Taipei is the economic and cultural heart of Taiwan. Like other major metropolises in the Asia-Pacific region, it is a bustling place with decidedly urban landscapes. However, the nature that makes Taiwan a great eco-tourism destination is within reach of anyone staying in the city.

Taipei's infrastructure and accessibility make it a popular starting off point for people seeking an exotic Far East vacation experience. The forests, rivers and volcanic peaks that ring the city, as well as Taipei's urban greenspaces and progressive environmental attitude, should also earn it a spot on the Asian itineraries of eco-tourists and low-impact travelers. The city has plenty of organic eateries, some outstandingly green hotels, and a public transportation system that makes it possible to reach the natural attractions on the outskirts of the city without having to get into a car. Taipei has its share of big-city issues, but anyone who can pull back and look at the big picture will see that this is a great place for a green-themed vacation.

Go green

The first thing that strikes many Taipei novices is the city's motorbike-clogged streets. Traffic can be chaotic, but renting a scooter is a reasonably green way to avoid taking too many taxi rides. However, Taipei's clean, safe and useful subway system makes it possible to get virtually anywhere in the metro area quickly and easily. Known as the MRT (mass rapid transit), the train system's fares are based on distance, and stored value cards called Easy Cards can be used for multiple rides. The city's buses also accept the Easy Card. Though figuring out bus routes can be more complicated than planning an MRT trip, most buses do have English signage, so savvy travelers can avoid getting on the wrong bus.

Of course, once you get to the area where you are going, walking is the preferred means of transportation. The city's rivers feature long waterside promenades that can be biked, and bikes can be brought on the train at certain MRT stations. That said, heavy traffic and unfamiliar rules of the road (or lack of rules of the road) mean that bikes are not universally useful for getting around the city.

Sleep green

Like any other major metropolis, Taipei has a high concentration of hotels. These range from huge five-star establishments to humble hostels with shared rooms. It is not necessary to search out smaller, less-amenity-filled hotels if you want to be green. Shangri-La's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel has managed to balance luxury and size with eco-friendliness. This luxury sleeping spot was listed as one of the world's top 500 hotels by Travel + Leisure, and Conde Nast's readers dubbed it one of the top 100 hotels in Asia. From a green perspective, though, the best award comes from Taipei's city government, which named the Far Eastern Plaza the number one hotel in Taipei in terms of energy conservation and efficiency.

More than two dozen other hotels have signed on to a national campaign to green the hospitality industry. Most of the hotels that are part of this project are high-end hotels with easily recognizable names like Sheraton, Hyatt and Riviera. On the other end of the sleeping spectrum sit places like the Taipei Green House, with shared rooms and basic amenities that offer an alternative to big, energy-eating hotels.

See green

High-profile attractions that are not necessarily related to eco-tourism include Taipei 101, a virtually earthquake-proof skyscraper that stands as one of the world's tallest buildings, and the National Palace Museum, which contains artifacts from China's past that were brought to Taiwan after the Nationalist forces were defeated in the civil war. These attractions aside, the Taipei area has an impressive amount of eco-tourism and nature-themed attractions.

The Taipei Water Park sounds like a typical tourist attraction with slides and overpriced concession stands. However, the park is actually a nonprofit, education-oriented venue operated by the city's water department. The park includes a museum focused on drinking water, a raw water pumping station, a purification facility, several rides, and hiking trails that pass through the neighboring Kuanying Hills.

The Taipei Botanic Garden, another nature-oriented urban attraction, was founded as a plant nursery over 100 years ago. The venue includes a collection of cultural relics, an herbal garden and over 2,000 plant species. The Taipei Zoo, meanwhile, boasts an impressive list of animal species, with a vast majority housed in large natural habitats instead of cages. The zoo is involved in local conservation and animal rescue efforts. Located in the Wenshan District in southern Taipei, the zoo is near some of Taiwan's trademark tea plantations. The hills surrounding the district are known for their scenery, and visitors can take a gondola ride into the highlands. Teahouses in Wenshan serve the locally grown brew, and interested tea lovers can tour the plantations themselves.

The Zhishan Cultural and Ecological Garden is yet another nature-themed greenspace in Taipei. The park consists of features like a greenhouse, wild bird rehabilitation center and woodland area with trails. The Daan Forest Park, a relatively large urban park in one of Taipei's toniest districts, draws nature-seekers who want to take a break from sightseeing or shopping. The park consists of walkways, plenty of trees (thus its name), and other features like a lake and concert pavilion. The Dajia Riverfront Park is another park worth mentioning. Long promenades for walking, biking and inline skating and expansive lawns for outdoor sports or picnics make this a popular place for urban green seekers.

The real eco-tourism magic of Taipei lies in the mountains around the city. Yangmingshan National Park, which covers a volcanic mountain range that frames the city, is a favorite hiking spot for both tourists and trek-loving locals. This park can be reached from Taipei's core via bus. Many people come to soak in the area's hot springs, with resorts and spas scattered around the park. However, there is also a full menu of trails. Highlights include Tianmu Trail, an easily accessible trail that is one of the area' s most popular, and the historic Jinbaoli Trail, which was originally built to allow fishermen to carry their catch to mountain markets. More strenuous hikes are available for those in search of backcountry experiences or who just want to view Taipei's skyline from a high-altitude scenic overlook.

Beitou is a district in the northern part of Taipei that has an especially high concentration of hot springs. The area boasts public baths where visitors can soak in the steaming, mineral-rich water. Resorts and spas, modeled after Western-style spas, have their own bathhouses. One non-spa related attraction in Beitou is the Beitou branch of the Taipei Public Library system. Perhaps a library is an unusual itinerary item, but this one is special because it is one of the greenest buildings in the entire city. The building is made entirely of sustainably harvested wood and has state-of-the-art solar panels. Natural light, an impressive ventilation system, and a rainwater collection system are also part of the designs. The library does have an English language collection, but just visiting to see the Earth-friendly architecture is worthwhile.

Eat green

Taiwanese cuisine is famous around the world, but if you want to get a true taste of local food and also get some insight into local culture, night markets should be at the top of your itinerary. These markets are places to shop for souvenirs, find a full meal, or simply graze on whatever looks appetizing. These retail spaces are also a major part of the city's nightlife scene. The Shihlin Market is the most famous and arguably the best place to find local eats. Other markets also take place nightly around the city, with foodie havens like the Tonghua Night Market boasting an especially high concentration of snack-food vendors.

As with elsewhere in East Asia's majority Buddhist nations, vegetarian food is easy to find. Loving Hut, the international chain of vegan restaurants, has multiple locations in Taipei. Buffet style vegetarian restaurants are popular in the city, with international cuisine available at places like Ever Green Vegetarian Restaurant and local dishes served at eateries associated with Buddhist monasteries, like the cafeteria-style Chan Cafe.

Taipei is a huge city, but it has features — the MRT, parks, easy access to nature — that make it a great place for a convenient low-impact vacation. Because of the abundance of nature in the metro area, it is possible to combine urban attractions with eco-tourism without having to hire a car or make lengthy trips to escape the suburban sprawl.

Thumbnail photo: EtherH/Flickr; MNN homepage photo: Shutterstock

Urban rush meets natural serenity in Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei is the economic and cultural heart of Taiwan. Like other major metropolises in the Asia-Pacific region, it is a bustling place with decidedly urban lands