A walking tour of a major metropolis might not seem to be the most convenient, enjoyable or safest way to sightsee while touring Taiwan. But life moves slowly in Tainan and exploring the historic city on foot is fun, especially for those with a whim for history or ancient and colorful Chinese architecture.
The nation's first official capital from between 1663 and 1885, Tainan is one of the few places in the country where history has been spared the wrecking ball and much of its long and colorful past can still be seen today. Walking is the most convenient way of seeing the 200 temples and countless Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) structures that help make up Taiwan's history.
The ideal place to begin a tour of Tainan is in the Anping District (安平區), where Koxinga (鄭成功) landed in Taiwan nearly 400 years ago and drove out the Dutch. Little remains of the original Anping Fort (安平古堡), which was destroyed by a typhoon in the 1800s, but several of the original Ming Dynasty red-brick walls, now strewn with the gnarled roots of banyan trees, offer vestiges of years gone by.
For a less tourist-oriented glimpse of Tainan's early days visitors need only walk out of the fort's main gate and enter anyone of the numerous adjoining alleyways. Here, countless buildings dating back several hundred years sit as they have for generations. Many of the structures are in ruins, but even so they give visitors an insight into construction methods and materials used during the Ming and Qing periods.
Touring the city itself is hassle free, as brown road signs direct visitors to all of the popular tourist attractions. The most prominent of these include the Confucian Temple (孔子廟), which was established in 1665; Chihkan Tower (once dubbed the "Tower of Red-haired Barbarians") built by the Dutch in 1653; the 300-year-old Grand South Gate (大南門); the Five Concubines Temple (五妃廟) which was built in 1683; and the imposing Great Queen of Heaven Temple (大天后宮), which was built in 1665 and served as an imperial residence.
Visitors wanting to seek out tourist-free historical buildings and temples need not look far in Tainan, as numerous narrow alleyways snake their way through the city and it's here that much of the old-worldly charm of Tainan sits hidden away waiting to be discovered.
These alleyways, where time has stood still and life seems to move at a snail's pace, can be found adjacent to nearly all of the city's smaller temples. They might be only a stone's throw from a major thoroughfare, but they are all places where, save for the odd barking dog, visitors can easily forget they are in a metropolis.
One of the most interesting and charming of these areas is Beishih Street (北勢街), which is part of an going project to restore what remains of the city's old western district. The narrow cobble-stoned alley is lined with renovated two-story structures, some of which date back more than 150 years.
Sadly not all of the old buildings in the area have survived, as visitors will discover when they reach the bustling junction of Beishih Street and Haian Road. The shattered outer walls are all that remain of many of the buildings that once lined what is now a major thoroughfare. As if to add insult to injury, many have been transformed into garish works of modern art.