Just a couple of hours north of Kuala Lumpur is historic Penang Island. The island’s capital, George Town, was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2008 and working out what to pack into a Penang itinerary depends on how long you’ll be in the city.
The centre of George Town is fairly small and nothing is ever more than a short walk away. Yet despite it’s relatively diminutive size, the sheer volume of treasures here means that there is much to see in Penang.
Three days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Penang. A long nautical and trading history has given Penang a healthy multicultural mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European heritage.
Ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples bookend busy streets lined with colourful Chinese shophouses. Opulent clanhouses are dotted throughout George Town, whilst reminders of Penang’s colonial past can be found in the resplendent architecture around the old port.
The atmospheric clan jetties along the shoreline add a unique touch to this fascinating city, and there is plenty of opportunity to explore Penang’s fascinating Peranakan heritage. A little further out of the centre you’ll find some of the most spectacular temples in Malaysia. All in all there are plenty of things to do to keep you busy across three days in Penang.
Penang International Airport is located in the south east of Penang Island, about 11 miles away from the centre of George Town.
A taxi from Penang Airport will take around half an hour to reach the city and should cost between RM40 and RM60 (£12/$15).
A bus to George Town from the airport will cost between RM2-RM3. There are three bus routes to choose from, the 102, 306 and 401E. All stop at George Town but they take differing routes. The journey times vary but allow at least an hour and a half to get to George Town. Bus tickets can be bought from inside the airport terminal.
Penang has a huge variety of accommodation to suit every budget, from backpackers hostels to unashamed luxury, all within easy reach of the centre of George Town.
If you need a few suggestions here are a few places that we recommend:
The Frame Guesthouse is perfect for the budget-conscious traveller looking for a touch of style. Rooms in this converted heritage house are chic, stylish and clean with all of Penang’s major sights right on the doorstep.
Top of the Range
For a taste of luxury within walking distance of all of Penang’s main sights check in at The Edison. This former Colonial-era mansion is one of the most beautiful hotels in town with stunning decor throughout as well as incredibly friendly and helpful staff.
Our three days in Penang begins right in the heart of the city.
The Kuan Yin Temple and St George’s Anglican Church sit side by side in Penang’s George Town
Start your Penang itinerary by diving straight in to the city’s vibrant mix of cultures at Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.
This busy street at the heart of the city has a little bit of everything from Penang’s multitude of cultures; churches, temples and mosques sit practically side by side in the space of a few hundred metres.
At the top end of the street is the unmistakably English St George’s Anglican Church. This gleaming white church was the first of its kind anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Just a few steps south towards the centre of George Town is the bustling Kuan Yin Taoist Temple, established by Chinese settlers in Penang in the 1720s. Continue south and you’ll find the Kapitan Keling Mosque, itself over 200 years old and at the heart of George Town’s Muslim community.
On the corner of Lebuh Cannon further south again is the striking Yap Kongsi Temple, with its huge sweeping colourful roof adorned with Chinese dragons.
Wander past the rickshaw riders onto Lebuh Cannon where a row of bustling cafes and resplendent shop houses leads to Aceh Street Mosque, built in the early 1800s in an Arabic style with a towering central minaret.
Not to be outdone, just around the corner on Lebuh Queen is the fantastically ornate Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. The central facade over the entrance is a riot of colour. The temple is at the centre of Penang’s tiny Little India.
The streets of Lebuh King and Lebuh Penang are filled with shops selling traditional Indian saris, Bollywood films, fabrics and jewellery.
From Indian restaurants comes the smell of various curries and spices, whilst the street corners on Lebuh Pasar are lined with stalls selling rich and delicious Indian sweets.
The Pinang Peranakan Museum in the centre of George Town
Located in the remarkable former home of Chung Keng Kwee is the the extraordinary Pinang Peranakan Museum. Chung was a Chinese settler in Penang (rather than Peranakan) and became a phenomenally wealthy man. The house he built for himself spared no expense.
Now renovated and converted into the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house displays over a thousand antiques to showcase the wealth and tastes of the Peranakan community in Penang.
Alongside the dazzling antiques the luxury and splendor of the interior cannot be overstated.
Every room is decorated as it would have looked when it was the home of one of the richest families in Penang. The lavish furnishings and decor are truly magnificent and perfectly compliment the grandeur of the mansion.
The Khoo Kongsi clanhouse in George Town, Penang
From the Peranakan Museum, cut back through Little India to explore some of Penang’s Chinese heritage with a visit to one of the many clanhouses hidden around the city.
Early Chinese immigrants to Penang formed clan associations in order to offer support and guidance to later arrivals and many still exist to this day.
Clanhouses often consisted of many different buildings, including theatres, housing and temples, and this is especially evident at the spectacular Khoo Kongsi clanhouse.
Hidden off a quiet lane on Lebuh Cannon, the Khoo Kongsi clanhouse is the most spectacular in Penang.
Surrounded by terraced housing, the clanhouse complex has the appearance of a small town square. An open air Chinese theatre faces the staggeringly ornate clanhouse opposite.
