Naturally, Thomas and Abby were keen to show me the one in Tainan, which is reported to be the biggest outside of Taipei, so how could I refuse?
Legend has it that Matsu raised the seawater to great heights so that the Chinese military ruler, Zheng Chenggong, could land in Taiwan with ease and successfully drive out the Dutch. The temple marks the exact spot where this all happened, thus marking the making of modern Taiwan.
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Here are the things to do in Tainan to see it differently – a historical city granted little attention, despite being the oldest city in Taiwan.

Things to Do in Tainan – Historical Highlights

The Luerman Matsu Temple

Tainan City Council History Museum.

Night markets are like entering a whole new world on so many levels, and no matter how many you visit, the experience always feels new.

Former Tait & Co Merchant House in Tainan.
Modern Tainan City.

Tainan is the oldest city and the first capital of Taiwan. Except you wouldn’t know it. Its modern, urban spaces merge with subtle traditional structures. An arrangement of sites that places it mostly off-radar. It’s a wonderful sightseeing ground for the hardened traveller who loves to historically and culturally dig a little deeper.

Xishe Xilong Temple in Tainan.

Anping District and Old Town

This was the day I learned about an important figure in Taiwanese religious culture called Matsu, also known as the ‘Goddess of the Sea’ or ‘Sea Mother’. It was following a visit to the Luerman Matsu Temple, which houses a bold, black 800-year-old statue of this principal deity. The temple is in a village in Tainan’s Annan District, which has great historical meaning for the Taiwanese.
One interesting thing I learnt was that it’s OK to drop litter on the ground within the market. When Abby told me to do so, I looked at her in shock. Apparently, there are plenty of people given the job of cleaning everything up – a liberating experience considering that dropping litter is a huge cultural fail in the west.

I was told to look out for a specific, easy to miss street that was connected to one of the main streets called Yanping. And I’m glad I didn’t miss it, for this narrow alley led me down a little maze of traditional houses, where local people would welcome your curiosity with a gentle smile.  All around the town you will find a whole host of old streets  – quiet, tucked away havens with a mish-mash of crumbling brick lanes, hutong style settlements, street food stalls and even fairground-style games. One of the best things to do in Tainan is to enjoy the atmosphere of the Night Market.

Nature reclaiming and old warehouse of the Former Tait & Co Merchant House.
Tainan Night Market BBQ.

Another great way to see the area is to seek out the ‘Sword-Lion’ heads scattered around. With over 30 left in the town, you will find many on outer residential walls and above the door frames.
Thomas and Abby run At Home – a modern apartment with three rooms located within a residential area not far from Tainan’s railway station.  It was a wedding gift from their parents. Instead of living there, they chose to stay with their family, as is tradition, and utilise their love of travel and knowledge of the area by running a guesthouse to help others enjoy and learn about this historical city.
Originally a primary Dutch colony, which later became Taiwan’s first Chinese supervised capital after their defeat, there is a real mixture of architecture, colour and atmosphere, which changes as you wander through the juxtaposition of historical sites and modern industrial hubs. With a trusty map, I was able to seek out grand colonial-style buildings, ancient temples, relics and winding alleyways brimming with old structures peeking among the new. It may not be blindingly obvious at first sight, but it’s there to find. Still, tradition is proudly presented and shouted about here. As someone who is always drawn to secret passageways and narrow streets that lead to pockets of local life or traditional treasures, Anping is perfect for wandering and getting to engage in local life. 
Tainan is a treasure trove of history combined with the comfort of modern amenities. Easy to reach by the standard and high-speed (HSR) rail system, it’s a great area of the country to get to grips with the traditional folk culture, which still plays a big part in today’s society, as well as see old Taiwan in its natural state. I wasn’t expecting anything remotely different to some of the magnificence I had already seen during my 15 months of various temple hopping. Yet, Abby and Thomas were right – the Luermen Matsu Temple was beautifully dominating, intricate in design and detail and possibly one of the most magnificent Chinese-style temples I have ever seen.

As a result, my short time in Tainan was skillfully planned and executed with precision, thanks to the kindness of these two local people. Knowledge I can pass on to you to make the most out of your trip here. 
The oldest city in Taiwan, yet in parts hard to tell, Tainan City grows on you despite the landscape not being as ancient-looking as one might expect, interspersed with modern stores and coffee houses. 

I detest shopping but love the buzzing, chaotic atmosphere of night markets – an ancient Chinese tradition. We ate sweet potato cake and ice cream, rather than stinky tofu and intestines, and bartered for Hello Kitty phone covers, laptop cases and clothes.
The site of the original Dutch settlement, Anping’s main attractions are the reconstructed Old Fort, the harbour front and the adjacent Matsu temple, alongside the Anping Tree House – where an enormous Banyan tree has wiggled and weaved itself in a strangling hold across a huge chunk of the former Tait & Co Merchant House.

See Tainan City

Tainan’s Confucius Temple.

This article is a personal thank you to Thomas and Amy, who I can’t wait to see again when I return to Taiwan.
Fort Zeelandia Museum, Anping.

The top spots here include the Confucious Temple, the Chihkan Towers fort, the Matsu temples and… more temples! There are various official-looking buildings and a school in colonial architectural design also.

One of the more quirky things to do in Tainan is to see the Anping Tree House.

Anping Matsu Temple, Tainan.
Check At Home’s availability 

Anping is a district of Taiwan on a cluster of small islands and harbour peninsulas west of the city centre. 
Abby recently told me that she and Thomas are now training to become licensed tour guides – a skill they have in their possession naturally. If you are looking for a homestay experience combined with the convenience of local expertise and one-on-one guidance, I couldn’t recommend these incredibly welcoming and selfless people more. 

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Things to Do in Tainan – See Taiwan’s Oldest City Differently.

Tainan Night Market

The Taiwanese proudly boost about their night markets – a sensory overload you MUST experience. They are everywhere, in almost every key town and city and a place where you eat, drink, play and socialize, not just shop.

Just as we were leaving we heard a stir in the air and a rumbling commotion of activity, which was the start of a traditional folk ceremony – a core religious performance that I was very lucky to have stumbled upon. It appeared to be the ‘welcoming back’ ceremony, where Sea Mother’s ‘Deputy Gods’ pilgrimage to the temple so that her power is recharged.  Not only were we watching a show of the Gods, but also the rituals of The Eight Generals’ or the ‘protectors’ of the Gods (known by the distinct face paint), who clear the road of evil spirits as they travel towards the temple. I’ve never seen a temple ceremony so extravagant and elaborate.

Why You Should Visit Tainan and Live Locally

However, what to do in Taiwan was best expressed through local guidance. Where modern-day Taiwan springs into life, the spread-out canvas of Tainan can be difficult to grasp at first and may require a little planning. I was lucky enough to be living with a local couple who set me on my way armed with enough information, maps and handy tips to enjoy the area.

Booking a Tainan Homestay

Tainan Wude Hall – the former Old Martial Arts Hall.

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