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
George Town is a joy to explore on foot. You’ll pass picturesque streets with beautifully-restored heritage buildings, countless restaurants and food stalls and colourful shops. The most prominent landmark (and must-see) in the historic centre 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read other articles in the Velvet Escape “Ten” series:
- Ten city peaks for the most breathtaking views
- Ten things to do in Manchester
- Ten incredible bridge walks
- Ten unforgettable city cruises
- Ten things to do in Kuala Lumpur
- Ten reasons to travel alone