Lehua, Shida, and Shilin: All different, all delicious
There are around a dozen or so high-quality night markets scattered around Taipei and if I’d had twelve days in the city, believe me, I would have visited them all. I love night markets because the food is local, cheap, and delicious. They pretty much ensure you’re going to encounter at least a few new things, and they keep your wallet nice and full for more important activities, like more travel and more cheap night markets.
Unfortunately I only had a few nights in Taipei so I managed to visit just three night markets, though they each turned out to have a totally different vibe. No matter what kind of traveler you are, there’s definitely a market for you in Taipei, so here are my reviews to help you out!
Night 1: Lehua (Yonghe District)
Crowd Density: Low English Level: Low
Vibe: Low-key and local Food Choices: Meat-heavy, but tasty
Additional Notes: I went on a rainy Thursday so it could’ve been less crowded than usual.
This was my first night market and the closest to my hostel, so once I’d dropped my backpack off after my flight I basically rushed right over. The internet had claimed that this was one of the “most Chinese” night markets in Taipei and I was ready to get a taste (literally) of the real deal.
The internet was dead on as usual; here, the vendors automatically addressed me in Mandarin and didn’t offer any special praise for me understanding them (it may sound arrogant for me to have expected that, but hey, that’s what you get in the PRC!) Instead I was given no special treatment—in fact I’m suspicious that the people hawking cheap handbags on the side may have actively avoided me thinking I wouldn’t understand them, and that was definitely a plus!
At this market I ate some meat on sticks (yummy), some spicy mixed meat in a bucket (yummy, though I’m not sure what it all was and I definitely ate something’s balls), some Taiwanese milk tea, and a famous street food called 甜不辣 / tian bu la / “sweet not spicy.” Except the lady also added spicy sauce effectively defeating the purpose, but whatever I guess. I wasn’t a huge fan of it anyways; tasted like a bunch of squishy stuff covered in a weird salad dressing but I have no idea whether it’s supposed to taste different or nah. Total price was about NTD 200 / or 50 HKD / or ~$6 USD.
This was by far the most casual night market in that it didn’t seem to be trying to look attractive or appealing; it was really just some food stalls on some back street. A good variety of food, sure, but nothing luxurious. And I didn’t feel like everyone there was a tourist, though I think a good amount of mainland Chinese travelers were hanging out. Don’t think I saw another white person and I stayed for a good hour plus.
Verdict: Check out Lehua if you want the “real deal” and are willing to try new foods, but if you don’t speak Mandarin you can expect to struggle.
Night 2: Shida (Da’an District)
Crowd Density: Medium English Level: Medium
Vibe: College kids Food Choices: Eastern and Western
Additional Notes: This one was my favorite!
I walked over to the Shida night market after catching the sunset at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (an activity I would highly recommend!) On my way there I caught a glimpse of the pleasant-looking National Taiwan Normal University, which, being right next to the night market, means the majority of people who hang out there are college students. Being just 23 myself I blended right in, and it was fun to be somewhere that local people my age would actually hang out.
The food was pretty great at Shida; I had 小笼包 / Xiao long bao / soup dumplings, followed by some nice curry and rice, and then the totally Chinese dessert of crème brûlée in a crêpe. For the last one it was sold at a stall which had an amazing variety of crêpe options, and the guy made it by putting whipped cream all over the dough, rolling it into an ice cream cone shape, sprinkling sugar on the top, and then shooting a blow torch at it for like five minutes. After that, they had to put it into a fridge to let it cool off for about five more minutes, until at last I was able to take the delicious concoction.
“明天见!” See you tomorrow, the woman joked as she handed it to me. I wish I’d had the time! Total cost of the food that night was probably around NTD 260 / HKD 65 / USD ~$8. The crêpe was comparatively expensive, but definitely worth it.
As I munched my crêpe I strolled around checking out the area’s clothing shops. One cool thing about Shida is that it is a hub for small boutiques run by local designers. While sizes made for Chinese bodies are generally not well-equipped for handling my American-size hips, it was fun to browse, and there were handbag shops and such as well. As for the level of English at the market, I was addressed in both English and Mandarin here. It seemed some vendors were bilingual (or at least comfortable enough in English) while others were not.
Verdict: If you’re a 20-something traveler who doesn’t want to go either full-local or full-tourist, Shida is a great balance.
Night 3: Shilin (Shilin District)
Crowd Density: Very high English Level: Unsure…
Vibe: Touristy Food Choices: Huge variety
Additional Notes: I went on a Saturday evening which to be fair is probably peak timing
There are a few big advantages of heading to the Shilin market as a tourist. For one it was the easiest night market to find and the only one I didn’t use Google Maps for, as there were signs pointing the way from the subway station all the way to the first food stall. Second, it definitely had the largest choice of food by far, and being catered to tourists the food was definitely more geared toward Western tastes than the stuff at either Lehua or Shida. I recall seeing some English translations on signs but I didn’t really talk to any of the vendors here and honestly can’t remember if I was speaking Chinese or English—but I’d assume that at a tourist-friendly place like this English would do just fine.
Still, I personally found Shilin to be pretty unpleasant. At its densest it was so packed I could barely move, let alone decide to turn back to grab that yummy-looking ice cream from a few seconds ago. It was by far the loudest market too, with more of the whole “shouting at tourists to buy stuff” strategy which unfortunately so many otherwise nice shopping spots seem to abuse. There were tons of stores in the area along with the food, including larger international brands, but I didn’t stay and check them out.
To get the food I wanted I actually had to cut out onto a side street and loop around to reenter the fray—the crowd was one-way only. I ate just one dish at Shilin, some admittedly very tasty 宫保鸡丁 / gong bao ji ding / “kung pao chicken.” Of course one dish meant this was my cheapest night market, at NTD 120 / 30 HKD / ~$4 USD. But I was still hungry afterwards so I went to MOS Burger (a Japanese burger chain) back near my hostel. They gave me chicken nuggets with the burger instead of fries!
Oh, and there was one last problem with Shilin: no idea where the public toilets were or where to even start looking for one, so don’t show up needing to pee like I did. I was quite happy to find squat toilets at the Shilin subway station afterward—and trust me I don’t say that often.
Verdict: If you’re in a state of paralyzed culture shock but don’t want to hit McDonald’s, then spend the evening at Shilin… otherwise go somewhere else!
As I said there are probably a dozen plus night markets in Taipei and these are only three of them, but I think I got a pretty representative sample of their variety! In conclusion, you should definitely take the chance to explore and eat cheap somewhere new every night… and one of those nights, if you can, should be spent at Shida!