A Travel Guide to Hualien, Taiwan’s Largest County

A guide to Hualien city and Hualien county in Taiwan

Hualien (花蓮 or Hualian) is one of Taiwan’s top destinations, especially for lovers of the Great Outdoors. Landscapes in Hualien are wild, dramatic, and awe-inspiring.

Hualien is a city and a county of the same name. Most travelers use Hualien City as a base for visiting the county’s premier attraction, Taroko Gorge. The city is also a classic starting point for cycling, riding a scooter, or driving up or down Taiwan’s stunning east coast.

Much of Hualien remains off-the-beaten-track. The country’s population is around 30% aboriginal, while Hualien City has a larger aboriginal population than any other in city in Taiwan. This is a great place to try aboriginal cuisine!

In this article, I’ll introduce the famous and lesser-known attractions in Hualien, how to get to them, how to plan your itinerary, what to eat, where to stay, the best tours, and more!

Hualien Introduction

A young Taiwanese aboriginal man wearing traditional clothing and large decorated hat holding hands with others while doing a dance performance
Aboriginal performer at Amis Harvest Festival

Much of Hualien is mountainous and remote. Despite being the largest county, it has one of the lowest populations on mainland Taiwan (300,000 in the county and 100,000 in the city). Only Taitung, the county just below it, has fewer people and a lower population density.

Hualien was originally inhabited by several aboriginal tribes. The Spanish went there looking for gold, but Chinese (Han) settlers didn’t even arrive until the mid-1800s, hundreds of years after they first started settling Tainan and the west coast of Taiwan. Hualien is separated from other parts of Taiwan by several mountain ranges.

The Chinese first named it Huilian (洄瀾), which means “swirling waters”. It was the Japanese who chose the characters 花蓮, pronounced Karen in Japanese or Hualian in Mandarin.

A small winding road passes below a cliff with a river valley below to the right
The Cross Central Highway through Taroko Gorge

The Japanese established Taroko Gorge, north of Hualien City, as “Tsugitaka-Taroko National Park” in 1937. After the Japanese left, the KMT abolished the park and built the Central Cross Island Highway through it.

Eternal Spring Shrine (長春祠) in Taroko Gorge today honors the 212 people who died building the highway through the gorge.

Taroko Gorge National Park wasn’t established until 1986. Today is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist attractions. The name “Taroko” (太魯閣) comes from the Taroko (Truku) aboriginal tribe who live in the area.

A large Taiwanese shrine with waterfall pouring out from it down to a river below
Eternal Spring Shrine was built for those who died building the highway

From Hualien City, two highways go south to Taitung County. Inland Highway 9 goes through the beautiful East Rift Valley (also called Huadong Valley, 花東縱谷, meaning Hualien to Taitung Valley). This is where most of Hualien county’s population lives. Because the round-island TRA train line runs through the valley, it is also the way most travelers go.

Coastal Highway 11 is more remote and difficult to visit unless you drive. 

Getting to Hualien

The front white car of a train with red designs in red, parked at a train station platform outdoors
The Puyuma Express train

The vast majority of travelers get to Hualien by train from Taipei, Ruifang (Jiufen area), or Yilan. A common misconception is that the High Speed Rail goes to Hualien – it does not. The HSR only goes down the west coast of Taiwan, but there is talk of extending it to Hualien someday.

But the TRA (regular train) system has several different types of train running from Taipei to Hualien as follows:

  • Local Trains: (3 hours plus) No seat numbers, just swipe your EasyCard to board
  • Tze Chiang Limited Express: (2.5 to 3 hours) Has seat numbers, reservation highly recommended if you want a seat, but you can also swipe your EasyCard or buy a standing ticket and just stand if the train is sold out
  • Tze Chiang Limited Express 3000, Puyuma Express, or Taroko Express: (2 hours) Seat reservation is essential, no standing tickets allowed
A young woman with pinkish purple hair holding a baby girl with a heart on her shirt while sitting on a train in Taiwan
My sister and daughter on the train to Hualien

The express trains to Hualien are in high demand and sell out very quickly, especially on weekends or holidays. It is highly recommended to book them here as early as possible (up to 28 days in advance). In this article, I have screenshots showing how to book the train tickets in person, online, or in the TRA app for e-tickets.

