It’s only a week that I arrived in Penang Island. This is not my first time here. I had been here before, a long time ago. But I still had vivid memories of my first trip to Penang: the good food, its heritage buildings and the warmhearted people. I was truly excited to visit Penang again and see how it has changed over the years.
In 5 days I could visit all major Penang attractions. I’ve savoured George Town colourful and buzzing atmosphere. I’ve dived into its rich heritage culture by visiting its temples and museums. Tried out the delicious Penang food by eating in the world-famous streets, food courts and restaurants. Hiked in its national park. Taken a ride on the funicular rail to Penang Hill and experienced the nature and rainforest landmarks of the island. Visited the heritage Balik Pulau with its picturesque fisherman village and the traditional Malay houses.
Here below a bit more about my trip and the best places to visit in Penang.
The best places to visit in Penang in 5 days
Penang is a small island with a high population density. Nearly 400 thousands people live in George Town and 1.7million in the whole Penang state which is made of the island and a stretch of the mainland. So be prepared to experience traffic congestion as this is part and parcel of a trip to the island. For a small distance of 15-20 km it takes between 20-30 minutes by car. There is also a good bus network, the Rapid Penang Buses that take you around the island. Furthermore 2 free Cat Services: the blue and the red, these ride around the city centre of George Town in a circle. If you are familiar with scooters you can hire one, to make it easier to get around. There is also a public bike rent service.
Things to do in George Town
Every trip to Penang starts by visiting George Town. This is where most visitors stay when in Penang. And this is where the early settlers from different cultures and countries merged during the 19th century. Having been a British colony till 1957, the colonial footprints are showcased through heritage buildings that you will see everywhere in George Town. A good number of them have been beautifully refurbished but many are run-down and abandoned, this creates a contrast with the city architecture.
In 2008 Penang entered the Unesco World Heritage sites and this marked its well deserved world-wide recognition. Since then tourism has been increasing year by year and there are good reasons why Penang is so popular.
George Town is a place that you must discover on foot. By strolling through its amazing little roads and hidden lanes you will witness the past and present landmarks. The story of ancient trades from food hawkers to arts & crafts dealers captured in various forms, to rickshaw peddlers and more.
Penang Street Art
Penang is known for its street art. Unlike other places, graffiti are scattered around the town and many of them are tucked away. So you need to walk and discover the artworks of the local artists who have captured the essence of Penang culture over the years. Some artworks have become very popular and are now sold as souvenirs on T-shirts. But it’s also important to understand the story and meaning behind each single piece. There are over 50 steel-rod sculptures in town and more than 25 painted arts in the city centre. All of the sculptures have a carved description that tells you about the story. From the visitor centre you can get a map of George Town street art. The best time to visit Penang is during the George Town Festival in August and September. A busy month for arts. In fact this is where artists from all the world gather making of Penang a well-known place in the world for its beautiful wall art.
Penang Street Food
Penang is world known for its fabulous street food and probably the reason no. 1 for Southeast Asians to come to the island. In Penang there are many eateries open 24 hours a day! Food is simply in every corner, and in all forms: from local food hawkers on the street or in larger hawkers centers also known as food courts or in all different types of restaurants, cafes, resorts etc.
There are many popular street foods in Penang, some operates throughout the day, some at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Two of the most popular street foods in Penang for dinner are the Kimberley Street Food Street and New Lane, both are walking distance from the Komtar tower. Every day I have been trying something different. Exquisite simple food: from Peranakan cuisine, to Malay Food, to Chinese Food, Hokkien food, etc. I'll write more about my food experience in Penang on a dedicated post.
Penang Street of Harmony
One thing that makes George Town stand out from the all other places in Asia is its unique blend of different cultures and ethnic groups who having been living here for hundreds of years and in perfect harmony. To witness this walk alone the Masjid Kapitan Keling Road (a.k.a. Pitt Street) that stretches from Lebuh Light to Melayu Mosque on Lebuh Acheh. Here you will see the beautiful white-washed building of St. George’s Church, the first Anglican church in Southeast Asia. Just a minute walk from there visit the Goddess of Mercy Temple, one of the most important temples for the Chinese community in Penang, with its striking pink joss sticks displayed on the front entrance. Continue further down to see the oldest Hindu Temple Sri Mahamariamman to reach on the corner the majestic building, the Kapitan Keling Mosque at the corner of Buckingham Street.
