Chiayi is the most surprising place I have visited in Taiwan. My first encounter with Chiayi was about 10 year ago where I spent a quick night in Chiayi City en route to Alishan National Scenic Area. For my second visit, we stayed a few days in the city to meet up with friends before heading up to Alishan. That trip was such an eye-opener as I was so amazed by the warmth of the locals who provided many recommendations for food and sights. I left Chiayi feeling that I have so much more to see, do, and eat!
When I started to write this guide to Chiayi and prepare for the travel session “Insider’s Guide to Chiayi’s Cultural and Culinary Secrets”, I thought I have experienced enough of Chiayi to provide recommendations to guide first-time visitors to this underrated part of Taiwan. But as I worked closely with my fantastic collaborators Joanna Sun (Outsider in Chiayi), Grace Lin (Smart Fish), Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, and Cheng Yiwen from the Haomei 好美 community in Chiayi County, I keep discovering more secrets of Chiayi. My newfound friends are very proud of their home and their kindness and generosity are so infectious that I feel that everyone must visit Chiayi and spend at least a week to experience the best of Chiayi!
This special insider’s guide highlights Chiayi’s places of interest and diverse food scene that you can enjoy in Chiayi City and beyond in Chiayi County and Southwest Coast National Scenic Area. Check out How to spend 72 hours in Chiayi for more information to plan your next trip to Taiwan!
WHERE IS CHIAYI?
Chiayi is used commonly to refer to Chiayi City 嘉義市. One thing to understand before you plan your trip is that Chiayi City is not Chiayi County 嘉義縣. Chiayi City is surrounded by Chiayi County. Both areas are distinct and managed by different government bodies.
CHIAYI CITY 嘉義市
Chiayi City lies in the heart of Chiayi County. A city of vibrant history, it was called Kagee during the late Qing Dynasty, Kagi during the Japanese colonial period, and its historical name is Tirosen. The city is divided into the East District and West District with Chiayi Station as the focal point. A small but compact city, you can easily spend a few idyllic days exploring the area using this guide. Get around the city using local Chiayi bus, Taiwan tourism shuttle bus 台灣好行 or bicycle! Check this useful bus map to navigate around the city.
CHIAYI COUNTY 嘉義縣
Chiayi County lies between Yunlin County and Tainan City and it is flanked by the sea and the mountains. Chiayi County is huge and divided into 2 cities and 16 townships. It is the sixth largest counties in Taiwan (out of 13) and the only county with 3 major national scenic areas: Alishan National Scenic Area, Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, and Siraya National Scenic Area.
Chiayi County is part of the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, which also covers the coastal areas of Yunlin County and Tainan City. The scenic area boasts an expansive shoreline featuring stunning coastal landscapes such as dunes, sandbars, lagoons, estuaries, and wetlands.
Interestingly, the Tropic of Cancer, the 23.5 degrees north latitude line dividing the tropical and temperate zones, passes through the Shueishang Township. The unique location of Chiayi means that the locals enjoy the best of the tropical and temperate climates and a rich variety of gifts from the land like fruits and tea.
As Chiayi County is massive, this guide will focus on the Haomei community in Budai Township.
HOW TO GET TO CHIAYI CITY AND CHIAYI COUNTY?
Both Chiayi City and Chiayi County are easily accessible from different parts of Taiwan. Chiayi City is the launchpad to Chiayi County and most travellers start from Chiayi train station (in Chiayi City and operated by the Taiwan Railway Administration).
From the major cities like Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung, you can choose to either take the local train operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) or the high-speed train run by Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR). A complimentary shuttle bus connects the Chiayi THSR station to Chiayi TRA station in just 20 minutes. A car or scooter/motorcycle is recommended for exploring the larger Chiayi Country. One travel tip is to purchase the train tickets as early as you can to enjoy “early bird” promotional fares, especially for THSR tickets. Buy your Chiayi train tickets here! Get 10% discount with this code US10NEW.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE IN CHIAYI?
FOR ARTS AND HISTORY BUFFS
CHIAYI TRAIN STATION 嘉義車站
The historical station is a good starting point to learn about the history of Chiayi City that spans over 300 years. From the 17th to 18th century, Chiayi was controlled by the Dutch, Chinese, and Manchurian, and traces of its multi-faceted history can be seen throughout Chiayi.