Some travelers buy a ticket to Xincheng Station (新城站, also called Taroko Gorge Station). It is one stop before Hualien City and is closer to Taroko Gorge, but it is a much smaller town than Hualien, with less hotels and amenities.

Scooters can be rented outside Xincheng and Hualien train stations. An IDP or Taiwanese motorcycle permit is required, but some shops may overlook this (a rarity in Taiwan nowadays). Visiting Taroko Gorge by scooter or car is doable.

A couple sitting on a scooter wearing helmets on a road in Taroko Gorge
Driving a scooter in Taroko Gorge

Driving to Hualien is slower than taking the train. Taking around 4 hours, the route is from Taipei to the Yilan plains (a fast drive through a series of very long tunnels), followed by a long, slow, and winding coastal drive from Su’ao in Yilan Hualien to Hualien.

Called the Suhua Highway (蘇花公路 or Highway 9), it passes the famous Qingshui Cliffs just before reaching Taroko Gorge and Hualien City. The highway is sometimes destroyed by landslides but quickly repaired. See my East Coast Road Trip Part 1 article for all the info about this route.

Some travelers take the train to Taipei then rent a car there. This is smart because the train is faster for reaching Hualien and then you can avoid having to drive out of Taipei, which could be intimidating for those driving in Taiwan for the first time.

A coastal highway running along some coastal cliffs with the sea below
The Suhua Highways passes above the Qingshui Cliffs

Looking at a map, you may be tempted to drive the Central Cross Island Highway (Highway 8) through Taroko Gorge and across the country to Taichung, or connect to Highway 7 for Wuling Farm in Taichung or Highway 14 for Wuling Pass, Hehuanshan, Chingjing Farm, or Sun Moon lake.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with this route. Highway 8 was severely damaged by landslides in 2022 and repairs are ongoing in two different spots. You can only pass these spots for a few hours every day. If you don’t time it well, you’ll have to wait for several hours or turn back. There, it is better to drive back to Taipei first then on to those places from there.

Click here to read the latest updates about road closures on Highways 8, 9, and 14. Click the small arrow beside the highway numbers. It is updated about once per month.

A white and red express train crosses a red arched bridge above a rice paddy in Hualien
Kecheng Iron Bridge in southern Hualien

Going south from Hualien, Highway 9 and the train line run through the beautiful East Rift Valley. The same train options are available, but not quite as high demand or likely to sell out. It’s still a good idea to book, though. There are several tempting stops along the way.

Coastal Highway 11 is best to travel by car. There are limited buses, with none of them going all the way from Hualien City to Taitung City. There are some roads connecting Highway 9 and 11. Some are very slow, winding drives through aboriginal areas, while Highway 30 from Yuli and Antong Hot Spring to the coast is a fast one.

A recommended road trip is to drive from Hualien City down to Taitung City on one of the highways, then back to Hualien on the other highway. Another option is drive from Hualien to Taitung on either highway, on the Kenting National Park at the southern tip of Taiwan, and finish your rental in Kaohsiung City.

See my East Coast Road Trip Part 2 article for all the route options. 

Where to Stay in Hualien

There are four different places you may choose to stay for visiting Taroko Gorge. These are Hualien City, Xincheng, inside Taroko Gorge, or Sanzhan aboriginal village.

Rooftops of Hualien city with mountains in the distance
Hualien city has the most hotels

Hualien City is the most popular base because it has the most hotel options, restaurants, and a night market. But it is also the furthest from Taroko Gorge (45 minutes by car).

In Hualien City, I recommend Just Walk Backpacker Hostel (see on Booking / Agoda) or Happiness is My Home (see on Booking) for a mid-range option. Both are near the train station.

