• Penang

Penang

Malaysia

A fascinating fusion of East and West, Penang is a rare pocket of Malaysia where time seems to have stood still. Once an important British trading port in the 19th century, the island's capital of George Town is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site with a mixed bag of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Malay and British influences. Today, it's one of the few remaining places in the country where you can still catch glimpses of a traditional way of life that no longer exists elsewhere.

At first glance, Penang can seem like a ramshackle collection of crumbling shophouses, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find an unmistakeable vibrancy and renewed energy. The best way to experience it all is on foot, and wandering about the hidden alleys and small side lanes will reveal bustling street markets, colourful temples, old-school bakeries and quirky street art graffiti. All this is topped by an eclectic architecture that’s a legacy of the city’s diverse multicultural population.

A day spent exploring the city’s quaint nooks and crannies will leave you hungry for a delicious meal, and it is here that Penang truly shines. Long regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, Penang rewards its visitors with a legendary street food scene that draws both locals and foreigners alike on eating pilgrimages. Many of the dishes are still prepared and served the old-fashioned way in unpretentious street stalls, using family recipes that have been passed down for generations. And if it all gets too much, a day of sunbathing on Batu Ferringhi beach or a drive through the island’s rural backwater villages offer a pleasant reprieve.

Why Go

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Penang's capital of George Town is a living museum filled with rich architecture, a unique cuisine and bustling street life. 

When to Go

Penang enjoys a tropical climate year-round with hot, sunny days and frequent thunderstorms. Late February and March are the hottest and driest time of year, which may make walking around George Town uncomfortable but  makes for great beach weather. May to October is monsoon season, with cloudier skies and frequent downpours. August marks the George Town festival, a month-long celebration of the arts with many lively events happening around town. December to early February is peak season, with the island's lively Hindu and Chinese communities celebrating Thaipusam and Chinese New Year, although many shops and restaurants are closed for the Chinese New Year holiday.

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Low °C

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High °F

88

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Low °F

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Book to Pack

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, a riveting debut novel about a young half-Chinese, half-English man in Penang who finds himself caught in a web of wartime deceits.

  • Armenian street, George Town
  • Penang street art
  • Street art in Penang
  • Penang shophouses
  • Penang shophouse
  • Nasi Kandar Penang street food
  • Trishaw in Penang
  • Peranakan Mansion, Penang
  • Snake Temple Penang
  • Penang Hill at night

Things to Do

Explore George Town

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town is famous for its unique colonial charm and eclectic Straits architecture. Take a walk along the shophouses and busy streets, where every building represents a page of Penang’s colourful history and every street corner has a story to tell. Or better still, join the guided walking tours organised by the Penang Heritage Trust (from RM50/person) or hop on a bicycle or trishaw tour by Metro Bike (from RM88/person).

Visit the Peranakan Mansion and House of Yeap Chor Ee

The Peranakans, also known as the Baba-Nyonyas or Straits Chinese, are a prominent community of Chinese intermarried with Malays unique to Penang, with a cultural legacy that still shapes the city today. One of the best ways to get a glimpse at their customs and traditions is by visiting the Peranakan Mansion, a museum housed inside a beautifully-restored 19th century home. Inside, a collection of over 1000 pieces of antique furniture, jewellery, clothing, vases and other items showcases the eclectic tastes that the Peranakans were well known for. Close by, the House of Yeap Chor Ee offers a glimpse inside the Chinese immigrant commmunity over 100 years ago through a collection of historic photographs, archives and mementos.

Admire the Chinese clanhouses

Penang's clanhouses, or kongsi, are the ancestral homes and associations founded by Chinese immigrants to the island in the 19th century. These elaborate buildings were built in the traditional Southern Chinese style, with each clan seeking to outdo their rivals. Together, they form some of the most fascinating architecture in Penang today. The most famous is the Khoo (邱) Kongsi (18 Cannon Square, off Lebuh Acheh), but don’t miss the newly-restored Cheah (謝) Kongsi (8 Gat Lebuh Armenian) or the understated Han Jiang Teochew Kongsi (corner of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Queen), which was awarded a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Conservation Award.

Sample Penang street food

With its fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Thai influences, Penang’s street food is world famous. Despite the attention however, much of it still prepared and served the same way; in unpretentious 'coffee shops' or roadside stalls by hawkers who have been doing so for generations. Drag a stool and join the locals who love to ‘makan’ (eat). Some must-try dishes include Assam Laksa, Nasi Kandar, Char Koey Teow, Nyonya Kuih, Ohr Jian and Chendol. Read our guide to Penang’s Best Street Food for a list of our recommendations.

