A few miles off the west coast, you’ll find the Malaysian island of Penang: a paradise of ex-colonial architecture and legendary cuisine. Penang is a mecca for foodies and the blend of Indian, Chinese and Malay cuisine is a delight for the palate.
George Town is the largest city (with 600,000 inhabitants!) and doubles up as the multicultural capital of the island. It’s also where you’ll arrive if you take the ferry from the mainland port of Butterworth. It’s polluted and teeming with car exhaust fumes, but luckily makes up for this by being full of cultural surprises…
Penang offers something for even the biggest cityphobe – just outside the city edges, you’ll find sprawling beach resorts at Batu Ferringhi and quiet fishing villages such as Teluk Bahang. There’s also creative street art, a beautiful national park and plenty of hybrid cuisines to sink your teeth into!
Penang Map & Resources
Where to Stay in Penang
Sprawling Chinatown is locally known as ‘Backpacker Alley’; and, as the name suggests, there are loads of cheap and cheerful places to stay.
A bustling road, and one of the oldest in George Town, Lebuh Chulia has a few more upmarket accommodation options. This is a good area for flashpackers and those with a little more money to spend.
Love Lane is a narrow street which links Farquhar Street and Chulia Street and is the backpacker haven of Penang! While things can get a little seedy at night, Love Lane offers some great budget digs, right in the middle of the World Heritage Site borders.
5 Best Hostels in Penang
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Located in the heart of George Town, this hostel features an outdoor swimming pool, bar and communal area. Inside there is a kitchen (great for budget backpackers), TV lounge, games room and computers for guests to use. Travellers say the location is perfect!
A highly rated hostel by guests, with a bar and communal lounge. Many backpackers say it is in their favourite area of George Town, with popular points of interest nearby.
Situated just a few minutes walk from the backpacker haven Love Lane, this hostel is the perfect base from which to get to know the island. The staff are made up of locals and travellers and can help you plan your itinerary while you’re in Penang!
This minimalist guesthouse was once a frame maker in the heart of Lebuh Chulia, George Town. After restoring the shop and changing it into a guesthouse, they decided to keep the concrete flooring, walls and surfaces, to retain the authenticity of the place. This is a unique place to stay on a budget.
Rope Walk Guesthouse is set in a pre-war mansion, just a 5-10 minute walk from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town. The staff at this place go out of their way to make you feel at home so you’re sure to have an unforgettable stay.
15 Things to Do in Penang, Malaysia
1. Visit the Tropical Spice Garden
Located in Jalan Teluk Bahang on what used to be a rubber plantation, this beautiful garden is home to herbs and spices native to Southeast Asia. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the garden and the various plants there.
This is a must-visit if you are interested in seeing Malaysian flora and fauna, and you can even take a cooking class and learn how to make traditional Malaysian dishes using the herbs and spices grown in the garden!
2. Soak Up the Sun at Batu Ferringhi Beach
If you need a day of relaxation after exploring George Town, head to Batu Ferringhi beach for some sunbathing, swimming and cocktail sipping!
This long stretch of golden sand is considered to be the best beach in Penang and is also a brilliant spot to catch the sunset. There are several beach bars and resorts there, including our favourite, Frandy Beach Bar and Restaurant – don’t miss the tasty cocktails!
3. Check Out Lek Lok Si Temple
One of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, this is a must for your Penang itinerary! While you are visiting, make sure to check out the towering Kek Lok Si Pagoda and the 36.5-meter-high statue of Guanyin, which represents the Goddess of Mercy. The pagoda has taken influence from Chinese, Thai and Burmese cultures, making it a unique attraction in Penang!
4. Explore Little India
Little India is a small area of Penang but it’s not to be missed! As you walk through the streets, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to India, surrounded by small shops selling colourful saris, incense and gorgeous perfumes! And the best bit? Delicious Indian cuisine on every corner, of course!