For families, Happy Hualien (see on Booking) has kids play rooms.

Also consider Farglory Resort (see on Booking / Agoda). The resort is on the coast, with a pool and marine-focused theme park attached, but it is also a little far from the Hualien city center. You can even have a sleepover inside the aquarium.

In Xincheng, you will be closer to Taroko Gorge (less than 10 minutes by car) but there are fewer hotels and restaurants. Liiko Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) is the best one in town.

Liwu Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) is the closest you can get to Taroko Gorge without actually being in it.

A swimming pool with misty mountains in the background
Silks Place in Taroko Gorge

Inside Taroko Gorge, there are only a few options. Taroko Village Hotel (see on Booking / Agoda) is halfway up the gorge and has an aboriginal restaurant.

Silks Place (see on Booking / Agoda) is the most luxurious option and is near Tianxiang village, the town at the top of the gorge. It is one of the best hotels in Taiwan.

A final option is to stay at Songyue Homestay (see on Booking / Agoda) in Sanzhan (三棧) aboriginal village, which is just 5 minutes by car from Xincheng or 15 minutes from Taroko Gorge. The river beside the village is the best place to go swimming in the Taroko area.

Top Things to Do in Hualien

I’ll separate the below Hualien attractions into Taroko Gorge, Hualien City, Highway 9, and Highway 11. 

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge is by far the most famous tourist attraction in Hualien. Most visitors spend a whole day touring the gorge.

A red, orange, and cement bridge across a river in a beautiful valley with misty clouds above
Tianxiang Recreation Area in Taroko Gorge

This can be done by local bus, by joining a tour, by hiring a driver, by renting a scooter at Hualien or Xincheng stations, or by renting a car in Hualien.

A full day in Taroko Gorge might look like this:

  • Taroko Gorge Entrance Gate (photo op)
  • Taroko National Park Visitor’s Center (to ask for hiking or driving info – famous trails and major roads are sometimes closed)
  • Shakadang Trail (easy trail with beautiful blue water)
  • Buluowan Suspension Bridge (山月吊橋)
  • Swallows Grotto (燕子口 or Yanzikou)
  • Tunnel of Nine Turns (九曲洞隧道, no parking lot, but you can get dropped off by your driver or the bus stops there)
  • Tianxiang Recreation Area (天祥遊憩區)
  • Baiyang Waterfall Trail (白楊步道).
  • See Eternal Spring Shrine (長春祠), the most famous sight in the gorge, on the way out – it’s just easier to drive in to it that way, because of the way the highway is set up.

A more thrilling hike in Taroko Gorge is Zhuilu Old Road, but it requires a permit. Click the link for my recommender organizer.

There are several more possible stops and trails – see my Taroko Gorge guide for all the details.

A person wearing all black and kneeling down on a gray pebble beach with coastal mountains in the background
My friend on Qixingtan Beach

Most Taroko Gorge day tours also include a stop at a viewpoint of the stunning coastal Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖), which is 15 minutes’ drive north of Taroko Gorge.

Taroko tours also usually stop at Qixingtan Beach (七星潭), which is between Hualien City and Taroko Gorge. You can’t swim, but this gray pebble beach is very beautiful. You can also cycle to it from Hualien City.

A man and woman jumping off a small cliff into clear green-blue water
Cliff jumping in Sanzhan near Taroko Gorge

You can also ask your private driver to include Qingshui Cliffs and/or Qixingtan Beach and your Taroko tour. If you want to swim, ask the driver to take you to this river swimming spot in Sanzhan (三棧) aboriginal village.

River tracing is a popular activity in Hualien. The Golden Grotto River Trace starts in Sanzhan, but it is very difficult, requires safety equipment, and should only be attempted by experienced tracers.

Anyone who wants to try river tracing for the first time can join this guided river trace elsewhere in Hualien.

