We love Penang Island in Malaysia so much, that we visited it twice! – in fact, we have just come back from our second visit. Without a doubt, Penang and its UNESCO World Heritage capital George Town, are some of the world’s best-hidden gems. In this Penang travel guide, we will show you the best things to do in George Townand around to make the most of your trip through this exciting and multicultural destination!
Best things to do in George Town and around: – Street Art Trail – Jetties Communities – Kek Lok Si Temple – Blue Mansion – Penang Hill Cable Car – Penang Hill Trekk – Fort Cornwallis and Victoria Clock – Botanic Garden – Penang National Park – Beaches of Penang – The Habitat Penang
Penang Island is located on the West side of Malaysia (355 km from Kuala Lumpur), really near the border with Thailand.
Arriving there is very easy as there is a bridge connecting the mainland to the island, thus you can take a bus, drive or even fly through Penang’s airport.
Penang tourist map
Penang and George Town – understanding the difference
Let’s start from the beginning as there is quite a lot of confusion when it comes to the question “is Penang a city?”
No, Penang is not a city. Penang is the name of the island, in which the city George Town is located. George Town is actually the capital of Penang Island, where most of the island’s infrastructure is located. When you travel to Penang, you will most likely stay in George Town.
Is Penang worth visiting?
Our review of Penang couldn’t be better! In fact, we love Penang so much we had to visit it twice!
Why do we love Penang so much? Well, Penang is probably one of the most culturally diverse islands in the world. The whole island is lively and full of historical buildings, temples, art and graffiti, let alone the fact that they have one of the best gastronomy hubs ever – not overstating.
What really caught our attention the most in Penang was exactly this cultural diversity. For some reason, the island became home to many Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Syrians, English, Germans and, of course, Malaysians. This mix of such diverse people had quite positive effects on the local culture, history and gastronomy.
Georgetown (GT), the capital of Penang, is where everything happens. During your Penang travel, you will see a bit of the world in each corner: Buddhist temples, churches, mosques; Chinese, Indian, Vegetarian or Syrian restaurants; street food; street art; mansions from the colonial time and a lot more you can imagine.
Georgetown is a UNESCO Heritage site. To get lost in its alleys is like going back to the past, but still having the frenetic pace of modern society.
The history of Penang Island
Before we delve into the best things to do in George Town, it is important to understand a bit of the history of Penang. Learning the origins of the island is fundamental to understanding why this is such a unique place.
Penang was a British colony for many years, keeping such status even after the independence of Malaysia – George Town was founded during this period, thus being named after King George III.
Malacca and Singapore were also British colonies, and the three territories were known as Straits Settlements. While Penang and Malaca are still part of Malaysia, Singapore became an independent country.
It was during this colonization period over 200 years ago that the island became an important entrepot and a business and financial base, attracting many Chinese, Indians, and other nationals.
Nowadays, Chinese Malaysians make up 50% of Penang’s population and you will see this reflect in many aspects of the local culture: people communicate in Chinese; most signs are in Chinese; and Buddhist Temples are predominantly, even though Malaysia is a Muslim Country.
This multicultural formation of Penang can be seen in everything, from the architecture to the religion, food and traditions. And for us this is what makes this destination so unique.
Currently, Penang is one of the richest areas in Malaysia, attracting many locals and even expats. Penang is also an important tourist destination in Malaysia for both domestic and international tourism. Every tourist we met had fallen in love with this charming little island. Even Malaysians are quite proud of the place.
Where to stay in Penang – hotels in George Town and by the beach
If you want to feel the best of Penang’s culture you should surely stay in George Town. That’s where you find most of Penang’s attractions, as well as the historical buildings, charming alleys and lots of street food.
The more centrally located you stay, the better, as you can explore everything by foot. We particularly recommend the charming boutique hotels located inside historical buildings. They are an experience on their own.
The last time we visited Penang we stayed in a heritage hotel which was quite affordable and nice, the MoonTree 43. The room was a bit too small and they don’t offer breakfast, but again, a good option for budget accommodation in the historic centre.
Another super charming hotel housed in a historical building is the 23 Love Lane. For those who do not have a budget constraint, staying at the famous Blue Mansion can be an unforgettable experience!
But, if you are looking for something even more peaceful and remote, the hotels and bungalows in the northeast of the island are the way to go. We recommend the Angsana Hotel, in Teluk Bahang.
Penang travel – best things to do in George Town and around
Even though it is a small island, there are many things to do in Penang Malaysia. We did practically all the attractions in Penang one can possibly do in one week and there are still many other places to visit in Penang.
Find below a list of the best things to do in George Town and around for a perfect Penang travel.
Do the street art trekking of Penang
One of our – and most people too – favourite things to do in George Town is the street art trail. Mostly located in the centre of Georgetown, there over 20 graffiti scattered around, some in 3D or more interactive.
Moreover, there are 50 artworks in metal telling stories about a specific street, a store or a place. Most of the hotels will have a Penang travel guide map with the location of these graffiti and artworks for you to find on your own.
