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things to do in penang
Rickshaw passing the Hainan Temple

Penang is a turtle-shaped island located off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, about 350km northwest of Kuala Lumpur, and is connected to the mainland by the 13 kilometer long Penang Bridge and the 24 kilometer long New Penang Bridge. For centuries, Penang played a strategic role in trading relations between the East and West. In addition to the local Sultans, the Arabs, Chinese, British and Dutch all vied for influence over Penang. This long and colourful history has left its mark on the island in many ways; from the colonial mansions and intriguing temples of George Town (the capital of Penang) to the island’s unique cuisine which is truly world-famous. In addition to its rich historical and cultural heritage, Penang also boasts mile after mile of sandy, casuarina-fringed beaches, a mountainous hinterland, some of Malaysia’s most stunning resorts and a vibrant shopping scene. Here are my 10 tips for things to do in Penang and George Town:

Ten things to do in Penang

1. Stroll around the UNESCO World Heritage core of George Town

In my book, the best thing to do in Penang! The most prominent landmark (and must-see) is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. However, the neighbourhoods surrounding Jalan Penang (Penang Road) and Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Street) are packed with gorgeous colonial and Chinese heritage buildings as well as wonderfully atmospheric temples and narrow streets. You can follow the Heritage Trail in George Town which takes visitors past the most famous landmarks (this route is marked on most George Town maps) or you can wander around the historic centre of George Town and spot the Heritage Trail info boards.

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A great thing to do in Georgetown is a stroll around the historic city centre.

Check out the Penang Peranakan Mansion, Little India along Lebuh Pasar (Market Street), Khoo Kongsi Clan House, Kuan Yin Temple (Penang’s oldest temple), Teochew Temple, Hainan Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mariamman Temple and the beautifully restored heritage shophouses of the Straits Collection on Stewart Lane. Another gorgeous stretch of heritage villas can be found along Lorong Bangkok (Bangkok Lane) in the nearby neighbourhood of Pulau Tikus.

A George Town street
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Penang City Hall
Kuan Yin Temple
Bangkok Lane
Little India

2. Jump into a becak for a true Penang experience

Hop on a rickshaw anywhere within the historic core of George Town for a unique and fun tour.

Penang becak

Klook.com

3. Indulge in Penang’s famous culinary scene

Penang’s many culinary highlights attract visitors from all over the world. One of my favourite things to do in Penang is street-stall hopping! There’s just so much to discover, from my absolute favourites Penang Char Kuey Teow and Penang Laksa , to Nasi Kandar, Mee Rebus, Hokkien Mee, oyster omelettes and spicy southern Indian curries. You’ll soon discover that Penang is a culinary gem! Most visitors head to Penang’s famous Gurney Drive (a beautiful seafront boulevard with many restaurants, cafés and hotels) to kick off their culinary adventure. For a quick introduction to some of the best dishes that Penang has to offer, I recommend a visit to the New World Park food court. I can also recommend Sin Hwa coffeshop (329, Jalan Burma), and Joo Hooi Cafe (475, Jalan Penang) for deliciously authentic Char Kuey Teow and Penang Laksa. Alternatively, you could book a Penang Street Food Tour or even better, join a Penang Cooking Course!

Penang Char Kuey Teow
Penang Laksa



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4. Visit the Penang Butterfly Farm

Established in 1986, the Penang Butterfly Farm is one of the world’s largest and is currently home to more than 4,000 Malaysian butterflies of 120 species. Wandering around the aviary with hundreds of colourful butterflies fluttering around is simply an enchanting experience.

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Penang Butterfly Farm

5. Go street art ‘hunting’ in George Town

There’s a lot of very cool street art scattered across Penang, especially in George Town. ‘Hunting’ for street art in George Town is a great way to explore the city. There’s a famous collection by Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, which I call ‘3D street art’ (you’ll soon see why), as well as artwork by local artists.

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One of the ‘3D’ pieces by Ernest Zacharevic.

6. Climb to the top of the Temple of Supreme Bliss

Better known as Kek Lok Si, this is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and stands tall on the hills of Ayer Hitam. This elaborate complex consists of a series of monasteries, prayer halls and beautifully landscaped gardens. The main attractions of the complex include the Pagoda of Rama VI, the Liberation Pond and the towering statue of the Goddess Kuan Yin.

7. Stand eye-to-eye with vipers at the Snake Temple

Perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, the Snake Temple is a Buddhist temple with a population of resident pit vipers (the poisonous variety). It is believed that the snakes made the temple their sanctuary as development in the surrounding hills destroyed their habitat. The wardens say that the constant smoke from burning incense renders the snakes harmless, making them a great photo opportunity!

8. Enjoy the views from the top of Penang Hill

At an elevation of 800+ meters, Penang Hill (or ‘Bukit Bendera’) is a popular retreat for the locals who come up here to enjoy the cooler climate and the stunning views of George Town. There are several ways to ascend the hill: a funicular railway (by far the most popular method), a jeep track and hiking trails. The original funicular railway (which dates from the early 1900’s) has recently made way for brand new trains from Switzerland.

9. Immerse yourself in Penang’s colonial past

A stay in Penang wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the beautifully-restored heritage buildings. The most famous venue for an afternoon high tea, complete with piping hot scones, is the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel. You can also drop by the hotel’s pub for a pint – famous people who’ve been here include Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin! A short walk up the road is The Mansion, another stunning heritage building. There’s a lovely restaurant as well as a lounge and bar in the gardens with beautiful views of Penang harbour. Just outside George Town and surrounded by gorgeous, ancient-looking trees, is Suffolk House, a mansion built on the site of the former residence of Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British settlement in Penang in the 18th century. You can have a meal at the restaurant or take a tour of the stately mansion.

