Chiayi (嘉義 or Jiayi) is a city and county that multitudes of travelers pass through on the way to Alishan (Ali Mountain), Taiwan’s most poplar high mountain resort. Alishan is in Chiayi county, but right on the border with Nantou county, and with sunrise views facing Yushan, Taiwan’s tallest mountain.
But there is much more to Chiayi than Alishan, if you’re willing to spend the time. Chiayi’s tea farms produce Taiwan’s most famous teas. You can hike through the tea fields on extremely scenic trails or even spend the night on a tea farm. Meanwhile, Chiayi city’s street food is so good that that the Netflix series Street Food: Asia did a whole episode on Chiayi. Last but not least, the newer Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum is in Chiayi!
I have a personal connection to Chiayi, as it is my wife’s family’s hometown. Every Lunar New Year, we join the masses of Taiwanese people “going down” (下去) for the holiday. There, we stay in a traditional three-sided courtyard home, in a tiny village surrounded by flooded seaside plains which produce the country’s best oysters.
I’ll tell you more about my experiences staying in the Chiayi countryside below, and the many other things this incredibly rewarding city & county has to offer!
Traditionally home to the Hoanya aboriginal tribe, Chiayi was later on the edge of Tainan, the original capital city of Taiwan. It was ruled by the Dutch, and then it was part of Koxinga’s Tungning Kingdom, after he kicked the Europeans out.
The Japanese also left their mark when they colonized Taiwan, with numerous Japanese buildings and relics still standing in Chiayi. The Japanese built the small-gauge train line to Alishan to transport Hinoki (cypress) logs from the high mountains down to Chiayi city.
After the Japanese left Taiwan, farmers in the mountains of Chiayi began growing oolong tea and found the conditions ideal. This tea, which came to be known as Alishan High Mountain Tea, remains Taiwan’s most famous and desired tea.
Today, most people visit Alishan by riding the Alishan Forest Railway up from Chiayi city. But ever since Typhoon Morakot destroyed the upper section of the railway line in 2009, passengers can only ride the train halfway up, then transfer to a bus to reach Alishan.
Visitors looking for a deeper experience usually add a night in Fenqihu, a cute mountain village surrounded by bamboo forests, or on a tea farm in Xiding or Shizhuo, on their way to Alishan.
On the coast of Chiayi, ferries depart from Budai to the Penghu archipelago, some of the best islands in Taiwan, though I personally recommend flying to Penghu instead.
Getting to Chiayi
Taking the TRC (regular train) or HSR (High Speed Rail) are the two most common ways to enter Chiayi. Which one you choose depends on a few factors, especially if you’re transferring to Alishan.
By TRC (Regular Train)
TRC (formerly TRA) trains are a slower (and cheaper) way to reach Chiayi, but there’s a plus. The Chiayi TRA Station is in the center of Chiayi city. The Alishan Forest Railway departs from this station, so if you’re planning to ride it to Alishan, you have to go to this station anyway. Click here to understand the various options for purchasing train tickets.
Even if you’re planning to take the bus to Alishan, which is faster and cheaper than the Alishan Forest Railway, there are more bus departures every day from Chiayi TRA station than from the HSR station. See the Alishan bus times here and how to book the Alishan bus online.
If you’re coming to Chiayi from a nearby city like Tainan, Kaohsiung, or maybe even Taichung, it makes sense to just take the TRA. Most of the time that you’d save by taking the HSR is lost getting to the HSR station, which is outside of the city center in all these cities.
By HSR (High Speed Rail)
HSR trains to Chiayi are twice as fast but also at least twice the price. Another consideration is that the Chiayi HSR station is outside of the Chiayi city center and all other cities in Taiwan (except Taipei). See my guide to booking HSR tickets here.
Yes, there are also buses from Chiayi HSR station to Alishan, but only four per day, much less than from the TRA station. Make sure to check the times before you go.
But if you want to ride the Alishan Forest Railway to Alishan, that means you’ll have to transfer from the HSR station to the TRA station in Chiayi. Expect a 20-minute taxi ride or take the shuttle (free if you show an HSR ticket from that day).
Coming from Taipei to Chiayi, I personally always choose the HSR. It only takes about 1.5 hours, while regular trains take anywhere from 2.5 to 5 hours (see my Taipei city guide).
Book your HSR tickets up to 28 days in advance for an early bird discount on the official site, or book them on Klook to get a 20% discount.
There are also comfy buses from all major cities on the west coast to Chiayi, and their traveling time is similar to slower trains. Try here for bus tickets.
