Updated 4th January 2024
Colourful houses. Delicious food. Lively streets. A thriving art scene. Penang has countless reasons to visit; you could never come here and be bored. But for history buffs like me and my husband, Penang’s eclectic modern feel mixes with a rich and fascinating past that needs to be explored.
Penang is one of the most renowned tourist destinations in Malaysia. This multicultural island boasts of a huge range of fun activities for tourists. From sparkling beaches to ancient architecture, lush green landscapes and an enticing cuisine, Penang is an absolute paradise for families looking for beautiful scenery, interesting historical sites, and plenty of good food.
Occupying a small portion on the map of Malaysia, the island of Penang has a number of landmarks to visit. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to Penang Island only. Penang State includes the island and a small part of the mainland, but the Island is where the sites below can be found. Some of them are in the UNESCO Heritage City of George Town; others are spread throughout historical Penang Island.
So if you’re planning an escapade to Penang, check out our list of the 17 best things we recommend you experience while you’re there.
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Our 3 Fave Experiences In One Tour
This tour includes an in-depth exploration of George Town, the chance to experience Kek Lok Si (pictured) and Wat Chaiyamangkalaram and Dhammikarama Burmese Temple; finally, take the funicular to the summit of Penang Hill. We love this tour because you’ll experience so many cultural delights, learn so much, and get some great pictures too.
1. Explore Kek Lok Si Temple
This beautiful temple really can’t be described – you’ll just have to go there. But for the sake of the article, I’ll try anyway.
We took a Grab to the temple and arrived right at the bottom. There’s a little shop, and I recommend getting a drink here if you haven’t packed one – it can get hot!
The first section is a prayer room; you can purchase a ribbon with something specific you’d like help with (such as health or relationships) then you write your name on the ribbon and place it on a ‘tree’. Our son chose an ‘academic success’ one – he is three! – and carefully placed it. He said he wants to be a pilot one day and this ribbon would help him learn all the things he needs to know.
Start to make your way up the temple, and the ornate details will start to take your breath away. There are many different levels, each more striking than the next. Within the temple are is the Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (literally 10,000 alabaster buddhas!) and of course the 37-metre high statue of Rama VI which can be seen from afar.
Kek Lok Si was 40-years in the making, lovingly overseen by the abbot Beow Lean. I think what’s most beautiful to see here is how ancient Chinese traditions blend with both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism to make a unique and harmonious place of worship. Here’s a little bit more on the history of Kek Lok Si.
Entrance is free but there’s a small fee of 6RM to take the funicular up to the top.
2. Visit The Blue Mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)
I have a Lonely Planet guidebook that’s been on my bookshelf for the past ten years. It’s called “Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, and Penang”. It’s completely dog-eared from my previous stays in Kuala Lumpur, and it’s certainly getting old now. But it sits proudly on the shelf, full of notes on trips past. But I’d never made it any further than KL until this trip, try as I might. On the cover is a bright indigo blue wall with an old trishaw in front. This is the Blue Mansion. For ten years I’d stared at this picture. And I’m happy to say, I now possess a photo of myself with that backdrop.
I did no research before the trip, so I didn’t realise the only way to look around is to take a tour (or stay in one of the rooms). So I took an hour to myself and indulged in the tour. And my goodness, it was absolutely worth the 16MYR entry cost.
Our guide, Christina, was an absolute gem. Articulate, funny, clearly very passionate about her subject… she made me feel like I knew Cheong Fatt Tze (the original owner/builder of the mansion). She explained every little detail with warmth and cultural understanding, giving us a new knowledge of not just the mansion, but the prevailing history and cultural complexities of the time.
The tour lasted about an hour. I’d usually be tempted to comment that an hour is more than enough for such a tour (heavy on the talking). But honestly, I could have sat there for hours listening to the tales of Cheong Fatt Tze and his many wives.
Admission is 16 RM per person. Make sure you book the Blue Mansion tour in advance so you don’t miss out!
3. Eastern and Oriental Hotel
The Eastern and Oriental Hotel was originally two hotels. The Eastern Hotel was established by the Sarkies Brothers in 1884 and was such a success, they opened the Oriental Hotel. The two later merged. Driven by the success of E&O, the brothers later went on to open the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). So, if you’re not familiar with the Eastern and Oriental but you are with Raffles or The Strand… you can imagine.
Literary luminaries such as Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, and Rudyard Kipling, as well as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, are known to have spent time here.
I love to imagine, looking out over the water from the Eastern and Oriental, Somerset Maugham writing something amazing here.
There’s no entrance fee; rooms start at about $200AUD (600RM) per night. Seasonal surcharges apply. It is possible to head to the bar for a drink if you’re not a hotel guest.
Penang’s Most Famous Hotel
Eastern and Oriental Hotel
Looking for somewhere really unique (but still luxurious) to stay in Penang? The Eastern and Oriental is our top pick! This hotel is in the perfect location in George Town, so you can come back to relax in style after a busy day exploring this UNESCO Heritage City.
