Updated on 9th May 2022
Penang is one of those places I’ve dreamed of exploring for years. You know those places that completely capture your imagination, but you just can’t make it happen? I’ve travelled to Malaysia several times now, but this last trip was the first time I was able to get out to some of the islands. For me, it was worth the wait.
Penang has everything I love. Historical sites in spades. Excellent food. Warm weather. Friendly locals. Bustling cities surrounded by peaceful nature. The beer isn’t cheap, so that’s a tick against it for me, but everything else was all I expected and more.
When I first pictured myself travelling around Penang, I was 18. Backpack on my back, cheap hostel booking made, I would be ready to party. But it never came to be. Years later I pictured myself again, a young professional: roaming the streets looking for cultural curiosities, coming home to a fancy hotel. Again, it never happened. Never did I picture myself trawling the streets with two kids under four, desperate to get as much ticked off as possible before nap time. But so it was. Such is the joy (and frustration) of travelling with young kids. But while I didn’t have the experience I had envisioned, I experienced something else… the joy of watching my kids take it all in too.
I’ve written a few posts so far on various elements of Penang’s scene, but let’s tie it all together. For those who’ve just started looking, you’ll find everything you need to know here. From practical considerations to itinerary planning and all sorts of points of interest, here’s my ultimate guide to Penang.
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Let’s start by getting to know Penang. It’s all very well to wander around and get a general feel for the place, but context is always good. This is an extremely brief version, but will help you get a feel for the different cultural elements of Penang.
There is evidence of human settlement in Penang up to 6,000 years ago. Evidence has also been found of a Hindu-Buddhist civilisation around 500AD. From then until the late 1700s, Penang was part of the Sultanate of Kedah. The British engaged in trade relations in the 1770s and, given the internal and external threats the Sultanate was under, made Penang a British protectorate. There was some back and forth after this – it’s all very interesting if you are so inclined.
George Town was set up as a free port (to lure competition away from Dutch ports in the region) leading to an economic boom. With Singapore and Melacca, Penang became part of Britain’s Straits Settlements. Eventually overtaken in importance by Singapore, Penang remained an important outpost for Britain.
Due to its various developments, Penang evolved into a cosmopolitan region. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Thais and other ethnicities all made their lives in Penang. An increase in population often leads to issues of infrastructure, resources and sanitation, and a supposed decrease in law and order saw Britain change the status of Penang to a Crown Colony. This had a positive effect on law enforcement, healthcare and other social structures. The island became a haven for western intellectuals – you can still enjoy a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, where the likes of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling used to stay.
While Penang did see some action in World War I, in World War II it was captured by the Japanese. This had heartbreaking consequences for its people, including massacres of Penang’s Chinese population. After Japan’s surrender, Penang became part of the Malayan Union (and then Federation of Malaya), before Malaysian independence in 1957.
My post on Historical Sites in Penang includes both the Eastern and Oriental Hotel and The Blue Mansion (which is a wonderful example of traditional Chinese culture that was nearly destroyed during Japanese occupation, and painstakingly brought back to life).
How to get to Penang
Penang Island is situated off the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. There’s actually a long bridge that connects George Town, Penang’s capital, with Butterworth on the mainland. Penang State includes Penang Island and a small portion of Peninsula Malaysia.
Depending on where you live, the usual route would be to fly into either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and take a domestic/regional connection into Penang. The airport is located in Bayan Lepas in the island’s south. From there it’s about half an hour to George Town and 45 minutes to Batu Ferringhi by car, depending on traffic.
Southeast Asia is well serviced by both premium and budget airlines. On our latest trip, we went with the budget option and were pleasantly surprised. Here’s our wrap up of budget airline travel if you want to take a read.
If you’re exploring more of Malaysia or Southeast Asia than just Penang, you can get yourself to Penang using the bridge. To do this, take the ETS Train from KL Sentral station in Kuala Lumpur to Penang Butterworth station. You can then catch a ferry over to George Town or even take a Grab (see below for more info on this).
If you find yourself in Langkawi first, you can catch a ferry from Langkawi to Penang too (and of course do this in reverse). When making our way from Penang to Langkawi we elected to fly though as it was so cheap, and we weren’t confident in the quality of the ferry after reading some reviews. We definitely would have given it a go if it was just the two of us, but we felt differently having the kids with us.
