From the best street food in Southeast Asia to its now world-famous street murals, here is a list of the top 10 things to do when you visit Penang for the first time.
1. Street of Harmony
Known locally as the Street of Harmony, its official title is Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, and it’s a good place to kick off your top 10. Filled with multiple historic places of worship, catering to Christian’s, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Taoists, the earliest temple here was erected in 1800. The British East India Company erected St George’s Church, at the beginning of the street, in 1819. A little farther down the street you’ll see the Guanyin Temple, the Arulmigu Mahamariammam Temple, and the Acheen Street Mosque.
You can spend a lot of time here, and it’s worth meandering down the small lanes and alleyways that pepper this colorful street, in between the temples, churches, and mosques, as you go. There are lots of traditional craft shops down these little lanes and the fun is in finding them.
2. George Town’s Street Food
There are too many great street food stalls to mention them all individually, so a good place to start is at the beginning of Gurney Drive working your way back towards George Town.
Staples like char koay teow (a popular noodle dish) and Penang Laksa (a spicy soup) are a must. The trick is to try a little of everything and then settle on one or a number of the dishes depending on how hungry you are, that really take your fancy. Make sure you ask if they are hot (spicy) because they can be, and if your tolerance to spice isn’t high then it could end your gastronomic adventure early.
The good news is that the stallholders will accommodate your spice level and if you don’t want spice at all, no problem, just ask.
3. Hop on a Trishaw
This is a great way to see George Town from a different perspective. It’s fun, the drivers are knowledgeable, and you will see so much more from a trishaw than you will from a taxi.
Ask them to take you to The Esplanade, City Hall, Fort Cornwallis, the Clan Jetties, and the Peranakan Mansion, in that order. Finish off in Armenian Street where you can rejuvenate at any one of a number of cafés before wandering off again to explore this UNESCO listed area.
4. Take a Train up Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the oldest hill station in what was then British India. First inhabited in 1793 by the British East India Company, there is a lot to see on the hill and the journey up it on the Penang Hill Funicular Railway is breathtaking. Steep, with jungle on either side of the tracks, there are numerous mansions, lots of fauna, including dusky leaf monkeys, mousedeer, wild boar, and macaques galore, to see.
When you get to the top of the hill, take in the expansive views of George Town and mainland Malaysia in the distance below. David Brown’s Restaurant, on the highest point of the hill, is worth stopping at. Their afternoon teas, complete with fresh scones dripping with cream and jam, are to die for.
Penang’s wealthy, and some of her oldest families, have hill homes here. They alone are worth the visit and you could easily spend a day here wandering the narrow lanes that lead to them.
The Habitat Penang Hill is also worth visiting as they have just opened Malaysia’s highest treetop walk and treetop canopy walk. Its nature trail is well signposted, wheelchair assessable and if you happen to get caught in a storm its covered viewing stations, looking out across ancient rainforest, are a good place to sit it out and to take it all in. For more information see: thehabitat.my/home/
5. Street Art
Penang’s street art is amazing, to say the least, and there is a lot of it in George Town. There are no maps to follow here, it’s more a case of wandering around and finding it as you go.
What’s interesting about it is that it’s a landscape that continually changes. It’s the very nature of street art and a mural that was there last week or even yesterday, may not be there the following day, having been painted over by another artist.
A good place to finish your art tour adventure is the Hin Bus Depot, at 31A Jalan Gurdwara. The café there is extremely good, the manager serves good Malaysian fare fresh from his wife who cooks it at home each morning.
6. The Penang National Park
A 101 bus will take you to the north end of the Penang Island and the only national park on the island. There are some great costal walks here, and it’s absolutely worth the effort.
The bus ride alone, which will take 40 minutes, along the coastal highway is stunning, and it gives you a real feel for the tropics and reminds you of why you live here. There are numerous sandy coves, hidden beaches galore, and lots of street food stalls where you can sample traditional Malay fare.
From the beginning of the gardens you can take a number of walks ranging from an hour to five or six. Good shoes are needed, and you must carry your own water, but the good news is, is that there are walks for every level of fitness. My recommendation for a good flat walk is Monkey Beach. From there you can swim and relax and catch a boat back to the beginning of the park if you don’t fancy the hike out.
7. Batu Ferringhi
First visited by British in 1593 there isn’t a great deal here that they would recognize today if they turned up. Glitzy hotels line the beach, including the Hard Rock Café where there are live bands playing all weekend.
During the day it’s the beaches that are busy, and like most congested beach areas there isn’t a great amount of peace to be had. Jet skis, banana boat rides, and paragliding are popular. If you have children, this is the place to while away the hours before the night market opens. It’s expansive and runs for over a mile and there are numerous cafés, beach bars, and restaurants of every variety for you to choose from.
8. The Penang Botanic Gardens
Designed in the 1880’s by Englishman Charles Curtis and just 4 miles from the center of George Town, The Penang Botanic Gardens are a good place to get back to nature. Peaceful, there are a number of themed gardens to wander at leisure and if you drop by early in the morning there are Tai Chi classes that are free to join.
George Town’s original water source is here too, The Penang Waterfall. Take the pathway to the right of the stairs that head up to station number 46 and you’ll find yourself at the base of the falls in a matter of 15 minutes.
9. Spend Time at The Peranakan Mansion
This is my mansion of choice, not just in Penang but in the whole of Malaysia. It’s grand, ostentatious, elaborate, fanciful, magical, and filled to the brim with objects of Victoriana. It gives you a sense of how the wealthy of Penang lived in the late 1800’s, and Peter Soon, the owner, has created an atmosphere akin to something that you would experience in the hit TV show Downton Abbey.
There is a very good Baba Nyonya museum at the back of the house too, filled with Peter Soon’s collection of Straits Chinese eclectic jewelry.
10. Visit Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si Temple is one of, if not the largest, Buddhist temple in Malaysia. During Chinese New Year and Wesak Day the entire temple complex is covered in an array of lights, and it’s one of those attractions that literally takes your breath away.
There are a number of good smaller temples in this area and once you have seen Kek Lok Si, ask your guide or taxi driver to take you to The Bat Cave Temple, just down the road. There is a live 12-foot long serpent here that has to be seen to be believed.