Tamsui. I first visited this part of Taiwan 10 years ago, and I still vaguely remember the fun time I had with my family. Who would have guessed that exactly 10 years later I would be back again, to explore more of what this northern Taiwan city has to offer?
The town of Tamsui (淡水) is located in the northern tip of Taiwan, along its northern coast near where the Tamsui River flows into the Taiwan Strait. It’s official English name is Tamsui (pronounced in the Taiwanese dialect), but in Mandarin is called Danshui. Due to its colonial past from the Spanish, Dutch and English from as early as the 17th century, the city is rich in culture and architectural beauty — and there is much to see and learn. So here’s sharing with with you my top 10 list of what to do, see and eat when you visit this charming old port city.
1. Tamsui Old Street (淡水老街)
The Tamsui Old Street (淡水老街) is located along the Tamsui River — and runs from the north part of the Danshui MRT Station to the end of the Ferry Pier. The main Zhongzheng Rd and its side streets are filled with a wide variety of shops, restaurants, cafes and stalls selling snacks and ‘small-eats’; and they open from early morning till late at night. We arrived in Tamsui via MRT at about 10am and were immediately in the midst of all the old street’s hustle and bustle. It was really fun walking around and browsing through the shops, looking for some of the popular local delicacies (which I’ve highlighted in the points below), and visiting the 18th century Fuyou Temple (福佑宫) dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu (媽祖).
2. Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭)
The best time to visit Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭) is at dusk, where you get to see the sun setting over the Tamsui River and the Taiwan Strait. From our location near the Tamsui Old Street, we took a bus ride over to the western tip of the Tamsui district. The two biggest attractions at the wharf are the wooden boardwalk that passes the river on one side, and the boat/yacht wharf on the other; as well as the beautiful Lover’s Bridge (情人橋). The white 196m-long bridge was completed in 2003 and opened on Valentines’ Day — thus its name. Despite the crowds, it was surreal walking along the boardwalk towards the Lover’s Bridge accompanied by the gorgeous warm hues of the evening sky. And then come night, the bridge lights up in a variety of colors for a totally different view of the Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf.
3. Tamsui Ferry Pier (淡水渡船碼頭)
If you’re looking for another alternative to get to Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf, you can take the ferry that leaves from the Tamsui Ferry Pier (淡水渡船碼頭) near the Tamsui Old Street. For only NT$60 (US$2) for the one way 15-minute cruise, you’d get to experience sailing along the river with a view of Tamsui from the waters. The ferry also heads to the town of Bali (八里), on the other side of the Tamsui River. We opted not to take the cruise as we wanted to explore a little more around the Old Street; so we spent some time just walking along the ferry pier, enjoying the river breeze and browsing through the stalls that line the waterfront. I ended up playing a round of ‘pop the balloons with darts’, and was so tempted to buy one of those popular sky-high ice-creams (but it was too cold so I didn’t).
4. Aletheia University (真理大學)
Aletheia University (真理大學) is a private university in Tamsui. Originally founded as Oxford College (牛津学院, not named after the prestigious Oxford University in England, but after its contributors from Oxford, Ontario in Canada) in 1882 — the college is said to be Taiwan’s oldest institution of higher learning. Since then, the grounds of the college has expanded significantly and renamed Aletheia University in 1999. The original Oxford College building is open to the public, and houses old photographs of its founder, Dr George Leslie Mackay and his family; as well as pictures and memorabilia from the college’s past. Entry is free, and we also spent some time roaming about the university area and its very pretty garden.
5. Fort San Domingo (紅毛城)
Tamsui’s Fort San Domingo is a historical monument with a colorful history — having stood the test of time and numerous changes of foreign control. Built and named by the Spanish in 1628, it was destroyed when the Dutch took over in 1644. They built another fort on the same site and named it Fort Antonio — but the locals nicknamed it “Red-Haired Fort” (紅毛城 hong mao cheng) after the ‘red-haired’ Dutch, and its Chinese name stuck till this day. It later served as a British consulate (and painted red) in 1868, and also used by the Chinese, Japanese, Australians and Americans for a while — before finally returned to Taiwan and made a National Historic Site. The fort is on a top of a small hill; and you can enter the fortress (which is the oldest building in Tamsui), as well as the former British consul’s residence to see its olden British interior decorations. Entrance cost NT$80 (US$2.5) and includes entry to Hobe Fort and the Customs Officer’s Residence nearby.
