Chiayi City is a laid-back, friendly country town of around 250,000 people and is the access point for trips to the scenic mountain area of Alishan. If you are on your way to Alishan, note that it is not necessary to stay in Chiayi, as buses leave quite frequently and the city itself is not particularly interesting.
Chiayi is also served by mainline TRA trains and the scenic narrow-gauge Alishan Forest Railway to Alishan, which both leave from the same station, but have separate ticketing counters. Long-distance buses leave from the terminal immediately outside the station, but local buses (notably those to nearby hot spring town Guanzihling) use the Zhongshan Rd bus terminal a few hundred meters down the street.
The Chiayi Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has three lines, with the main line linking the HSR and TRA railway stations. The trip between the two takes around 30 minutes (NT$40, exact change - no charge if going directly between the HSR & TRA stations), but note that the BRT stop is on the rear side of the TRA station, so you need to take the pedestrian bridge to cross to the other side. The location of the TRA station is not obvious from the BRT stop. If coming from the direction of the HSR railway, after you get off at the stop, cross to the other side of the street at the intersection you have just passed. The "back station" area is still under construction - bear to the right and you should find the pedestrian bridge. If coming from the TRA station, go to the far left when facing the station from the outside (past the taxi queue) and you will find signs and a pedestrian bridge upstairs that leads to some patchy BRT signs - BRT is on the ground floor, usually bus terminal 1 (likely to be a queue of other people) for a free ride to the HSR station.
Buses have announcements and signage in English as well as Chinese.
Taxis are plentiful, especially around the train stations, and some pidgin English is spoken.
Buses to Alisan cost about NT$236-250 one way, and can be bought at the bus station next to the train station. The ride takes 2-2.5 hours. There are also some gypsy cabs that will drive you to Alisan, too.
The best way to get to know Chiayi is to take a walk down Culture Road, and not just once but a few times, back and forth. There are also two movie theaters where you can experience watching both Western movies and Chinese-language movies in a theater packed with local Taiwanese viewers, young and old. There is a good bookstore called Hon-too Bookstore with a wide range of English-language magazines which you can peruse at your leisure. For some quiet downtime, Chiayi Park and Botanical Gardens are a lovely way to spend the afternoon. The Botanical Gardens provide pleasant trails that weave you through a large variety of plants and trees native to the area. Ponds hold Japanese koi fish, turtles, and frogs. Chiayi park is well-maintained and serves as a center of activity for local adults—and senior citizens—and children from 5 am to late in the afternoon.
Do visit the 1931 Kano baseball museum, which houses old photographs of the famous Chiayi high school team from 1931.
Culture Road (site of the "Wunhua Rd Night Market", see below) is Chiayi's main shopping street. Another shopping street, but more commercial and less cool, is Zhongshan Road (中山路) which stretches from the main train station to a roundabout public fountain area at Culture Road. One specialty chain store that's located on Zhongshang Road is the "Guang Nan" (光南), which sells small electronics and other media-related goods. Catch a good deal on cables and computer accessories here, along with VCDs of Taiwan dramas/Japanese anime/American films (subtitled in traditional Chinese).
There are two night markets in Chiayi, but the most famous and the best is the Culture Road night market. The other night market, also fun and tasty, is the Carrefour Night Market next to the Carrefour store along Bo Ai Road.
Chiayi is famous in Taiwan and among tourists for its popular chicken rice (鶏肉飯), a popular dish of chicken [or turkey] strips and a savory sauce ladled over the white rice. Most people call it "chicken rice," as above, but it's really turkey meat. It's available at many sidewalk shops and indoor eateries around town, at prices starting from NT$20 to NT$40.
- Fountain Turkey Rice (噴水鶏肉飯), 325 Zhongshan Rd (中山路325號). One of the most popular chicken rice joints in town, with a number of franchises. But the shop on Culture Road, around the corner, is the most famous -- and crowded. $50-100.
- Carrefour Night Market (嘉樂福觀光夜市) along Bo Ai Rd near the Carrefour store offers a tasty variety of Taiwanese food dishes, and you can sometimes spot foreigners busking, juggling, miming or selling their Chinese-language books there. The barbeque stall at the entrance is a must-try, as is almost every other stall in the market.
Chiayi has many roadside tea shops and quite a few karaoke lounges, and a few pubs and bars, too.
- Cha-no-Michi (茶の道), Zhongshan Rd 505-1. Pleasant little modern tea shop right next to the Zhongshan Rd bus terminal, offering up a vast range of yummy Taiwanese drinks like milk tea with pudding chunks (布丁奶茶) as well as more traditional fruit juices. NT$15-NT$40.
There are a number of business and tourist motels just outside the TRA Chiayi station.
- Chiayi Dream Hotel (嘉興旅館), Zhongzheng Rd 750 (中正路730號. Recently renovated and clean, just around the corner from the station. Beds are comfortable and sleep will come to the tired traveller.
- New Alisan Hot Spring Motel (新阿里山溫泉汽車旅館), No. 269 Siwei Road (四維路269號), ☎ +886 5 231-4046. A modern motel about 2 kilometers west of the train station, offering fancy spa bathrooms in most rooms. Standard rooms from NT$1,200, spa rooms from NT$1,680.
- Alishan — one of Taiwan's best known scenic mountain areas
- Guanziling — a quiet and very rural hot spring resort
- Chung Cheng University, one of Taiwan's most beautiful university campuses, is 30 minutes by bus from Chiayi City.