A man wearing helmet, purple tank top, swimming suit, and river tracing shoes jumping off the top of a waterfall into a green pool of water surrounded by cliffs
River tracing in Golden Grotto

Hualien City

A Starbucks cafe made out of shipping containers piled on top of each other, with some people visiting having coffee inside one of them
Starbucks Shipping Container Store in Hualien

There are a handful of things to do in Hualien City. These include Hualien Martyr’s Shrine (花蓮忠烈祠), Hualien Railway Culture Park (花蓮鐵道文化園區), Starbucks Shipping Container Store (星巴克 – 洄瀾門市), and Farglory Ocean Park. The latter two places are a ways south of the city center.

There are also tons of activities to be enjoyed from Hualien City, such as these popular dolphin and whale watching tours (seeing dolphins is very common but whales are rare), aboriginal cooking courses, kayaking and SUP below the Qingshui Cliffs, and ATV driving on the beach.

In the evening, don’t miss Dongdamen Night Market in Hualien City. The night market has several aboriginal and vegetarian food stalls.

Highway 9

From Hualien City, Highway 9 ventures south toward the Huadong Valley.

Before going far from the city, a detour can be made to the remote and stunningly beautiful Mukumugi Valley (慕谷慕魚生態廊道), where the brightly colored water is extremely inviting. It was closed for a long time but should be reopening soon. This river tracing trip is a great way to experience it. You’ll need to drive to get there.

Liyu Lake (鯉魚潭 or Carp Lake), also a detour from Highway 9 but is easier to reach, is a popular destination for easy cycling and paddleboat riding. A flat, paved trail goes around the lake.

Some paddleboats on a small pretty lake
Liyu Lake

Going south on Highway 9, some possible stops include Hualien Archaeological Museum (花蓮縣考古博物館), Farm Dream Estates (墾夢莊園) leisure farm, heritage Japanese houses at DreamWorks (鳳林校長夢工廠) in Fenglin, Lintienshan Forestry Culture Park (林田山林業文化園區), and Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory (花蓮觀光糖廠) in Guangfu.

Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area (富源國家森林遊樂區) has remote trails to a suspension bridge and waterfall.

Nick Kembel, his sister, and his father inside a wooden hot spring tub
Me and my family in a hot spring hotel in Ruisui

Ruisui is Hualien’s main hot spring village and also the most popular place for river rafting in Taiwan.

South of Ruisui, you’ll enter the tropics at the Tropic of Cancer Marker Park (北回歸線標誌公園).

A man climbing on rocks at the bottom of a tall waterfall
My friend below Nanan Waterfall in Yuli

Yuli is a lovely village in southern Hualien county. It’s a good base for exploring nearby attractions in Hualien and Taitung counties, including Antong Hot Spring (安通溫泉飯店).

Check out Nanan Falls (南安瀑布) just out of town, and you can hike part of the famous Walami Trail into Yushan National Park without a permit, starting here.

Kecheng Iron Bridge (客城鐵橋) is an iconic train bridge over the rice paddies just south of Yuli town center.

A hill covered in orange tiger lilies with farms and mountains in background
Daylilies on 60 Stone Mountain

Sixty Stone Mountain (六十石山 or Liushi Shi Shan) is a must-visit from late July to late September, when its hillsides are covered with seas of orange daylilies (金針花海).

The last notable stop before Highway 9 enters Taitung county is the Fuli Sea of Flowers Scenic Area (富里花海景觀區), where there are flowers and a collection of large sculptures made of straw.

See my Taitung guide and East Coast road trip guide for stops on Highway 9 as it enters Taitung county – some of the highways’ best scenery is found there.

Highway 11

Looking down the east coast of Taiwan from an elevated viewpoint, with tree covered mountains leading down to the sea
View from Baqi rest stop

The less traveled Highway 11 follows the coast of Hualien south of Hualien City all the way to Taitung City. There are fewer attractions or signs of humanity along this route. The scenery is great, though, especially at viewpoints like Baqi Restop (芭崎休息區).

