Taipei changes so rapidly that even the most thoroughly researched guidebook will contain serious inaccuracies in a matter of months after publication, and appear hopelessly out of date in a few years.
Compounding this problem was the fact that, until last week, there was not a single English-language guidebook devoted exclusively to Taipei. Travelers and new residents had to get by with the Taipei and Northern Taiwan sections of references by Insight Guides, National Geographic and Lonely Planet Taiwan. Of these, the latter has long been the gold standard. In roughly 200 pages that are relevant as references to the Taipei area, including maps and sections on Taiwanese history and culture, its authors did a journeyman's job of describing the area in a condensed format, with suggestions for most budgets and well-reported sections on topics such as hiking excursions and how to set up a cell phone account.
But Lonely Planet Taiwan also suffered from its share of faults. Foreigners were poorly served by questionable characterizations, such as this statement about Shanghaiese cuisine: "Many Westerners say it's disgusting, tasteless and greasy, but the liberal use of spices can make it almost palatable." Taiwanese objected to photographs they felt made their country appear backward, such as a dated picture of a family of four clinging to a boxy scooter, or unappealing as a travel destination, such as the picture of a bulletin board on the 2001 edition's cover.
Although Lonely Planet published a much improved edition of its Taiwan guidebook last year, there is now a better reference for those whose interest is limited to Taipei and its environs. On sale at Eslite bookstores since last week, the brand new Taipei Insight City Guide combines solid travel advice with exquisite color photography and roughly 20 maps, some of which show lanes where other guidebooks leave white space.
● A Best of Taipei section, which lists top family attractions, the views, most important places of worship, best architecture, famous foods, and unique attractions like Taipei 101.
● A Places section, which provides a run-down of all the attractions and sights deemed worth seeing cross-referenced to full-color maps. A restaurant section at the end of each chapter reviews the area's best places to eat, with full address, prices, ratings and opening hours.
● A street atlas that includes 12 pages of maps with a street index.
The best thing about this book is the way its authors weave a profound understanding of the city's history and culture into descriptions of each item in the book's itinerary. Essays on topics such as people, religion and nightlife were all written by writers who have lived in Taipei for many years. Even long-term residents will learn a thing or two from the historical passages, which do not flinch from recounting the less savory aspects of the city's past.
The result is a must-read for anyone ranging from the casual tourist to long-term residents seeking a deep understanding of their home.
Unfortunately, it must be noted that the one aspect in which Taipei Insight City Guide does not surpass Lonely Planet's book is in the former's complete lack of Chinese characters and tonal markings for their romanization. With this serious defect, the new guidebook nearly removes itself from consideration by visitors looking to navigate the city on a single guidebook.