Penang Island has to be one of the coolest, most laid back places we’ve visited and totally not what we expected from Malaysia. Whether you’re looking for urban creature comforts like wine bars and posh restaurants, art and culture or beautiful beaches and wildlife you’re sure to find just what you’re looking for in this little island as there are just so many amazing things to do in Penang. A short hop from KL by plane (£30 return Air Asia with baggage), or a 4-5 hour journey by bus or train, it’s even cheap and easy to get to.
I didn’t know a lot about what things there were to do in Penang until I started planning what to do with our week in Malaysia. It’s a funny length of time to plan out in such a big country – too long to just stay in the Kuala Lumpur, but not long enough to try and fit in too many places. I took to Pinterest for inspiration and sure enough after seeing a few pictures and reading a couple of blogs I decided it was the perfect place for a 3 day trip.
Georgetown is the capital and actually Penang is classed as the second largest city in the whole of Malaysia after KL which surprised me. There’s absolutely loads going on here with a vibrant artsy community and plenty of things to do in Penang, whatever your interests. One of the first steps we recommend is to pick up a leaflet that’s in most hostels and coffee shops that advertises what’s on that week – when we arrived we grabbed one and saw everything from classic car displays to city sketching tours and wine tastings. The centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site and boasts some great examples of colonial architecture and famous street art.
There’s more to Penang than Georgetown though with beautiful white sandy beaches lining the north coast, Penang National Park in the north east and a central hilly region which includes the famous Penang Hill, a tourist attraction in its own right. You could easily take a week or more to explore the wider reaches of the island but most people visit on short breaks – as did we. We loved our time here and wanted to share what we think are the best things to do in Penang based on our quick trip to the island.
1. Explore Georgetown’s Street Art
In our experience one of the best things to do in Penang (and probably one of the most popular) for at least a day is to just wander round and explore the streets of Georgetown. There’s lots of museums and attractions to take advantage of if that’s your kind of thing but we loved just mooching about and checking out everything from the architecture to the street art.
One of Georgetown’s most famous features are the many pieces of street art that line the historic streets – particularly around the Lebuh Armenian. Hired by the council in 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was tasked with brightening up some of the old Chinese shop houses and injecting some creativity into the area. He certainly managed and spotting his art works have become a popular activity amongst tourists to the area. Just pick up a map (they’re pretty much everywhere) and try and tick off as many as you can.
There’s also lots of cat themed graffiti that we enjoyed spotting on our wanders. Stray cats are a real problem on the island, although many are well cared for by locals, and you can expect to see plenty as you explore the city. The street art in Georgetown featuring cats is designed to raise awareness of this issue and much of it has been created by local charities.
2. Hike Up Penang Hill
Penang Hill is a must visit and I really wish that we’d been well enough to take on the hike to the top. I don’t think it’s supposed to be too challenging and takes around 2-3 hours to make it to the summit, but sadly we were struck down with colds and it wasn’t to be. Luckily there’s a funicular train and it’s only 30R (about a fiver) for the return journey that takes maybe 10 minutes each way. It goes surprisingly fast considering how steep the hill is so expect your ears to pop and at least a little lurching of the stomach.
From Georgetown it’s around 20 minutes by car to Penang Hill station – uber is by far the easiest way to get there and only cost us 9R, although there are also buses available. Once you arrive at the top be prepared for some spectacular views of Penang, especially the coast line and bridge connecting the island with the mainland. I didn’t actually know that was a thing until I was up there seeing it for myself and it’s a pretty impressive work of engineering. There are a couple of temples to take in, including both a Hindu temple and a mosque, a viewing platform and a food court.
What was really entertaining though were the unusual extra attractions that you could pay to enjoy. Professional photographer to grab some snaps whilst you pose under heart shaped archways perhaps? Or maybe a visit to the earthquake experience? We opted to take a look at the Owl Museum… which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend although the gift shop was far too tempting to resist.
