Visitors Guide to Penang: Everything You Need to Know
If you are planning your Malaysia travel itinerary, Penang island with its capital city George Town must be high on your list. Penang, famous for street art, temples, jetties, beaches, and pre-war mansions is really too beautiful to be missed out. Read our visitors guide on the best things to do in Penang, tips on what to see, where to eat and where to stay, what to pack and when is the best time to visit the destination. You can read everything you need to know before visiting George Town in Penang in this travel blog.
Pulau Penang was one of our favorite places we visited in Malaysia, and we even liked its capital George Town, although it is the second-largest city in the country. Simply put, George Town is a true gem.
Yes, it is crowded, noisy and the air is often polluted, but on the other hand, the historic center is absolutely splendid (the city is not UNESCO-listed for nothing). The architecture, old mansions, and temples are very photogenic, you can uncover the complicated history of the island when walking around jetties with old traditional wooden houses, and from time to time you can find the world-famous street art in the alleys where new and modern blends with the old times.
And have we mentioned the cuisine? It is true that before visiting Penang, we had traveled to Melaka, which is considered to be the foodies' heaven, but trust us when we say that George Town is not even one percent worse, and it is rightfully a destination where people travel to eat their way around.
Penang has a rich history (the island was a British colony for several centuries) and culture as descendants of Malay, Indian and Chinese people live here, and you can see the blend of cultures everywhere around, and even if visiting colonial places, temples or heritage houses is not your thing, you will definitely appreciate the mix of those three nations when tasting different meals on a local night markets.
Simply put, we really loved our time in Penang island, and those four days we had allocated for this destination were for sure not enough - we could have stayed even longer hadn't we traveled on a strict itinerary.
We hope this post will inspire you to visit Penang, the capital George Town and some of the temples and beaches in the near surroundings.
BEST THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN PENANG ISLAND
Do you want to hear the good news?
Most of the highlights Penang island has to offer are easily accessible, and even if you are not an explorer by heart, there are several top attractions and best things to do in the central part of George Town, that you won't have to travel far to get your camera memory card full.
Here's a list of the places we saw and things we did in Penang island we enjoyed the most.
Penang Hill | Are you looking for a spot from where you can get the best views? Then you must head to Penang Hill, towering 800 meters above George Town. There are several ways how to reach the top. The most common ways are to get to Penang Hill by taxi or by bus (204), the most sweaty way is to walk (the hill is pretty steep, and you can either walk along the road or through the jungle which is longer and not that well-signposted), and the coolest way it to reach the top by train for 30 RM. You can visit Penang Hill any time of the day, but the best time is around sunset when you can watch the sky turning red, and the city under you lightened up.
Chulia Street Night Market | Chulia Street is known for the evening hawker market, where you can taste more traditional food.
Street Art | It is probably not possible that you've never seen George Town's street art. It has been all over Instagram lately, and for many travelers, it is even the main reason why to travel to this part of Malaysia. The tradition of street art in Penang island does not go that far into history (it began in 2012), but the murals painted on old and run-down buildings became quickly overly popular, and we must say they are really captivating, especially when the paintings are combined with three-dimensional objects. The street art is scattered all around the old town, and there is not only one specific street where you can find it all. You have several options here on how to discover George Town's street art. The most laidback option is to wander aimlessly around the city - you will for sure stumble across several paintings. In case the street art is the reason you arrived in the city, and you don't want to miss anything, it is possible to grab a map in any hotel or bike rental shop and either walk and cycle around the city, or you can take a street art tour. Get lost in the streets of George Town and look for your favorite piece.
Food | We do not want to sound that we arrived in Malaysia only to eat, but to be honest, after spending a year in New Zealand and a couple of weeks in Australia which are not exactly budget-friendly countries, we could not believe how cheap, but more importantly how tasty the food is. When traveling in Southeast Asia, we usually did not read any reviews on where to eat. We were on a low budget, so we preferred the street food and usually ate in a restaurant where we saw many locals or when we could not resist the aroma. That's why we won't give you here a list of the best restaurants you must visit - your nose will unmistakenly lead you to the nearest stall. Same as in Melaka, you can taste here the traditional Nyonya cuisine and a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Malay recipes.
