Welcome to Taipei's southern tail, a valley escape within the city limits where mountain trails, exotic wildlife, and tea tasting are just some of the activities you might enjoy within the span of a single day. The area, now easily accessible on the Wenhu (Brown) line of the MRT, is cut off from the rest of the city by mountain walls, giving it the feeling of being an entirely different settlement (which it once was). It's a popular getaway destination for Taibeiren, the Mandarin name for residents of Taipei City, meaning it can get crowded on weekends, but luckily there are many distractions to space out the crowds.
Located in the bucolic Muzha region of Wenshan, Taipei Zoo is a sprawling complex featuring wildlife from around the world. Everything from African elephants to penguins can be found within the zoo's 165 hectare expanse, with the star attractions undoubtedly being Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, a giant panda bear couple that was presented to the zoo in 2008 as gifts of unity from China. A much-celebrated baby, Yuan Zai, also joined the family in late 2013. All in all, there are eight indoor and eight outdoor facilities to take in, with a shuttle running from near the administration building to Bird World square further up the valley. Taking the shuttle is highly recommended for visitors with small children, as walking the entire grounds can get tiresome for little legs.
The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day save Chinese New Year's Eve, with last entry being granted at 4 p.m. Tickets for adults are NT$60, and children aged 6-12, students, and military and police personnel get in for NT$30. Children under six years of age, senior citizens over the age of 65, and the mentally disabled get in for free. There is a group discount of 30 percent available for parties of more than 30 people. The easiest way to get to the zoo is to jump on the Wenhu Line of the MRT and ride it to the terminal station, named for the zoo. There are signs from where the train stops pointing visitors in the direction of the zoo, leading them straight to the entrance.
From the zoo its just a few minutes on foot to the Maokong Gondola, a 4.3 kilometer long lift that takes visitors to the Maokong area, once the largest tea growing area in Taipei. There are a few different stops on the way up—five in all—offering different things to see, and you're given a choice between riding up in a glass-bottom car or, for those who might have a slight fear of heights, cars with regular flooring. Stops include Zhinan Temple station, where you can get off and check out the place of worship for which the stop is named. There are also foot paths you can hike along, such as the Camphor Tree Trail. Nature buffs would do well to visit from April to May, when the tung trees blossom. From January to February, the red, white, and pink apricot blossoms are in bloom.
The trip to the top offers stunning views of both the city and the mountains, and takes about 25 minutes from start to finish. All of Taipei City can be seen from Maokong, and there are numerous restaurants and tea shops to spend a relaxing afternoon or evening in. Most of the tea shops offer tastings if you're unsure of what to buy. One of the best times to head up to Maokong is during May and June, during the spring tea harvest.
The gondola is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m to 10 p.m. on Fridays and days before national holidays, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and national holidays, and 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays the the last day of national holidays. Single-journey ticket prices range from NT$30 to NT$50, depending on how far up or down you want to go. Senior citizens receive a 50 percent discount, and children under six ride for free. Group discounts for parties of ten or more are also available.