Follow the Penang street art trails

It all started in 2009 with the Penang Street Art project, commissioned by the local government as part of the George Town Festival. One talented young Lithuanian artist named Ernest Zacharevic quickly made his mark on the city with his whimsical graffiti paintings that tapped into the city's nostalgia. Since then, George Town’s streets have exploded into a canvas for street art, many of which reference Penang's historic past. Put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and read our guide to Penang’s 5 Unmissable Street Art Pieces to hunt down some of the most memorable (and Instagrammable) pieces. 

Explore George Town's colonial history

Founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader with the British East India Company, George Town is one of the oldest settlements in Malaysia and was named after King George III. Today, its colonial footprints are still visible along the Padang, or parade ground, created by the British. Take an evening stroll at sunset and admire the colonial architecture that lines the streets here, from the iconic Penang City Hall to the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower. At the end of the road, the historic Fort Cornwallis is a well-preserved star fort that was the first British presence on the Malay archipelago.

Learn to cook classic Penang food

What better way to appreciate Penang’s famous food than by learning how to recreate your favourite dishes at home? The bubbly Nazlina from Nazlina Spice Station (71 Lorong Stewart) leads daily cooking classes that begin with a trip to the local market and ends with you whipping up delicious local dishes such as beef rendang or laksa.

Visit the Sun Yat Sen Museum

The Sun Yat-Sen Museum (120 Lebuh Armenian) is a humble but historically significant shophouse. It was here that the father of modern China spent four months gathering overseas Chinese support to overthrow the corrupt Qing dynasty. Today, the house preserves many of its original architectural features, including an intimate courtyard garden, original Straits Chinese furniture and an old-fashioned Nyonya kitchen. Guided tours are available.

Admire the views from Penang Hill

At 821m above sea level, Penang Hill enjoys panoramic views across the island and the mainland peninsula, as well as some of the island’s grandest colonial mansions. Take a 30-minute cable car ride up Penang Hill from the funicular station at Air Itam, or opt for the three-hour hike through the lush foliage of the Botanic Gardens rainforest. You’ll be rewarded by the cool, refreshing air and spectacular views across the island.

Hit the beach

Located at the northern tip of the island, Batu Ferringhi (Ferringhi Beach) is a stretch of sand that has been heavily promoted by the local tourism development authorities. In reality, it suffers from overdevelopment and pales in comparison to beaches in other parts of the country. Still, its easy access makes it a pleasant day-trip to cool off after pounding the George Town pavements. A good alternative is the secluded Monkey Beach in Penang National Park, accessible via a private boat at the park entrance (RM100 per boat, round-trip), or via a 3.5km hike through the jungle.

Khoo Kongsi, Penang
Chinese antique details

Getting There

NOTE: Travel information such as flight, train, bus and boat schedules and fares are subject to constant change. The information below is intended as a basic guide only; please check with the relevant companies/authorities before planning your journey.

 

By Air

Penang International Airport (PEN) serves a number of international and domestic flights, including AirAsia and Firefly from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching, as well as Singapore (via Tiger Air, Jetstar or SilkAir), Hong Kong and Macau. Other international airlines serve cities that include Taipei, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Jakarta, Medan, Phuket and Bangkok. A quick stopover in the capital of Kuala Lumpur may be necessary if you are coming from far away.

By Train

Penang (via Butterworth) is one of the stops along the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur-Penang-Bangkok rail route, a leisurely journey through palm plantations and jungle that covers some 2000km. The ride from Kuala Lumpur to Penang takes about 6 hours with ticket prices ranging from RM17-85, while the overnight International Express train departs from Penang at lunchtime and arrives in Bangkok the following morning (RM 110). Tickets may be purchased at the Butterworth Station or online via the KTMB website.

By Car

Penang is a 4 hour drive from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, with easy highway driving most of the way. The North-South Expressway (NSE) takes you all the way from downtown Kuala Lumpur up to Butterworth on the mainland, where you can cross over to Penang Island and George Town via the iconic Penang Bridge.

By Bus

A large number of companies offer express bus services to Penang's Sungai Nibong station from Kuala Lumpur (5-6 hrs, RM35), Johor Bahru and Singapore (10 hrs, RM60), as well as other cities and towns across West Malaysia. It is also possible to travel further north to Thailand, including Phuket (12-14 hrs) and Bangkok (18hrs).

