Penang is a wonderful city that made us fall for its vibe, its people and its food. We spent 2 days here, but it was simply not long enough. We could have easily spent a whole week, but if you don’t have that much time, a good 3-4 days is the perfect amount of time. Penang has a really laid back but electric feel that’s hard to describe. Chill out and revel in the street art during the day. Pork out and dance the night away. Whatever you’re in the mood for, Penang has it.
The historic part, Georgetown, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. It’s also the country’s second largest city after Kuala Lumpur, though you really don’t feel it’s that crowded when you’re exploring.
Depending on where you’re are coming from, there are different ways to get to Penang Island.
The fastest way to here is the plane. Flights with Air Asia are quite cheap and run regularly from major cities around the area.
Once you get to the airport, there are different options to get you to the city. The taxi ordered at the airport will set you back RM47 to Georgetown but RM80 if it’s very late. The drive there is about 30 minutes long but will depend in traffic. Ours took about one hour but what else can you expect from a Friday 5PM ride?
The cheapest option is the RM10 bus but it’s a much longer ride, at about one hour, even if there is no traffic.
You can also take a Grab for RM20 but make sure you order it when you get off the plane because there’s no wifi at the lobby of the airport, and you’ll probably have to double back to connect.
You could also take a ferry, either from Langkawi or from Butterworth on the mainland. The ferry from Langkawi is about 3 hours long, leaving twice a day. Just note that very often, the waters are choppy, so not the best option if you have motion sickness or if you get seasick easily. The cost is about RM60 per person, which is not so different than what the plane costs on a good day. You can also leave from Butterworth. That ferry runs every 20-30 min, from 5:20AM to 12:10AM.
You can also drive into Penang by bus or car rental. That means you get to drive on the famous Penang Bridge. The Penang Bridge is a 13.5km (8.4-mile) dual carriageway bridge that connects Butterworth on the mainland side of the state with Gelugor on the island of Penang. The bridge was inaugurated in 1985 and it is the second-longest bridge in Malaysia and the fifth-longest in Southeast Asia. You will notice that many people have quite an affection for this bridge and talk about it with pride.
Getting around Penang is very easy. If you are staying in Georgetown, you can easily get around by walking to where you need to get. The furthest we walked to get anywhere was about 25 minutes. Then again, our hotel was super well-situated!
If you’re not too keen on walking, what are you doing here? Ok. Just kidding, but it is a great way to get around. If not, there is the free CAT bus that goes around Georgetown. There are also paying buses available to get around to different parts of the city. They also have bikes that you can rent, called Link Bike, that are super convenient.
And if none of this suits you, you can always use Grab. It’s like Uber but much cheaper and probably the most convenient way to get around the city.
Things to do
Ok, this is probably the reason you are in Georgetown to start with. Back in 2009, the Heritage city held a contest to revive its vibe. The winning idea was from local artist Tang Mun Kian, under the theme “Voices of the people“, with steel-rod sculptures around the city showing elements from everyday life of locals. And there are many other artists who have contributed to the art around the city. The most famous are the interactive art pieces created by Ernest Zacharevic or the beautiful murals Julia Volchkova and Louis Gan.
There are a ton of maps available that show you exactly where all the art is but if you want to have some fun with it, just walk around and see what you find. There are even bars and restaurants that have participated in the fun.
The clan jetties are water villages that are about a century old. The were home to Chinese clans that came to settle here. There used to be seven jetties, but one was destroyed by a fire. Known as one of the last old Chinese settlements on the island, the jetties are houses on stilts of various Chinese clans. Each jetty is even named after a Chinese clan, with the Chew Jetty being the most visited one. It boasts the most stilt-houses, the longest walkway, a temple at its entrance. It’s good to know that none of the families pay any taxes as they are not living on land. Talk about finding a winning loophole!
Today, it seems like the jetties are mainly used as stores where they sell souvenirs and treats. We tried the dragon’s beard, a string sugar that is wrapped around some peanuts.
Getting here: The Clan Jetties are part of the Heritage walk. You can get to them by walking straight down from Lebuh Chulia (beside the Kapitan Kling Mosque) at Pengkalan Weld (Weld Quay).
If you didn’t know, Penang is a Foodie paradise. Here, you can find tons of delicious food around every corner. Sure, some will be expensive, but you can get some amazing local delicacies without having to pay much. Our favourites were the rendang and laska and char koay teow. More on that later!
Just be sure to pick the busiest stalls, that’s where the good food is. And like they say, “good things come to those who wait“, so strike up a conversation with the other patrons waiting and get ready to enjoy some delicious food.
Walk around Georgetown
This may seem obvious, but honestly, there is so much beauty to discover in this Unesco World Heritage city. So walk around, see how people live, discover local shops, and admire the beauty of the home fronts. We spent a good afternoon just wandering the streets and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of the city. With a vibrant Little India and Chinatown, it’s really a great place to discover.
This is probably one of the main prides of the city and island. Two long bridges that connect Penang island to the mainland. Our Grab driver told us stories of visitors who have asked her to drive up and down the bridge. Because the 13.5km bridge is the second-longest bridge in Malaysia and the fifth-longest in Southeast Asia, a lot people want to see it.
