, please let me know.
- Miaokou Night Market (known as Keelung Night Market)
If I could, I’d eat at a night market every single night of week.
Actually, I guess I can… but I’m stopped by my own laziness (and constant need to find new eateries).
Either way, Keelung Night Market is one of my favourites (and not only because it was featured on a TV show hosted by one of my heroes – Anthony Bourdain’s Taipei episode of The Layover). It’s because the food is so damn good. Especially if you like seafood, which, I do. That is why the hustle and bustle, rubbing shoulder to shoulder, with locals and tourists alike, is an absolute MUST during any visit to Keelung.
I’m not going to make any personal recommendations as I personally think one of the best things about going to night markets is delving into the relatively unknown – but at the same time, I’m always open to recommendations for things I might’ve missed. Hit me up below.
- Dianji Temple
Located in the heart of Miaokou Night Market (Miaokou actually refers to ‘temple front’) this Taoist temple is definitely worth 30 minutes of your time (especially if you fancy a little respite from the hectic market outside). Established in 1875, the main hall of the temple was originally finished in 1923. As I mentioned above, Keelung was a key target for Allied bombers during World War II, owing to the importance of the port to the Japanese. Unfortunately, the temple incurred a huge amount of damage, being rebuilt from 1957. I haven’t explored the temple as much as I should have (I was very hungry at the time), but I hope I can still demonstrate some of the beauty which is contained within. I’ll definitely return next time.
- Keelung Maritime Plaza
This plaza is unavoidable when you’re in Keelung as you have to walk past it to get to and from the bus and train station. This is a beautiful place to stop and take a few photos, or catch the cargo ships, war ships and cruise ships coming in and out of the harbour.
As I mentioned before, I haven’t done everything there is to do in Keelung – but I have enjoyed everything I have done. Notable things I’ve still got on my list include: Kanziding Fish Market, hiking up to “Keelung” sign, Badouzi Seaside Park and the Oceanic Culture & Art Museum. I’ll be back soon.
Whilst there are numerous worthy day trips to be taken from Taipei, I definitely believe Keelung should be quite high up the list too. As always, any comments, criticisms or questions, please get in touch.