3. Have a Wander Round Chew Jetty
Located in Georgetown, this is a small area of stilted houses clustered around the Jetty area that preserve an older way of life from Penang’s history. There are several of these mini villages but this is the main one that’s tourist friendly and has turned into a bit of an attraction for travellers.
Historically they were inhabited by Chinese immigrants and the family name, in this case ‘Chew’, was what gave its name to each small inhabited area. They adopted South East Asian tradition when making their home on the waterfront in the stilted houses that they built and it wasn’t until the mid 50s that they had electricity installed. You can wander around the wooden walkways and browse the many small gift shops and food stalls that have been set up to capitalise on the tourist market. There’s also a temple at the end of the Jetty overlooking the ocean. When it comes to historic and cultural things to do in Penang, this is right up there at the top of the list.
4. Take a Stroll Around Little India
Also in Georgetown is a district called Little India, another sign of the island’s multicultural heritage. There’s an old Hindu temple in the area as well as a mosque and whilst it’s only made up a few streets it feels exactly as though you’ve been transported to the market streets of Delhi. (As I imagine, given that we haven’t made it to India yet – June hopefully!). It is kind of surreal as you wander through an Indian style market in Malaysia with Chinese shop houses in sight along streets called ‘Queen Street’ and ‘Market Street’. We loved that Malaysia is so multicultural – even the markets are set up so that different religions can shop whilst avoiding food they may not be comfortable seeing.
I digress… Little India is full of incredible Indian restaurants and street food stands – we filled our boots with no ill effects. From sweet stands to markets selling strings of flowers for visits to temples it feels really authentic and is full of friendly vendors who will happily explain their products to you. The area also has a kind of retro feel – with shops selling old VHS tapes and even cassettes! It’s a must visit whether you choose to spend a few hours or just to take a walk through, and has to be up there with our favourite things to do in Penang.
5. Laze Around At Batu Ferringhi Beach
We fancied at least a bit of beach time in Malaysia as it’s something the country is famous for. Our week was actually supposed to be dedicated to some R&R and we were originally thinking about spending the whole time in somewhere like Langkawi, but our usual instincts took over and we ended up going out sightseeing and exploring every day. I love sunbathing but have struggled to be my usual beach loving self on this trip. Batu Ferringhu beach is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen though and I’m glad we made the effort. Visiting this gorgeous beach should definitely be up there with the best things to do in Penang.
Miles of perfect sandy beaches, coconut trees and clear waters and best of all hardly anyone there to share it with. We had beautiful weather and loved a couple of hours lounging around. With water sports including jet skiing, parasailing and goodness knows what’s else there’s plenty to try out if you get bored. There’s even a Starbucks designed so you can sunbathe and get your caffeine fix at the same time, what more could you want!
I wrote about this in our guide to how to spend a week in Malaysia but do be careful of jellyfish. I’d read about it in advance but there were loads on the shore line and probably even more lurking in the water. There’s also been reports of box jellyfish and I’m a massive overreactor who hates the sea at the best of times so there was no question of me taking a dip!
6. Eat All The Food
Another one of the all time best things to do in Penang is to eat as much food as you possibly can. It’s all delicious and with so many different cultural influences there’s something for everyone. From street food to high end restaurants there’s loads to try. Some of the most famous dishes include Nasi Lemak and Asam Laksa, both of which are delicious, whilst you should also try some Chinese noodles and eat at one of the many curry buffets in Little India. After being pretty ill in Vietnam I was worried about indulging in so much street food and ‘risky’ cuisine but everything we tried was absolutely delicious and included some of the best street food we had.
A couple of the spots we enjoyed most when it comes to food and drink in Penang included:
The Tavern – a more high end place we stumbled into on our first night this bar does great cocktails with happy hours daily and also an awesome set of Laksa dishes including Asam Laksa.
Kapitan – delicious and really cheap curry house opposite the main mosque in Georgetown, they are famous for their clay pot Biryanis which are amazing and we paid about £6 for two generously portioned main meals and drinks.
So even though it’s only a small island there are so many things to do in Penang whatever your interests. I can’t encourage you enough to go there if you visit Malaysia!