Vibrant and colorful, George Town, Penang is a city with a multicultural heritage and laid-back vibe that is sure to charm you. Exploring George Town, I was hooked by the colorful street art and historic buildings. Plus, its plentiful street food and hawker centers means you can always find something delicious to eat! In this post, I'll show you how to spend three days exploring the colorful town of George Town, Penang.
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A Little Bit about George Town, Penang
George Town - Penang's capital city - is located in northwestern Malaysia on the island of Penang. Sometimes you'll hear the city referred to as just "Penang".
This former British colony was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and is a fascinating mix of eastern and western cultures.
Short History of Penang
Due to its strategic location on the Malacca Strait, Captain Francis Light took possession of Penang in 1786 for the British East India Company. The British subsequently established Penang as an important trading port between India and China.
As a result, the city attracted many immigrants from surrounding countries which made it the multicultural city it is today. In fact, Penang's population is primarily Chinese by ethnicity, making it the only Malaysian state with a minority Malay population.
You can clearly see Penang's history and mix of cultures reflected in George Town's architecture as you walk around the city and also in the local cuisine.
Getting to George Town
We flew directly to Penang International Airport from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. You can find flights from many of Asia's major hubs - i.e. Bangkok, Singapore - to Penang. There are also several flights a day between Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
To get to George Town from the airport, it's a ~30-minute taxi ride depending on traffic and costs ~40-60 MYR (~US $9-13).
Although there are several airport buses you could take to save some money, they run infrequently and have many stops. So it will probably take you an hour or more to reach George Town if you go that route.
If you're traveling to George Town from Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere in Malaysia, you may wish to take the bus or train. These are fairly inexpensive options which will allow you to see some of Malaysia's countryside, plus are more environmentally-friendly!
If you're traveling around Malaysia, you may decide to rent a car and drive to Penang instead. If so, be sure to check if your hotel offers parking.
Traveling by Train
The train takes roughly 4-4.5 hours from Kuala Lumpur to Penang and costs 59-79 MYR (~US $15-20) depending on which class ticket you buy. You can buy your tickets online on the KTM website.
PRO TIP: The train runs from KL Sentral station to Penang's Butterworth station. Butterworth is the main town on the peninsula side of Penang. In order to reach Butterworth, you can take a ferry across from George Town.
Traveling by Bus
The bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang takes roughly 5-5.5 hours and the price varies depending on which bus stations you use for your arrival/departure as both KL and Penang have a few options. Though you can expect it to cost around 40-60 MYR (~US $9-13). You can purchase tickets online through a number of different companies.
BOOKING TIP: If you're on a strict schedule, purchase your train or bus tickets ahead of time!
Jeremy and I traveled to Kuala Lumpur after visiting Penang. Originally thinking we'd take the train, we took the ferry to the Butterworth station. We didn't purchased tickets ahead of time and the next train leaving after we arrived was sold out.
Fortunately for us, the Butterworth bus station is just a few minutes away from the train station. We managed to get tickets for a bus leaving within the hour.
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Planning Your George Town Itinerary
In my opinion, the best way to explore the historic center of George Town is on foot, despite how blisteringly hot it can get! By wandering through the small alleys, you can fully admire the beautiful street art and historic buildings you'll encounter along the way.
Because you'll want plenty of time to explore, you should allow two days in downtown George Town. This gives you plenty of time to visit the main attractions as well as to stop in hawker centers and coffee shops along the way.
Then, on your third day, head outside of downtown George Town to Penang Hill for spectacular views of the city and some beautiful nature walks. Along the way, stop and admire the ornate Kek Lok Si Temple.
2 Days in Historic George Town
What I enjoyed most about exploring George Town was wandering through the streets. But to help you see the highlights while you're wandering, I've put together a sample itinerary to guide you through this charming town.
As you walk from place to place, don't hesitate to stop in various places of worship - temples, mosques, churches - and shops that you'll encounter along the way.
Day 1 - Exploring Historic George Town
George Town Street Art
Start your first day in George Town by getting acquainted with the city through a self-guided street art tour. George Town is famous for its street art. Without even trying, you'll discover murals and sculptures all over the city as you wander around the historic center.
Either download the street art map or pick one up from the Penang Global Tourism office on Pantai Street to get started on your tour.
