How to spend two days in Penang
Why go to Penang?
Definitely for the food – if you do nothing else, eat everything you possibly can here! In George Town there’s everything from the cheapest street eats to upscale restaurants, there’s something for everyone and all of it is good. George Town is also a fascinating town full of historic architecture both colonial and Peranakan and you can visit many of the opulent old merchant’s houses as well as see traditional Peranakan shop houses that line the streets. Ornate clan houses and temples are dotted all across George Town; interspersed with street art which has sprung up across the city, it makes it a fascinating place to explore on foot for a few days. Outside of George Town you’ll also find white sand beaches and lush hill stations.
When to visit Penang?
George Town is hot all year round with average temperatures between 24 and 32 every month. The least rain falls between December and March and also June and July. There’s no real peak season to visit, although it may get busier around Chinese New Year (January / February) and then again around specific events like the George Town festival in July.
How to get to Penang from Kuala Lumpur
Penang is a really easy trip from Kuala Lumpur. If you have access to a car it’s around a 4 hour drive, or you can get a train from KL Sentral to Penang Butterworth in around 4 hours. The train is clean and comfortable (although the aircon was freezing when I went, so maybe take something with long sleeves!) and you can even buy hot meals on board. You can view the timetable and book tickets here.
From the Penang Butterworth you need to walk through the mall where the station is (we stopped for a Marry Brown – delicious!) to the ferry port (it’s only a short 5-ish minute walk) and jump on the ferry for the short ride across to Georgetown (around 15 minutes). We then got a taxi to our hotel.
I’ve marked on this map all of the sights and food stops included in this post.
Day 1 – George Town walking tour
One of the best things to do in George Town is simply to walk around it. The centre of George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage due to its interesting architecture and there are many beautiful buildings interspersed with clan houses, temples, museums and – increasingly – street art. Although the heat can feel oppressive, there are plenty of covered walkways to shelter under, cafes to duck into and ultimately the centre itself is pretty small and walkable. I recommend you carry an umbrella and some water to take the edge off the daytime heat!
Cheong Fatt Tze / Blue Mansion
The Blue Mansion, or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is a 19th century mansion build by a Chinese businessman and politician, Cheong Fatt Tze. The interior is fascinating with traditional Chinese design and antiques, punctuated with iron works from Glasgow and art nouveau stained glass windows. The striking blue exterior gives the mansion its informal name.
You can take tours of the house throughout the day; at the moment there are tours at 11am and 2pm which last 45 minutes and cost around RM 12. Another option is to stay there, which is what we did. The hotel is beautiful and you get to see lots of places you can’t access on a tour. A double room costs around £100 a night and it’s well located to explore George Town. You may recognise the interior from the Mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians, which was filmed in the central courtyard area where you’ll take your breakfast if you stay there.
I didn’t visit Penang Museum but would go if I was back in George Town as it has a reputation as a well presented and informative museum. The museum includes displays showing the customs of various groups of Penang’s diverse inhabitants, as well as collections of costumes and furniture. Open Saturday – Thursday 9am – 5pm
St George’s Church
St George’s Church is the oldest purpose-build Anglican church in South East Asia and was consecrated in 1819. It was badly damaged during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. It was build in the Georgian / Palladian style and, like many of the colonial buildings in Georgetown, was build entirely by Indian convict labour.
City Hall, Town Hall and Supreme Court
Situated near the seafront on a park (padang) are a number of buildings from Georgetown’s colonial past. These grand buildings are a huge contrast from the small Peranakan houses in the centre of town and the grander Chinese mansion – museums. The open space of the park is a welcome contrast to the bustling centre of town.
Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade
There’s not much to Fort Corwallis, which is large but not particularly visually impressive, but it is of historic interest. It was built by the East India Company in the late 18th century, although the permanent structure wasn’t built until the early 19th century, and is the largest remaining fort in Malaysia. It’s open 9am – 7pm and costs RM 2 to enter.
Jubilee Clock Tower
Georgetown’s striking clocktower was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. It’s an interesting structure, built in a Moorish style. The tower leans slightly as a result of World War II bombing.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The beautiful Pinang Peranakan Mansion is another beautiful example of Peranakan architecture in George Town. The beautiful decoration and furniture inside is fascinating. Entrance is RM 10 and you can also see the neighbouring Chung Keng Kwi temple.
