The Pingxi Lantern Festival takes place every year on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar (15 days after the Chinese New Year). In 2021 it will take place on February 27, although it will most likely be canceled due to COVID issues.
Normally the festival starts a few days before the 15th, and continues for a couple more weeks. Day 15 of the lunar calendar is the most massive, but the other days can also be enjoyed without so much crowding.
This festival is celebrated in the Pingxi district, and although the towns that perform lantern launches are Shifen, Pingxi and Jington, it is in Shifen where the most massive and therefore most spectacular event takes place. Every year around 80,000 people come to Shifen during these days to throw their paper lanterns at nightfall. It is a unique experience and highly recommended. The rest of the year it is also possible to throw the lanterns, although it is usually done in the afternoon, and it is not so massive. On festival days, the launches are done at night and are super massive, so the show is incredible. In addition, there are night markets and fireworks that you can see from the birdge.
To participate in the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival you have to arrive at Shifen in the morning or at noon to buy your lantern at any of the stalls. Then, you have to sign up for a launch time. The launches take place every 20-30min, from 6.30pm to 9.00pm.
How to get to the Pingxi lantern festival:
Roads are cut on the main day of the festival, so if you don't want to go by public transport, better go on another day.
To arrive on the day of the festival, you can take the train or the bus.
By train from Taipei to Shifen: From Taipei Station or Songshan Station, take a local train to Ruifang (anyone going north is worth it, except those going to Keelung). In Ruifang, you have to get off the train and change to the Pingxi line (normally it is platform 3, but ask just in case because sometimes they make changes). You can pay everything with the EasyCard. Get off at Shifen station. The whole journey takes approximately 1h30min. To return, you have to do the reverse path. The last trains leave around 10pm.
By bus bus from Taipei to Shifen: if you prefer the bus, you can take the 795 Extend Shifen bus at the MRT Muzha stop, which in approximately 1h15min will leave you in Shifen (make sure that the bus says Shifen, because some stay in Pingxi ). On the day of the festival, there are also special shuttle buses that leave from the Taipei Zoo station. You will see that in both cases there are two lines: one is for those who want to go seated (it is the longest) and another for those who do not mind standing (shorter, but keep in mind that the journey is 1h).
Note: Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is not the same as Taiwan Lantern Festival. The first has a centuries-old tradition and consists of a massive launch of paper lanterns into the sky. The second was created by the Taiwan Tourism Department to promote tourism in different cities in the country. It changes location every year (in 2021 it will take place in the city of Hsinchu) and consists of the exhibition of gigantic electric lanterns, a fusion of new technologies with Taiwanese traditions. But here there is no launching of lanterns into the sky. There are exhibitions, parades and fireworks.