If you’re traveling between Sun Moon Lake in Nantou to Alishan in Chiayi, there is one bus per day in each direction. The minibus departs from here in Shuishe village on Sun Moon Lake at 8 AM, arriving at Alishan here at 11 AM.
Going the other way, the bus departs Alishan at 1 PM and arrives at Sun Moon lake at 4 PM. You can swipe EasyCard to board the bus – reservations are not possible. Go there a little early to get in line.
Where to Stay in Chiayi
Here are my recommendations for best hotels in Chiayi City, on the way to Alishan, and in Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
There are two reasons you might spend the night in Chiayi City. One is to explore the sights I’ll describe below (though I personally feel these are only worth a few hours). The other is if you’re arriving there late in the day and want to catch a train or bus to Alishan the next morning.
For a cheap but good enough hotel for a quick overnight stay, I’ve stayed at Chiayi King Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) by Chiayi train station. A nicer option and good for families is Mega Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda).
On the Way to Alishan
if you spend a night in Xiding for the famous Eryanping and Tea Mist sunrise trails (see more info below), I recommend SunSweet Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) or Bao Chi B&B (see on Booking / Agoda) – both have amazing views from the rooms.
If you’re interested in tea, I highly recommend staying on a tea farm guesthouse in Shizhao. I had a great stay at Cuiti B&B (see on Booking / Agoda). It’s a long way up the mountain from the highway, but they offer pick up service from Shizhao bus stop or Fenqihu train station.
Another tea farm accommodation I visited, which was very beautiful, is Longyun Leisure Farm (see on Booking / Agoda). It is even further up the mountain. If you want to stay close to the highway and bus stop, Alishan Hinoki B&B (see on Booking / Agoda) and Green Incense Homestay (see on Booking / Agoda) are both run by tea farms as well.
Another option on the way to Alishan is to spend the night in Fenqihu, the small village where most people transfer from the Alishan Forest Railway to the bus for reaching Alishan. Fenqihu Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) is where I’ve stayed – it’s a classic local hotel that also sells the town’s famous lunchboxes.
Alishan National Forest Recreation Area
In Alishan, the hotel options are limited and frequently sold out, so make sure to book early (but also keep in mind that some hotels there don’t release their rooms until about three months before). Cherry blossom season (March to April) is especially busy.
In Alishan tourist village, all the hotels are located on the same street behind the main parking lot and Visitor’s Center. They are all old and overpriced, but Shermuh (see on Booking / Agoda) stands out because they recently renovated and offer free pickup from the bus station.
Alishan House (see on Booking / Agoda) and Alishan Gou Hotel (see on Klook / Agoda) are located deeper in the park near Chaoping train station and the main hiking trails. They have more natural surroundings but are further from the amenities in the tourist village. They have restaurants and offer pick-up.
Top Things to Do in Chiayi
For the best places to visit in Chiayi, I’ve organized the sights into sections on Chiayi City, On the Way to Alishan, Alishan National Scenic Area, and the Coastal Plains.
While most people simply pass through Chiayi City to get to Alishan, there are a handful of sights you might want to consider visiting in the city center.
Hinoki Village (檜意森活村) is the city’s top draw. It is an impressive collection of around two dozen well-preserved Japanese-era buildings. It’s free to enter but there are lots of opportunities to spend money on snacks and souvenirs inside. It’s a 20-minute walk from Chiayi Station.
If that’s not enough old Japanese architecture for you, Chiayi Old Prison (嘉義舊監獄) nearby is another Japanese remnant. You can enter and explore the original prison cells inside. Entrance is also free.
Near Hinoki Village, you can see several original Alishan train cars at Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park (阿里山森林鐵路車庫園區). There are tons of photo ops of various types of retired trains here – even the toilets are on old Alishan trains!
Five minutes away, Song of the Forest (森林之歌), a large-scale artwork made from old railway tiles.
Between Alishan Station and Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park, the Taiwan Museum of Tiles (臺灣花磚博物館) has an impressive collection of traditional Taiwanese tiles.
Last but not least, the large Chiayi Park contains several historical relics, a playground, fountains, a Confucius Temple, and the impressive Sun Shooting Tower (嘉義公園射日塔).
You can also rent kimonos for photo-taking or have tradition a tea in the Chiayi City Historical Relic Museum (昭和十八J18-嘉義市史蹟資料館, also called Showa J18), housed in a heritage Japanese building in the park.
A 40-minute drive or 1-hour bus ride south of Chiayi city, Guanziling Mud Hot Spring in Tainan is a really cool mud hot spring. You can bathe in silty hot spring water or even rub the mud on your body for therapeutic purposes. See my Tainan guide for the details.