Chiayi’s history is closely intertwined with the Alishan Forest Railway. The railway was established during the 50-year Japanese colonial period from 1895 to the end of World War II in 1945. The Japanese discovered the untouched forest of Alishan and constructed a sprawling railway network connecting Chiayi City to the resource-rich forest. In 1912, Alishan Forest Railway and wood factories were built to facilitate the transportation of resources like the valuable cypress wood from the mountain ranges.
Chiayi is also called the “Wood City” because of its close relationship with wood from Alishan that supported the growth of the forestry industry and the city. Alishan National Scenic Area is now a conservation area and visitors flock to the nature reserve to hike and relax.
NORTH GATE STATION (BEIMEN) 北門站
After a short walk from Chiayi train station, you will find the historic North Gate Station. Constructed in traditional Japanese style using mainly materials from cypress trees, the station was a prominent centre during the logging era. Businesses related to the trade grew around the busy station. Today, the station has been carefully restored. As you step into the station’s waiting room, you can almost imagine the hustle and bustle during the prime of the forestry trade.
ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY GARAGE PARK 阿里山森林鐵路車庫園區
This is a large outdoor railway model museum for train aficionados. The park showcases an extensive collection of decommissioned trains, locomotive facilities, and equipment that transport you back to the time when trains zipped in and out of the city.
HINOKI VILLAGE 檜意森活村
“Hinoki” means cypress in Japanese and red cypress trees from Alishan were precious resources fuelling the growth of Chiayi. Hinoki Village was formerly a residential area with Japanese style dormitories for the people who worked in the forestry industry. The construction of the area began in 1914 and continued for about 30 years where wood from Alishan was used as the main building material. The restored village is now a cultural and creative park infused with elements of forestry culture and local design and creativity. Strolling through the village, you can immerse in cross-cultural interactions between Taiwan and Japan, which are still very much observable today.
CHIAYI CULTURAL AND CREATIVE INDUSTRIES PARK 嘉義文化創意產業園區
Known also as the G9 Creative Park, this vintage complex was the first Chiayi distillery opened by the Japanese government to produce sake and other products. After the war, the building was converted to make kaoliang liquor. Today, the park is a fascinating mix of historic structures like a towering chimney, wine storage barrels, retro machines, and contemporary elements like shops and arts installations. I spent more time than I expected admiring and taking photos of the architecture and its surroundings. Check out the G9 Creative Park website before your visit to see if they are hosting any new exhibitions and events.
CHIAYI ART MUSEUM 嘉義市立美術館
During the first Fine Arts Exhibition of the Government-General of Taiwan in 1938, 20% of selected works were created by artists from Chiayi. Since then, the city is bestowed the title of “City of Paintings.” Works by renowned Chiayi artists like Chen Cheng-po and Lin Yushan are displayed in Chiayi Art Museum. The museum is divided into two areas where the historical building is the former Chiayi branch of the Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau, and the main building is an amalgamation of history and modernity.
The museum also houses a temporary limited branch of the Eslite bookstore. Don’t leave the museum without treating yourself to coffee at J11 Cafe 昭和J11咖啡館, which is named after the year the original building was built in 1936, 11th year of the Showa area. This cosy café brews artisanal coffee and serves hand-made desserts.
MUSEUM OF ANCIENT TAIWAN TILES 台灣花磚博物館
A timber house built during the Japanese colonial period, Museum of Ancient Taiwan Tiles is one of the rare places showcasing tiles from Taiwan. The founder James Hsu and tile enthusiasts established the museum in 2015 and have been devoting their time and efforts to share the history of Taiwanese tiles, preserve the heritage, and facilitate cultural exchanges. Spend time getting lost in the colorful maze of tiles and bring home a tile memento! Check out the Museum of Ancient Taiwan Tiles website for their latest exhibitions and activities!
CHIAYI MUNICIPAL MUSEUM 嘉义市立博物馆
Established as a cultural public space, Chiayi Municipal Museum aims to bring the Chiayi community together with exhibitions focusing on Chiayi’s arts and heritage and public workshops. The museum is currently running an exhibition about the Kano Baseball team till 31 August, 2022.
