Penang (or Pulau Pinang in the local Malaysian language), is one of Southeast Asia’s hottest travel destinations. And how not? When my Thai colleague asked to be taken around recently, he asked, “How much time we need? Is it ok to do in three days?” And I replied, “You can do Penang in as many days you want!” It is an island city-state, and so you can find enough to do in a long weekend, a week, two weeks, or more.
But let’s start with the essentials, for which I recommend at least 3 days.
Where to Stay in Penang
For an essential trip to Penang, stay in one of the converted heritage shophouses within the UNESCO Heritage City zone in the capital city of Georgetown. These are historical townhouses in the old port city of Georgetown, where the ground floor is often a shop and the living quarters are upstairs.
Together with Malacca further south, Georgetown is listed as a UNESCO Heritage City due to the unique Peranakan (aka ‘Baba Nyonya’) Chinese-Malay hybrid culture. It sprang up in the two harbour cities of the Straits of Malacca, which is one of the most important shipping routes in the world – then and now. In its heyday, wealth passed through the straits in such abundance, that the manor houses of the richest clan families were lavishly gilded and decorated.
Today, many of these shophouses and townhouses have been converted to charming tourist accommodations. They span the range from hostel styles, all the way up to old world Peranakan manor luxury. Choose whichever suits your budget best, but trust me on this – stay in the old city.
How to Get Around Penang
Taxis and the ride share option GrabCar, are readily available in Penang.
That said, the Old City of Georgetown is totally walkable. Armed with a water bottle and a sun hat, this is among the best ways to see the town. Browse the quirky shops, cafes, Asian confectionery and antique stores in this area, in between the must-see sights such as the elaborate Khoo Kongsi clan house, the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion, and the Kapitan Keling Mosque.
Link Bike Georgetown
Another option is to cycle. While there are many shops and guest accommodations that offer bicycle rentals, lately the city has introduced its own app-based bicycle rental system.
Simply download the Link Bike app, and follow the instructions to unlock a bike from the bike rack. The app’s map shows the location of other bike racks, along with how many available bikes to hire and the vacant bays to return bikes.
It is one of the most affordable bike rental options, costing just RM2.00 for one day and RM3.00 for 2 days (about $0.50 and $0.75, respectively).
For both walking and cycling, bear in mind that most of the Georgetown streets are still open to vehicles. The cars are used to sharing the narrow roads with tourists, but be careful nonetheless.
Hop On Hop Off Penang
If you want to venture outside of Georgetown on an essentials tour, the easy option is to get a Hop On Hop Off bus ticket.
There are two routes – the City Route takes you through the key stops around Georgetown itself and beyond towards Penang Hill and the famous Kek Lok Si Temple.
The Beach Route is the one to take to pass through the seaside stops of Penang such as Batu Ferringhi, and all the way to the Penang State Park.
The Rapid Penang bus service
Alternatively, if you already know exactly where you want to go, then the public bus service (Rapid Penang) is a much cheaper option. As an indicator: A 3-day pass on the Hop On Hop Off costs RM55. A ticket from Penang Hill back to Georgetown is RM2.00.
What to Do in Penang – The Essentials
You can’t go to Penang and not see the reason why it is a UNESCO Heritage City. Therefore you have to pick up at least one of the Peranakan Manor Houses and gawk at the beautiful artistry of the time. Head on down to the Chew Clan jetty as well, to see the clan village on stilts above the breakers.
Browse through the shops showcasing Peranakan craftsmanship – get a pair of exquisite beaded slippers or intricately embroidered nyonya kebaya blouse for a bit of Oriental chic.
Street art of Penang
Track down each one of the famous semi-3D Ernest Zacharavic street art installations all over Georgetown! Completed in 2012, the playfully nostalgic murals became an instant Instagram hit.
Check out the wire art installations in the Old City as well. These are created by local cartoonists and depict snippets of Penang life, culture, and history.
Aside from these classics, over the years local artists have also been inspired to add new street art to the streets of Georgetown. These come and go, so try your luck and see what you can find!
Penang Hill (locally known as Bukit Bendera) is the highest point on the island of Penang. You get up to the top by means of a funicular.
On top the climate is noticeably cooler than the hot humidity of Georgetown. Various parks and family attractions are available on top of the hill, but the newest attraction is the Habitat. The Habitat is a section of the hill where you could go for a hike through the jungle. There is the option of a nature guide showing you particular attractions such as the pitcher plants and jungle spiders. Along the route there are also way-stops where you could opt into activities such as terrarium construction.
Penang Hill is extremely popular over the weekend. Go on a weekday to avoid the enormous crowds.
Nearby Penang Hill is Kek Lok Si, a majestic Buddhist temple that’s well worth seeing. You can easily pick up both on the same trip out.
Sample the Penang street food
Local Malaysians – especially the self-proclaimed foodies – will have strong opinions on where the best places are to eat in Penang. If you ask, you won’t be short of recommendations for both famous and obscure places all over the island.
However, actually food is generally good within Georgetown anyway. Head on to Gurney Drive for the hawker stalls by the sea, or browse Chulia Street for a more street food feel. To sample Penang street food but in an area less frequented by foreigners, head a little bit out to Kimberley Street. Try some classic fried kuey teow, and look for inventions like the oyster omelette.
Don’t forget to try the Indian Muslim cuisine, also a key component of Penang culture. Sample a wide variety of flat breads with curries (roti canai). And if you would like something sweet and showy, ask for roti tisu. You can thank me later in your Instagram.
Other Things to Do in Penang
Being a livable city, Penang has way more to offer than the essentials. Here’s a snapshot of options available if you have a longer stay:
Events – There may be events going on within the Old City, so keep an eye out for them. For example, Khoo Kongsi clan house had light shows over certain weekends in 2017.
Offbeat random museums – There are so many random art houses and museums in Georgetown. From memory, there’s a Camera museum, a cat cafe, an Upside Down house, a 3D trick art museum, a Ghost Museum, a “Dark Mansion” – take your pick.
Penang State Park – For a bit of hiking through the jungle that does not involve going all the way up to Penang Hill, you can also head to the State Park. Within the park there is a meromictic lake, which is a lake that has separated layers of fresh and salt water. At the end of the trail you would reach Kerachut Beach, which has a turtle nesting site.
Water sports at Batu Ferringhi – You could also have a beach break at one of the beach spots of Penang. At Batu Ferringhi for example, you could indulge in parasailing, jet skiing, or take a fishing excursion.