On the Way to Alishan
There are three different areas where travelers sometimes stop for a few hours or spend a night on the way to Alishan.
Choose Xiding area for a famous sunrise hike and tea farms, Shizhuo for buying tea or sleeping on a tea farm, or Fenqihu for the best food and a bamboo forest hike.
I love all three of these areas and highly recommend them as less touristy alternatives or additions to Alishan. It’s only a 15-minute drive from Xiding to Shizhuo, and the same from Shizhao to Fenqihu. If you spend the night in any of them, ask the owner where to see fireflies at night.
Xiding (隙頂) is the closest of the three to Chiayi city. The main reason to stay here is for the excellent Eryanping Trail (二延平步道, trailhead here) and Tea Mist Trail (茶霧之道, trailhead here). Read my guide to Eryanping and Tea Mist trail here.
The two connected trails have impressive views over tea fields. These trails are steep, and a little tough if you plan to do them in the dark. Both trails lead up to the same epic viewpoint here (see photo above).
These trails offer views of both sunrise and sunset, when you can sometimes see the “sea of clouds” phenomenon. Besides a few hotels and trails, there isn’t much in Xiding.
All buses from Chiayi to Alishan pass by Xiding, taking about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get there. Coming down from Alishan, it takes about 1 hour to reach Xiding.
Shizhuo (石棹, also spelled Shizhao), which is 15 minutes past Xiding on the bus to Alishan, has similar scenery and is especially known for its tea farms, where Alishan High Mountain Tea is grown.
You can spend the night on several of these tea farms (see the “where to stay in Chiayi” section above). There are several trails through the farms, including Trail of Tea, Mist Trail, Cloud Trail, Sunset Trail, and Alishan Sakura Trail (for seeing cherry blossoms, usually in March).
See my guide to Shizhuo’s hikes and tea farms here.
All buses from Alishan to Chiayi pass through Shizhao, which is essentially just a small strip of tea shops and a couple restaurants along the highway. The main bus stop for getting off, or for going up to Alishan is here in front of 7-Eleven. The bus stop for going down is on the opposite side of the highway.
Right after the bus stop for going up, a few of the buses will turn left for a small detour to Fenqihu, then come back and proceed to Alishan. Other buses skip Fenqihu and go directly from Shizhao to Alishan.
Fenqihu (奮起湖, also spelled Fenchihu) is the third place where many travelers stop or spend a night on the way to Alishan. It is a tiny mountain village with a cute but very busy Fenqihu Old Street and famous lunchboxes. It is also the starting point for the excellent Fenrui Historic Trail, a more difficult hike which goes through a large bamboo forest.
Most people who ride the train from Chiayi City get off in Fenqihu for lunch. Then they continue to Alishan by bus. Fenqihu is the second last train stop – you can also ride to the last stop, Shitzulu, for catching the Alishan bus, but there’s less to see there.
Fenqihu is tiny, so there isn’t much to do besides eat and do the bamboo hike. But if you spend the night, you can usually see fireflies there, especially in spring.
Only a few of the buses from Chiayi to Alishan stop in Fenqihu. Make sure to check the train and connecting bus times from Chiayi TRA or HSR stations carefully so you don’t get stuck there.
Alishan National Forest Recreation Area
Alishan is Taiwan’s most famous high mountain resort. The main things to do there are to go hiking in the ancient forest, ride three lines of the original small gauge railway, observe the sunrise/sunset, and view cherry blossoms (March – April).
There’s a one-time entrance fee of TWD 300 to Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. The price will be only 150 if you show your bus ticket to Alishan.
When you arrive at Alishan Bus Station, you’ll need to walk 5-10 minutes (slightly uphill, and you’ll pass through the entrance gate) to reach the Alishan tourist village, where all the hotels, restaurants, shops, and train station are located. From there, you can hike or ride three lines of the small train to scenic areas in the park.
A popular route is to ride the Alishan Forest Railway from Alishan Station to Chaoping Station. Hike the Sister Pond Trail to Shouzhen Temple, then connect to the Giant Tree Trail. From there, you can ride the train from Shenmu (Sacred Tree) Station back to Alishan station.
At night, there are stargazing tours at Alishan. Early the next morning, most people rise early and take the train to Chushan Station, which is at the famous sunrise viewing spot.
Currently, Chushan station is being repaired, so you will ride to Duigaoyue Station just before it. You can watch the sunrise from there, or hike a little higher to Chushan, or even higher to Xiaoliyushan to see it.