Tropical Spice Garden | If you are interested in native plants and spices for this area, you should for sure visit Tropical Spice Garden where you can finally see how the spice we eat on daily basis (at least when in Asia) grow. It is possible to take a cooking class on spot. You can buy your admission ticket here in advance.
Jetty | Other must-visit places in George Town are clan jetties. Are you wondering what the hell is it? Simply, the jetties are waterfront settlements standing on the water and comprising of wooden houses built on stilts. The overwater houses were built in the 19th century by poor Chinese immigrants, who could not afford to buy a house on the mainland, but they stand around Penang island until these days. Each jetty belonged to one Chinese clan, and although today the jetties are fairly touristy as in every house you can buy refreshment or souvenirs, people still live here. The most popular is Chew Jetty which is close to the historic center, so it is always better to visit it either early in the morning or later in the afternoon as the wooden boardwalks are pretty narrow.
UNESCO-listed Houses | The reason why is George Town UNESCO World Heritage City are the beautiful houses and mansions spread all around the city. The architecture in Penang island is influenced by British colonizers and the traditional Chinese, Indian and Malay inhabitants. One of the most famous examples of the island's architecture is Pinang Peranakan Mansion which has been turned into a museum, but you will find many interesting buildings almost everywhere in the city center of George Town. Most of the houses have wooden window shutters and archways, so they are easily recognizable. Many of them were turned into boutique hotels and restaurants, so you even have a chance to peek inside.
Penang National Park | Luckily, Penang is not famous only for architecture and food, but also for beaches and nature. The best way how to escape crowds is head to Penang National Park where you can find many hiking trails leading through the jungle to waterfalls, and often to almost deserted beaches. It is a great budget thing to do because there is no entrance fee and you can get here easily in 45 minutes by bus which terminates in the park. You do not have to explore the park only on foot, but it is also possible to rent a boat here and see mangroves, wildlife and get to more secluded beaches.
Kek Lok Si Temple | The largest temple on Pulau Penang is Kek Lok Si Temple which is also one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, and even if you've already seen many temples on this continent, you should not miss this one out. The temple is absolutely gorgeous, and except for its dimension, you will for sure find interesting many colorful details all around the complex and a large number of golden Budha statues. To get to the temple, take a bus 203 or 201 to a small village Air Itam, where you will also find a market and many food stalls serving delicious meals. The admission to the pagoda is free, but you must pay 2 RM in case you want to enter the main pagoda, and another 2 RM (each way) for the inclined lift to reach the Kuan Yin statue. The visit of Kek Lok Si Temple is often combined on a half-day tour with Penang Hill.
Khoo Kongsi | Khoo Kongsi is an amazing piece of architecture dating to the 19th century. It was built by Chinese descendants, and until today it is one of the finest buildings in George Town.
Fort Cornwallis | Dating back to the 18th century, Fort Cornwallis is one of the most famous sights in Penang. It was built by the British army to protect Penang against invaders who could attack the island from the sea.
Kapitan Keling Mosque | The white facade of Kapitan Keling Mosque is peaceful and sublime. Penang is one of those few places in the world where you can find mosques, temples, and churches close to each other.
WHERE TO STAY IN PENANG
There are several districts where you can sleep in Penang Island.
The most popular area is the capital city George Town from where it is a short walk to the most notable sights, great food is always near and in case you want to visit other places on the island, you can get there by public transport or a taxi.
We've handpicked three best hotels in Penang island for every type of traveler.
Budget | The Frame Guesthouse - There is no shortage of budget-friendly accommodation, especially in George Town. This stylish hostel offers both private rooms and dormitories, breakfast and friendly vibes.
Mid-range | Jawi Peranakan Mansion - Well-appointed rooms, outdoor pool, lovely decor, and great location are the main reasons why to stay in this well-priced hotel.
Luxury | 23 Love Lane Hotel - Beautifully renovated boutique hotel is located in an old mansion and offers excellent services and lovely rooms where it is a pleasure to take a rest.
HOW LONG TO STAY IN PENANG
How many days should you plan for exploring Pulau Penang?
Despite its small size, to fully indulge the atmosphere, see all the highlights, have time to relax on the beach and eat as much street food as you can, we think four days is a reasonable period to enjoy Penang and all the activities the island has to offer.
