Known as the pearl of the Southern Seas, Penang sits at the crossroads between the East and the West. It is renowned for its lush vegetation, mouthwatering food, and diverse architecture, but there are many more things to love Penang for.
Most of the exciting places and activities are centered around three main areas: George Town, Penang Hill, and Batu Ferringhi.
Penang’s Cultural Richness
Penang, Malaysia’s tropical island state, is filled with European shop houses, Chinese temples, clan houses, mosques, Hindu temples, British colonial buildings, and some of the best street food in Asia.
Its capital city, Georgetown, was listed as a World Heritage Site for its unique architectural and cultural townscape. The people of Penang are very focused on food, and locals’ days revolve around their meals, which are all eaten at either local hawker centers or restaurants.
Penang Travel Requirements
Following in the wake of Thailand, Malaysia has opened up to the world. Even though in 2022, the tourist numbers went nowhere near the pre-pandemic level, 2023 promises to be different. There are no travel restrictions to enter Malaysia.
You don’t have to either be vaccinated or declare your vaccine status, nor do you have to wear a mask while in public. Note that whereas most Westerners can spend up to 3 months in Malaysia without a visa, other nations enjoy only a month-long visa waiver, while some need to apply for a Malaysian visa in advance. Contact your closest Malaysian embassy if you have any doubts.
How to get to Penang
The transportation system is good when it comes to getting to Penang! Entering Penang from both mainland Malaysia and abroad is straightforward. You can fly to Penang International Airport, which is served by low-cost carriers like Air Asia and is known for its high connectivity and cutting-edge infrastructure.
Flights are available not only from Southeast Asia’s transport hubs like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur but also from far-off destinations like the Gulf.
You can take a taxi from Haad Yai, Thailand, and drive to Penang through the Thai-Malay border. The ride from Haad Yai to Penang lasts just four hours and costs approximately $20.
If you prefer to take the train, you can travel from Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, to Penang via Padang Besar Crossing. Jump off the train and hop over the border to board a Komuter Train on the Malay side of the border.
Suppose you are in the mood for a romantic trip to Penang. You can sail to Penang from the Langkawi Islands, a pristine archipelago known for its ancient forest, idyllic stretches of sand, boutique accommodation, and customs-free alcohol.
Best Time to Visit Penang
While it is suitable to visit Penang all year round, my personal favourite is February. In February, Penangites celebrate Chinese New Year and Taipussan, a traditional Hindu festival.
You can join the crowd in one of the Chinese New Year festivities not only at Kek Lok Si Temple but also at Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple; participate in the Pai Thee Kong Celebration (Jade Emperor’s Birthday) or witness Chap Goh Meh, one of the unique Penang-only Chinese New Year rituals.
Another reason for the trip to Penang in February is the Indian Festival of Thaipusam. The streets of Penang are full of colourful processions, music, and dance performances. People carry kavadis decorated with flowers and pierce their bodies as a form of devotion.
If you can’t come here in February, don’t regret not being able to make it. Other occasions are worth taking part in Penang: Deepavali, or the festival of light.
The Festival of Lights in Little India
If you’re looking for a different cultural experience in Penang, check out Little India. Located in the heart of George Town, Little India is a vibrant and colorful neighborhood with numerous shops, restaurants, and temples to explore. It’s renowned for its delicious food, from spicy curries to sweet treats, creating a bustling atmosphere that’s a feast for the senses.
The Festival of Lights is one of the most anticipated carnivals in Penang. It is celebrated on November 12, 2023, and is a great way to experience Indian culture and have a great time in Penang.
How long to stay in Penang?
A weekend is enough to explore the cultural heritage of Georgetown, but it is not enough to take in all there is on the island.
Head to Penang for five days to a week to travel not only Georgetown, the island’s capital, but also to see Penang nature marvels, which include Penang Hill, and other Penang highlights such as Batu Ferringhi Beach, to add to myriad historical landmarks that Penang island is renowned for.
Where to stay in Penang?
The simple answer is Georgetown! Even though there are nice spots to lodge throughout Penang, it is best to check into one of the hotels in Georgetown due to its proximity to the island’s principal historical sites. What is more, the island’s main appeal lies in its cuisine, and it is here downtown that you can tuck into Penang’s best grub.
But if you prefer peaceful beach gateways to bustling nightlife, you can consider Batu Ferringhi. Batu Ferringhi is a stunning beach with picturesque scenery. There are plenty of accommodation options here, from luxurious resorts to cozy bungalows.
When visiting Penang, exploring George Town is a must. This UNESCO World Heritage Site on Penang Island, Malaysia, is renowned for its street art depicting the culture and history of Penang.
You’ll be captivated by its captivating architecture and remarkable wall paintings. Notable spots in George Town include Street Art Penang, a major tourist attraction created by local artists in collaboration with the government. Notable pieces include a mural of a trishaw rider and the ‘Children on Bicycle’ series.
Street art is abundant throughout the city, reflecting Penang’s culture. For instance, Canon Street earned its name from a cannon shot during the 1967 Penang riots that created a large hole in the area.