Wander around the Jetties communities in Penang
One of our favourite activities in George Town is a visit to the jetties. These are stilt communities built by the first Chinese who arrived in Penang Island, over 150 years ago.
There used to be over 10 jetties, but now there are only five. The Chew Jetty is the most touristy of all, while the others are calmer and residential. If you decide to explore the other ones, make sure to be respectful as you will be passing very near people’s homes.
The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang is the main Buddhist Temple in George Town and the largest in Malaysia! This temple is very important, attracting pilgrims from all around the world.
The whole structure is impressive, with a seven-storey Pagoda, 10 thousand buddhas, and an almost 40-metre-high statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
There are many temples in Penang island as you will see, but the Kek Lok Si is one that cannot be left out of your Penand travel itinerary. It opens every day from 7am to 5h30pm.
Tour the beautiful Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)
Located in the heart of Penang’s capital, the Blue Mansion, also known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is one of the best things to do in George Town!
Built in the late 19th century, this mansion was the brainchild of the rich Chinese merchant, Cheong Fatt Tze. A symbol of the wealth and influence of the Hakka immigrant community, the mansion showcases a unique blend of Eastern and Western architectural elements, reflecting the multicultural melting pot of Penang.
The Blue Mansion also works as a 5* hotel, so you can only visit it at certain times and with a tour guide. As there are only two tours per day with up to 45 people per group, we recommend booking it in advance as it can get very busy.
Go on a ride on the oldest cable car, in Penang Hill
A Penang travel is not complete if not going to Penang Hill, one of the most popular Penang tourist attractions. It offers breathtaking views of the island, sitting at approximately 823m above sea level. The way to the top is through the oldest cable car, in operation since 1923.
A two-way ticket on Penang Hill’s cable car costs around U$ 13 p.p.. Check availability and opening times here.
Climb the Penang Hill on foot
If cable cars are not really your thing, instead, you can climb up the Penang Hill. Just note that it is quite a demanding trekking route. We recommend seeing the sunset from up there, so you can grab the daylight, the beautiful sunset as well as the lighting of the city, as it is open till 22:00.
Visit the historical Fort Cornwallis and the Victoria Clock
The Cornwallis Fort was built by the British East India Company in the late 18th century and named after the then Governor-General of Bengal, Charles Cornwallis. The fort played a significant role in protecting the British interests in the region during colonial times.
The Victoria Clock Tower (or Penang Clock Tower) is at the intersection of Light Street and Beach Street in Georgetown. It was erected in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Visit the Botanic Garden of Penang
The Botanic Gardens is one of the oldest and most beautiful gardens in Malaysia, established in 1884. It is a haven for nature lovers and enthusiasts. Also known as the “Waterfall Gardens” because of the cascading waterfall nearby, this enchanting 72-acre escape beckons with winding trails, beautiful flora, and serene ponds.
Venture on a trek (or boat trip) at the Penang National Park
The Penang National Park (or Taman Negara Pulau Pinang) is a protected nature reserve located on the northwestern coast of Penang Malaysia. It is Malaysia’s smallest national park but offers a wealth of natural beauty and biodiversity, including beaches, forests and mangrove swamps.
There are a few options for exploring Penang National Park: you can either take a trek to its different beaches, hire a boat for the route, or make a mix of both.
The entrance to the park costs 50 Ringgit, but you don’t have to pay if only visit Monkey Beach, which is the nearest one. By the way, last time we were in Penang, the trek to Monkey Beach was closed due to some renovations, so you couldn’t trek and had to take the boat.
Boats have a fixed price depending on your beach destination. We recommend you try to coordinate with other visitors to share the fare as there is a fixed price for the whole boat.
Take a Trekking to the Waterfalls in Penang
Go on a trekking to the waterfalls! Just bear in mind that during drought, the falls have no water. Our recommendations are:
Monkey Beach Waterfall – within the Penang National Park.
Titi Kerawang Waterfall – in Balik Pulau.
Pantai Kerachut Waterfall – within the Penang National Park, near Turtle Beach.
Sungai Tukun Waterfall – in Teluk Bahang.
Balik Pulau Waterfall – in the hills of Balik Pulau.
Visit some of the Beaches of Penang
Another thing we loved doing while travelling in Penang was to rent a scooter to visit the different beaches. One of our favourite beaches was Pantai Pasir Panjang, just by the army camp, in the southern part of the island. It is a less visited beach with very clean water.
One of the latest tourist attractions in Penang is a place called The Habitat, a treetop walkway called the “Langur Way Canopy Walk”. It allows visitors to walk among the treetops and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding forest and the city of George Town below.
It provides an immersive experience in the lush tropical rainforest environment, and visitors can spot a variety of flora and fauna, including different species of birds, insects, and, occasionally, wildlife like the dusky leaf monkey. This is actually a great activity for families in Penang.