We stayed four days, and although we think we did not miss any highlight, we could imagine ourselves to stay even two to three days longer, and only walk the streets and taste new meals and new flavors every day.
On the other hand, if your Malaysia itinerary is more packed, and you can afford to stay only two nights, we would have skipped the beaches as you can find much nicer stretches of sand elsewhere in the country, and we would have focused only on the architecture, street art and food near George Town.
WHEN TO VISIT PENANG
Weather-wise, Penang has an equatorial climate the same as the rest of Malaysia.
You can expect hot and humid weather all year round with temperatures between 22°C and 30°C - the hottest month is March. The most popular time to travel in Malaysia is between December and March when it is pleasantly warm outside and it rarely rains. From April to November comes the wet season and the rainiest months are September, October, and November.
When traveling on a budget, it is not a bad idea to visit Penang between June and August, which is an offseason, and if you can accept a bit of rain, you will be rewarded by lower prices and fewer crowds.
On the other hand, the busiest time in Penang when accommodation is hard to get and prices are higher is during Christmas, around New Year's Eve and Chinese New Year (check the calendar, the date changes, but usually falls on January or February).
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING PENANG
No matter what time in the year you plan on visiting Penang, you can be sure that most of the time you will experience hot and humid conditions, only between April and November be ready for some rain.
Here are five essential things you should pack when traveling to Penang.
Sarong | This little thing is very useful when going to the beach, or in case you want to visit a temple - it is always better and more respectful to cover your shoulders.
Rain Poncho | December to February is dry season, but you should pack rain poncho for your every trip just in case.
HOW TO GET AROUND PENANG
The city center of George Town is pretty compact, and you can basically get everywhere on foot.
There is also a free and frequent CAT bus circling the city and both locals and foreigners can simply hop on and hop off the bus.
To get to the suburban areas of Penang the most comfortable way how to get around is either renting a scooter (it is also possible to rent a car at the airport) or taking a taxi (try Grab which is an analogy to Uber and is much cheaper than the ordinary cab on the street).
Rapid Penang bus company serves basically all routes on the island, and although it often not that easy to figure out the lines, it is the cheapest way how to travel around the island to attractions such as Batu Ferringhi or Penang National Park.
You can check out this website where you can find out more about bus schedule and routes so you can plan your Penang itinerary accordingly.
HOW TO GET TO PENANG
There are three ways how to get to Penang. Two options start on the mainland in the city of Butterworth from where you can get to George Town either by boat or via the bridge, or you can travel by air as Penang has an international airport.
Taxi | Unless you travel around Malaysia by rental car, if you want to get from Butterworth to George Town via the bridge, your best bet is to take a taxi (there is public transport, but it takes much longer than traveling by ferry). Honestly, we don't think that taking a taxi makes any sense as it is much more expensive than a ferry (30 - 40 RM), and it can take up to one hour, depending on traffic.
Ferry | When traveling to Penang from the mainland, the best option on how to get from Butterworth to George Town is by ferry. The ferry terminal is close to the bus terminal in Butterworth, and the terminal on the other side is only 10 minutes walk from the George Town's center. The ferry goes twice an hour, one ride costs 1.3 RM, and it takes only 20 minutes. You do not need to make any reservation in advance.
Plane | If you decide on traveling by plane to Penang, you have three options on how to get to George Town or any other city in Penang Island from the airport. You can either take a regular bus (Rapid Penang Bus lines 401, 401A, or 401E) which is the cheapest option, or you can take a taxi for approximately 30 RM or the last option is to book a private shuttle in advance.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
WHERE TO TRAVEL AFTER VISITING PENANG
Depending on your itinerary, the most common destinations travelers usually visit before or after visiting Penang Island are either Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, or another island Langkawi or the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
SAFETY IN PULAU PENANG
Penang is a relatively safe place for Southeast Asian standards, but as always when traveling, use your common sense.
George Town is a large city, so always keep an eye on your valuables.
Pickpocketing, bag or phone snatching, is not uncommon.
Do not wander to abandoned and dark alleys, and when going out for a drink, do not leave your glass unattended. It is always better to leave your valuables in a hotel room (in a safe if possible) and not to flash around the expensive camera or phone when walking around the city center.
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