Note: As you walk around the city, you'll pass several of the other sights on the itinerary. Since you're on a self-guided tour, you can either stop and visit them while you're there or finish your street art tour then return later.
Many of the most famous works around George Town were created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic for the 2012 George Town Festival, including Kungfu Girl and the Boy on a Bike.
Be prepared to wait in line if you want your photo taken in front of any of these pieces. If you hate waiting in line like I do, you can usually quickly snap a photo of the art as the people posing for photos swap places.
Lunch in Little India
After walking around all morning taking in the street art, you'll probably be getting pretty hungry. Your street art tour will take you into Little India and what better place to stop and grab a bite to eat?
Since it's been a couple years since I visited George Town, I admit that I can't remember exactly where we ate in Little India. Since I started blogging (after this trip), I now take much better notes!
However, whenever I need to find delicious food in a new place, I turn to food vlogger Mark Wiens. His recommendation for nasi kandar at Restoran Tajuddin Hussain in Little India looks amazing. If I go back to Penang, I'll be checking it out and maybe you should too!
Sri Mahamariamman Temple
After lunch, stop to admire the intricate and colorful deities adorning the Sri Mahamariamman Temple. This is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, dating back to the 1800s. If you'd like to go inside the temple, remember to take off your shoes before you enter and dress appropriately.
After visiting the temple, wander the vibrant streets of Little India and check out some of the shops if you like.
Coffee at Kopi Loewak
This one is for coffee lovers like me! As you may know by now, I'm a bit addicted and need my caffeine fix in the afternoon. But at Kopi Loewak, you not only get your coffee fix, but can also try a unique and rare type of coffee.
Kopi Loewak specializes in kopi luwak, or civet coffee. This is coffee that is produced using coffee berries that have been eaten by a civet then passed through the digestive tract. Sounds disgusting, right? Well, I was assured that the beans were washed... and the coffee was quite tasty!
This coffee is the most expensive in the world, but you can try it in Penang for a more reasonable price than you'll find it in other places around the world. But be prepared that it will still cost more than a normal cup of coffee in George Town.
Khoo Kongsi Clan House and Museum
Just around the corner from Kopi Loewak, your next stop is the Khoo Kongsi clan house and museum.
Built in 1906, the Khoo Kongsi is the largest and most ornate of the Chinese clan houses in George Town. The clan complex includes an association building, a theater as well as row houses for clan members. For a small entrance fee, you can tour the clan house grounds and museum.
What are Chinese Clan Houses?
Chinese immigration to Penang was encouraged under the British. Many of the new settlers in George Town came from the Hokkien and Canton regions of China. One of the traditions they brought with them was the kongsi system.
The kongsi, or clan system, was a social organization of people from the same region in China or who spoke the same dialect. It was a type of brotherhood and offered help and protection to new arrivals.
Penang is home to several clan houses which you can check out as you walk around the city.
End your afternoon with a stroll down one of the clan jetties - the last remnants of the old Chinese settlements in George Town.
Much like the clan houses, each jetty is named after a Chinese clan. Built in the 19th century, these jetties were originally built to unload boats and settlements popped up on top of them.
The most popular and tourist-friendly is the Chew Jetty. At the end of the jetty, there's a temple with a giant banyan tree which is kind of interesting to see.
Although interesting to walk through, keep in mind that people currently live on the jetties. Remember to be respectful when taking photos and not trespass on people's property.
Hit the Hawker Centers for Delicious Treats
In the evening, hit the hawker centers for some amazing food and great people watching opportunities. I fell in love with the hawker center experience in Malaysia. And also stuffed myself every single time!
Two in particular that I recommend visiting are New Lane Hawker Center and Chulia Street Night Hawker Stalls.
Our Hawker Center Strategy
Jeremy and I usually split up so we could quickly get to a bunch of different vendors. Then we'd meet back at the table to wait for our food.
Most of the time, the vendors will prepare the dishes then deliver them to your table. Though if it's a quick dish, they may give it to you when you order. If they deliver it to the table, you pay once it's delivered so have your money ready.
Most of the time, Jeremy and I were overwhelmed as our dishes began to show up. We were always surprised by how much food the other one had ordered! Everything was so cheap and delicious that I was never sorry!