This is a view you don’t want to miss, so make your way to Penang Hill. You can hike up the 833-meter mountain or take the funicular. This is the region’s fastest, steepest and highest train. It will set you back 30RM per person but it’s well worth it for the view. Once you are up there, you get a 180° panorama of the city.
At the hilltop, you will also find a mosque, a temple, and a few restaurants. If you walk 10 min, you will get to the Habitat, a newly created attraction that includes a canopy walk, a sky walk, multiple gardens and guided tours. You’ll get to really become one with nature, learn about the fauna and flora, and as always, get some awesome views of Penang (you might even see Langkawi, on a nice day). There is an entrance fee, and don’t forget comfy walking shoes, sunscreen and insect repellant.
Getting here: You can take the 204 bus to get here, or the free city hop on and off bus, for a green alternative. If not, you can always Grab-it there. You can ask to get to Penang Hill or Bukit Bendera.
Batu Ferringhi Beach
This is probably the second most popular thing to do in Penang, after Georgetown. Batu Ferringhi is a long stretch of soft, white sandy beach along a winding road named Jalan Batu Ferringhi. It’s filled with a ton of accommodations and restaurants. The night market here is quite legendary as well. Its waters are a popular spot for a whole slew of water sports like jet-skiing, parasailing and windsurfing. Not sure if you want to swim in the water (it may not be the cleanest), it is however, a pretty epic spot for sunsets.
Getting here: From Georgetown, you can take Bus 101. You can pick up this bus from many of the popular tourist areas of the city, including the Jetty, Chulia Street and KOMTAR. The bus ride is about an hour (depending on the time of day and amount of traffic). It’s on the same route as the National Park.
Kek Lok Si Temple
This temple is about 9km from the city. This is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, and one of the most important ones in South East Asia. The complex is actually made up of different sections including many temples, pagodas, a turtle liberation pond, shops, the four heavenly kings pavilion, gardens, and a huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. Because it’s on a hilltop, you also get a great view of the city from here.
What makes this temple more impressive than most is that Kek Lok Si is carved into the rock face and, at the same time, it’s perched atop the Air Itam hillside. The main attraction is the beautiful pagoda of Rama VI. At the centre of the complex, this 30 metre high tower is acknowledged as the face of Kek Lok Si. This is another place to get some awesome views of the city.
There is seriously so much you can do and see here, and it’s all beautiful. Your visit will probably take a good 1.5 hours, if not more. The entrance to the temple complex is free, but to visit and climb the pagoda, you will have to pay RM2 per person. To take the inclined elevator to the Kuan Yin statue, you will also need to pay RM3.
Getting here: The temple is situated on Air Itam, and the best way to get there is to take a Grab.
Mosque Kapitan Keling
Situated at the heart of Georgetown on what is dubbed Harmony street, you will find the Kapitan Keling Mosque. The street is nicknamed this way because you can find buildings of different religious faiths on the street.
Built in 1801 by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers, it’s the largest mosque in the Heritage city. It really is a beautiful place to see. If you wish to visit it, mosque officials will have to grant you permission. You will only be allowed to enter if you’re dressed properly – for women, this means longs pants or skirts and long-sleeve shirts and men will also need to have their shoulders covered and wear pants.
Getting here: The mosque is at the intersection of Lebuh Buckingham and Lebuh Pitt.
The Penang National Park is located on the north-west corner of the island in Teluk Bahang. With so much to do here, it’s well worth a day trip. It has some of the best beaches on the island located along it’s shores, so make sure you come prepared. You can also hike it’s many trails, do the canopy walk (you’ll need tickets for this), do some bird watching, fishing or even camping.
You can also take boat rides along the shores to visit the beaches there. Seriously, this place has it all! Well it almost has it all. They actually don’t sell any food or water inside the reserve you have to bring your own.
Getting here: From Georgetown, you can take Bus 101. You can pick up this bus from many of the popular tourist areas of the city, including the Jetty, Chulia Street and KOMTAR. The bus ride is about an hour (depending on the time of day and amount of traffic).
Snake temple is 17km from the city and another place that is easy to get to with Grab. This temple was built in honour of Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist priest and healer. According to the legend, the monk gave shelter to the snakes and when the temple was completed after his death, they moved in on their own. After they moved in, it was believed that the snakes were disciples of the priest, so it became the home to several resident venomous Wagler’s pit vipers and green tree snakes. They must really like it here because they are still here.
You don’t need to worry too much about the venom – first, the snakes won’t bother you much. Then, their venom has been removed so it’s quite safe to walk around. Just don’t tease the snakes or try to grab them aggressively. Anyway, they seem to be sleeping most of the time.
When you get past the main area, you will find a place where they will let you touch a huge python… and then offer to take your picture holding it for RM40. There is also the snake breeding area at the back where you can spot them hanging around the tree branches.
Getting here: From Georgetown, there are three buses that take you to Bayan Lepas, where the temple is located. The bus numbers 302, 401 or 401E. There is not much else around the temple in the way of sightseeing attractions, mostly surrounded by factories and a highway. If not, you will definitely want to take a Grab here, if you don’t have a car. It didn’t cost us much from Georgetown, roughly RM25.
