An Introduction to Kinmen
There is a little-known island off the coast of Taiwan, populated with buildings and landscapes, frozen in time. If not for the tourists and signs, you could look upon the Qing-style temples, the European architecture, the aging houses and, for a moment, think yourself stepping back in time, perhaps to the 20th and 19th centuries. This is the world of Kinmen (literally translating as golden door/gate), an island sitting between Taiwan and mainland China. The top 5 tourist sites in Kinmen Island are all at your fingertips and so much more.
Although it often slips under the radar for international travelers, Kinmen has always been a popular tourist spot for travelers from Taiwan and mainland China. Quite rural in comparison to modern Asian cities, it’s hard to even come across a convenience store in Kinmen.
Where Exactly is Kinmen?
For some context, Kinmen Island is part of an archipelago of islets (collectively known as the Kinmen Islands) located on the Taiwan Strait. Kinmen is located between Taiwan and Mainland China.
A Brief History of Kinmen
Technically governed by the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), Kinmen is more or less its own entity. Visible from Xiamen, a port city in China, the Kinmen Islands were key to military conflicts between the mainland Communist party and Nationalist party, then in ruling Taiwan, during the 1950s.
In 1949, civil war erupted in China between the Kuomingtang (Nationalist) and Communists parties, resulting in Communist victory. The Kuomingtang fled to Taiwan and established rule there.
As for Kinmen, the Nationalist party used Kinmen as a military base as a line of defense against attacks from the mainland. Evidence of Kinmen’s past remains today in the many barricades, tunnels, and wartime museums/monuments scattered throughout the main island.
Arriving in Kinmen
I visited Kinmen in the Summer of 2019 with my mother and her sisters. I have to mention that it is quite difficult to reach Kinmen from outside Asia, and sometimes challenging even from within, but well worth your effort. The easiest path to Kinmen is to first travel to China (preferably Xiamen) or Taiwan. From there, you can easily book a flight or ferry to the island.
From Taiwan, the only way to arrive in Kinmen is by plane. If you are coming from Mainland China, you can fly or take a ferry from either Xiamen or Quanzhou. It is highly recommended to have trip insurance when traveling abroad.
The ferry takes from 30 minutes to an hour depending from which port you depart. Xiamen has more ferry company options, more daily departures, and longer hours than Quanzhou. You can buy your ticket at the ferry terminal. Tickets go on sale one hour before each departure. You can book tickets one day in advance by calling the ferry companies, but in Chinese only. However, ferries are large and frequent, so aside from holidays, it is unlikely to be sold out.
TIP: Both airlines and ferry companies require a passport or Taiwan residency card prior to boarding. There is a great deal of fog in Springtime, so be prepared for delays and cancellations.
The ferry terminal in Kinmen is about a 20-min walk from the village of Shuitou, and about a 10-min bus ride from the town of Jincheng. Once you arrive in Kinmen, there are several ways to get around, including public bus, bicycle, guided bus tour, scooter, rental car/van and taxi.
We traveled to Kinmen from Taiwan via airplane on a flight that lasted roughly one hour. That is the longest flight time into Kinmen. I had never been to Kinmen before, but the island’s name had entered more than enough discussions at the family table. My uncle had been assigned to Kinmen in his youth as part of his mandatory military service. He speaks of his time there often, and even revisited the island in his later years for nostalgia’s sake.
Staying on Kinmen
There are a multitude of hotels available for travelers to Kinmen. Accommodations range from simple to luxurious, depending on your preference. From modern to historic, and simple to resort style, there is something for everyone.
We took a taxi to the bed & breakfast that my aunt booked, the Grace Homestay, otherwise known as the Shui Diao Ge Tou Bed & Breakfast. Converted from a well-to-do nineteenth-century Qing era Chinese house, the b&b boasted antique Minnan architecture. It was one heritage site among many in this historic Kinmen neighborhood.
The rooms of the Grace Homestay are spread apart in different wings. They congregate at the center in the form of a shrine that also serves as the breakfast dining room. This area opens into a small courtyard that largely remains unchanged from two centuries ago.
The Grace Homestay was a convenient distance away from Kinmen’s best known destinations, everything a short walk, bus, or taxi ride away.
After settling our belongings and having dinner in a local restaurant, we took to seeing the sights. Which brings us to the topic of the day, the top 5 tourist sites to see in Kinmen Island.
Top 5 Tourist Sites in Kinmen Island
TIP: All of the following top 5 tourist sites to see in Kinmen Island have free admission
5. Kinmen Military Headquarters of the Qing Dynasty
This structure was first established as study quarters for a Chinese scholar in the Ming Dynasty (14th – 17th centuries). It was converted into a military office for the Commander of Kinmen during the Qing Dynasty (17th – 18th centuries). The building is now a museum free to tour. Within, you’ll find historic weapons on display, as well as models and wax figures of military officers. On a more morbid note, the headquarters’ basement also once served as a prison. Wax prisoners now sit in the cells.
I suggest visiting the establishment in the evening as we did, not only for the cooler weather, but also for the experience of seeing the way the courtyard and historic offices are lit. An eerie red glow reflects from lanterns in the courtyard halls. You can’t help but feel that for a moment, you’ve returned to the Qing dynasty.