The incredibly rich detail seen throughout the clanhouse is breathtaking, from the delicate stone carvings that depict Chinese mythology on the exterior walls and columns to the spellbinding gold leaf interior.
Alternatively, call in at the splendid Cheah Kongsi, another stunning clan association building reached through a gated archway on Lebuh Armenian.
The Cheah Kongsi is almost as ornate as Khoo Kongsi, spread out across a couple of buildings in front of a large open lawn.
The grand open veranda of the top floor hints at a European influence in the design. Next to the main building is a small museum that details the treacherous journey and difficult life the early Chinese settlers overcame to settle in Penang.
From here head along Lebuh Armenian towards one of Penang’s most famous sights, the clan jetties. Lebuh Armenian is one of the main tourist streets, pretty much at the heart of George Town. This section of the street is lined with historic shophouses selling souvenirs as well as a number of cafes.
Lebuh Armenian is also where some of Penang’s famous street art can be found, most notably the boys on the bicycle near Beach Street. Continue straight along Lebuh Armenian to reach one of Penang’s clan jetties.
Penang’s clan jetties jut out into the waters off George Town’s eastern shore. The six jetties began life as an off shore settlement for Chinese immigrants to fish and trade in the late 19th century and gradually developed into a floating town of its own.
Standing on stilts over the sea, each jetty is identified with a particular Chinese clan for whom they’re named after, such as Lim Jetty and Chew Jetty.
The jetties remain home to a number of people to this day, most of whom are direct descendants of the first clan settlers.
Some jetties are more tourist friendly than others, most notably the Chew Jetty, which is lined either side with houses and small shops, leading out like a pier to the sea.
The spectacular Kuan Yin Temple near the Yeoh Jetty is worth a detour, especially at night when the temple’s bright lights are gloriously reflected in the sea water.
On day two explore more of Penang a little further away from the city centre.
The colourful streets of Penang’s Chinatown; a man reads a newspaper at Then Hou Temple
Begin the second of your three days in Penang in Chinatown, just to the west of the centre of George Town.
Following the colourful roads of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh Campbell away from Kapitan Keling Mosque brings you to a slightly more everyday version of Penang.
The rabbit warren of narrow streets are awash with colour, and Chinese script hangs over the bright traditional shophouses.
Trendy coffee shops have sprouted up throughout Chinatown, alongside the more traditional Chinese kopitiams that serve traditional kaya toast and soft boiled eggs.
Chinatown is also where some of the the city’s best food and nightlife can be found. Love Lane is the home of Penang’s backpacker scene and many of the bars and cafes are geared towards those on a budget.
Nearby on Leith Street, the former home of another of Penang’s formidably wealthy Chinese migrants can explored at the Blue Mansion.
Though featuring less of the antique bling, the scale and beauty of the Blue Mansion is very much equal to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
The Blue Mansion was once the home of Cheong Fatt Tze, a staggeringly wealthy Chinese businessman whose untold wealth earned him the nicknamed the ‘Rockerfeller of the East’.
The Blue Mansion, George Town, Penang
Cheong spent a supreme amount of money to build a home for himself and his family, and this mansion also operated as his place of business.
Today the Blue Mansion is a posh hotel, but there are fascinating 45 minute guided tours around the sumptuous interiors held in English and Chinese three times a day.
As with the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, The Blue Mansion revolves around a beautiful huge open central courtyard, overlooked by a four sided veranda reached by grand staircases.
There are touches of Western influence too, as seen in the stained glass and spiral staircases. As well as giving a history of the mansion the guided tour also details the extensive restoration that was carried out to return the building to it’s former glory.
Just to the north of the Blue Mansion is the beautiful waterfront complete with reminders of Penang’s colonial history. Alongside Melaka and Singapore, Penang came under British rule in the late 18th century and much of the architecture to the north of central George Town is distinctly British in design.
To reach the esplanade, pass by the Western cemetery, just around the corner from the Blue Mansion. Many important colonial figures and early settlers to Penang are buried in the disused Western Cemetery, including the founder of Penang Island, Francis Light, as well as several former Governors.
Taking a break from the heat on George Town’s Esplanade, and the tombstone of Francis Light, the founder of Penang Island, in the Western Cemetery.
A major refurbishment of the cemetery took place in 2012 but it still has more than a hint of faded charm. The cemetery had been practically abandoned; the last burial to have taken place here was way back in 1892.
Opposite the Western graveyard is the gargantuan Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a colonial classic built by the same company behind Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The Eastern and Oriental is still considered the cream of the crop of the hotels in Penang.
Following Lebuh Farquhar back towards the centre of George Town will bring you to Penang’s beautiful shoreline.
Marvel at Penang’s classic colonial City Hall and Town Hall buildings before arriving at Fort Cornwallis, the huge military fort built by the British to protect Penang Island from invasion in 1786.
In reality the fort only ever served in an administrative function and never saw any military use. Inside the fort’s walls are several examples of it’s original purpose, such as a barracks and prison cells as well as the first chapel to be built on Penang Island in 1799.