Religious enclave around Snake temple
Right by the Snake temple, you there is a religious enclave with a Hindu temple, a church (Gurdwara Sahib Bayan Baru) and a Buddhist temple. Although church and the Sri Vishwanather Visalatchi Alayam Temple were closed, the Buddhist temple, Than Hsiang Temple, was quite a sight to see.
It really wasn’t what we expected, have you ever seen a temple that looked like an apartment building? Lucky for us, a volunteer found us and showed us around. The main temple is on the 6th floor of the building, with a 2-storey high statue of Buddha. The rest of the building is used as a community centre, a school, a retirement home and much more.
Getting here: Walk from the Snake temple to get here.
Where to stay
This was one of our favourite stays ever. Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it’s only fitting we would stay in a heritage building at the heart of it. Hotel Penaga was the top choice. The hotel has kept its original layout and decor but updated the facilities. The owners were architect and artist/environmentalist and you can feel the love in everything they have done here. It’s the first restored heritage building in Malaysia with a green rating, which is why we loved it even more!
All the details came together beautifully – the decor was stunning, the furniture was influenced by Chinese design. The walls are decorated with works from resident artists. Each room has some beautiful stained glass windows that add a touch of luxury and class. The lights were replaced by LEDs to ensure they are as efficient as possible. The roof tiles were salvaged from demolished buildings in Penang, and the timber for structures and floors came from demolished colonial buildings throughout the peninsula. Anything new was mainly handmade, which shows the importance given to support the local economy and artists.
The staff was so friendly and attentive to anything we needed. They were always ready to help with anything and were always smiling. They went above and beyond offering us a mid-day snack and happy hour cocktails which were perfect bookends for a refreshing dip in their lap pool. A perfect way to get out of the heat in the city.
More than a hotel room, our stay at Hotel Penaga felt like a retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the city, while still being at the heart of it all. We really felt that they take pride in everything they do.
Seriously, this place has everything you can possibly ask for. It’s just awesome.
What to eat
Usually, we do a where to eat but in Penang, you can’t go wrong. Instead, here are some delicious meals we tried.
Asam Laksa – This is Penang’s most famous dish, so you just have to try it! Typically, asam laksa is a fish-based noodle soup with thick rice noodles, a tart herb broth, chilli paste, lemongrass, shrimp paste & mackerel. The base is tamarind so it’s a lot more sour than the coconut curries and is said to have an incredibly fishy, tangy taste. Luckily, we found a vegetarian version of this dish, so we didn’t get that fishy taste. The one we had Yun Shui Ge Vegetarian House was amazing!
Rendang – This mix is supposed to have been created in Penang so we had to try it as well. It’s a spicy meat concoction that’s rich in spices. With the main meat ingredient, rendang is made with coconut milk and a tasty paste of mixed ground spices, like ginger, galangul, tumeric, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillis and a slew of other spices. We enjoyed the vegetarian version of this dish as well, and it was delish!
Char Koay Teow (Fried Rice Cake Strips / Noodles) – This is one of the most iconic street food dishes in Penang and you can find it everywhere. It means “stir-fried rice cake strips” so it’s basically made by frying noodles in pork fat with a light and dark soy sauce, prawns, briny cockles, chewy Chinese sausage, crispy sprouts, fluffy egg and chillis, often served on a banana leaf, to infuse some more flavour into it. Derek had this at CF Food Court and loved it!
The oyster omelette – It’s also known as “Oh Chien” and is a culinary delight amongst the list of street foods in Penang. The oysters are fried in an egg & rice flour batter (to crisp it up), with chives and served with a spicy chilli or garlic sauce.
Curry Mee – It’s a soup made with a mix of curry and coconut milk, usually served with yellow noodles and rice vermicelli, fried bean curd, cockles, prawns, cuttlefish, cubes of pig’s blood and bean sprouts. The Curry Mee is like traditional coconut laksa found in other parts of Asia.
And since we know you love our Where to Eat, here re some of our favorite places:
Yun Shui Ge Vegetarian House: We came upon this restaurant almost by accident, but man were we lucky we found it. They had all of the traditional Malay and Penang specialties, but in their more delicious vegetarian versions. We had the laksa, rendang and dumplings here. Each was more delicious than the next!
CF food market: This is probably one of the most popular hawker centres in Penang, mainly because Anthony Bourdain came here. So obviously, we had to come! This was before his untimely death, which has hit us hard, considering he was such an inspiration to traveling foodies like us. They have tons of stalls that offer pretty much everything. After 9pm, the entertainment starts with singers and dancers. It gets loud and smoky, but it’s quite a fun experience!
Lagenda restaurant: The restaurant is a unique Malay-Indonesian-western fusion eatery on Campell Street. It offers a few good vegetarian options as well as traditional Malay dishes with a twist. We went here with friends and although the prices are a little more steep than other places, every dish we ordered was delish! The waiting time may also be a little long, but only because the chef uses fresh ingredients, which is great when you taste the powerful punch of herbs and spices. You can’t go wrong here.
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