If you’re lucky, you can witness the sea of clouds phenomenon during sunrise, the one you’ll see on all the postcards. But in my experience, you only have a 50/50 chance. Sometimes, you can’t see anything at sunrise because you will be in a cloud.
After seeing the sunrise, you can ride the train or hike back down.
In late March and/or early April, there are cherry blossoms around Chaoping Station. This is an extremely popular time and it can be very hard to get a hotel room in Alishan.
It is very rare for travelers to visit the coastal plains of Chiayi county, except specifically to vist the Southern Branch of National Palace Museum.
It’s newer and arguably better than the original branch in Taipei. Take the back exit of the train station (let the guards know you just want to pass through) and take bus 7212 (40 minutes, free, or only 10 minutes on the same bus from Chiayi HSR station). Book your ticket online here.
On the same small island where the ferry harbor is, High Heeled Shoe Church is one of Taiwan’s more unusual landmarks. As the name suggests, it is a glass church shaped like a high-heeled shoe.
A short drive south from there along the coast, Haomeili 3D Painted Village (好美里3D彩繪村) is a small local village full of painted murals. Some of them are painted in a way that you can stand on them and it looks like you are in the scene.
When we first visited this village many years ago, the murals were mostly of cats, but now they have branched out to other themes.
High Heeled Shoe Church and Haomeili 3D Painted Village are not easy to visit from Chiayi City. It would make sense to include them on a driving tour along with three other cool attractions on the coast of Tainan, just to the south.
These are Beimen Crystal Church, Jingzijiao Wapan Salt Fields, and Cigu Salt Mountain. You could do this driving tour either from Chiayi City or Tainan City. See my Tainan guide for details about those.
As I mentioned in the introduction, my wife’s family’s hometown is in this part of Chiayi. The coastal area of Tainan and Chiayi is where the Chinese migrants first settled Taiwan.
Therefore, my Taiwanese father-in-law often claims that he is a direct descendent of Koxinga, the Japanese-Chinese pirate who kicked the Dutch out of Taiwan.
Koxinga is a hero figure in Taiwan’s early history, with many temples in Tainan devoted to him. My wife’s family even has the same surname as Koxinga, Cheng (鄭, also spelled Zheng).
My wife’s family’s village is called Zhouzai (洲仔) in Dongshi township (東石鄉). It’s a tiny village with a huge temple in the middle of it – we sometimes even sleep in this temple’s accommodation when there’s no room at her family’s house during the Lunar New Year gathering.
It’s an incredible temple that I love visiting, but you can find many more like it spread across the southern Taiwanese countryside. The roof is incredibly ornate, while inside there are sculpted ocean and seafaring scenes.
The area around Zhouzai is filled with water fields where oysters are farmed. Chiayi is famous for its oysters – they are huge and delicious. A typical sight in Zhouzai village is of elderly women shucking oysters at the side of the road, with huge piles of shells beside them.
My wife’s grandmother’s traditional three-sided courtyard home (三合院 or sanheyuan) is where we spend most of the Lunar New Year holiday with her extended family. We socialize, play mahjong, and eat and drink all day long – all very typical Lunar New Year activities.
Best Chiayi Tours
Alishan is the major hot spot in Chiayi, so the only Chiayi tours you’ll find are ones to Alishan. Because getting to Alishan is a little complicated, some travelers opt to take a day-tour, overnight tour, or a longer Taiwan tour that includes a visit to Alishan.
Here is a one, two, or three day Alishan tour from Chiayi with options for taking the bus and/or train.
Alishan and Sun Moon Lake are included on this private tour by car from Taipei.
How to Plan Your Chiayi Itinerary
Most travelers spend 1 to 3 nights in Chiayi.
For one night, a very common approach is to enter the county, go directly to Alishan, spend one night there, see the sunrise the next morning, and then leave. This may sound quite rushed, but it’s actually enough time to experience Alishan.
If you get there early in the day (take an early bus or train + bus from Chiayi, or the 8 AM bus from Sun Moon Lake, which arrives at 11 AM), you can have a whole afternoon for hiking there and see the sunset.
The next morning, you will be up super early for sunrise, so you’ll have a few more hours of hiking time before checking out. This afternoon + morning is enough time to see all the main trails there.
However, some people do book two nights at Alishan so they are less rushed and have more time to walk the different trails in the park. Then you could also have two mornings to see the sunrise – half the time, it’s too cloudy to see anything, so you can try a second time.