5. Go on a Food Tour
You already know that Penang is the foodie capital of Malaysia so what better way is there to explore than to eat your way around?!
Food tours are usually based in the capital George Town and offer an exciting way to learn about the history of the local cuisine and the island at large.
In George Town there are lots of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences, meaning there are endless delicious Penang dishes to sample. From the famous Char Kway Teow to Laksa spicy noodle soup, your tastebuds will thank you for this experience!
6. Go Shopping at Batu Ferringhi Night Market
Batu Ferringhi Night Market is a great place to look for bargains! The market is full of stalls selling an array of different products, such as bags, clothes, watches and a variety of souvenirs. There is also a brilliant food court where you can check out some tasty hawker stalls selling Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisine.
7. Tour the Street Art in George Town
If you’re not marvelling at the colonial heritage buildings or eating the tasty cuisine on every corner, then you will be taking photos of George Town’s quirky street art!
Although touring the murals is an easy activity to do independently, art buffs wanting to learn about the history of each piece may want to jump on a tour.
Also read: A Short Guide to the Street Art in Penang.
8. Ride the Penang Hill Railway
Considered one of the top things to do in Penang, Penang Hill offers fantastic views of the city as well as the island of Langkawi and Kedah state. The hill is serviced by one of the oldest funicular systems in the world; the Penang Hill Railway.
At the top, there is also a range of things to do, including nature trails and botanical gardens. The only downside to this attraction is that it takes up to two hours of queuing to get onto the train, so consider this when planning your time in Penang!
9. Hike Through Penang National Park
It might be the smallest national park in Malaysia but it’s still one of the best things to do while you are in Penang! Penang National Park offers loads of awesome hiking trails through the jungle and most of them end on a secluded beach. If you’re wanting to stay longer, you can camp overnight in one of the beach huts. Bliss!
10. Have Fun at ‘The Top Penang’
‘The Top Penang’ is the largest indoor theme park in Malaysia. It contains over 18 themed attractions and is located at the top of a skyscraper, boasting fantastic views of Penang!
The most popular attraction at the theme park is the ‘Rainbow Skywalk’, which is a glass-bottomed bridge looping around the top of the 817-foot-tall building. Would you be brave enough to walk across it?!
For even more adrenaline-fueled action, Gravityz offers rope challenges that take place on the 61st floor! Amazing views of the island are guaranteed – just don’t look down! (Warning: not for the faint of heart.)
11. Admire the Floating Mosque
The unique Tanjung Bungah Mosque is suspended over the sea and appears to be floating when the tide is high. This has led it to be christened “The Floating Mosque”. The mosque is characterised by its middle eastern architecture and is well worth a visit. However, you should avoid the hours of prayer.
12. Visit the Clan Jetties
The clan jetties are a unique attraction and an important part of Penang’s heritage. Essentially villages comprising houses, little shops and restaurants, the complexes are built on stilts which are perched over the sea.
Several of these villages lie on the east coast of George Town, with Chew Jetty being the most famous (and touristy) of them all. You will find lots of food vendors and shops to buy souvenirs on the clan jetties. If you’re looking for a picturesque jetty to snap that perfect Instagram shot, head to Tan Jetty next door!
13. Wander Through Colonial George Town
A brilliant thing to do while you are in Penang is wander the streets of George Town’s colonial old town! The area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and you can head there to explore the streets and architecture. There is no price tag attached to this attraction, making it a great activity for shoestring backpackers.
14. Party on Love Lane
Are you a backpacker or not?! If you’ve answered yes, party the night away on Love Lane in George Town!
With lively bars, pumping beats and reps tempting you into bars with 2-4-1 deals on drinks, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d ended up on Khao San Road in Thailand!
Love Lane promises a great night out and many bars offer happy hour specials to keep the cost of the party down.
15. See Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion
This beautiful, blue-painted mansion was once owned by a 19th-century Chinese industrialist before being renovated in the 1990s. Book a tour of the building for around $6USD, or if you’re feeling really flashy, reserve a room and stay for the night!
