Killer street food, mountains and sea views, a plethora of cool cafes, brillant, interactive street art, and a thriving culture. No reason comes to mind you shouldn’t visit Penang, Malaysia. In so many ways, it’s the best of both worlds.
Since being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, Penang has done a fantastic job blending the old with the new. Walking down the old streets of George Town, you’ll see crumbling, pastel buildings, eclectic street art, sacred temples, modern cafes, and local markets.
Georgetown is a former colonial city on the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. Named after King George III, it’s an interesting mix of Asian and European influence. Malaysia is predominantly Malay, but Penang has a high population of Chinese and Indian, creating a truly unique culture.
Having loved my time in Kuala Lumpar when I first came to Asia, when I was looking for a place to visit for a week before heading to Bali in early June, Penang came to mind.
I’d heard tale of an improving WiFi infrastructure from other digital nomads, and could tell from the blog posts I scoured, there’d be no shortage of things to do in this somehow timeless, yet modern city.
And so, I booked a flight from Seoul to Penang, eager to see more of Malaysia before heading to Indonesia.
With only a week there, Penang was a place I left wishing I’d given myself more time. It’s one of the best cities I’ve visited in SE Asia- no shortage of activities, vibrant culture, and modern enough to provide amenities many long-term travellers miss (hello, shopping malls and movie theatres).
The historic old town is compact enough to wander on foot, and Grabs are plentiful if you want to head to another part of the island. I didn’t use the bus system while there because Grab estimates were always very cheap, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good, and helpful for getting to some of the island’s major attractions.
Whatever you decide to do in Penang, you really can’t go wrong. It’s a place brimming with activities and things to try.
What to Do
There’s no shortage of activities in Penang. I wished I had longer to explore the city, and see more of the island.
Whether you have a few days or a bit longer, you’ll find something in Penang to interest just about everyone.
Hunting for Street Art in Georgetown: Before visiting, I’d heard the street art scene, in particular, was the stuff legends were made of, but still wasn’t prepared to be so blown away. When George Town became a UNESCO site, the Penang State Government held a competition for ideas to help brand the town as such to make it more attractive for visitors.
One of the ideas to come out of the competition was a series of wrought iron sculptures, which give off a sketch-esque appearance against the city’s walls.
Every corner I turned down, there seemed to be iron sculptures. The details in some of them are incredible, and I found them interesting because many contain history snippets.
The hunt for street art is a fun (and free!) activity that seemed to happen every time I set out to explore downtown. Even, if my intent was to head to a cafe, I’d inevitably be distracted by a glimpse of a colorful mural down an alleyway.
Where to find this awesome street art?
It’s seriously all over town. You can’t miss it.
A few places to head to if you want to kick-start your search-
- Armenian Street
- Gat Lebuh Chulia Street
- Love Lane (bonus, you’ll find plenty of trend cafes in this area and budget hostels- it’s known for being backpacker friendly)
Strolling Historic Georgetown: Whether you’re looking for street art, or just out to peruse city streets, don’t miss seeing Love Lane. A tourist hotspot, there’s lots of cafes, bars, restaurants and great street art. Some of my favourite finds in Georgetown were discovered when I decided to just wander a few streets and see what I could find.
Another must-see while wandering, the Blue Mansion. As one of the most famous places in Penang, it’s a beautifully restored 19th century house painted bright, you guessed it, indigo blue. It’s famed for its ornate furnishings. If you’ve got cash to splash, you can book a room in the mansion for an overnight stay. Daily tours are offered for those just desiring a peek inside.
Going on a Street Food Tour: Street markets in Penang are some of the most diverse I’ve encountered- you’ll find noodles, laksas, samosas, traditional Malaysian desserts- it’s easy to see how different cultures blend together for a street feast. Most tours take you to a food market, plus coffee shops and restaurants. I didn’t do a tour while in Penang, since I was sick for part of my stay, but I’ve heard rave reviews for the Tastes and Traditions tour.
Checking out Penang’s Malls: Malls in Asia are serious business. Most are multi-level and have several towers. I visited the Gurney Plaza mall a few times during my stay, popping in for one of the best pedicures I’ve ever had (Charmaine Nail Studio), to see Aladdin (only £2 for the ticket!), and excellent bubble tea from TeaAlive (one of my favourite places in Asia). Even if you don’t fancy shopping, the lower level food courts in Asian malls are epic.
Seeing the City from Above at Penang Hill: If you’re up for a mega hike, you can climb your way to the top of this towering hill. If that’s not quite your speed in high humidity, fear not- you can take the world’s steepest funicular railway. In addition to stunning, sweeping views at the top, there’s a canopy walkway, temple, mosque and owl museum to check out.