Where to eat in George Town – a food tour in Penang
Penang island is known for its incredible and diverse food. To try out the different culinary of the island is a must and one of the best things to do in George Town!
In the area known as Little India, you will find many restaurants – obviously Indians – but mostly vegetarians. We loved one called Chettiar’s Tiffin Café which was recommended by a local. Simply authentic and delicious.
At Georgetown city centre you find many other cuisines too, especially Chinese, since they are 50% of the population. We definitely recommend visiting a food court called Red Garden Food Paradise where locals gather to eat, drink, dance and sing. This is one of the best places to eat and drink in Penang.
Apart from that, our recommendation is to really get lost and try everything. For instance, the area near the cable car that will take you to Penang Hill is full of street markets at night, where you can find a variety of dishes, such as curries, chicken, kebab, grilled fish and more mouth-watering local and international food.
Penang at night
When the sun sets, Penang transforms into a vibrant and enchanting city. From bustling night markets to illuminated landmarks, there are many Penang night activities to make.
Enjoy the nightlife of Georgetown, full of bars and lively charming restaurants. Don’t miss out on Love Lane if you like to party hard.
Penang’s night markets, known as “pasar malam,” are a must-visit for those seeking a lively atmosphere and an array of local delights. The colourful contiguously put stalls begin their activities after dusk, offering an assortment of street food, clothing, accessories, and souvenirs. Don’t miss out on Gurney Drive Night Market and Batu Ferringhi Night Market.
Penang’s historic streets take on a different charm at night, illuminated by the warm glow of street lamps and heritage buildings. Take a leisurely stroll along Armenian Street and Lebuh Muntri in Georgetown, where you can admire the beautifully restored shophouses, captivating street art, and colonial architecture.
Penang Hill at night
For breathtaking panoramic views of the city skyline at night, a visit to Penang Hill is a must. Hop on the funicular railway and ascend to the summit, where you can witness the glittering lights of Georgetown below. Enjoy the cool breeze and savor the romantic ambiance as you gaze at the city’s twinkling lights. Don’t forget to capture memorable photos and create lasting memories of your Penang adventure.
The Penang Street Art and Cultural Night Market showcases vibrant dance performances, live music, and cultural showcases, providing a glimpse into the region’s diverse traditions.
Penang travel with family
Note that most the Penang places to visit are actually fantastic to visit with family. Penang is indeed the place where everyone have your space and is happy. And yes, there is room for everybody.
As the island is not particularly small, you will be ok with public transport. The bus fare costs around 3.50 to 4.0 MYR (about 70 cents USD) per ride. There will be traffic at some point of the day, so plan ahead not to get buses during rush hour.
Grab is their version of Uber, which works super well in Malaysia and other South East Asian countries. Particularly if you get to Penang by bus and want to go from the bus station to your hotel. Another way of transportation is the rickshaws, but pedal bikes instead of motorised ones and they can carry up to three people.
As we mentioned, we really recommend renting a scooter as you will have your freedom to move whenever you like. In Penang, particularly, you wouldn’t even have to worry about traffic. Renting a scooter in Penang goes for about 30 MYR (8 USD) and petrol is really cheap, about 1.6 MYR per litre (less the 50 cents USD per litre).
The Penang International Airport is the main international gateway to Penang Island for both domestic and international flights. Most common flights are from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia; Singapore; Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand, as well as many cities in China.
Companies such as Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, China Southern Airlines and AirAsia operates in Penang airport.
Well, we really enjoyed our both visits to Penang – as you surely have realised by now. If you read this Penang travel guide up to here, you are probably really interested in visiting Penang. Please feel free to contact us at anytime. Leave your comments below, we would love to hear your experience in Penang too!
See the summary of this Penang travel guide in these FAQs
Where to go in Penang
– Do the street art trekking of Penang – Oldest cable car in Penang Hill – Climb to the Penang Hill – Visit the historical Fort Cornwallis and the Victoria Clock – Botanic Garden and the National Park – Trekking to the Waterfalls – Chew Jetties in Penang – Beaches of Penang – Religious sites
Is Penang a good place to travel with family?
Note that most of the Penang places to visit are actually fantastic to visit with family. Penang is indeed the place where everyone has your space and is happy. And yes, there is room for everybody.
What are the best places in Penang at night?
– Georgetown Love Lane – Night markets – Heritage Walks – Penang Hill at night – Cultural Performances
Where is a 5 start hotel in Penang?
Lone Pine Boutique Hotel – in Batu Ferringhi Angsana Teluk Bahang – in Teluk Bahang The George – in Georgetown Beacon Executive Suites – in Georgetown
Where to go eat in Penang?
Penang’s night markets, known as “pasar malam,” are a must-visit for those seeking a lively atmosphere and an array of local delights. The colourful contiguously put stalls begin their activities after dusk, offering an assortment of street food, clothing, accessories, and souvenirs. Don’t miss out on Gurney Drive Night Market and Batu Ferringhi Night Market
* This article was originally written in September, 29th 2019 and updated in Ocotber 2023 *