*At certain hours, staff members guide visitors on free tours and lectures of the building, though only in Mandarin.
4. Deyue Tower at Shui’Tou Village
One of Kinmen’s signature sites, Deyue Lou (Moon Tower) overlooks the village of Shui’Tou (water head). It is an impressive blend of eastern and western-style architecture from the early 1900s. Deyue Tower was built as a means of defense against pirates looking to target Shui’Tou, a seaside village made wealthy through trade and successful merchants.
Due to its short distance from our B & B, I was able to easily find the village and visit the buildings that make it up. As I admired the structures, I couldn’t help imagining what life was like for the families that lived here before.
Although we couldn’t enter the tower itself, we did wander through the museum and buildings surrounding it for an explanation of the village’s history and an up-close look at its homes. Converted from a western style house, the Overseas Chinese Culture Museum features exhibits about the Cantonese and Fujian communities that made up the village, including stories of their business and travels in the South Pacific. Interestingly enough, the use of European architecture in Shui’Tou was due to inspiration from colonial architecture in the South Pacific.
This resulted in a mixture of Asian and European architecture unique to Kinmen.
3. Kinmen Folk Culture Village
Built in 1876, the Kinmen Folk Culture Village consists of Fujian-style* homes, an ancestral shrine, and a school. This is another tourist site that shares a taste of the old world with visitors. On the day we visited, it was relatively empty and the peace allowed us to wander through the village and imagine it as it once was. Peeling paint, faded colors, and dusty walls contribute to the feeling of a community frozen in time. The village shrines still list the names of scholars who passed their civil service exams during the Qing dynasty, a high cause for celebration for both the scholars’ families and their neighbors.
*Many Taiwanese are descended from the people of Fujian, a province in southeastern China.
2. Beishan Broadcast Wall
On my family’s trip to Kinmen, we found ourselves wandering up a windy cliff overlooking the beach. Below, green and blue waves rolled up against jagged rocks, and beyond the water, we could see the fuzzy outline of mainland Chinese shores in the form of Xiamen city. However, our eyes were drawn towards a building of concrete instead. This was the Beishan Broadcast Wall.
Although the significance of this site might be lost to international visitors, the Beishan Broadcast Wall is one of Kinmen’s most noteworthy destinations. It is hugely popular among visitors from Taiwan and mainland China alike. Built on a hill facing the sea, the Beishan Broadcast Wall is a concrete building consisting of forty-eight loudspeakers. They once aired music and speeches directed at the shore across; The city of Xiamen.
Since its conception in 1967, the Beishan Broadcast Wall functioned as a propaganda machine that nursed patriotism among Kinmen’s Nationalist troops while also calling for the residents of Xiamen to rebel against mainland Communist rule. The speakers were most famous for airing songs and speeches by Teresa Teng, a late Taiwanese singer considered Asia’s “Queen of Pop” and a leading force in the Mandopop music genre.
Today, the Beishan Broadcast Wall is a tourist attraction, although it still blasts Teresa Teng’s singles (albeit at much lower volume). From a distance, you can hear the songs mix with the sound of waves and wind.
1. Zhaishan Tunnel is the Most Popular of the Top 5 Tourist Sites in Kinmen Island
Built in the 1960s, Zhaishan Tunnel is arguably the number one must-see site in all of Kinmen. Over a course of 6 years, Kinmen troops dug a series of interconnected underground paths within a mountain. Although the rocky ceilings are low, the tunnel boasts a length of 101 kilometers, complete with barracks.
Walking along the tunnel, you come across an artificial waterway. The site itself gives you the feeling of wandering through a surreal grotto. It is made all the more striking by the contrast between the tunnel’s damp coolness and the heat outside.
Sea green reflects upon the dimly lit passages and you’ll feel as if you’re wandering through another world with each step, the water quiet and still. That was certainly the otherworldly sensation I felt as I walked through the underground passage, our voices echoing off each wall.
Once used for military training and concealment, the tunnel is now part of Kinmen National Park. It is the island’s most unique attraction. In 2019, it was also the venue for the Kinmen Tunnel Music Festival.
Additional Sites in Kinmen
Kinmen is filled with cultural sights rich in historic and artistic meaning. The above list consists of only five of many tourist sites that are represented on Kinmen island. Other noteworthy Kinmen sites include temples, national parks, wartime museums, and more.
Jincheng Civil Defense Tunnel
Another tunnel worth visiting in Kinmen is the Jincheng Civil Defense Tunnel. This consists of a series of underground tunnels carved from granite by Kinmen troops in the 1970s. Once used as a means of defense and shelter against bombs from the mainland, the Jincheng Civil Defense Tunnel is now part of Kinmen’s tourism network.
Similar to the Zhaishan Tunnel, walking through the Jincheng Civil Defense Tunnel will also convince you that you’ve descended into another world, much like a rabbit hole. Except the entrance is on the second floor of the Jincheng bus station. Near the entrance you will find exhibits on the historical context behind the tunnel’s construction.
