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.
Read about a weekend in Melaka and things to see in Melaka, Malaysia’s other UNESCO World Heritage listed city.
Read other Velvet Escape guides:
- City peaks for the most breathtaking views
- Things to do in Manchester
- Incredible bridge walks
- Unforgettable city cruises
- Things to do in Kuala Lumpur
- Reasons to travel alone
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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!
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.
You’re welcome Martin! 🙂 Enjoy Penang!
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
[…] With its gorgeous colonial buildings and Peranakan houses, and amazing array of food, Penang really is a must-visit destination in Malaysia! Read about things to do in Penang. […]
[…] website for a number of years now, and it was thanks to the website, that we ended up visiting Penang in Malaysia last year on ourt […]
Awesome! Glad I could be of help! 🙂
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
Thank you Constance! 🙂
Great list of things to do and see in Penang!! I particularly love the mixture of architecture and the food looks absolutely amazing!
[…] Jiang Teochew Ancestral Temple, and an unexpected treasure: The Rainforest Bakery. I had seen a recommendation for this bakery on @velvetescape‘s blog when I was doing research on Penang and then promptly forgotten all […]
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!
Awesome! Have a great time in Penang! 🙂
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!
Yes, there are, especially in Little India. In any case, there are always vegetarian options available in Malaysia. Simply ask.
Hope this helps.
it is all amazing,eagar to visit penang, are there some vegetarian (no fish,no egg even)food joints here?
Nice summary. Bet no one will left out food on the to-do-list when talking about visiting the heritage Penang. city 🙂
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Very informative post! Thanks for the insight into Penang! Your suggestions are a great starting point.
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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!
[…] 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?
Haha, they’re actually pretty harmless. Thanks for your comment Jonny!
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
I love Penang, just so much to see by foot! Did all the 10 things you suggested and more 🙂
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 =)
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!
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. 🙂
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!