6. Tamsui Customs Wharf (淡水古蹟群)
The Tamsui Customs Wharf (淡水古蹟群) is located along the riverside just downhill from the Fort San Domingo. The 150m-long wharf served as an important port during the 19th century — it was built by the Qing Dynasty of China, but used by the British who established their boathouse and controlled the customs administration at the pier. The wharf was constructed using stones from the Guanyin Mountain; and the two-storey western house and two warehouses still stand today. During our visit, there was an exhibition on the “1884 Battle of Tamsui” at both the warehouses. So we visited the exhibition, dropped by the old western house, strolled along the wharf, and even sat and watched some local ladies paint the beautiful view overlooking the Tamsui River and the Guanyin Mountain in the distance.
7. A-Gei (阿給)
A-Gei (阿給) is a specialty food that originates from Tamsui; and is made of a fried bean curd emptied at its center, stuffed with glass noodles cooked with ground pork, sealed with a meat mixture, and then steamed and served with a soy-based hot sauce. We had our taste of A-gei at the Original A-Gei Store (老店阿給), located at a corner of the Tamsui Old Street facing the Ferry Pier. We arrived just as it opened, so the workers were still busy preparing the A-gei — and we got to watch them stuff the tofu with glass noodles like clockwork. There were not many people yet (it started to fill up when we were leaving), so we easily found a seat, placed our orders and paid up on the spot (every dish cost NT$40~US$1.3), and were then served our A-Gei and a bowl of fish ball soup. I added some sweet chilli sauce into my A-Gei for some extra spice, and I have to say I loved the dish as it reminded me of the delicious Yong Tau Foo from home. I slurped up every bit!
8. Tamsui Castella Cake (緣味古早味現烤蛋糕)
Castella Cakes were extremely popular in Malaysia a couple of years back — and when it first came, people would line up for hours just to get a taste of it (I didn’t try it then). And… Tamsui is where the craze first began. So when I visited Tamsui, I knew I had to get my hands on a Castella cake. Here, the Castella cakes are baked as a huge giant cake (with the option of cheese), and then measured and cut into loafs in front of the store with flourish! This attracts the crowd, who comes in droves — and a cake costs about NT$80~US$2.5 (and NT$100~US$3 with cheese or meat floss). I got my taste at the hugely popular (and apparently where it first began) 古早味現烤蛋糕 — there’s no English name, but when translated it means the ‘old-fashioned freshly baked cake’. I would say its just a regular sponge cake, made more delicious with the milky taste, bouncy texture, and that added cheese — and definitely worth a try.
9. Iron Eggs (铁蛋)
Iron Eggs (鐵蛋) are a specialty snack from Tamsui. They are usually sold in vacuum-packed packets and consists of small eggs (either quail or chicken) that have been stewed in a mix of herbs and spices and then pickled. The eggs are black in color and have a flavourful chewy texture. It is said that the eggs were created as a snack for the dock hands in this port town during the olden days — and the original recipe is sold under the brand of Grandma’s Iron Eggs (阿婆鐵蛋 a-po tie dan). A pack at the original shop along the main road in Tamsui Old Street costs NT$100 (US$3), and they make good local souvenirs to bring home. Along the street there are also many other shops selling Iron Eggs in different brands — and you can find them in a variety of flavours like green tea, garlic or spicy.
10. Learn about Dr George Leslie Mackay
Dr George Leslie Mackay is a Canadian Presbyterian missionary that was sent on a mission to Taiwan in 1872. He brought many changes to the town of Tamsui, married a local woman and made the town his home until his death in 1901. Walking about Tamsui, we came across many of the buildings that were established by Dr Mackay. He started the Tamsui Presbyterian Church (淡水禮拜堂); that stands next to Taiwan’s first western hospital, Hobe Mackay Hospital (滬尾偕醫館) — which he also founded. Both were closed during our visit. He also established the old Oxford College (牛津学院) that is now a museum within the Aletheia University (真理大學) grounds. There are also many statues of him around Tamsui — we came across the one along Tamsui Street. His legacy has left an impact on Taiwan, and lives on in Tamsui.