Sometimes the best tour guides are the people you least expect. Case in point: taxi drivers. Visitors to Taipei, for example, can strap on their seatbelts and take a completely unique driving tour of the city—from the front seat of an in-service cab.
For the past two years, Topology!, a tour company based in Taipei, has offered a tourism program called Taxi Diary Taipei. The program commissions taxi drivers to cart visitors around Taiwan’s sprawling capital. But there’s a catch: The tour takes place while cabbies are on the clock and picking up other riders. It makes perfect sense when you think about it—who knows a city’s streets better than someone who sits behind a steering wheel all day?
Not only does Taxi Diary Taipei give tourists the opportunity to see parts of Taipei that they may never experience otherwise, like its endless maze of alleyways and back roads, but it also lets drivers connect with people all over the globe. On their drives, taxi drivers share insider tips on the best restaurants, parks, and museums to see while in town—suggestions you probably won’t find in guidebooks.
One such driver on the program’s roster is Tim Wang. He’s been driving cabs in Taipei for more than 10 years and picked up the gig after leaving his job as a site director. A little over six months ago, Wang came across Taxi Diary Taipei’s website while online. He knew immediately that he would be the perfect match for the job.
“I like showing tourists what real life [is like] in Taipei [that goes beyond] the normal places that travelers visit,” Wang tells Smithsonian.com. He likes to tell passengers about must-see spots like Elephant Mountain, a peak located east of the city center that offers sweeping views of Taipei, and Dihua Street, a multi-block stretch filled with restaurants, antique shops and artists’ studios. “Here you can see the many styles of living in Taipei,” he says. “I think it’s really interesting [for people] to talk with taxi drivers. All of them have something you could learn from them.”
Some of Wang's other favorite spots include the Wisteria Tea House, a teahouse that also served as a filming location for the movie "Eat Drink Man Woman;" Huaxi Street Market (Snake Alley), a two-block market serving local delicacies like snake blood and turtle meat; and Dalongdong Baoan Temple, a folk shrine that's home to all kinds of festivals and rites.
But don’t expect Wang and his cab-driving peers to be your chauffeur for the day. Instead, the three-hour, $80 USD (approximately $2,576 in the New Taiwan Dollar) tour takes place while a driver is on duty. (In contrast, taxis in Taipei start at NT $70 for the first 1.25 km.) The unconventional arrangement has an upside: Not only do tourists get to see the city in a new light, but they also get to interact with locals and other visitors while sitting shotgun during a portion of the driver’s work shift. (That also means you’re in control of the stereo, right?).
Wang says that one tour in particular stands out to him over the rest. One time, he says, a traveler told him he was interested in statues of the Buddha. “Then suddenly a store selling Buddha statues appeared on the right,” says Wang. He immediately pulled over his cab and went inside as his customer bought a statue. Over the following days, he adds, “I felt very blessed.”
After a full day of bumper-to-bumper traffic and detours, how many cab drivers can say that?