To explore George Town’s street art, you can hire a knowledgeable driver to find the best art views and escape the humid weather.
George Town Food Tour
George Town is a haven for food enthusiasts! You can’t leave without savoring the local delicacies. There are countless options, but some of our favorites include Carnarvon Street for ambrosial street food and a genuine Penangite atmosphere.
Tai Tong Restaurant known for its mouthwatering dim-sums and delectable Chinese sweets, Jit Seng Hong Kong Roasted Duck Rice celebrated for its succulent duck meat, and Chulia Street, home to the best night market in Penang.
The Enchanting Umbrella Alley
Another unique and captivating street art we came across in Georgetown was ‘Umbrella Alley’ in Armenian Street.
Clan Jetties: A Photographer’s Dream
Penang is often said to be one giant Chinatown, and the clan jetties are a testament to this. The main jetties, named Chew, Yeoh, Lim, and Tan after the main Chinese clans, are connected by wooden walkways, allowing you to explore the different clans and their homes.
These clan jetties, despite their age, are still inhabited by the descendants of the original settlers. Their waterfront location in George Town offers stunning views of the sea and the bustling city
Wonder Food Museum
Among the many museums in George Town, our favorite is the Wonder Food Museum. Housed within a colonial building, this museum showcases traditional Malaysian cuisine in life-size replicas. It’s divided into three galleries – Info Zone, Wow Zone, and Educational Zone.
Here, you can delve into fascinating details about Malaysian cooking and culinary customs, all while observing dishes from Indian, Chinese, and other cuisines. It’s not only educational but also a great place for fun photos to share on your social media with family and friends. The entrance fee is 28 Malaysian Ringgit.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, once the residence of a wealthy Chinese-Malay merchant, now ranks as the 8th must-visit museum in Asia. This museum offers a glimpse into the opulent lifestyle of Penang’s Peranakan community, featuring intricate hand-carved furniture, colorful tiles and mosaics, and an impressive collection of antiques and artifacts.
We highly recommend taking a guided tour with an in-house guide to gain a deeper understanding of the mansion’s history and the Baba Nyonya heritage in Malaysia. The entrance fee is 25 Malaysian Ringgit.
Ever wondered how Love Lane got its name? According to local lore, it was the favored place for wealthy men on Muntri Street to keep their mistresses. Today, Love Lane is a charming street filled with bars, restaurants, and shops, making it an ideal spot for a romantic date night or a night out with friends.
Plus, with a name like Love Lane, how can you resist? So grab a drink, relax, and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere. Just be cautious of the rickshaws, as they tend to speed down Love Lane!
Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion
Ch’ng Fatt Tze, the prominent Chinese merchant and philanthropist who built the Blue Mansion, had eight wives during his lifetime. This was not uncommon for wealthy individuals of his status in traditional Chinese.
Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion is a true spectacle, renowned for its stunning blue color and intricate design. The mansion’s guided tours provide insights into its history and the fascinating life of its original owner, Cheong Fatt Tze.
This once water carrier transformed into one of Asia’s richest men and earned the nickname ‘Rockefeller of the East.’ To make the most of your visit, consider joining the guided tours scheduled at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. The entry fee is 25 Malaysian Ringgit.
It is a theme park based in a tower. Top Penang is one of Penang’s newest attractions. It offers a variety of intriguing and interactive experiences.
The Rainbow Skywalk on the 68th floor is a standout, providing a breathtaking, unobstructed view of the Georgetown skyline – provided you dare to step onto the glass-paned protrusion from the building. For a more thrilling adventure, test your nerve on the obstacle course at The Gravity, located on the top floor of KOMTAR. This mini adventure course is equipped with a range of obstacles, all connected to a safety rop
Penang Hill’s Main Highlight: Nature and Temple
Just 3.5 miles from George Town lies Penang Hill, a location with numerous attractions. The Penang Hill Railway is the most popular way to reach the summit, offering an adventurous train ride with scenic views. The Habitat at Penang Hill is a hidden gem that allows you to experience the unique flora and fauna of the rainforest, offering hiking trails and a canopy walkway.
The Kek Lok Si Temple, found at the foot of Penang Hill, stands as one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most famous temples, featuring the impressive Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda and a towering sculpture of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Old Funicular Railway
Its a super fun with a ride on an old funicular Railway, the funicular train is the longest in Asia at 1996 meters. The funicular tunnel, at 79 meters long, holds the world record as the steepest funicular tunnel in operation.
The funicular train runs every day from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and a return ticket costs 30 Ringgit for a standard tourist ticket or 80 Ringgit for a tourist fast lane ticket. The trip up takes seven minutes, and it’s one of the steepest train rides.
Penang’s Temple and Mosque Heritage
Penang is not only about its modern attractions but also its rich heritage in temples and mosques.
The Floating Mosque: Majid Terapong
The ‘Floating Mosque,’ officially known as ‘Majid Terapong,’ is a stunning and unique architectural landmark.
Dharma Karama Burmese Temple
The first one we visited was ‘Dharma Karama Burmese Temple’ in Georgetown, a serene and culturally significant Buddhist temple.