Dishes to Try
Some of my favorite dishes at the hawker centers that I recommend you try are:
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Day 2 - Historic George Town Itinerary
Start off your second day at Fort Cornwallis which opens daily at 9:00 am - not that you have to get there that early! But I recommend visiting in the morning before it gets too hot.
Shortly after Francis Light received permission from the Sultan of Kedah to form a settlement on Penang in July 1786, he began making out a space for this fort. The original small fort was built using timber and named Fort Cornwallis in honor of Lord Cornwallis who was at that time the Governor General of Bengal.
Since the timber fort quickly rotted due to the humidity, Light began making improvements in the 1790s. About a decade later, Fort Cornwallis as we see it today was completed under Lieutenant Governor Robert Townsend Farquhar.
The fort is a nice park around which to stroll view good views of the Straits of Malacca.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Next, make your way to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. This beautiful historic green mansion on Church Street is now a museum dedicated to Penang's Peranakan heritage.
Originally belonging to a wealthy 19th-century Chinese tycoon, the mansion has been recreated to reflect the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy Peranakans from earlier centuries.
Walk around the mansion to see over 1,000 pieces of antiques and collectibles as well as the grand furnishings and designs of the mansion.
Who are the Peranakans?
The Peranakans are the descendants of early Chinese settlers to the Straits Settlement region (Penang, Malacca, Singapore). Many of the early settlers were single men that married local women and adapted to Malay customs. Later, European customs also influenced Peranakan culture.
This fusion of customs and cuisines created a unique and rich cultural heritage. You'll sometimes hear Peranakans referred to as "Baba" (for males) or "Nyona" (for females).
Lunch and Coffee Break
After visiting the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, stop for a lunch and coffee break. Since you've been wandering around George Town for a day now, you've probably scoped out somewhere you'd like to try!
Cheong Fatt Tze - The Blue Mansion
After lunch, make your way over to the Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion - a historic mansion (now a boutique hotel and restaurant) which offers daily public tours.
PRO TIP: Since they only offer a few tours a day, be sure to check online to find out tour times. You can also purchase your ticket in advance to ensure a spot.
When Cheong Fatt Tze began to build his house in the late 19th century, he wanted to reflect the beauty of a traditional Chinese house. The end result was a lavish mansion with an eclectic style of architecture that is fascinating to see.
Since areas of the Blue Mansion are for hotel guests only, the best way to fully explore the mansion is to stay there.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel and Promenade
This historic colonial-style hotel was established in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers. You may be familiar with a couple of their other well-known hotels in Asia such as the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Yangon.
In the mid-1990s, the hotel underwent a major reconstruction and was re-opened in 2001. Known for its luxurious accommodations and restaurants, it's a beautiful space to walk around.
I'd considered booking at the E&O Hotel, but chose a cheaper option in the end since we weren't planning to spend much time at our hotel on this trip. To soak up a bit of the luxury experience, we ordered a drink at Farquhar's Bar - the vintage cocktail bar inside the E&O hotel.
The seaside promenade behind the hotel is a beautiful place to walk along the water and probably has good sunset views. And if you plan to relax in the afternoons instead of running around the town, the pool at the E&O Hotel looks amazing!
Dinner at the Hawker Centers
Since Penang has a plethora of street food and most of it opens in the evening, choose a different one to try on your second night. Try some of the dishes you may have missed on the first night!
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Day Trip to Penang Hill + Kek Lok Si Temple
Once you've spent a bit of time exploring historic George Town, you might be ready to get out of the city and into nature. I know that's how I usually feel!
PRO TIP: Since the views are the highlight of Penang Hill, be sure to pick a nice, clear day for this excursion. I also recommend visiting Penang Hill during the week since you'll avoid local crowds which escape the city on the weekend.
Kek Lok Si Temple
Start your day trip with a taxi ride from downtown George Town to Kek Lok Si Temple. Depending on traffic the ride should take ~20-30 minutes.
Kek Lok Si Temple - Temple of Supreme Bliss - is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and is an important religious site to the Chinese Malaysian community. The complex contains prayer halls, bell towers, and a lovely pond.
Unfortunately, we missed this temple when we visited Penang Hill, though we saw it from the viewpoints. Don't make the same mistake we did!