George Town is full of street art, largely graffiti but there are some other small sculptures as well. The best way to find them is just to explore and see what you come across.
I’ve marked a couple of the more famous ones on the map but you can also book onto a street art tour or find a self guided one, which you should be able to track down with a quick Google – here’s one example I found.
There are a number of these highly decorated clan houses dotted around Georgetown. They functioned as community centres for groups of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia from the same areas or of the same dialect. The largest and most impressive of these is Khoo Kongsi, which you can visit. The present building dates from 1906. It’s open 9am – 6pm and entry is RM10.
The jetties sprung up when the area was a thriving port and settlements began to be built there. Over time, the jetties became associated with different Chinese clans. People still live on the jetties which are a fascinating warren of houses and businesses on stilts over the water. Remember when you visit that you’re walking close to people’s homes and behave accordingly. If you want the full experience then there’s a homestay on Chew Jetty called PG Chew Jetty Homestay.
Day 2 – outside of Georgetown
I didn’t stray outside of Georgetown during my stay there and looking back it was a huge mistake. You can easily spend a couple of days walking around the town but there are some other great places on your doorstep that it would be a shame to miss. I’ll be making an effort to visit next time I’m in Malaysia.
A short taxi ride from Georgetown you’ll find Penang Hill, a hill station situated 82m above sea level (where it’s a refreshing 5 degrees cooler than Georgetown). From the top you have views across the island and there’s also a Hindu temple, a mosque and a small food court. You can get there using a funicular which runs every 30 minutes between 6:30am and 7pm Monday to Friday and until 9pm on the weekends (RM30). It’s also possible to walk to the Botanical Garden from here, which is around 5km.
30 hectares of gardens, waterfalls, monkeys and butterflies just a short ride from Georgetown. I have no idea why I didn’t visit when I was in Penang as they look amazing – don’t make the same mistake! Open daily 5am – 8pm.
Kek Lok Si
The ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’ is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. The huge complex was built between 1890 and 1930 by a Chinese immigrant. The impressive 30m high tower, Ban Po Thar is designed to be Burmese at the top, Thai in the middle and Chinese at the bottom. There’s also a huge bronze statue of Kuan Yin, which you can reach by cable car (RM4) which runs between 8:30am and 5:30pm. The Temple complex itself is open between 9am and 6pm. Another amazing place I missed off my original itinerary! Chinese New Year is apparently huge here, so consider aligning your visit if you’re planning to be in Malaysia in January / February.
Where to eat in George Town
Street food in George Town
I can’t think of a better reason to go to Penang than the food. There is an amazing selection from the tinniest stalls on street corners to huge hawker centres with an overwhelming choice of food. There are also plenty of restaurants if that’s more your style, but you are definitely missing out if you don’t eat off the street (which, by the way, is pretty safe in Malaysia).
Chulia Street is one of the main areas for street food at night where you can try Penang’s famous char kway teow; stir fried rice noodles with prawns, pork fat, Chinese sausage, beansprouts, shrimp paste and a few other condiments. Various street vendors will be cooking char kway teow and other dishes throughout George Town at night.
Many blogs are dedicated to where to eat street food in George Town and specifically where to eat char kway teow, so do your research if this is the kind of thing that interests you! I found Penang Foodie a helpful resource. We had some great food from ‘Char koay teow stall’ at the junction of Kimberley and Cintra streets (marked on the map).
Hawker Centres in George Town
There are several hawker centres in George Town which you can sample. We ate at Red Garden Food Paradise several times during our stay as it is coincidentally next door to the Blue Mansion so extremely convenient. You can also try: Lorong Baru (New Lane), Gurney Drive, Esplanade Food Centre, Padang Brown Food Court, Lorong Selamat and New World Park Food Court.
Restaurants in George Town
I researched a bunch of restaurants before going to George Town and then ate in none of them as I got too distracted by street food and hawker centres. When hiding from the blazing heat one day we did duck into a restaurant, Mews Cafe, where I had a good Laksa.
The other restaurants I had researched and listed, which you might like to check out, are Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine and Tek Sen. Tek Sen Chinese restaurant has been a George Town mainstay since 1965 and is featured in just about every travel guide to Penang; you can read more about it on the Migrationology blog. For authentic home cooked Peranakan food, try Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine, which you can find helpfully reviewed here. We also enjoyed a tasty (although slightly pricier) lunch at Mews Cafe one day – I very much enjoyed the Laksa there.