Spend the last day of your three day Penang itinerary in some of the city’s most spectacular temples and viewing spot a little further afield.
Golden Buddhas at the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple
Further outside the city centre, facing each other across Lorong Burma, are two incredible Buddhist temples that are not to be missed.
The Dharmikarama Burmese Temple and the Thai inspired Wat Chaiyamangalaram, also known as the Reclining Buddha temple are two of Penang’s most stunning sights.
Both temples are an unashamed riot of gold and colour and feature the spectacularly lavish architecture you would expect from Southeast Asian inspired Buddhist temples.
The Dharmikarama Burmese Temple was the first Buddhist temple to be built in Penang and is one of the few Burmese Buddhist temples anywhere in the world outside of Myanmar.
Enter through the gold and red arch and past the two stone elephants that keep guard to the Sima Hall to see the huge standing Buddha, draped in a long gold robe.
Around the temple’s well manicured grounds are many statues of fantastical mythical creatures, and there’s a wonderful view of the whole temple from the top of the bell tower.
The Wat Chaiyamangalaram temple in George Town, Penang
Directly opposite is the equally astonishing Wat Chaiyamangalaram. Wat Chaiyamangalaram is also dripping with gold and outside the main hall are a stunning array of jewelled statues of mythical creatures.
Inside the temple’s Hall of a Thousand Buddhas is one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha statues, which takes up almost the entire length of the building.
At over 30 metres long the Buddha dominates the hall, though plenty of other beautiful Buddhist statues frame the room.
It’s worth visiting the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple and Wat Chaiyamangalaramearly in the morning before the coaches packed with tourists arrive.
To the far east of George Town and well worth a trip out of the centre of George Town is Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. This huge sprawling Chinese temple is chiseled into the foot of the mountains that overlook Penang.
The complex is so large that there’s even a funicular that connects the lower and upper levels. At the very top is a 30 metre bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy that stands overlooking a wonderful view across Penang back towards the sea.
The pagoda and golden Buddha statues at Kek Lok Si temple in Penang
On the lower level is the majority of the enormous temple complex, comprised of numerous colourful temples, prayer halls and lovely gardens, all dominated by a magnificent seven storey Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
Though predominantly built in the Chinese style the temple is of huge importance to Buddhists from across Southeast Asia and regularly draws devotees and pilgrims from across the continent.
The Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas reflects this diversity, with different sections built in traditional Chinese, Thai and Burmese architectural styles.
From the beautiful main hall at the temple’s entrance the lower level climbs upward to a beautiful bell tower surrounded by Buddhas and another grand and ornate prayer hall, before the funicular ascends to the top of the temple.
From here you can share the view enjoyed by the enormous Goddess of Mercy, housed in an equally lavish pavilion of stone and marble.
Not too far away from Kek Lok Si is the base station for the Penang Hill Railway. The funicular railway glides to the top of Penang Hill and the mesmerising views over the island in around five minutes.
On a good day the views over the mountains and to George Town and the mainland are crystal clear, and can be breath-taking with a beautiful sunset.
The views are just as impressive after dark, with the lights of Penang shimmering in the distance and the temperature finally drops and the night starts to feel cool.
Penang is famous for being one of the great foodie cities of Asia. There is a plethora of places to eat on almost every street and a gut-busting variety of foods to tempt your taste buds.
The menu matches the multicultural nature of the city, with Malay, Indian, Chinese and Peranakan food available at all hours of the day. There’s a great selection of vegetarian food in Penang too.
There is far too much choice in Penang to list, but here are a few of our recommendations.
For legendary loh mee from a Penang institution head to Hai Beng Coffee Shop on the corner of Lorong Stewart next to Kuan Yin Temple. The small corner coffee shop has perfected this classic Hainanese dish, serving it up in this very spot since 1957.
In Chinatown, head to Bee Hwa Cafe on Lebuh Dickens for a taste of some of Penang’s finest Chinese Malay dishes. Amongst the highlights on offer is the sumptuous white curry mee noodle soup.
In Little India try and find a free table at the always busy Restoran Kapitan and dive in to some authentic claypot or chicken biryani and naan breads.
For some of the finest Peranakan cuisine served up in a beautiful setting, book a table at the Kebaya Dining Room and take your pick from the extensive menu of authentic and delicious classic Indo and Chinese Nonya dishes.
Penang is hot and humid all year round, so always carry water with you when you’re walking around the city during the day.
The best time of day to see many sites is early in the morning, before the heat is at its most intense and also before the throngs of tourists arrive.
Most of the major sites get incredibly busy from late morning onwards, especially sites such as the Wat Chaiyamangalaram and Dharmikarama Burmese temples, where busloads of tourist groups are dropped off by the dozen.
Penang tends to get combined with Kuala Lumpur and Melaka in the guide books from the big hitters such as Lonely Planet. If you’re seeing more of Malaysia than just Penang then you might want to consider buying a book that covers those areas too.
There are a few books that only focus on Penang from smaller publishers too. There’s a list of guide books for Penang here.
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