This version of Wanderland is one of interconnected passages and narrow stairs so intricate and similar to one another that you could potentially lose yourself within. I actually lost my hat while touring the tunnel and didn’t notice until I emerged on the other side. Thankfully a fellow tourist was kind enough to retrieve it for me. Coincidentally, a member of his family had also lost a hat below as well.
I recommend the Jincheng Civil Defense Tunnel for the adventurous that won’t settle for seeing just one tunnel. It is highly advised that visitors travel in groups. Claustrophobic travelers may want to avoid this one and visit Zaishan instead! Tours are provided frequently, though only in Mandarin Chinese.
The Wind Lion
Another sight to look out for is the Kinmen Wind Lion. The Wind Lion God is a deity that repels evil and natural disasters such as heavy winds and floods. Represented by a stone lion, the Wind Lion God can be found throughout Kinmen and has come to symbolize the Guardian of Kinmen.
Despite the 20th century context, Chinese communities have lived in Kinmen as far back as the Yuan Dynasy (1279-1368). Historically, Kinmen was a victim of severe wind damage due to deforestation during the Yuan Dynasty. Settlers from China then erected statues of the Wind Lion to protect the island against evil.
Food Not to Miss When Touring the Top 5 Tourist Sites in Kinmen Island
Breakfast at the Grace Homestay consisted of steamed mantou buns and green onion egg pancakes. There was also steamed wheat cakes, turnip cake, a platter of fruit, and complimentary tea/coffee. Lunch and dinner must be taken outside the b & b.
The food of Kinmen is relatively uniform throughout the island. Those who have visited (myself included) suggest that you try the amazing specialties. The fried egg with oyster leans on the spicy side. It mixes oyster and egg surprisingly well and provides a fun sensation for your taste buds. Alternately, just Kinmen’s rock oysters are considered a local delight.
Do not miss the fried fish, and of course, Kinmen’s signature beef. These dishes are self-explanatory. Although Kinmen fried fish is simple and to-the-point, it is what makes it so delicious.
The Gaokang Beef Restaurant counts as a tourist attraction in itself. The most famous restaurant in Kinmen, Gaokang features a variety of different beef dishes. It even has an adjacent store that sells beef-related snacks and merchandise. If you’re a fan of beef jerky, you can buy Gaokang’s signature beef jerky at their store. If you forget, you will get a second chance to buy it at Kinmen’s airport.
*You can find other examples of Kinmen cuisine on the Kinmen official travel website.
What to Watch Out For When Visiting the Top 5 Tourist Sites in Kinmen Island
As with anywhere else in the world, there are still things to mind when in Kinmen. For those looking to visit in warmer seasons, the number one thing you need to watch out for are mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are ruthless, especially towards fresh, new blood (as I learned firsthand!). Be sure to prepare some strong mosquito repellent and anti-itch cream. It’s also highly recommended to wear long pants, as the mosquitoes tend to target below the waist.
TIP: Pre-spray your clothing with Permethrin. It really helps to keep mosquitos away. It lasts for several washings, so you can do it prior to travel. This spray goes on your clothing, not your skin. However I still recommend using a repellent as well. I especially like to spray my socks, cuffs, waistlines and collars, which are all common mosquito entry points.
In the Summertime, the heat can be overwhelming. Always have a bottle of water on hand and don’t be afraid to rest when you have to. Although the island is generally hot in the daytime, the shores are quite windy. A light jacket or scarf is helpful when visiting seaside attractions.
Because most tourists that visit Kinmen are locals from Taiwan and mainland China, the majority of signs are only written in Chinese characters. For international visitors, it’s best to do some research beforehand to know what to expect. But not to worry! Most of Kinmen’s key exhibits feature English translations and introductions. Also, inside almost all buses, there is an electronic sign board with the stops written in both Chinese and English.
Currency and Pricing in Kinmen
Kinmen uses New Taiwan (NT) dollars, and if you are arriving by ferry from China you can change your Renminbi to NT$ (and vice versa) at the ferry terminal. Note that those are the only two currencies that are able to be changed.
Many businesses in Kinmen are small and family-run. This means that Kinmen people are used to paying with cash and you may not be able to use your credit card much. There are a few ATMs. There are also several currency exchanges, located at the airport, the ferry terminal, and in the main town of Jincheng, which also has several banks.
The good news is that you can visit Kinmen relatively inexpensively if you choose, with one of the most expensive double hotel rooms being about $250 USD per night. The public bus is about $1 USD per ride, and a great dinner may cost around $8 USD. And almost all attractions are free. Like anywhere, private rides, tours, and expensive rooms can certainly add up, but you can definitely visit on a budget as well.
How Long to Spend in Kinmen Island?
My trip to Kinmen lasted two nights and three days. This was ample time to take in Kinmen’s key sights and make the most of the visit. We returned to Taiwan on the afternoon of the third day. The island of Kinmen remains a colorful and vivid memory even 2 years later.
From my experience, potential travelers should plan for a visit window of three to four days in Kinmen. That is enough time to properly explore Kinmen’s key sights and enjoy what the island has to offer. Although, perhaps even longer to take a lazy day, to just wander the streets and watch the world go by, or in Kinmen’s case, stand still.