Lastly, there are regular coach services all around the region, making it easy to travel by bus from Thailand or Peninsula Malaysia. Again, these services do usually terminate at Butterworth.
What to do in Penang
As a travel blogger, I pretty much live my life writing “what to do in x destination” posts. But the thing is, it totally depends on the type of traveller you are. Anyone who reads this blog knows I love history and food. So for me, I’d rather take a tour of an historical site then fill myself up on street food than, say, hit a mall or market. But for some people, the glitzy malls of Penang’s Gurney Drive are heaven.
I always make sure to have a wander around local shops and malls to get a feel for places in order to write better itineraries. But they’re not really my thing. I think it’s always important to keep in mind the writer’s own stance when reading itineraries, as I’d hate someone to miss a place they would have otherwise enjoyed because I personally didn’t enjoy it.
But this is also why I know many of my readers come back to my blog: because we think in similar ways. Personality goes a long way. Super-fashionable insta-babes probably aren’t likely to resonate with A Winter Escape as I’m not overly trendy and I’m reeaaaallly not very photogenic. (I try! But it usually ends up in embarrassment.) Serious mums probably wouldn’t resonate with my “grab a cocktail and say some curse words” style either. I get that. And so it is with travel styles. I’m NOT a lie-around-at-the-resort traveller most of the time. I’m also not a nightlife traveller (it’d be nice, but kids). A usual day for me involves getting up early and trying to cram in as much as possible… and usually making my kids really grumpy in the process.
So in saying all that, here’s what I think you need to do in Penang:
See as many heritage sites as possible.
My six highlights are:
- The Blue Mansion
- Kek Lok Si temple
- Penang Hill
- Fort Cornwallis
- The Clan Jetties
- The Eastern and Oriental Hotel.
I wrote a post about these six sites: Penang Activities For History Buffs
Stroll around George Town
Find all the street art, listen to blaring music in Little India, and watch all sorts of curious happenings on the street and go in search of street snacks. My favourite things to see were people asleep in the back of their rickshaws and people heading to worship in the temples. You never know what you’ll see, but it’s guaranteed to be fascinating.
Penang food: try it all!
Eat as much as you possibly can, from as many different places as you can find. That’s really all I can say. If you see it, and it’s edible, give it a go. For the foodies amongst us, see my post on Penang’s foodie trail.
For more specific information, Check out the Penang Foodie blog.
Spend some time hanging out at the beach, especially if you can organise a hike to Penang National Park. You’ll find some stunning, secluded beaches here.
To put this all together in a manageable itinerary, use my George Town post and my Batu Ferringhi post. This is essentially my way of breaking the trip up a bit, which is what we did. These itineraries are tried, tested and tweaked by us. We had six nights in Penang all-up and raced around most days but also spent a day by the pool. Obviously we dragged two tiny children on this itinerary too, so you could make it faster or slower depending on how much time you have, and whether your family likes to be on-the-go.
Where to stay in Penang
We stayed at the OnePacific on Jalan Macalister. At $80AUD/night for a huge family room, it was great. It wasn’t fancy but it was clean, the staff members
Still technically in George Town but on the way to Batu Ferringhi is the Mercure Penang Beach. This is quite a good option if you want something with an ocean view but want to be a bit closer to the city.
The Sunway Hotel is a good option; I’ve stayed at Sunways throughout Asia and they’re always very nice. Clean, lovely amenities and top-notch service.
For something truly unique, Penang offers the experience to stay in some of the historic mansions. Along with the Chinese-inspired Blue Mansion, Jawi Peranakan is a gorgeous Anglo-Indian mansion where you can book a room.
The Northam All Suite Penang offers great family rooms at a decent price, right in the heart of the action. Some of the rooms are a bit dated but it has a lovely pool and the big MUST for young families: big rooms.
For the ultimate bucket list experience, you just have to book a stay at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Who knows, you might even feel persuaded to create your own literary masterpiece while you’re there!
There are several well-known resorts dotted along the Batu Ferringhi strip, as well as some brand new condos allowing holiday rentals – giving travellers more options than ever.
The Shangri La Rasa Sayang is the star of the show (as the Shangri La brand often is). The rooms are gorgeous and quite spacious, and the Feringgi Grill restaurant is famous all over Penang.
