Chiayi City is a laid-back, friendly country town of around 270,000 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 Alishan Forest Railway was severely damaged by Typhoon Morakot in 2009. As of January 2015, the train runs from Chiayi to Fencihu only, with the remainder of the line still closed for repairs. The local lines within the recreation area are operating normally.
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 2-2½ 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.