It took me a long time after my first trip to Taiwan to hit the country’s rural east coast. It’s location off the high-speed rail line made it seems inaccessible, to say nothing of how its sparse population and the relative lack of information about it in English intimidated me.
Over the years, however, it’s become of my favorite parts of the country. In particular, the cities of Taitung and Hualien (and their respective counties) are absolute travel gold mines, whether for the cuisine and culture in their urban cores, or for the wild natural beauty just outside them.
Whether you end up choosing Hualien or Taitung as your east coast base, I hope my testimony over the next few paragraphs will inspire you. There’s no “wrong answer” between them, although it’s obviously best if you can see both for yourself rather than having to make my word for it.
Understanding Taiwan’s East Coast
This article is about Taitung and Hualien, but Taiwan’s east coast is actually a bit more than these two counties. It starts up north in Yilan, which is a popular weekend trip destination for Taipei residents, and continues all the way down to Kenting National Park, which sits at the southern “tip” of Taiwan. Hualien and Taitung aren’t the entire east coast, but they are the “meat” of it.
Geographically, Hualien and Taitung sit at either end of the Great Rift Valley, whose ancient history explains why both of these counties are so blessed in terms of natural beauty. It is these blessings (which are more numerous and also more obvious than what you find in Yilan or Kenting) that are why Taitung and Hualien tend to take precedence over Taiwan’s other east coast counties.
Differences Between Hualien and Taitung
I’ll be honest: Compared to larger cities on Taiwan’s west coast, neither Taitung nor Hualien are very exciting, from an urban perspective. Still, certain quirks about both cities stand out to me. Hualien’s sidewalks, for example, are paved using marble from Taroko Gorge. In Taitung, you can sometimes eat fresh-fallen rose apples (lian wu) as you’re walking through lush Liyushan Park.
Speaking off food, this is another area where it’s hard to discern a winner between Hualien vs Taitung. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my favorite thing to eat in Hualien is the city’s unique take on cong you bing pancakes, which feature a deep-fried egg buried within them. A quirky favorite food of mine in Taitung, meanwhile, is chao jin zhen hua, or deep-fried daylilies (can you tell that I love fried food?).
I’ll be honest: There aren’t a lot of swimmable beaches near either Taitung or Hualien. With this being said, I do think Taitung is the clear winner here. Now, to be fair, the Qingshui Cliffs near Hualien are incredibly beautiful, as are various city beaches. Still, none hold a hand to the beach at Taimali, Taitung, which in spite of being totally treacherous is probably the most gorgeous coastal vista in Taiwan.
This category should be a slam dunk for Hualien, given that Taroko Gorge is probably the most famous hiking destination in all of Taiwan. And it is: When comparing Taitung vs Hualien for hikes and treks, there’s not really any competition. Still, the trek down to Lisong Hot Spring and then back up is extremely exhilarating (and rewarding, although do take care since the valley it sits in is prone to rock slides).
Another great excursion from Taitung? Dawang Village in Taimali, where hydrangea flowers carpet hillsides in late May, and day lilies take over later in the summer. You can also visit the Sanxiantai bridge, whose harmonious architecture belies the violent sea below. From Hualien, meanwhile, the excursions are mostly defined by the aforementioned Taroko Gorge and Qingshui Cliffs.
Plan Your Taiwan East Coast Road Trip
Whether you choose between Hualien or Taitung, visit both of them or drive the entire coastal scenic route, Taiwan’s east coast is a destination you want to get right. This is particularly true when you consider the fact that you really need a car to get the full effect, and you probably don’t want to have to incur the hassle or the expense of doing that more than once, if you can avoid it.
Other FAQ About Hualien and Taitung
Is Hualien worth visiting?
Hualien is one of my favorite cities in Taiwan, even when you discount the influence of nearby Taroko Gorge. Which is not to say Taroko is anything to shake a stick with. A great trip is to spend 2-3 nights in Hualien, including at least one full day hiking at and exploring the treasures of Taroko Gorge.
Where to stay on the east coast of Taiwan?
Most travelers base themselves in either Hualien or Taitung cities, and use those as bases for exploring the surrounding area. Do keep in mind, however, that you can start as far north as Yilan County, and that if you have the time, you can stay here, plus in Taitung and Hualien, rather than having to choose between the two.
Can you drive Taiwan’s East Coast Scenic Route in a day?
You can drive from Hualien to Taitung and potentially even down to Kenting National Park in a day. However, you won’t be able to squeeze in a hike to Taroko Gorge during this time; starting in Yilan would make it unlikely that could complete the journey in a single day, at least assuming you plan to stop more than occasionally.
The Bottom Line
I’ll be honest: It’s difficult for me to pit Hualien and Taitung against one another, given how much I love both of these cities. Hualien is an easy sell due not only to its proximity to natural attractions like Taroko Gorge and the Qingshui Cliffs, but due to the fact that its sidewalks are literally paved in marble. Taitung’s urban core is less enticing than Hualien’s, although it makes up for this with the stunning beaches and dramatic hot springs within day-trip distance of it. Want personalized help planning your adventure along Taiwan’s east coast? Commission a custom Taiwan itinerary—and let me sweat the details!