As tempting as the seas look, swimming is not allowed along the whole coast. The continental drop-off is just off the coast, and the currents are very strong. People die every year.

One spot that used to allow swimming was Jiqi Beach (磯崎海水浴場), but it’s currently closed. Some people still sneak in through the fence for a swim.

Nick Kembel and his friend standing beside scooters parked at the side of Highway 11 in Hualien with coastal mountains behind them
My friend and I driving down Highway 11

Check out the straw sculptures at Xinshe Terrace (新社梯田), explore the coast at Shitiping (石梯坪), and enter the tropics at Jing Pu Tropic of Cancer landmark (靜浦北回歸線界標).

Some of the highway’s most interesting stops are further south in Taitung county, notably Sanxiantai Bridge and Dulan surf town. If you’re planning to spend a night on the coast, Dulan is best.

See my Taitung guide and East Coast road trip guide for the details.

Best Hualien Tours

Coastal cliffs down to a brightly colored sea and beach
Most Taroko Gorge tours include the Qingshui Cliffs

Unless you plan to drive yourself, I highly recommend taking a tour for visiting Taroko Gorge from Hualien like this one (best quality and smallest groups) or this one (cheaper), or hiring a private driver. You’ll be able to see and do much more than if you try to go by bus.

Note that most tours start before the first train from Taipei arrives in Hualien. So if you want to join a tour, you’ll need to sleep in Hualien the night before.

There is also a Taroko Gorge day tour from Taipei, but I don’t recommend it unless you are super tight on time. You’ll be driving all the way from Taipei and back (up to 4 hours each way), plus driving time in the gorge itself. Basically you’ll be spending most of the day in a vehicle.

Some people wearing yellow rain coats walking through a dark cave with water falling down on them
Walking through Water Curtain Cave on Baiyang Water Trail in Taroko Gorge

If you want to visit coastal Highway 11, this day tour from Hualien city hits all the main stops but doesn’t make it as far as Taitung. This half-day tour goes to Liyu Lake and Starbucks Container Store, while this day tour goes further down Highway 9, but still not as far as Taitung.

If you want to experience the East Rift Valley on Highway 9, the most beautufl spots are actually in Taitung, south of Hualien. For example, this is a great East Rift Valley day tour departing from Taitung city.

To make your own customized itinerary on Highway 9 or 11, hire a driver for the day here.

How to Plan Your Hualien Itinerary

Looking into a pool of very clear blue water with rocks
Beautiful blue water on Shakadang Trail in Taroko Gorge

At the shortest end, some people do Taroko Gorge as a day trip from Taipei. To do this on your own, catch the earliest train of the day from Taipei to Hualien, which gets there just in time to hop on this Taroko day tour. Or take a later train to Xincheng and hire a private driver from there. Then take the train back in the evening.

The bare minimum I recommend is one night in Hualien. One option is to get there as early as possible, tour Taroko Gorge for the day, then move on to your next destination the following morning. Another option is to travel there on Day 1, spend the night, tour the gorge the whole following day, then move on to your next destination in the evening.

Spending two nights in Hualien is better. This gives you a whole day to tour Taroko Gorge without having to take any trains on the same day. It will be less rushed and more enjoyable.

A group of dolphins swimming in the sea
Seeing dolphins in Hualien

With three nights in Hualien, use one full day for Taroko Gorge, Qingshui Cliffs, and Qixingtan Beach. Then use your second day for an activity like a dolphin watching boat tour, or do a day trip to Chishang in Taitung county for cycling in the rice paddies. If this is your only chance to see Taitung, I highly recommend it.

If you’re doing a loop around Taiwan, below is my most recommended itinerary. Take the train from Taipei (or Ruifang or Yilan) to Hualien. Stay in Hualien two nights, so you will have a full day at Taroko Gorge.

After two nights in Hualien, take the train or drive to and spend a night in one of these villages: Yuli in southern Hualien or Chishang, Guanshan, or Luye in Taitung. These four small villages are perfect bases for experiencing the stunning rural scenery of the East Rift Valley, ideally by bicycle. My most recommended one is Chishang, but they are all beautiful.