There are more places that you will discover by walking around George Town. If you are interested in temples you must visit the Thai temple with the reclining Buddha and the Burmese Temple. They are truly unique.
Peranakan Museum in George Town
There are quite a few museums in George Town, make sure you tick off the list these two: the Paranakan Mansion and the Blue Mansion. Both are very significant and gorgeous places for understanding the history behind the Penang culture. A group of early settlers who immigrated to Malaysia and over the years absorbed the local influences and out of this fusion they created a culture of their own, which gave life to the Peranakan culture. Men are called Baba and women Nyonya. A truly fascinating history that you will get to know by visiting these two museums.
While you can visit the Blue Mansion on guided tours only, this place, which has been refurbished in a spectacular way, next to being a museum, is partly converted into a hotel and a high-end restaurant. Absolutely a must see place in Penang.
Penang Hill and the funicular rail
After one day in George Town, a visit to Penang Hill is the second top thing to do, worth adding to your trip itinerary. You must experience the funicular train that takes to the top of the hill and back. I have made a video of this train ride and will add it later on.The ride and the view is sensational, especially when you come down the hill.
To experience the forest and learn about the fragile eco-system of Penang visit the Habitat and its nature coservation center. At the entrance a guide tour will welcome you and walk around with you to show the best places and tell you about the story of this fabulous place. There is a canopy tree top walk and the newly constructed canopy walk that will be open to the public in December.
Kek Lok Si Temple and Air Itam Market
After visiting Penang Hill I had a delicious Assam Laksa at the market in Air Itam. The market is just a few minutes walk away from the Kek Lok Si Temple, which showcases the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast asia. Really worth a visit. Make sure you plan this in too.
Penang National Park
The national park is 30 minutes by car on the northeast part of the island. If you love hiking and pristine environment this is the place in Penang. There are various walking trails and also a canopy walk. I walked for 1.5 hour to Pantai Kerachut and Monkey Beach. And from there I returned by boat. While you can hike back and forth, there is also a boat service that operates the pick-up and drop-off and you can book it at the park entrance.
Balik Pulau lies on the westend side of Penang. There is bus that takes you there but you will need a car to explore the area. This place is all surrounded by hills and is ideal for a break from George Town. The best way to visit is by strolling through the village, tasting the exquisite Laksa Lemak, a popular Laksa with a rich coconut gravy. Make sure you yisit the paddy fields and the fisherman village where you can also eat freshly prepared food. However the locals here hardly speak any English, so either visit with a local or get a translation app. All around the village you will spot the old traditional Malay Kampong Houses. Some of them have been refurbished and turned into homestay for visitors. So if you are looking for a traditional homestay on the island, Balik Pulau is the place where to stay in Penang.
Tropical Spice Garden
The tropical spice garden is a little jewel that I love. A very relaxing and peaceful place where to hide from the heat and buzz. It’s on your way when driving out of town to the Penang National park. They offer morning guided tours of the spice garden; our guide Danny was very knowledgeable about all spices and plants and told us about Penang’s rich heritage as a spice island with over 500 varieties. The best part of it they also offer cooking classes with a local chef. On my class I learnt how to cook Malay food: from chicken curry to banana fritters. So much fun. Cooking classes are run daily and features every cuisine: from Chinese, to Indian, to Malay and Thai.
The Tropical Fruits Farm and the Nutmeg Farm
Penang is a tropical island blessed with an abundance of locally grown tropical fruits. The Durian is the king of all Penang Fruits, it looks like a spiky rugby ball, the fruit has a pungent smell. But there are many more home-grown fruits, like mango, coconut, papaya, dragon fruit, pineapple, sugar cane, watermelon, etc. If you want to learn more about this fruits paradise stop at the Tropical Fruits Farm on your way to Balik Pulau. They offer a guided tour for a small fee and you can also purchase their products from the shop. The Nutmeg Factory is also on your way and another great place to stop by. I loved it.
More things to do and see in Penang
I’m very happy to have been able to see all these places during my first 5 days here in Penang, when the weather was good. Penang was hit by a typhoon on Saturday night and most of the island was flooded, but they are quickly recovering thanks to the help of the locals and Malaysians from the mainland. This is very unusual for Penang where periods of rain are common but typhoons are rare.
Penang has a wealth of attractions and heaps of things to offer that will keep you occupy for weeks. This is what I did in Penang in 5 days. I hope you will find it useful for your trip to Penang.
For more info about planning your trip to Penang you can check out the official tourism site.
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