4. Fort Cornwallis
Fort Cornwallis was built by the British East India Company in the late 18th Century and named after Charles Cornwallis, then the Governor-General of Bengal. It was designed to protect Penang from pirates and any possible insurgency from mainland Kedah, but never saw any conflict.
Today, the fort is a popular tourist attraction and incorporates an open-air theatre and public park. There’s also a gorgeous lighthouse.
To be honest, there’s not a HUGE amount to see but for someone interested in history, there’s a lot to learn. Take a free guided tour to get the most out of the experience. Most of the reviews that say it was boring are from people who didn’t take the tour: those who do have a very different experience (trust me!)
Entrance to the fort is 20RM; I’ll say it again – take the free tour!
5. Try the famous Penang food
Penang is famous for its culinary scene – from roadside stalls, to Hawker Centres, to seafood restaurants and upscale dining options, Penang has it all. Penang’s food is a mix of ethnic Malay, Indian, and Chinese dishes that can’t quite be found elsewhere (other places may come close, but no place is like Penang).
It’s also worth doing a food tour in Penang to really get a sense of every dish and the incredible stories that go along with the food.
Check out our Penang food post for more information!
Best Penang Food Tour
4-Hour George Town Food Tour
This tour will take you on a culinary journey through the UNESCO Heritage City of George Town. Start at the Kapitan Keling Mosque, learn about traditional Malay food, wander to the Clan Jetties and learn about traditional influences of food, and finish off with a delightful dinner and cocktail.
6. Clan Jetties
On Pengkalan Weld across from Lebuh Chulia, are six Clan Jetties that stretch into the harbour. These are water villages belonging to the original Chinese clans that settled in Penang. There were seven, but one was destroyed by fire; the remaining jetties belong to the Lim, Yeow, Chew, Koay, Lee and Tan families. Interestingly, none of the families living here actually pay tax, because they are not living on the land.
When you visit, you do need to be mindful as people actually still live here. There are signs posted on some of the houses stating they must not be photographed. It’s therefore also important to stick to visiting hours and follow all guidelines that are signposted.
If you only have time to explore one, make it the Chew Jetty. It’s the longest one with the most stilt-houses; be aware though, it’s quite touristy with lots of different shops inside. If you can, I’d recommend heading there a little before sunset, when the colours are marvelous. This is when you’ll get the best pictures.
Entrance is free.
7. Head up Penang Hill
Penang Hill is actually several peaks close together, situated in Air Itam, a suburb about 6km from George Town. During British Colonial rule, the resort at the top was a popular destination for those who wanted to escape the heat.
A funicular railway runs the full height of the peak, and once stopped at several smaller stations on its way to the top.
When we arrived, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. From the outside, with the big lines and ticket booths, it almost looks like the entrance to a zoo or other big attraction. Purchase your ticket at the booth on the right, then follow the queue to the left to board the funicular.
We scored the very front seats on the funicular on the way down – super fun if you’re not into heights or mechanical things, sit at the back. It’s a weird feeling to watch yourself going down.
Speaking of, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like a century ago to travel up to the Hill Stations (and back down again!) Were people just used to it, or did it give them a woozy feeling too? Especially given the types of carriages they used back in the day. These days the funicular looks quite high-tech, but at the top, an old wooden carriage can be found. It looks lovely, but not at all comfortable!
On top of the hill is a restaurant, a small hotel, a botanic garden, and several touristy activities.
Tickets are 30RM for adults and 15RM for kids. Note: this just includes the funicular, and you can pay extra for a skip-the-line pass. There are several other areas and activities on top of the hill that charge extra entrance fees.
8. Hike Penang National Park
Penang National Park is a nature lover’s paradise, located on the northwest coast of Penang Island. The park boasts an array of exotic flora and fauna, stunning beaches, and a rich cultural heritage.
Take a hike through lush rainforests, spot rare birds and monkeys, or simply relax on pristine beaches like Teluk Tukun and Monkey Beach (one of Penang’s best beaches). Don’t miss the chance to explore the park’s many hidden gems, such as the meromictic lake or the Turtle Sanctuary.
Penang National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone seeking a break from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
9. Visit Khoo Kongsi
The Khoo Kongsi clan temple is another place worthy of visit in Penang. This sizable Chinese clan house with intricate and highly ornate architecture is a symbol of the Chinese people’s long history in Penang.
The late 19th-century row-houses for clan members and an association structure are all gathered around a granite-paved plaza, which serves as the clan temple’s authentically historic surroundings. The Khoo Kongsi historical landmark is situated in Cannon Square in the centre of George Town’s historic district, amidst winding lanes and adorable-looking pre-War homes that exude a definite old-world charm.
Chinese opera shows also take place in the temple several times in a year, so if you time your visit during one of the shows, you may be able to enjoy the opera as well.
10. Enjoy a Trishaw Ride
The well-known three-wheeled taxi will take you on a delightful ride, allowing you to take in wonderful sights and the ambiance of Malaysia’s busy streets. It is one of the best ways to experience the true essence of Penang.
Operated by small motors, the colourful trishaws feature interesting designs and sometimes adorned with flowers and fairy lights as well. They are most suitable for visiting those parts of Georgetown which are not accessible through other means. And if you’re friendly with the riders, they’ll serve as great guides to fill you in with the historical details of all the places you go by. This one is a real highlight with the kids!