The Enigmatic Reclining Buddha at Wat Chaiyamangkalaram
Another prominent religious site is ‘Wat Chaiyamangkalaram,’ known for its colossal reclining Buddha statue.
Kek Lok Si Temple – A Majestic Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas
“For an unforgettable temple experience, visit ‘Kek Lok Si Temple,’ one of Southeast Asia’s most magnificent Buddhist temples.
Walking on Air at the Rainbow Skywalk
The open-air ‘Rainbow Skywalk’ is at level 68 on the rooftop of Komtar, giving visitors the thrilling experience of walking on air.
What To Eat In Penang?
Penang is a food lover’s paradise, with a melting pot of cultures that has resulted in a rich and diverse culinary scene. Here are just a few of the must-try dishes when visiting this food haven:
Char Kway Teow
This popular noodle dish is made with flat rice noodles, stir-fried with prawns, cockles, bean sprouts, eggs, and Chinese sausage.
Assam Laksa is a famous and special Penang dish. It’s a sour and tangy fish-based soup that’s packed with flavours from tamarind, lemongrass, and galangal. The soup is served with rice noodles, shredded fish, and a variety of vegetables.
Hokkien Mee is a noodle dish that’s made with thick yellow noodles and thin rice vermicelli. It’s served in a rich broth made with prawns, pork, and soy sauce and garnished with crispy fried shallots, chili paste, and lime.
Nasi Kandar is a popular dish that originated from the northern state of Malaysia. It’s a simple dish of steamed rice served with various curries, meat, and vegetables.
The dish is known for its rich, spicy, and aromatic flavours. Our favorite restaurant to have Nasi Khandar is Hameediyah Restaurant.
Rojak is a popular fruit salad that’s made with a mix of tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, and papaya tossed in a sweet and sour sauce made of shrimp paste, sugar, and lime juice. It’s topped with peanuts and crispy croutons for a crunchy texture.
Top things to do in Penang
As Penang is a melting pot of cultures and history, it has a variety of experiences for visitors. Here are some top things to do:
Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can discover the history, art, and culture of the city while indulging in local street food. It is a wonderful city in the global village.
Take a funicular train ride up to Penang Hill
Take a funicular train ride up to Penang Hill for stunning views of the island and a peaceful walk through the lush green forests.
Visit Kek Lok Si Temple
Near Penang Hill is Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, with impressive architecture, beautiful gardens, and statues.
Batu Ferringhi Beach
Batu Ferringhi, on Penang Island’s northern coast, is a renowned beach resort. It features a beautiful sandy shoreline and various water activities, along with upscale resorts.
Besides sunbathing, you can enjoy beachfront dining with local and international cuisine, including renowned fresh seafood. If you seek more adventure, various activities are within a 20-minute drive.
Bora Bora Beach
Another beautiful beach to check out while you are in Penang is ‘Bora Bora Beach’ near the Chinese Swimming Club.
The main city Town is walkable; wear light clothes and use sunblock. Note that you can get almost anywhere in Penang by public transport.
The public bus system is known as Rapid Penang. Fares are reasonable, Typically RM1 – RM4, and they cover almost all parts of the city! An exact change is necessary. There is also a free shuttle that goes around Town.
Bike or Car Rental
If you prefer to have more mobility, renting a bike or car is a good option. Just remember that driving is on the left side of the road. Keep in mind that Grab drivers may not be available at night, so prepare to pay extra for your nocturnal ride to the airport or elsewhere.
How much does it cost to travel to Penang?
Thanks to affordable airfare, traveling to Penang has never been easier. You can fly from KL, Bangkok, and even Surat Thani, Thailand, for as little as $20-50. However, other expenses will determine how much you spend on your trip.
Accommodation is the most significant expense, with options ranging from budget to luxury. A decent 3-star hotel costs around $30 per night, while 4-star and 5-star hotels average around $60 and $100 per night, respectively.
Food in Penang is very affordable. A plate of Nasi Kandar with beef at Hameediyah costs only 14 ringgit, around $3. Eating out for dinner can range from 2 ringgit for glass noodles to 7 ringgit for Chinese fried noodles with seafood, including octopus!
Some additional tips
- Don’t miss the chance to buy real Chinese tea in Penang, which is known to be one of the best places to do so.
- Check out Huang Chen Hao’s tea salon on Campbell Street for unique Chinese green Pu Er tea.
- While you’re there, also take advantage of the prime Chinese medicine healthcare available in the area.
Cheng Wah Medical Hall
If you’re looking to purchase traditional Chinese medicine, Cheng Wah Medical Hall is a great place to start. It is located across from a Chinese tea shop, and this medical hall offers a wide range of traditional Chinese medicine products.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinics
If you’re interested in trying acupuncture, Penang has quite a few good clinics. One hour of acupuncture at a prime medical facility in Penang will cost you just $10 per session, making it the world’s best value! Note that prices for expat medical care here are significantly lower than in Thailand, making Penang a burgeoning medical tourism destination.