CHIAYI OLD PRISON 嘉義舊監獄
One of the oldest and most well-preserved prison buildings in Taiwan, Chiayi Old Prison has witnessed the ebb and flow of Chiayi since 1919. Designated as a National Historical Site, the prison has been restored purposefully into the Prison Museum. Learn about Chiayi’s history and the evolution of Taiwan’s prison system as you walk through structures built by early methods and resources.
EVERYTHING ABOUT KANO: KANO PARK AND CENTRAL FOUNTAIN 中央噴水池
The close ties between Chiayi and Japan are reflected in the heart-warming true story of Kano. What is Kano? Kano is the nickname of Chiayi School of Agriculture and Forestry Vocational High School during the Japanese colonial period. Kano’s underdog high school baseball team shocked everyone and surpassed all expectations when they almost won the 1931 Koshien, the prestigious National High School Baseball Championship in Japan. The legendary team consisted of Taiwanese, Japanese, and aboriginal players and their determination and teamwork have inspired the community that the locals have called it the “Kano spirit”.
Their achievement is commemorated in various parts of the city. Spot the gigantic baseball monument in Kano Park and the revolving life-size sculpture of Wu Ming Chieh, the respected pitcher of the Kano team, in the Central Fountain. The victorious team made a stop at the Central Foundation during their triumphant parade when they returned from Koshien.
FOR NATURE ENTHUSIASTS
CHIAYI PARK 嘉義公園
Situated away from the city centre, the tranquil park has been a recreation space for the locals since the Japanese colonial times. Stroll through the park and look for some landmarks like the 62-metre Sun-Shooting Tower with designs inspired by Alishan’s sacred trees, the ruins of Kaji Shrine, Chiayi City Historical Relic Museum, and Chiayi Confucius Temple.
CHIAYI BOTANICAL GARDEN 嘉義植物園
Just a stone’s throw from Chiayi Park, the garden is home to over 100 species of plants and flowers. The Forestry Testing Lab in the garden focuses on research of tropical and subtropical ecology due to Chiayi’s strategic location on the Tropic of Cancer.
WHAT TO EAT IN CHIAYI
TURKEY RICE 雞肉飯
Turkey rice is the representative dish of Chiayi. While you can find chicken rice all around Taiwan, Chiayi is the only place to taste the best (don’t ever argue with a local about this). This legendary bowl of rice is crowned with succulent turkey slices and drizzled with juicy stock and fried scallions. Every local has a favourite turkey rice stall and enjoys the dish at any time of the day. Check out Outsider in Chiayi’s comprehensive guide to turkey rice (in Chinese) to fill your stomach with carbo-protein-goodness!
FISH HEAD STEW 沙鍋魚頭
The soul food of Chiayi is a hearty bowl of fish head stew. The most popular restaurant serving this unique dish is Smart Fish 林聰明沙鍋魚頭 since 1953. After it was featured in Netflix’s Street Food: Asia, the restaurant propelled to international fame and has been busy with expanding their outlets and creating new products like pre-packaged fish head stew for home-cooking and their special Smart Fish shacha sauce 聰明沙茶醬. Dining at Smart Fish is an unforgettable culinary experience as their stew is densely flavorful and packed with fresh fish meat and a dazzling variety of vegetables.
COLD NOODLES 涼麵
While cold noodles can be found easily in Taiwan, Chiayi-style cold noodles are in a special “noodle class of their own” as the noodles are served with white vinegar mayonnaise on top of the usual sesame paste. I have not tried this before and just looking at the photos in Outsider in Chiayi’s guide to Chiayi cold noodles (in Chinese), I can’t help but salivate!
BEAN CURD 豆花
A widely available snack, bean curd is enjoyed as a warm or cold dessert all seasons in Taiwan. Unlike bean curd from most parts of Taiwan, Chiayi’s bean curd is accompanied with soy milk instead of sweet syrup. This is similar to the way we enjoy bean curd in Singapore too!
CHIAYI EAST MARKET 東市場
Considered one of the oldest traditional markets in Chiayi, this place has been the locals’ favourite food hunt since the Japanese colonial period. Unfortunately, I didn’t visit this culinary mecca and just learnt about it from Outsider in Chiayi. The market is like Chiayi’s communal kitchen where there are many local stores that have been selling traditional dishes for generations (like handmade meat rolls in the picture).