The Mansion
Inside The Mansion
The E&O Hotel
Suffolk House

10. Even better, stay in one of Penang’s heritage buildings!

Quite a few of Penang’s heritage buildings have been converted into gorgeous, atmospheric boutique hotels. Staying at one of these heritage boutique hotels is a great way to immerse yourself in the island’s history and culture. Some boutique hotels I can recommend include Seven Terraces, Jawi Peranakan Mansion, 23 Love Lane, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Macalister Mansion.

The dining room at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
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The Jawi Peranakan Mansion.

Read about a weekend in Melaka and my impressions of Melaka, Malaysia’s other UNESCO World Heritage listed city.

Read other articles in the Velvet Escape “Ten” series:

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42 Responses

  • Thank you Steve for your informative comment. Love what they’ve done to restore Suffolk House. I’ve adjusted the text to reflect that the mansion was built on the site of the former residence of Sir Francis Light. Thanks for the heads up!

    Cheers,
    Keith

  • Suffolk House was built in 1805 on the site of Francis Light’s original house. The house is of interest as being where it is and as an example of early British Colonial architecture.

  • Tks I know more about penang, I will go to the places that you suggested. By the way thanks.

  • A good read, we love Penang and George Town. We just would like to add to the post that people coming to Penang can visit beautiful Botanical Gardens and amazing jungles of Taman Negara Penang National Park, both reachable by bus from George Town. We write about them (and about George Town) in our post so if somebody wants to have a look, it’s here
    http://www.simplynomadiclife.com/visit-george-town-penang-malaysia

    Happy travels!

    Veru&Petra

  • I am planning my trip from singapore working my way up to thailand. The places you’ve recommended to go to made me change my mind to spend more time in Penang.
    thank you for sharing your experineces and knowledge

  • Great list of things to do and see in Penang!! I particularly love the mixture of architecture and the food looks absolutely amazing!

  • Very informative post. Thanks! Traveling to the Georgetown Art and music festival this weekend for a good five days. Will check out everything recommended! Can’t wait!

  • Just arrived in Penang this evening and have already scoped out the bakery you recommend! I look forward to working my way through most of the items in this list – seriously can’t wait to start trying all the delicious food!

  • Hi Nandini,
    Yes, there are, especially in Little India. In any case, there are always vegetarian options available in Malaysia. Simply ask.
    Hope this helps.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  • Hi Keith,
    it is all amazing,eagar to visit penang, are there some vegetarian (no fish,no egg even)food joints here?
    thanks!

  • Nice summary. Bet no one will left out food on the to-do-list when talking about visiting the heritage Penang. city 🙂

  • […] Read the accompanying post: “Ten Things To Do in Penang“. […]

  • […] Read the accompanying post: ‘Ten Things To Do in Penang‘. […]

  • Thank you for all the great info on Penang! We are there right now and can’t wait to explore around and dig into some laksa!

  • The Rainforest Bakery in Georgetown, Malaysia | velvet escape's blog

    […] Read the accompanying post: “Ten Things To Do in Penang“. […]

  • I went to Penang for the first time ever last year. We did Fort Corn Wallice, The was Museum, and the Toy Museum. I went with my family. We also went to the snake museum.. I am pretrofied of snakes but our driver told us they were all behind glass, I sooned learned they werent. I took once step into the entrance and bolted the other way balling my eyes out. All the locals thought it was funny. We went to Komtar and Queensbay Mall. I highly recomend Komtar. We also walked around Georgetown, went to the Butterfly Farm and Toy Museum (I have never seen so many toys in my life). I went horse riding along the beach in Batu Ferringhi which was great fun. Is there anything new that My family and I are can do as we are going to Penang and KL in April?

  • Those vipers look so scary, I bet there are so many people like me that would go there and not last 2 minutes without running out the door. Great comprehensive post!

  • We used to live in Penang. Georgetown is such a cool city, we didn’t expect to see so much history and colonial influences in the architecture. The food is FANTASTIC! Probably the best in SE Asia

  • Thanks for featuring Penang. I love Penang too especially its food. Many tourist tend to head to Thailand or Singapore. Malaysia is like the poorer brother /sister…but I have always believed that Malaysia makes for a really good visit! And it’s not just because I’m Malaysian =)

  • Hi Laura,
    Penang is about a 5-hour drive from KL, past lovely places like Cameron Highlands, Pangkor Laut island, Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar. Alternatively, you can fly; it’s a 30-min flight. If you’re an architecture/history junkie, I highly recommend Georgetown. You’ll love it!

    Cheers,
    Keith

  • Well timed post, Keith — I’m headed to Malaysia next week to spend a few weeks. I’ve visited Penang already, but this post has made me consider a return visit. Looking forward to checking out some of these, and your KL recommends.

  • As an architecture junkie, Georgetown looks like a great place to walk around! I’ll be in Malaysia for a week in October. How far is Penang from KL?

  • Thanks for your lovely comment Christine! The other post must’ve been about Kuala Lumpur. 🙂

    Hugs,
    Keith

  • Thanks for this article, Keith. I remember stumbling upon one of your “10 things to Do in…” (some SEA city) about a year ago before I moved to Asia! I still have a vague visual impression of the article bc the pics were stunning & I thot your list would be a nice rough guide to take. Malaysia is now one of the countries on my bucket list, so thanks for saving some of the Lonely Planet reads!

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