11. Discover the frightening Snake Temple
The Snake temple, is only two miles away from the airport on Penang Island, is a stunning sanctuary of devotion. However, it has one catch: there are live pit vipers everywhere!
Visitors can admire the stunning plants that adorn the garden as the main temple opens into a courtyard where the Shrine Hall of Kuan Yin is situated. Following the route will bring you to the “snake pool,” where snakes lie down on trees among lush, green branches, either enjoying the sun or seeking cover from it. The regular burning of incense is said to keep the snakes calm. Many of the snakes here, which include Wagler’s pit vipers and green tree snakes, have been de-venomed, according to locals. It’s not advisable to bring little children, but the temple is a calm area and they claim no one has ever been bitten.
12. Explore Entopia (The Butterfly Farm)
Entopia started as a butterfly farm and has now grown into a fantastic all-day experience not unlike a small zoo. It is undoubtedly one of the must-see sites in Penang because it is teeming with butterflies, insects, and reptiles, and it really does appeal to people of all ages.
Take the bus (101 or 102) from George Town; it will take you directly there at a cost of just 4 RM. The beautiful farm is tidy and contemporary and has a lot more to offer than just butterflies. There is a designated path you can follow to ensure you don’t miss anything. Its courteous staff is very welcoming and will guide you to get the ultimate experience of the farm. Along with butterflies, there are lizards, beetles, snakes, and more. You can easily spend a couple of hours here, viewing all there is to see. The park is well set out and has all the usual facilities you would expect.
(Our Batu Ferringhi guide has more information on our experience at Entopia, so make sure you click through and have a read).
Entrance is 75RM for adults and 55RM for children aged 4-12; family passes start from 238RM for two adults and two children.
13. Spend a day at ESCAPE Penang
ESCAPE is billed as the No. 1 Theme Park In Malaysia, and I would have to agree! Spend a day thrill-seeking at ESCAPE with the family. What kind of activities? Think huge waterslides, aerobatics, ziplining, a tree climb course, and all manner of other adrenaline-inducing activities. There’s even a swim-up bar for the grown-ups.
To be honest, I do think this one is for the big kids. Don’t get me wrong, you can definitely take kids of all ages along, but we personally felt the experience would be much better if the kids were a bit older and could participate in more activities.
Entry will cost you 167MYR for adults and 111MYR for kids 4-12. Kids under 4 are free. If you book online on the ESCAPE website a few days in advance, you can purchase discounted tickets. You’ll need to book and pay by card, as post-COVID, ESCAPE is a cashless venue.
14. Visit the Floating Mosque
Constructed on pilings and tilts above the sea, Penang floating mosque is unlike any other mosque. This over-water mosque, which is situated in Tanjung Bungah near George Town seems to float on the water during high tide.
The stunning mosque combines local and Middle eastern design elements and can accommodate up to 1,500 worshipers at one time. The mosque has a soaring seven-story minaret that is used to announce the call to prayer at various times throughout the day. This location shouldn’t be missed by anyone who enjoys traditional architecture, particularly in houses of worship.
15. Try water sports on Batu Ferringhi beach
Water sports at the Batu Ferringhi beach are among the most thrilling adventure activities to be enjoyed in Penang. Water activities occasionally have a negative reputation in some places in Asia because of con artists trying to take advantage of tourists, but you won’t find this Batu Ferringhi.
You can choose between jet skis, banana boats, parasailing, and other watercraft at East Wind Watersports Company, which has the highest reviews on the beach. It’s also possible to ride horses along the beach. Before purchasing, bargain for a fair price. It’s affordable and a good time for everyone!
16. Enjoy THE TOP at Komtar
The TOP Komtar in Penang is the place to go if you’re looking for the ultimate fun spot in Malaysia! This indoor theme park, which is located in Komtar Tower in Jalan Penang, George Town, features a variety of themed attractions.
TOP’s attractions are divided into Window of the Top and Adventure of Avenues for your convenience as you experience the biggest indoor theme park. You’ll be so excited ascending to the top of Penang’s tallest, most recognisable tower – and at 816 feet (248 metres), who could blame you? While you’re here, also take the time to discover the well-known Penang Rainbow Skywalk and Observatory Deck from the Window of the Top.
17. Wander through the Batu Ferringhi Night Market
Batu Ferringhi‘s night market is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Penang. It boasts a vibrant atmosphere, delicious street food, and unique souvenirs that make for perfect gifts or memorabilia. Located along the beach, the market also offers stunning views of the sunset and an opportunity to soak in the local culture. Visitors can explore over 100 stalls selling a variety of items such as handmade crafts, clothing, jewelry, and traditional Malaysian snacks like apam balik, char kway teow, and satay.
Additionally, the market is located just steps away from the beautiful Batu Ferringhi Beach, providing visitors with a perfect opportunity to enjoy the sunset and relax after a long day of exploring. If you’re looking to experience Penang’s rich culture and vibrant community, the Batu Ferringhi Night Market is definitely worth checking out.
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