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 (map) 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 and a UNESCO Heritage site) 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 hotels and 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), join a Heritage Trail tour or wander around on your own.
Other beautiful streets to explore include Armenian Road, Cannon Street and Beach Street. 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 on Stewart Lane and Muntri Street. 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!
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 Sister Yao’s Char Kuey Teow (96, Lorong Macalister), Penang Road Famous Laksa (5, Lebuh Keng Kwee), Goh Thew Chik Hainan Chicken Rice (340 Chulia Street).
4. See George Town from above
The Komtar tower, at 249m, is Penang’s tallest tower. Head to the Skywalk at The Top for panoramic views of George Town and the Penang Straits. There are also two glass-floor sections for those who aren’t afraid of heights.
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. Discover George Town’s speakeasies
If you love cocktails and a little adventure, visit one of George Town’s hidden speakeasies. Two of the most popular are Good Friends Club and Backdoor in Gurdwara Street. They’re practically next door to one another but it’ll take a bit of searching and asking around to actually find them! I had a hilarious encounter with a waiter at a nearby restaurant as I searched for Backdoor: he kept telling me that this was the restaurant’s ‘front door’ and that I shouldn’t use its ‘back door’! I found it in the end but I’m not going to spoil the fun of finding it. 😉
8. Drive the Penang Island loop
Hire a car and spend a day driving around the island. Leave the urbanised east coast behind, cross the central mountain range, with its thick forests, and discover the more rural west coast. There are beautiful views of the Straits of Malacca, quiet beaches, waterfalls and nature parks to discover. For lovers of durian, the west coast is Penang’s durian country! You can try some at various durian farms (you can’t miss them along the roads) or at the 2 Acres durian estate/café. The Tropical Fruit Farm offers tastings of different locally-grown fruits.
Another place of interest to visit is Art & Garden, a lovely tropical garden with glass art exhibits and gorgeous views. Continue along road 6 to the Teluk Bahang Dam and past the beaches of Teluk Bahang, the Entopia Penang Butterfly Farm (also worth a stop) and Batu Feringghi back to George Town.
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.
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