A Travel Guide to Penang, Malaysia

All About Malaysia's "Pearl of the Orient"

a colorful temple in Penang

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

Penang's past as a British colonial holding and its present-day status as one of Malaysia's most prosperous states have made it one of Southeast Asia's most popular tourist stops. Nicknamed "the pearl of the Orient", Penang possesses a multifaceted culture and eclectic cuisine that rewards adventurous travelers.

Located in the northern part of peninsular Malaysia, the island of Penang was first colonized in 1786 by British adventurer Captain Francis Light. Always looking for new opportunities for his employer the British East India Company, Captain Light saw in Penang a magnificent harbor for tea and opium transshipments between China and the rest of the British Empire.

Penang underwent a number of political transformations after Light wrested control of Penang from the local Malay royalty. It was incorporated into the British Straits Settlements (which also included Melaka and Singapore to the south), then became part of the Malayan Union, then finally joined an independent Malaysia in 1957. Yet its long history under the British left an indelible mark: the capital of George Town retains an ineffable Imperial atmosphere that sets it apart from Malaysia's other grand cities.

First Stop: George Town, Penang

The island of Penang covers 115 square miles of real estate, mostly flat with a central hill range topping off at about 2,700 feet above sea level. The state capital of George Town on the northeastern cape serves as Penang's administrative, commercial, and cultural center, and is usually the tourists' first stop on the island.

Georgetown possesses one of Southeast Asia’s finest collections of 19th century and early 20th century buildings, its old shophouses and grand civic buildings serving as the last tangible link to Penang's past as the British Empire's most prosperous trading port in Malaya. Its well-preserved heritage buildings earned George Town recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

British rule brought with it an influx of immigrants that added to the existing Malay and Peranakan population of the island: the Chinese, Tamil, Arab, British and other migrant communities remade parts of George Town in their respective images.

Chinese clan houses like Khoo Kongsi sprouted up alongside mansions like Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the present-day Peranakan Mansion, and British landmarks like Fort Cornwallis and the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower solidified the imperial presence.

Best Time to Visit Penang

Penang shares the heat, humidity and heavy rains common in this part of the world. It's close enough to the equator to have only two seasons, a wet season from April to November and a dry season from December to March. (Find out more about weather in Malaysia.)

The peak tourist season in Penang coincides with New Year and Chinese New Year; between December and late January, the near-constant sunshine makes the George Town streets look bright, while the prevailing heat and humidity remains tolerable (the heat is at its worst in February and March).

From April till November, rainfall increases, auguring the arrival of the southwest monsoon. Visitors arriving during monsoon season can look on the bright side: lower temperatures and lower prices overall can make the trip enjoyable in its own way. But traveling during the monsoon season has plenty of downsides, too. More on those here: Traveling in Southeast Asia's Monsoon Season.

Haze. Between March and June, man-made forest-clearing fires in Indonesia (primarily Sumatra and Borneo) carry ash particles into the sky, causing a sickly haze to accumulate over Singapore and Malaysia. The haze may ruin the scenery at best, and be positively hazardous to your health at worst.

Holidays in Penang. With a little foresight, you can schedule your trip to coincide with one of Penang's many festivals. Chinese New Year is the biggest party the island can contrive, but you can also try visiting during Thaipusam, Vesak, or Hungry Ghost Festival.

Expect more inconvenience than usual, though: these festivals bring in plenty of tourists, but may shut down some shops and restaurants (particularly for Chinese New Year, when locals prefer to spend the holidays with their families rather than serving out-of-towners). 

Proceed to the next page to read about Penang's transportation, the range of accommodations on the island (whether you're staying on the cheap or looking for luxury), and all the things you can do while visiting the Pearl of the Orient.

George Town is only the first order of business of any trip to Penang in Malaysia. From your hostel or hotel in Penang, you can have your pick of numerous adventures (we recommend you start with the food). But you have got to get here first.

Going to Penang

The island of Penang is easily reached by multiple land connections and by airplane via the Penang International Airport.

Kuala Lumpur is only 205 miles (331 km) from Penang. Travelers can cross this distance via bus or train, both of which can be booked at Kuala Lumpur Sentral station. Travelers arriving by bus will stop at the Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, then proceed by taxi or RapidPenang bus to their next stop.

Bangkok is about 712 miles (1147 km) from Penang. Travelers can take the sleeper train from Bangkok; the train stops at Butterworth station on the mainland, next to a ferry station that crosses over to George Town on the island. This route is a popular one for travelers doing a visa run (find out more about getting a Thai visa).

For a closer look at getting in and around the island, read our articles about transportation to and around Penang, and getting around Georgetown, Penang.

Where to Stay in Penang

Most travelers to Penang find accommodations in George Town. Many of the historic quarter's shophouses and mansions have been repurposed into hotels and hostels. (More here: Hotels in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.)

Penang's wealth of budget accommodations accounts for its popularity among backpackers. For cheap rooms/beds in Penang, consult our lists of Top Georgetown, Penang Hostels and Budget Hotels in Penang, Malaysia.

The main George Town street of Lebuh Chulia is Penang's main backpacker alley, with plenty of cafes, bars, travel agencies, and yes, hostels and hotels. More on the latter here: Hotels On & Near Lebuh Chulia, George Town, Penang.

Flashpackers are a growing travel segment in Penang. Seeking the conviviality of hostels but all the creature comforts of regular hotels, flashpackers tend to gravitate towards boutique hostels like Syok at Chulia Hostel and Ryokan at Muntri Boutique Hostel.

Things to Do in Penang

In Penang, tourists find old-world cultural appeal from both East and West (concentrated in the northeast of the island around George Town), and examples of natural beauty (everywhere else). What follows is a thumbnail sketch of sights and activities worth checking out when in Penang.

  • Explore Penang's riotous food scene. Start with the top Penang food finds lining George Town's pedestrian-friendly grid (more here: where to eat in George Town, Penang). Local Malaysian street food favorites can be sampled off of streetside stalls after dark (see: the nighttime street food scene at Lebuh Chulia), a delicious reward for brave diners.
  • Go temple-hopping. Penang has long been a multi-confessional society; a proliferation of temples and mosques can be seen within the George Town historic core.
  • Hit the beach. Penang's beaches can be found on its northwest coast: Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Teluk Bahang welcome travelers looking for watersports activities and a vibrant street shopping scene.
  • Be one with the wild. Way outside George Town, parks like the Penang Bird Park, Penang Hill, and the Penang Botanic Gardens give nature-loving travelers a glimpse of the taxonomic riches abundant in Malaysia.
  • Go shopping. The British East India Company ships may have gone away, but the traders have remained, dispensing unique items in both traditional markets (like the Chowrasta Bazaar) and modern shopping centers like KOMTAR.

Proceed to this article to explore the above bullet points in minute detail: Things to Do in Penang, Malaysia.