Food and Drink in Penang
A huge reason that many visit Penang is the wide range of delicious food. Known as the food capital of Malaysia, the island is famous for its enticing multicultural cuisine.
It’s also the home of Baba Nyonya fusion food, Eurasian dishes dating back to Portuguese imperial control. With so many delicious aromas wafting on the wind, just a quick walk down the street will have your mouth watering!
While it is impossible to talk about Penang without mentioning the food, there are also plenty of great places to grab a drink, no matter whether you’re after a coffee or a cocktail! Below are some recommendations of great places to eat and drink in Penang.
Tajuddin Hussain: This little restaurant serves some of Penang’s best Indian and Pakistani food! Tajuddin Hussain gets super busy from 11 am onwards, so make sure you head there early. Ask for their tasty mutton curry before it sells out!
Penang Road Famous Laksa: A popular street hawker with locals and tourists alike, this place specialises in Laksa, a type of spicy noodle soup with pieces of flaky mackerel. The dish is very fishy and has an unusual taste but the more of it you eat, the more you will want!
Sri Ananda Bahwan: A very affordable restaurant in George Town serving tasty banana leaf rice. The place is always packed with locals and they also serve Masala Dosa, another Indian speciality.
Mews Café: This place is famous for one particular dish; Curry Mee. It’s rich, creamy, and oh-so-tasty! Add some chilli sauce to really set the flavour off.
New Siam Road Char Koay Teow: This street food hawker must be the most popular stall in the whole of Penang. In fact, people regularly queue for up to an hour to sample the food! Is it worth the wait? 100%! This unassuming hawker is home to the best Char Kway Teow in town! Try to avoid the lunch and dinner rush, and you should be fine.
Tiger Char Koay Teow: If you haven’t got time to wait an hour at New Siam Road, or you are just plain hungry, then Tiger Char Koay Teow is a good alternative!
Café Ete: Not a common cuisine in Penang, but delicious all the same, this Taiwanese restaurant offers fantastic beef noodles. The dish served in this eatery comes from an old family recipe, making it all the more authentic!
Chettiars: Hidden away slightly off the main street, this Indian restaurant serves an excellent Masala Dosa! The chutney and sambar that comes alongside the Masala Dosa are divine and beautifully complement the dish.
Mish Mash: A bit on the pricey side, but if you fancy a cocktail, this bar is an excellent place to go. The place has a nice ambience and is a perfect spot to spend the evening. Non-alcoholic cocktails are also available for all you teetotallers.
Love Lane: Here you will find many Chinese-style shops which have been turned into cool cafés, bars, and hostels. If you want a crazy backpacker-style night out, this is the place to be!
Hidden Bar: Also known as Magazine 63, this quirky Chinese-style bar is not actually that well-hidden, but still boasts a great atmosphere and fabulous cocktails! There are often bands playing in the evenings to get everyone in the mood.
Getting to Penang
The cheapest way to get to Penang is by bus. Long-distance buses run to Penang from several cities in Malaysia. It takes around six hours to complete the bus journey from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. You can also take a ferry from the mainland at Butterworth over to Penang. The journey takes around 20 minutes.
Alternatively, you can fly into Penang International Airport from most major capitals in the region, though this will be more costly and not as kind to the planet!
Where to Go Next:
Langkawi: Hop on a boat from the port at George Town to take you straight to the island paradise and tax-free haven that is Langkawi. Not only are the beaches stunning, but you can visit the 99 other beautiful islands in this cluster while you’re at it.
Sabah: Fly across to Malaysian Borneo and head to Sabah, where you can take on the challenge of climbing the awesome Mt. Kinabalu. At a staggering 13,445 ft., it’s the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.
Cameron Highlands: A three-hour journey will transport you to the hiking haven of the Cameron Highlands. Rolling tea plantations, butterfly farms and trekking trails await!