WENHUA NIGHT MARKET 文化路夜市
The buzzling night market on Wenhua Road is a culinary pitstop with lines of stores serving classic Chiayi delicacies. Like most night markets in Taiwan, you will be entertained by shops and non-stop action (eating or drinking or shopping) here.
HANDMADE EGG ROLLS 手工蛋捲
There is one thing that people always buy before leaving Chiayi – handmade egg rolls from Fu Yi Shan 福義軒. This well-loved brand has been making biscuits and snacks since 1951. They use traditional methods to make their famed egg rolls, which are so fluffy, flavorful, and too addictive. Their best sellers include the homemade egg rolls and pepper crackers. Their products are so popular that there’s a buying limit. If you have no time to queue for the biscuits, you can try your luck with “enterprising” buyers who sell the biscuits at higher prices near the official shops.
SQUARE COOKIES 方塊酥
Square cookies are a Chiayi’s delicacy and I had wondered why until I tried the En Dian square cookies 恩典方塊酥. Since 1945, this local institution has been using special techniques to create their exquisite square cookies that boost 243 layers of crispy deliciousness. I had a very difficult time stopping myself from eating piece after piece. The famed cookies come in different flavours like original, honey, chocolate, and even seaweed. The square cookies are perfect as souvenirs as they are packaged elegantly.
VENTURE BEYOND CHIAYI CITY
SOUTHWEST COAST NATIONAL SCENIC AREA
The Southwest Coast National Scenic Area covers parts of Yunlin County, Chiayi County, and Tainan City. The scenic area lies in the Chianan Plain and stretches across 8 administrative areas of Sihu and Hukou in Yunlin, Dongshi and Budai in Chiayi, and Beimen, Jiangjun, Qigu, and Annan in Tainan. Find out more about Southwest Coast National Scenic Area here.
The scenic area is the “homeland of farming and fishing” as there is one of the first places where early Chinese landed after crossing the Taiwan Strait and many settled down to build their lives with the rich natural resources provided by the ocean and rivers.
The area is also known for its salt production because of its climate and proximity to the ocean and you can see salt fields like the Budai Salt Fields. The area used to be a thriving salt-making community with many manufacturing bases. While the days of large scale production of salt are over, you can visit to see the salt mountain.
HAOMEILI VILLAGE 好美里 | 好美船屋
As the scenic area is expansive, this guide will introduce the Haomeili Village in Chiayi County’s Budai Township. Haomeili Village is the perfect place for an outdoor excursion to enjoy the best of nature and local community life. You can take the Taiwan tourism shuttle bus 台灣好行 or drive to the village.
It is the first village in Taiwan with an outdoor Gallery of the Southwest that shows the beauty of the sea world through 3D paintings.
The fishing village has a close relationship with the ocean and you can purchase and eat fresh seafood in Haomei Boathouse 好美船屋, also called the Land of Beauty Fishery and Farm Goods 好美農漁產. You can have a seafood feast here! They sell fresh clams, mussels, crabs, and seasonal fish.
Haomei Boathouse 好美船屋 organizes eco-friendly activities where visitors can experience nature and understand how everyone can play a part toprotect the environment. Some activities include experiential sessions where you can enter the fish farm, touch the clams, and learn how to cook fresh clams. You can also sign up for fishing tours, rafting activities, and even crafts workshops. Find out more from Haomei Boathouse 好美船屋!
HAOMEILIAO NATURE RESERVE 好美寮溼地
A must-visit place in Haomei Village is the Haomeiliao Nature Reserve 好美寮溼地. Situated at the western end of Chiayi County, the nature preserve is a sanctuary for ecological land forms like offshore sandbar, lagoon, coastal windbreak forests, and mangrove forests. The area boasts diverse biodiversity and marine life flourish here. It is a wonderful spot to observe wildlife and even for birdwatching.
WATCH THE SPECIAL TRAVEL VIDEO!
This article is a supplement to the virtual travel session “Insider’s Guide to Chiayi’s Cultural and Culinary Secrets” organized by Taiwan Tourism Bureau, Singapore. It is a special collaboration between whywendywrites, Joanna Sun (Outsider in Chiayi), Grace Lin (Smart Fish), Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, and Cheng Yiwen (Haomei Boathouse 好美船屋). Watch the video here!
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