By Boat

There are regular ferry services between Penang Island (George Town) and Butterworth on the mainland for RM1.20, as well as to Langkawi (2.5 hrs, RM60).

Getting Around

On Foot

Walking is easily the best way to experience the historic streets of George Town, either by joining a guided tour or simply wandering around with a map. The UNESCO World Heritage Zone in George Town is easy to navigate on foot, although we advise starting out early in the morning to avoid the midday sun and wearing comfortable clothing and shoes.

By Bus

RapidPenang operates several bus services that ply the George Town streets as well as further afield to Batu Ferringhi, Tanjong Bungah, Pulau Tikus and Tanjong Tokong. Buses originate from the Komtar bus terminal located on Jalan Macalister within the Buffer Zone, and are a convenient way to get around the island. Just be prepared to have exact change for fares when you board.

RapidPenang also operates a free bus route within the George Town UNESCO World Heritage site core area and buffer zone, which is a very useful way for getting around the George Town area. Known as the CAT, or Central Area Transit route, simply look out for buses marked with the CAT sign or click here to view a route map and list of stops.

By Trishaw

These colourful, man-powered vehicles are a traditional mode of transport that nowadays mostly serve tourists in the George Town district. Usually operated by a wizened local, they are a great way to experience the streets. Negotiate a fare first before getting on board.

By Taxi

Taxis are plentiful and officially metered, although it can be difficult to get drivers to turn them on. If so, be sure to bargain and agree on a fare before getting in. If heading out to places further afield such as Balik Pulau, it may be a good idea to hire one for half a day as you may experience difficulties in getting back.

The Essentials

Visa Requirements

Most nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa, although we advise visiting the Immigration Department of Malaysia's official website for current guidelines as well as advance visa requirements for citizens of some 35 countries. Entry permit duration will depend on nationality and entry point; however most people are permitted to remain for either 14, 30 or 90 days.

Currency

Malaysia uses the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), where one ringgit is the equivalent of 100 sen. RM1 is approximately equal to US$0.25. Visit xe.com for the latest exchange rates.

Electricity

Malaysia uses 230V / 50 Hz voltage with British-style, 3-pin plugs.

Packing Tips

A hat and sunscreen are a must to ward off the blazing tropical sun, as well as a foldable umbrella for the frequent tropical downpours. Pack comfortable walking shoes or sandals as you'll be walking a lot. Penang's dress code is very casual – think T-shirts, shorts, sundresses and flip-flops.

Health & Safety

Penang is considered a relatively safe city by Malaysian standards, but visitors should still take precautions against bag-snatching and pick-pocketing when in crowded areas. Never leave your belongings unattended and hold your bags in front of you when visiting busy street markets or on public transport. Ladies should not carry their handbags on the side facing the road to deter motorbike snatch-thefts. 

Scamming is also a popular crime especially amongst taxi drivers, although this has improved in recent years. In general, insist on drivers turning on the meter prior to getting in or use a reliable dial-a-cab service such as MyTeksi (Grab) or Uber.

Being a tropical destination, mosquitos are a concern as they can carry dengue fever. Malaria is rare in West Malaysia. Use mosquito repellent when outdoors especially during dawn and dusk or when entering jungle areas. It is not advisable to drink tap water; bottled water is cheap and readily available.

Restrictions & Laws

As an Islamic country, Malaysia is fairly conservative when it comes to dressing and behaviour. Skimpy clothing, public displays of affection and rowdy, drunken behaviour is frowned upon, while topless sunbathing is a strict no-no. To be respectful to the locals (particularly in rural areas), we advise wearing short-sleeved t-shirts that cover the shoulders and long bermudas or loose cotton pants.

Like most South-East Asian countries, Malaysia enforces a mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking that also applies to foreigners. Prostitution and homosexuality are also illegal while getting convicted of rape, vandalism, illegal entry, bribery, overstaying your visa, and certain other crimes is punishable by jail and/or caning.

Penang shophouses and trishaw

Learn the Lingo

Bahasa Malaysia is the official language of Malaysia. English, Mandarin and Cantonese and Tamil are also widely spoken in most urban areas.

Welcome - selamat datang

How are you? - apa khabar?

What is your name? - siapa nama?

How much is this? - ini berapa?

Excuse me / sorry - maaf

Thank you - terima kasih