Nick Kembel standing beside a flooded rice paddy in Hualien
Me beside rice paddies in southern Hualien

After spending a night in one of those villages, continue on to Kenting National Park, Xiaoliuqiu or Kaohsiung.

Taitung city has limited attractions, but changing trains there will give you more time options (for example, Yuli to Taitung + Taitung to Kaohsiung will have more train options than if you search Yuli to Kaohsiung direct).

If your next destination is Kenting National Park, take the train to Fangliao, where you can catch the Kenting-bound bus. For Xiaoliuqiu, take the train to Fangliao then a taxi to the ferry terminal in Donggang.

What to Eat in Hualien

A whole wild boar cut in half and roasting sideways on a metal rack
Roasting wild boar at an aboriginal festival in Hualien

One of the highlights of visiting Hualien is the chance to try authentic aboriginal food.

In Taroko Gorge, dining options are limited. There’s an aboriginal buffet restaurant at Taroko Village Hotel. Local aboriginal people sometimes set up snack stalls on Shakadang Trail.

There’s also a 7-Eleven and a few local eateries at Tianxiang Service Station (天祥管理站), the furthest most visitors get in Taroko Gorge before heading back down. Try the aboriginal bamboo tube stuffed with sticky rice (竹筒飯) and fried mountain greens.

Close up of a tube of bamboo stuffed with sticky rice
Bamboo tube sticky rice

In Hualien City, don’t miss Dongdamen Night Market (東大門夜市). Besides the usual Taiwanese snacks, there are several aboriginal dishes available, such as the always popular roasted mountain boar (烤山豬). Try other aboriginal foods at this stall, this one, and this one.

The steamed meat dumplings (湯餃) and xiaolongbao (小籠包) at Gong Zheng Bun Store (花蓮公正包子店) are extremely popular. It is between Hualien train station and the night market. Salt Lick is a Western-style pub in Hualien with delicious deep dish pizza

Tourist shops in Hualien city and around Taroko gorge sell many boxed snacks like flavored mochi.

Crowds of people in Dongdamen Night Market with food vendors on the sides
Dongdamen Night Market in Hualien City

Driving down Highway 9, this shop in Hualien Sugar Factory in Guangfu has good ice cream. In Ruisui, try Lao Jia Back Mountain Dishes (老家後山菜瑞穗店) for local dishes. In Yuli, this stinky tofu shop is famous among locals.

Driving down the coast, don’t be surprised if you end up eating at 7-Eleven once or twice. Try to make it to Dulan in Taitung for the best restaurant choices.

Hualien Events

Some Taiwanese aboriginals doing a dance performance on a stage in Hualien with a harbor and palm trees in the background
Amis Harvest Festival in Hualien

Lunar New Year can be a tricky time to visit Hualien. Expect trains to be full and masses of locals at Taroko Gorge for the whole holiday, except maybe on Lunar New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when most people in the country are at home with their families.

Around Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the first lunar month, and usually lasting for a whole month, Hualien City hosts a beautiful display of lanterns. This was last held at Nanbin Park (太平洋公園) on the coast, but the venue could change in coming years.

For Dragon Boat Festival in June, dragon boat races are usually at Liyu Lake (Carp Lake). The lake is also going to host a major international dragon boat racing event in 2026.

Portrait of an elderly Taiwanese aboriginal man in traditional costume with a large round hatg with feathers
Aboriginal elder at Amis Harvest Festival

In late summer (usually August or September), the Amis, the largest aboriginal tribe in Taiwan, hold their Amis Harvest Festival. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact dates and location because they change every year, and each tribe has its own event over the course of a week.

One year, I was lucky enough to attend a massive joint festival between all the tribes, where I shot all the aboriginal photos in this article.

From late-July to late-September, don’t miss the impressive seas of daylilies covering the slops of Sixty Stone Mountain.

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