When people think about unique shopping experiences in Taipei, people often picture the majestic, sky-piercing Taipei 101 skyscraper or the busy shopping district of Ximending. But the dense metropolis of Taipei has many secrets hidden underground.
Wait, I'm not talking about the black market or anything like that, I'm talking about underground malls! Yes, many of Taipei's malls can be accessed through underground entrances and most of these shopping paradises are found at Taipei Main Station, the most important public transit point in the city.
One such mall is Taipei City Mall, a single storey (underground) shopping avenue which runs along (or rather, beneath) the stretch of Civic Boulevard (about a little over 800m).
I don't often put a train station on my trip itinerary, but here are six things you can (and really should) do at Taipei City Mall.
1. Go in search of top quality bargains for anime merchandise
While Taipei City Mall is large (or in this case, long) and offers a number of miscellaneous shops and services including traditional massages, the main draw of the mall can be equally divided into just three categories, one of which is Japanese anime and manga (the other two will be revealed later because it's nice to have a bit of mystery in life).
Anime fans and otakus, take note! A third of Taipei City Mall is fully dedicated to Japanese anime and manga culture. While you can find shops selling anime merchandise throughout the premises, the most concentrated area can be found between the Y15/16 and Y21/22 sections of the mall.
Collectible anime figurines, posters, T-shirts, DVDs, manga…you can find all of these in Taipei City Mall at competitive prices. The key here is to not rush into making a purchase. Look around a little because chances are you'll find a merchant selling the exact same item at a slightly lower price if you're patient enough to visit other shops nearby.
Variety here is impressive to say the least. Personally, I spent close to two hours just trying to go through all the shops and their merchandise before finally making a purchase. Trust me, if you love all things anime, you'll be in for a great time.
2. Visit a maid café
You either love them or you find the idea disturbing. Maid cafés were first…MAID (pun intended)...popular in Japan in the Akihabara District where anime and manga culture thrive. The café is not that different compared to a regular café except for the fact that the servers, mostly female, are usually dressed in French maid costumes and that customers are addressed as 'master' or 'mistress'. Get the idea why some find it a little controversial?
Regardless of your take on the concept, I still recommend visiting one of the two maid cafés in Taipei City Mall. If not for the experience then for the tasty afternoon snacks. Prices don't usually differ too much from a regular coffee house so expect to fork out an average of about 250 TWD (7.71 USD) for food and 180-200 TWD (5.55 USD - 6.17 USD) for drinks.
The cafés are well decorated and actually resemble a cosy home and guests are welcome to take pictures inside the café provided they do not secretly take pictures of the servers. It's not due to any lewd reason but because some servers find it uncomfortable to have their pictures taken without permission. Ask if you wish to take photos and respect the servers' choice to decline.
3. Get your game on at the arcade or with free-to-play consoles
Like any modern shopping complex, Taipei City Mall boasts a dynamic arcade section where most young people in Taipei hang out at after school or during the weekend. You will constantly see individuals or groups queuing up for a go at Dance Dance Revolution or something similar and boy, can they move their feet! Even if you do not plan to participate, the performances put up by the young locals challenging the high score of the dance simulator is sure to keep you mesmerised!
If arcades aren't quite your thing, there are also multiple free-to-play gaming consoles throughout the mall. And that makes up the second main category of the mall: gaming. Playstation 4s and Xbox Ones are openly displayed with active controllers for visitors to utilise while the newest game trailers are constantly being looped on big television screens.
There are also some stores which sell vintage gaming gear such as the original Playstation and classic gameboys! For an avid gamer like myself, it was a conscious effort just to remember to breathe! Also, depending on where you're from, console games in Taiwan are either much cheaper or a little pricier. If you do decide to buy a few games though, make sure to check with the store clerk to see if the games are compatible with your regional system and whether the games are in English or traditional Mandarin.
4. Enjoy live performances by locals
Needless to say, Taipei City Mall is more crowded during the weekends than any other time, and that may be one of the reasons why it's better to visit the mall on a Saturday afternoon. You will find that there are more activities going on during that time.
At both ends of the mall, you will more than likely find local artistes putting on stage performances either for exposure or for a charitable cause. Though they may still be relative amateurs, their performances are top quality and are sure to keep you tuned in.
You will also find local artists (note the difference in spelling!) at some of the open spaces of the mall. These are usually arts students there to earn a little pocket money by drawing caricatures for paying customers. Though I did not get one done myself, I can say that the quality of the sketches are top notch and definitely worth your time! It's also fun to have a little conversation with them during the process.
5. Shop for affordable local souvenirs and wacky T-shirts
Of course, when it comes to buying clothes and fashion accessories, you can't really go wrong with a trip to the Wufenpu District in Taipei. But for those who aren't planning to go there but would still like to get their hands on a wacky and fun souvenir T-shirt from Taiwan, Taipei City Mall is the answer.
Although much more limited in choice compared to the main shopping districts, there is an array of souvenirs and T-shirts to choose from at Taipei City Mall, all of which come at reasonable prices. There are graphic T-shirts such as the typical 'I Heart Taiwan' designs and some less orthodox ones. There are also cute socks and scarves available.
You will also find trinkets such as necklaces and other miscellaneous souvenirs to choose from. Not a bad option when you're about to leave Taipei and realise that you haven't had a chance to get souvenirs for the folks back home yet! Last minute shopping, anyone?
6. Fill your tummy with delicious local delights
Like any mall worth its salt (another bad pun intended), there is a food street in Taipei City Mall. That is the last of the three main categories. You won't find any McDonald's or other fast food outlets here though. No, what you'll find is authentic, Taiwanese cuisine served in a manner which the locals themselves are familiar with.
You can find all sorts of Taiwanese cuisine here, including braised pork rice, beef ramen, bubble tea, shaved ice and much more. And due to the large Indonesian community residing in Taipei, you will also find a small subsection dedicated to mouth-watering Indonesian cuisine!
The food here is reasonably priced and tasty right down to the very last bite! A personal recommendation is Xuan Ji (look for a red sign with a bowl of beef ramen on it) which serves good food and offers amazing service. A must try dish is their signature fried pork (or chicken) chop which is crunchy on the outside and juicily tender on the inside.
A nice place to spend a few hours
All in all, Taipei City Mall, while lacking the majestic appeal of other shopping complexes, is certainly a nice place where you can easily spend a couple of hours at while waiting for your next transit (it takes only 10 minutes to get from the mall to the main platforms). Do note however that the mall only opens at 11 a.m. and ceases operations at 9.30 p.m.
There are two ways to get to the mall. If you're arriving by train (any sort of train, they all make a stop here) to Taipei, just look for the sign which says Taipei City Mall and follow that religiously. Otherwise, just enter Taipei Main Station through any of the 'Y' entrances on Civic Boulevard and you're there.
So what are you waiting for? If you find yourself in Taipei with a couple of hours to spare, definitely head on down to Taipei City Mall! Just make sure you don't miss your train!