Getting Lost in the Kek Lok Si Temple: One of Penang’s most famous sights, it’s believed to be the biggest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Over 100 years old, the temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over SE Asia. Plan on spending at least a few hours here- the views are great, but there’s also a 7-story pagoda, multiple prayer halls, beautiful gardens and endless nooks and crannies to explore. To enter the temple, you’ll be asked to make a donation. I didn’t see a dress code noted anywhere, but as with anywhere in Asia, I’d err on the side of modesty.
Wandering Little India: Strolling through this part of Georgetown will awaken your senses- there’s so much to see, smell and taste. Buy a refreshing lassi from one of the street vendors to sip, and make sure you see Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Hailed as the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, it’s decorated in beautiful pastel colours. I timed my visit for evening prayer, and enjoyed watching the ritual from the street.
Taking a Cooking Class: The gardens at Tropical Spice Garden are gorgeous, and reason enough to visit, but I’ve heard their cooking class is great for anyone looking to learn how to make Malaysian specialities. It uses the freshest ingredients, including spices from the garden itself. I didn’t have time for this while in Penang, but know people who’ve taken the class and loved it.
Walking Around the Chew Jetty: The largest and most intact of the clan jetties, the origins of these jetties can be traced back to Chinese settlement. Dating back to the 19th century, the jetties are one large floating village of Chinese shops and homes. Now, many of the jetty streets are mostly lined with souvenir stalls and street food. Wander a bit from the main one to see some of the ones further down the river. Here, you’ll find evidence of what daily life is like for those who still live in the jetties.
Admire Nature at Penang’s National Park, Taman Negara: The smallest of the national parks in Malaysia, it’s no less of a beautiful place to spend time. Travel northwest to Teluk Bahang to find the entrance to the park, and the start of hiking trails. While you’re in the area, if you have time, take a boat out to by monkey beach for beautiful views, and yes, loads of monkeys.
See Sparkling Lights at Penang’s Avatar Secret Garden: I didn’t make it here because of the evening thunderstorms when I visited Penang, but taking a Grab out there was high on my list of things to do. Peruse pictures, and you’ll see hundreds of colourful lights set in a beautiful garden. Looks pretty magical.
Where to Eat
Some of the cafes I’ve recommended underneath ‘Where to Have Coffee’ deserve a shout out here as well-
For breakfast, lunch, check out: Black Kettle, Lavish Fusion Bakery, Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company and Mugshot Cafe.
Dessert, China House is a can’t miss. There’s over 100 different types of cake, with a selection that changes daily. Plus, the cafe itself is a cool place to spend time. Roots Dessert cafe is also a visitor and local favourite.
And for dinner, Tai Tong is a very popular place for dim sum. There’s a branch of Din Tai Fung in Gurney Plaza Mall (excellent dumplings and noodles), and what seems like endless street food stalls in city centre. The Chula Street Night Hawker Stalls are particularly good. General rule of thumb, only eat from ones where you see locals or there’s a queue.
Other places to eat that are vegetarian friendly: Zhu Yuan Vegetarian Restaurant, Tofu Village, Carrot Fish (great healthy eats), Karaikudi (Indian), Holy Guacamole (Mexican), and Evergreen Vegetarian (Indian).
A few foods to try to get a taste of local eats, all of which are vegetarian friendly:
- Coconut ice cream
- Pineapple tarts
- Cendol, a very sweet dessert made from shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, bright green rice flour jelly noodles and sweetened red beans
- Ais Kacang, a shaved ice topped with rose syrup, jellies, red beans, creamed corn, and peanuts
- Apam Balik, folded pancakes with peanuts, creamed corn and sometimes coconut or banana
Where to Have Coffee
Penangites love coffee. Small, traditional shops can be found on just about every corner. At these shops, you’ll find kopi tiam style coffee. Best to visit these if you’re just looking for a morning cup of joe. Not the kind of place you’d necessarily crack open a laptop.
Fear not, because with a more modern coffee culture emerging in George Town, there are plenty of modern cafes for you to also visit. It’ll feel like your options for a good cuppa (and usually decent wifi) are endless.
My favourite places were–
China House: No list of cafes in Penang can overlook this institution. It’s one of the oldest and most visited cafes in Penang. Walk through the cafe, all the way to the back to check out the art gallery. With old school music pumping and a seriously impressive selection of cakes, this place is great for catching up with a friend or just taking a break from sightseeing.
Black Kettle: The bright, yellow exterior is what drew me in, but the hip interior and expansive menu convinced me to stay for breakfast. The menu has a fun, Western twist to it. A nice reprieve from the Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine the rest of Penage offers.
Macallum Connoisseurs Coffee Company: A bit outside of the historic George Town centre, Macallum is worth the Grab ride. In fact, I loved this modern warehouse-style cafe so much, I came twice. The breakfast sandwiches were insanely delicious, and the coffee and tea menu is long enough to please just about anyone. Don’t sleep on the smoothie options- I tried a fresh jackfruit smoothie at Macallum, and instantly understood why so many people love this exotic, SE Asian fruit.
