Penang: it’s off-the-charts AWESOME. You know that or you wouldn’t be considering booking a holiday there. But what are you actually going to do with your time? And what about the kids?
I’ll be putting this together in a bigger Penang post for those of you who want to incorporate a stay in Batu Ferringhi as well here’s my Batu Ferringhi guide)… but for now let’s look now at George Town, the UNESCO World Heritage City. History nerds, get excited!
I’ll be putting this all together in a bigger Penang post, but for now let’s look now at George Town, the UNESCO World Heritage City. History nerds, get excited!
I go into a bit more detail on some of Penang’s historical sites here, but this will give you a rundown of how to plan a few days in George Town. Truth be told I could spend weeks in George Town just strolling around, but you can definitely explore a lot of this compact city in a few short days.
A quick hint: Penang’s tourism board produces some really insightful pamphlets and maps. Most hotels will have an area in the lobby where you can pick these up. From food guides to the Heritage Trail, you’ll find everything else you need to know in these pamphlets. But read this first, of course!
Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a hotel or tour booking I’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you.
The famous George Town street art
All around the city you’ll find various murals and other artworks. Many of them are quite interactive and all of them are totally insta-worthy. The one thing all these works of art have in common is their celebration of Penang’s way of life, it’s history and culture. That’s what makes them all the more fascinating.
My favourites were the wrought iron comic strips… they look like they’re just painted on a wall until you look closely. They’re all entertaining, but some of them are quite pithy (or even a little facetious) and have interesting messages.
Immerse yourself in the George Town food scene
For foodies, Penang is one of the top destinations in Asia. There are just so many unique delicacies to try. The hardest decision will be where to eat first!
Hawker centres are without a doubt my favourite, and the best one in Penang is Sungai Pinang. This is where all the locals go, so you know it’s good. The absolute must try stall is East Coast BBQ but try to get as many different dishes from as many different stalls as possible. Seafood lovers, you’ll be happy here. We also liked the hawker centre at Gurney Drive – I noted there were some great halal options here in particular.
Penang’s food is influenced by ethnic Malay cuisine, as well as Chinese and Indian influences. This means it’s always possible to find something vegetarian, meaty, halal, spicy, mild, hot, cold, light or hearty… the only thing I found remotely difficult was gluten free (but I probably didn’t try very hard).
Along with hawker centres and street food, there are groovy cafes and restaurants all through George Town. Some of the more upmarket hotels will usually incorporate fine dining restaurants too.
Read this post for more on Penang’s food scene.
George Town’s Little India
Between Chulia Street, Queen Street and Market Street you’ll find George Town’s Little India. It’s everything you’d expect: bright colours, intoxicating smells and blaring music. Whenever I’m feeling a bit mopey I like to rewatch the little video snippet of Little India I took on my Instagram stories… it’s so upbeat and colourful that it always makes me feel a bit more cheery.
You’ll find Sri Mahamariamman Temple on Queen Street in Little India. This is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang and it’s well worth a visit. There are several rituals held daily so you do need to be aware of the opening hours: 6am – 12pm and 4.30pm – 9pm. It’s extra special if you happen to be in Penang during Thaipusam, Navarathiri or Deepavali festival times.
Kek Lok Si and Penang Hill
Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill are two strikingly different experiences, but they’re both located in Air Itam, about a 20 minute drive from George Town centre.
It’s possible to walk from one site to the other and will take you about 20 minutes; we didn’t do this as our eldest was only three and he wouldn’t quite have had the legs for it. However, it’s a fairly leisurely walk.
Kek Lok Si is an incredible Buddhist temple built around the turn of the 20th Century. Its ornate detailing and bright colours are made all the more impressive by the surrounding mountains. Some parts of the temple are actually carved into the rock face of the mountains. At the top is a seven-storey Buddha with 10,000 smaller Buddhas surrounding the structure.
Over at Penang Hill, take the funicular railway to the top, where the British built hill stations to escape the heat. The view over Penang Island is incredible, and the cool breeze provides a welcome relief. One minor annoyance is that many of the separate attractions at the top require extra payment, but for us it was enough to stroll around the gardens and take in the view. There’s also a delightful restaurant, David Brown’s at Strawberry Hill, at the top. This is a typical British colonial setting with a gorgeous terrace and garden.
I’ve already mentioned the hawker centre on Gurney Drive, but there’s a bit more to it than that. You’ll find the Gurney Plaza mall here as well as the Paragon mall (Paragon is the ritzy mall you’ll find in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok too). There are several nice hotels on Gurney Drive and you’ll find many high-rise condos here too. If you’re so inclined (a night away from the kids perhaps?) there are actually a few cool bars and nightclubs in Gurney. I can’t review any for you though since I’ve forgotten what nightclubs look like.
Cheong Fatt Tze (Blue Mansion) and Pinang Peranakan Mansion
You’ll find Peranakan on Lebuh Church and the Blue Mansion on Lebuh Leith. These amazing heritage mansions are steeped in history and are well worth a visit for several reasons.
I took a tour of the Blue Mansion and it really was like stepping back into the 1800s – you can imagine all the business dealings that took place here as well as what it was like for the family to live here. Part of what made the experience so amazing was our guide, Christina – her knack for telling the Cheong Fatt Tze story with such accuracy and humour made me wish the tour lasted all day.
Entry to the Blue Mansion is by tour only and costs 16MYR. You’ll find tour times posted out the front of the building; here’s some further information on the Blue Mansion. Peranakan is open daily with tours available on request; entry is 20MYR. Here’s some more information on Peranakan.
Penang Chocolate and Coffee Museum
Okay, this one’s a laugh. Located on Lebuh Leith (right by the Blue Mansion) is Penang’s Chocolate and Coffee Museum. While we were waiting for the scheduled tour to start at the Blue Mansion, we popped in here to learn a little about the chocolate and coffee trade. And, well… try some samples.
The “tour” was over in about 60 seconds. Luckily, most of the information is painted onto the walls for you to take some time to read, because we were shunted through so quickly. We presume this was in the hope we would buy a bunch of treats (which we did of course).
Honestly, speed of the tour notwithstanding, I did learn a few things. And it was a cute experience that gave us a bit of a laugh. The kids loved looking at various machines involved in the chocolate-making process, and I bought some chocolate-coated coffee beans (my two loves in one treat!).
If you want some cool gifts for family and friends back home you’ll find something here. There’s also an ice-creamery out the front… Which is a great opportunity to experience durian if you’re not game enough to ty the fruit itself!
Penang Botanic Gardens
If you need an oasis away from George Town’s hustle and bustle, the Penang Botanic Gardens won’t disappoint. Again, history nerds will learn something here. But the kids will love strolling through, maybe running off some energy, and watching the monkeys do the same!
There are several different gardens within the complex, each with their own heritage theme. The official Penang Botanic Garden website lists some specific attractions, such as the cannon ball tree and rain tree, and is well worth a read.
Looking for some more ideas? Stop for a drink at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel or explore the historic Fort Cornwallis. I go into more detail on my Historical Penang post here.
So there’s three days in George Town sorted. Eat, explore, and delight in this incredible UNESCO World Heritage city. I’m now working on a post on Batu Ferringhi, so stay tuned for that. I’ll show you how to add the two together to make one glorious week in Penang.
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