For something super-duper kid-friendly and fun, try the Hard Rock Penang. It definitely doesn’t have the refined elegance of the Shangri La, but it has personality in spades and is the best option for kids of all ages. You can read our Hard Rock Penang review here.
I really like the new By The Sea condos for something more apartment-style. They were just opening when we were in Penang and have proved to be very popular.
What to eat and where to eat in Penang
Well the answer to this is everywhere.
My Penang Foodie Trail post has a whole bunch of information on what to try and the best places to try it, but if you’re hanging out in Batu Ferringhi, my Batu Ferringhi guide has some extra information on where to eat in that particular area.
Practical considerations in Penang
Getting around in Penang
The best way to do this is to download the Grab app. This is Southeast Asia’s rideshare service (like Uber or Lyft) and is incredibly good value for money. Not only that, in George Town, Batu Ferringhi or around major sites like Kek Lok Si and Penang Hill, you’ll hardly ever have to wait for more than a couple of minutes for your ride. You can pay cash directly to your driver or set up the app to debit your credit card.
Within George Town and Batu Ferringhi, walking is great. Not everywhere will have footpaths so do be mindful of that, but most things are in reasonable walking distance of each other. In George Town, on foot is often the best way as you’ll see several interesting sites on your way from A to B and you might even pick up a street snack too!
Sim card with data
Given that Grab is really the best way to get around when covering larger distances, you’ll want to pick up a local SIM card with a reasonable data package. This is super easy. Walk into any 7Eleven with your passport and they’ll be able to sort you out in five minutes flat. We paid 60MYR ($20AUD) for a SIM with a whole heap of data and never ran out. Which is impressive since I tend to chew through data thanks to my social media addiction!
Penang gets HOT. And it’s humid, which for me makes the heat worse. In the middle of the day, the sun is really fierce. For us, travelling in July meant coming from winter so the warmth was a welcome change for us, but if you’re travelling with kids it might be worth taking the weather into account. A siesta or dip in the pool isn’t a bad idea during the midday heat… You can then plan your more active activities for the morning or later in the afternoon when the temperature is a little milder.
It’s likely you’ll get some rain while you’re there. This is par for the course in the tropics – at least it’s warm. Carry an umbrella and/or a spray jacket just in case.
Is Penang expensive?
The Malaysian currency is the Ringgit, and current exchange rates sit around 3MYR to 1AUD and 4MYR to 1USD. If you’re coming from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, particularly Indochina, you’ll likely find Penang to be more expensive. Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed so you’ll particularly notice the expense when buying alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, if you’re coming from neighbouring Singapore, you’ll find the cost of living quite refreshing.
In George Town, we stayed at the OnePacific on Jalan Macalister for three nights. The room cost approximately $80AUD per night for a huge, clean and comfortable room with two Queen beds. We had cable TV, free WiFi and our room was made up every day. It wasn’t luxury, but we had everything we needed and the price was right. When we moved to Batu Ferringhi, we stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel. This was more upmarket in terms of service and we paid extra for the Roxity Kids Suite. This set us back about $250AUD per night (bearing in mind we were in peak season).
In hotels pricing for extras such as food is likely to be equivalent to western pricing. That’s really a universal truth no matter where you go. But once you head out of the hotel, your ringgit goes further. Dinner at hawker centres was reasonably cheap; we were probably spending about $20-30AUD per person, but we were ordering drinks and seafood dishes. Where you’ll really notice a price difference is buying consumables at a grocery store, and getting around the island using Grab. We found both experiences to be very cost effective.
Penang With Kids
The last thing I’ll say is that Penang is a great destination for kids of all ages. There’s so much for them to see, from cultural experiences to wildlife to a totally different cityscape… Plus it’s a great place to introduce them to different flavours.
There are several great attractions specifically geared towards kids, or that have kids in mind – Entopia and the Spice Gardens are just two examples (see my Batu Feringhi and George Town posts for more details).
The Penang locals are so friendly and so welcoming to families with kids. This is one of the aspects I truly love about Southeast Asia in general, and Penang proved to be no exception.
Booking hotels with kids is easy too – many hotels have great offerings for families, with lots of space, and condos are really popular in Penang too. This makes it really easy to book an apartment where you’ll have everything you need for the whole family.
So what are you waiting for? Off to Penang you go!
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