Lunabar Coffee: The stuff quiet weekend mornings are made of. At first, I had a tough time finding this cafe because of all the plants out front- an excellent problem to have. Come here for good coffee, slow vibes and plant bebe heaven.
Secawan ‘n’ Such: Hidden on Hutton Lane, Secawan was one of my favourite cafes in Penang. There were fewer tourists, and the WiFi was so strong, I would have definitely come back if I had time. Also loved the cafe’s interior design- the giant murals and rustic touches helped create a relaxed vibe that kept me centered while plowing my way through to-do lists.
The Alley: Set in an old Chinese goods store near Little India, The Alley may be small but the atmosphere is quite lovely- the word, charming, comes to mind. Here, I enjoyed a chai latte and order of piping, hot churros. There’s a game console in the back, so this seems like it would be a cool place to meet a few friends and catch up.
Lavish Fusion Bakery: An Aussie I met in Vietnam raved about Lavish’s souffle pancakes, so much so, that when I was finally hungry after spending a few days sick, all I could think about was trying them. Pleased to inform they do not disappoint- fluffy, a bit wobbly and full of flavour, the pancakes are the star at this bright, modern, plant draped cafe.
Coffee Affairs: Sous vide cold brew? Yes, please. Concerned it may be too hip to be good, I was overjoyed to discover the cold brew tasted just as good as some of my long-steeped favourites. This cafe was also a nice spot to lounge- indoor and outdoor seating, and close to Little India for wandering.
The Mugshot: With a prime location near historic Love Lane, The Mugshot is loved by many visitors to Penang. The bagels are pretty good, and wooden details lend to the cafe’s lovely ambiance. Oh, and per the name, you can have a ‘mugshot’ taken with wall art here as well.
Twelve Cups: Recently renovated and perfectly positioned at the cusp of town. A great place to stop while searching for street art, or to take a break from roaming the jetties.
Where to Drink
Malaysia is a Muslim country, so alcohol is heavily taxed. I wasn’t drinking while in Malaysia, but have heard a few of the upmarket bars in the city centre do decent cocktails.
If you have nice weather while visiting, the Rainbow Bar skydeck would be a great option for a tipple and sunset. And I’ve heard great things about some of the rooftops in town too, notably The Press Rooftop Bar and Loke Thye Kee Bar.
Extra Travel Tips
- Language: English is widely spoken, especially in Georgetown but the official language of Malaysia is Malay, which has various dialects
- Currency: Malaysian Ringgit
- I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards
- Budget: I found Penang to be slightly more expensive than Kuala Lumpar, but still cheaper than islands in Thailand. My Airbnb came in under $25 USD a night, and generally tried to stick to $15-20 USD a day budget for transport/activities/food. I ate at a lot of upmarket places, but you can do Penang on the serious cheap if you stick to street food and local cafes
- Getting There:
- Flying: You’ll likely layover somewhere nearby- Kuala Lumpar or Singapore before flying into Penang’s airport, which is located in the island’s south
- Boat: If you’re coming from the Thai islands or Langkawi, there are ferries to Penang
- Getting Around: Walk in the historic centre, and use Grab or buses to get around to other attractions on the island. From the airport, I called a Grab to take me to my Airbnb
- Where to Stay: I stayed in a beautiful Airbnb condo just outside of Georgetown’s city centre because I planned on using Grab to get around, and needed high speed WiFi to teach English. If you’re just in Penang for holiday, you can easily stay downtown – plenty of hotels, hostels and Airbnbs to choose from, pending your budget
- When to Visit: I visited in late May, and had humid, sunny days. In the evenings, there were often short thunderstorms, but they never really impacted my plans (aside from not being able to catch a good sunset). Like most places in Asia, Penang has a wet and dry season, and because it’s an island, it’s not uncommon for it to rain, even in the dry season. High season for tourism is November – January, when it’s less likely to rain and not overbearingly humid
- Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Malaysia. Some upmarket places may add a 10% service charge to your bill, but they’ll usually warn you of this on the menu first
- Wifi Access: Every cafe, restaurant, bar and coffee shop I visited offered free WiFi, but quality varies greatly. In some places, it’s quick and in others not so much. Everywhere though, it’d be fast enough to call a Grab if you need help getting around. The only places you’d struggle to do so would be attractions outside of city centre- temples, hiking trails, the National Park, beaches
- SIM Card Options: I bought a 7-day SIM, paying $7.30 for 2 GB of data. A bit more expensive than other places in Asia, but not too bad. I also had the option of unlimited texts and WhatsApp messages OR unlimited social platform access (FB, IG, Pinterest, Snapchat). So, those 2 GB of data I bought were only used for Google maps, hailing Grabs and looking things up on Google. There are cheaper options available for short term stays, and a 30 day option if you’re planning on being in Malaysia for a bit longer
Have you ever been to Malaysia? Is it a place that’s on your travel wish list?