If your Taiwan itinerary is already tight, I wouldn’t bother spending a night in Chiayi City unless you really want to see all those sights in the city that I described above. However, some people arrive in Chiayi later in the day, so they spend the night there in order to catch an early bus or train to Alishan the next morning.
For two nights, I highly recommend spending one night in Xiding, Shizhao, or Fenqihu before (or after) spending one night in Alishan. One night in one of these towns + one night in Alishan is, in my opinion, the best way to visit this region.
If these areas really appeal to you, then consider 3 nights total: perhaps one in Xiding or Shizhao (these two villages are very close together, so just choose one or the other), one night in Fenqihu, and one night in Alishan.
Just keep in mind that these three villages are tiny and there isn’t much to do besides hiking and gazing at tea fields. Some find them boring, while others (like me!) would stay even longer if we could.
What to Eat in Chiayi
While Tainan is often considered Taiwan’s food capital, Chiayi should also be included. Chiayi has always been on the edge of Taiwan’s original capital city, so you can find many of Tainan’s specialties in Chiayi, too.
Some Tainan specialties you can watch for in Chiayi include danzai noodles (但在面), Spanish mackerel soup (土魠魚羹), and eel noodles (鱔魚意麵). Just copy-paste their Mandarin names to GoogleMaps to find them in Chiayi city.
Chiayi is especially known for its oysters. One super tasty way to try them is in a deep-fried oyster ball (蚵嗲). Here’s a stall selling them in Chiayi city.
Another is in oyster omelets (蚵仔煎), which you can try here in Wenhua Road Night Market. Yet another is to visit an all-you-can-eat oyster restaurant near the coast. This one only costs TWD 200 per person!
Wenhua Road Night Market is the main night market in Chiayi city. It is overflowing with delicious local specialties, including most of the ones I mention here.
Chiayi also has two restaurants whose fame has exploded every since they were featured in the Netflix documentary Street Food: Asia.
The first one is Smartfish (林聰明沙鍋魚頭), whose specialty is fish head soup. The dish is huge and meant for sharing among at least two people. They also sell turkey rice.
Expect long lines at Smartfish, but they are quite efficient. The restaurant is located in Wenhua Road Night Market. There’s a second location here, plus a copycat restaurant selling the same thing here but with shorter lines.
The second Chiayi restaurant featured on Netflix was Chiayi Liu Li Zhang Turkey Rice (劉里長雞肉飯). Turkey rice is a turkey version of the common Taiwanese dish chicken rice.
It’s very simple, with some threads of meat on top of a small bowl of rice, sometimes with pickled vegetables, fried shallots and/or some meat juice. Many locals swear that other Turkey riceshops, like this one, this one, and this one are better than the Netflix one.
For dessert, try the deep fried mochi (炸麻糬) at this famous mochi stall in Chiayi (open 1-5 only). Also don’t miss this gold leaf matcha ice cream I found at Hinoki Village:
If you spend the night in Xiding or Shizhao, your food options will be very limited. There are only a few locals restaurants and they close early.
If your hotel is far from the highway, you might have to bring your own food for dinner (that’s what I had to do at Cuiti B&B). There’s one 7-Eleven on the highway in Shizhao. Most hotels provide breakfast.
Fenqihu is famous for its Fenqihu lunchboxes (other places in Taiwan with famous lunchboxes include Fulong, Chishang, and Guanshan).
Fenqihu Old Street also has lots of delicious snacks. One specialty I loved there was the tofu hamburger (豆乾包), a big hunk of tofu stuffed with fried shallots, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and other delicious things. You can try it here. I also spotted this same dish at Hinoki Village in Chiayi city.
At Alishan, don’t expect the highest quality food of your Taiwan trip. Most restaurants in the tourist village have large menus of typical Taiwan cuisine, mostly meant to be shared.
One specialty you can watch for is Alishan wasabi, which is made fresh from locally grown horseradish. It is more brown than green and not as spicy as the typical green (fake) wasabi in most Japanese restaurants.
The wasabi is quite delicious! Restaurants in Alishan’s tourist village serve cold tofu with wasabi for dipping, or you can buy bottles of wasabi in souvenir stands in the park. If you’re vegetarian, your options in the area will be limited. Here’s how to find vegetarian and vegan food in Taiwan.
Alishan is of course also famous for its Alishan High Mountain Tea – you can buy it directly from the farmers’ shops lining the highway in Shizhao, or from tourist shops at Alishan.
Coffee is also grown in Alishan region! You’ll also see boxes of it in the tourist shops. Don’t be surprised if it is mostly sold in little one-cup filter bags rather than whole bean form.