Yunlin county is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Taiwan's city life. It's amazing how few people have actually visited Yunlin despite living in Taiwan for their entire lives. If you ask one of many seasoned expats, even those with over a decade of experience under their belts, most of them will have never been here, or simply ask “who the hell would go there?”
The answer to that question is simple. Anyone who wants to see some beautiful scenery, enjoy some cheap and delicious food, and spend their time with friendly locals should come here. Despite being a massive agricultural area pumping out fresh produce for hungry mouths across Taiwan a full weekend can be spent here without feeling bored.
But let's not mince words. As far as Taiwanese tourism is concerned, you're going to the middle of nowhere. As far as genuinely beautiful scenery and history, you're going to a surprisingly untapped hotbed of interesting things. There are also tons of indigenous peoples' villages and cities in this county.
This post is more designed as a recommendation for Yunlin than as a comprehensive travel guide. If you can add a day or two to your itinerary as you head south/north, do visit here.
DouLiu, the administrative capital of the county, is best reached by car or train and there is little bus service from Taipei or KaoHsiung. Arguably the fastest way to get to DouLiu is to take the High Speed Rail to the TaiChung stop and board the local train at XinWuRi station. Expect the trip to take about three hours if you're coming from Taipei, less from the south. The TRA regularly runs trains from major cities which have a stop here, and while cheaper than the HSR the trip will take you roughly double the time. Driving is a great choice because Yunlin's sights are spread out and are generally best seen by car. The number 1 highway tends to get backed up, so use a map with real-time traffic info to tell you the best route.
Each of the county's cities are walkable, but getting between them without a car or scooter will be a real chore. Taxi service is possible, albeit expensive, and you're better off either enjoying the relatively empty roads of the countryside in a rental or booking a tour of some kind.
Assuming you'll spend an entire weekend, you'll want to spend about one day seeing DouLiu and it's somewhat existent old street and impressively active night market. There are plenty of nice restaurants around the city for those who want a fancier experience, and prices pale in comparison to similar places in Taipei.
The old street is not closed to pedestrian traffic and many of the buildings are standard Taiwanese shower tile units. Dotting the road are a mix of buildings with classic facades and interiors, and fewer still are the ones which actually let you come all the way inside. Be that as it may, there are some great local eats along this street.
As you reach the end of the old street there is a nice temple with a golden statue at a star shaped intersection. The temple is well worth a check as the woodwork is expertly painted, the staff incredibly nice, and there is an old classroom complete with the once ubiquitous photos of Sun Yat Sen.
The outside of the temple, as seen from across the (relatively) massive intersection
After visiting the temple you can walk back towards the old street, but walk to the small street just to the right of the old street entrance to go behind the old street's buildings. There will be an open space on your right hand side as you walk towards a traffic light. Turn right there and you'll quickly end at what was once a Japanese government office. There are a small cluster of them, including a bomb shelter and former police dorms. Nearby, there are a series of historical buildings here telling you about Yunlin and Douliu's history, as well as a weekend farmers market. There are movie nights in the bomb shelter, and the area serves as a welcoming cultural epicenter in this small town.
Come here for good tea and movies in the bomb shelter (center, with trees on top)
Inside the bomb shelter where there is a classroom. It's still used for special events. The movies are held the next room over. This place is impressively big and in good shape considering it was built nearly 100 years ago.
This building (also center, above) is where you can buy locally sourced tea drinks and scrounge for information. English levels vary but attitudes are always great.
Walk past these guys to the imposing colonial structure behind it for a quick lesson about Douliu and some local art exhibits.
The staff inside tend to be moving about the building, so don't be surprised when a casually dressed person starts talking to you about the museum. In honesty, the people at the teashop/bomb shelter had a lot less attitude but they're still repairing decades of neglect at their site. Be sure to hit both places since they're next to each other.
Looping back towards the train station there is a church, a grand temple with more great views of the city, and a set of markets. Well worth seeing before setting out to find a dinner and going to the night market to score some cheap buys.
This temple is hard to miss if you're in downtown. It's a massive complex with stores along the street level and then a grand staircase up into the prayer area itself. They were having a massive festival when we visited. The top level was right in line with where the fireworks blew up. Good viewing but a few hot pieces down the shirt.
There is a set of traditional Japanese wooden homes in DouLiu, and one of the shops inside is a build your own robot studio. Probably the coolest DIY store you'll find in Taiwan, and the staff inside were incredibly helpful. It's well worth a visit here, but they close early, think 4 or 5, so make sure you're not coming by at the end of your day.
The robot studio lives in the end of this building, but there are five or six small shops and work spaces tucked in here. There is another building across the courtyard from this one. All of them are beautiful and worth a visit.
There are plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable markets in the city, all worth a stop for seasonal fruits and veggies. Even if you're only travelling around in Taiwan you should get as much fresh fruit as you can because it'll be hard to find a better price on the locally grown stuff than you'll get anywhere else on the island.
Don't expect a lot of nightlife in Douliu, most of the people who call this town home wake up early and go to bed early too. The good news is that you'll be able to wake up early and get out to enjoy a full day of sight seeing.
HuWei is going to be the sight of a future HSR stop, which is yet another great reason to visit this overlooked county. It's also home to Taiwan's cotton industry. Chances are, many of the towels you've used in your life have come from Taiwan, and if they came from Taiwan they came from HuWei.
The towel factories are a great place to pick up some locally made towles, or even better, towel cakes. Originally coming in cake form, they now take on tons of cute shapes which include deserts, dragons, temple figures, and civil servants. There are literally hundreds of choices and they're great souvenirs. Be warned that once you unwrap the towel cake, it can't go back into its original formation and you'll just have a cleverly printed towel on your hands.
Towel cake postman
In downtown HuWei there are three sights next to each other. There is a prison, a fire station, and the Japanese administrator's house. Each of the three are worth visiting, and the prison houses a puppet museum which will be of passing interest to all travelers and well worth a visit for families and puppet enthusiasts. The fire station has been transformed into a book store (誠品) and a Starbucks coffee. Like many of the old sights in Taiwan however, it's well worth a look and it's better that the building is preserved than becoming dilapidated.
The former prison and police station. Now puppet central.
Puppet sized clothing on display at the entrance to the museum. There are live demonstrations - with puppets! - for visitors to enjoy.
The prison is across the courtyard from the puppet museum, but is housed in the same complex. The cell doors are heavy wood, and the guards desk is impressively close to the cells
Taiwan is a land of funny toilet situations. This toilet is in plain sight of the guards desk and has no door. The wall protects users from being seen by prisoners, but this prison must have stunk.
This house, now a museum and local events venue requires a donation towards upkeep and isn't that impressive inside. Maybe a 10 minute visit and a refreshing drink at the cafe outside? It's worth a look if you missed the Japanese structures back in Douliu or you need to get an inside peak at colonial architecture.
On your way back to Douliu you'll be able to pay a visit to a temple which is in the middle of open farmland. It's the sort of temple you'd see in a Chinese language movie with people hanging out having lunch in the courtyard, and then a kungfu fight breaks out. It's relaxing, welcoming, and a fully functioning temple with impressive traditional Chinese temple and park elements. There is a large garden area next to the parking lot which is not always open to visitors, but well worth a look if it's open.
Entrance to the garden across from the main temple complex. Inside there seemed to be a lot of cool Forbidden City-like monuments and tons of well kept plants. Wish it had been open.
This building is in the back of the main courtyard and houses some manuscripts which are pretty cool if you can read Mandarin. Worth a look in either case.
The main hall inside of the temple in the inner courtyard.