Visiting Penang Hill
Penang Hill, also called Bukit Bendera, is a hill resort which is 833 meters above sea level. It's slightly cooler than George Town and is also home to the last patch of tropical rainforest in Penang.
Walking around the hillside, you can see beautiful tropical flora and fauna and breathe in fresh, clean air.
Penang Hill Funicular
After visiting Kek Lok Si Temple, take a taxi over to the Penang Hill Funicular Lower Station. It's only a ~10-minute drive.
The railway runs every ~15 minutes during peak times, but the line can be quite long. This is another reason it's a good idea to visit during the week if you can. The round-trip fare for an adult is RM 30 (US $7).
TIP: If you want a cheaper option or the lines for the funicular are too long, you could hike up Penang Hill instead. Keeping in mind that it's about a 700 m climb, be sure to bring lots of water!
The funicular gives you incredible views as you climb the hill and builds your anticipation of what's to come at the top!
The Habitat Penang Hill
Once at the top of Penang Hill, you can visit the Habitat - a treetop walk that allows you to walk at the canopy level for panoramic views.
Hike the Trails
For the most part, Jeremy and I wandered around the hills, looking for wildlife and flowers. We found it refreshing to be out in nature and surrounded by greenery after a few days exploring a city.
Grab a Drink at the Sky Bar
Once you're done exploring Penang Hill, relax with a drink overlooking George Town. As the sun sets, you can watch the city light up.
Return to George Town for Dinner
Since it's your last night, return to George Town and pick out your last hawker center and enjoy!
Where to Stay in George Town
George Town has such a variety of great accommodations from which to choose. From boutique hotels to quaint guest houses to luxurious, colonial-style mansions - there are places to fit every type of traveler and every budget.
Finding a Place to Stay in George Town
Trying to find the perfect hotel in George Town or to get idea of what to budget for accommodations? Use the map below to start your search! Filter by your individual preferences and input your travel dates to see what places are available and what their nightly rates are.
This map shows both hotels and VRBO (vacation rental by owner) accommodations. Click on a property in which you're interested to go to either Booking.com or VRBO to read reviews and to book your stay.
You may have noticed that I already slipped in a couple of places to stay in George Town throughout the itinerary. But I haven't told you yet where we actually stayed. So here it is!
The Muntri Mews, a centrally-located heritage hotel in George Town, was a spacious, charming, and affordable space that worked perfectly for us!
The breakfast each morning was delicious and the room was spacious with artistic touches that made it feel cozy and homey. Our room also had the largest bed I've ever seen! It was like two double beds pushed together!
The rooms are quiet since they're set back away from the street in a garden - originally a horse and carriage stable. And Muntri Street doesn't see that much action anyway.
I'd definitely recommend the Muntri Mews if you're looking for charming accommodations in the center of George Town.
If You Have a Fourth Day on Penang Island
If you have a fourth day to spend on the island of Penang, you might consider taking a day and relaxing at a beach resort on Batu Ferringhi.
Visiting Batu Ferringhi
Batu Ferringhi is a beach resort town on the northern side of Penang Island - about a 25-minute drive from downtown George Town.
If you decide to visit Batu Ferringhi, I recommend checking into a resort there rather than a day trip to the beach. This is due to the fact that the beach water is polluted and often filled with jellyfishes, so it's not a good idea to swim at the beach.
When Jeremy and I visited, we walked along the beach and enjoyed how pretty it was. But when we got hot, we swam at the hotel pool.
Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa
Since we spent a lot of time at the hotel pool, we couldn't have asked for a prettier place to stay than the Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa.
Plus, the view from our balcony was beautiful, especially at sunset. The rooms were spacious and comfortable as well.
Would I recommend Batu Ferringhi?
If we had to go back and do it again, we would most likely skip Batu Ferringhi. Although the beach was pretty, since we couldn't swim there, it was a bit of a letdown.
If you have kids that might enjoy some pool time after all that sightseeing, then I think it would be worth it. Plus, you could get in some spa time!
George Town, Penang is the perfect town in which to wander, exploring a rich mix of cultural traditions and cuisines and admiring colorful street art. Whether you set a rigorous schedule to see as much as possible or just wander aimlessly, I think you'll have a wonderful time.