George Town, Penang, is often billed as the “food capital of Malaysia,” so you’ll certainly be sampling a lot of memorable local cuisine. But Malaysia’s second largest city isn’t only about the eating. True, you may indeed find yourself fantasizing about noodles at odd hours of the night, but many of the top things to do in George Town have nothing to do with food.
Penang is an island, but it doesn’t always feel that way. If you’re searching for white sand and Southeast Asian island vibes, head for Langkawi or Tioman Island. While in Penang, take advantage of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage status. You’ll have abundant choices for learning about clan culture and admiring colonial architecture from the spice-trading, pirate-sailing days.
Tip: Begin by visiting the Penang Heritage Trust office on Church Street. Grab some of the walking-tour maps and free materials for discovering even more great things to do in George Town.
For culinary indulgence in George Town, you have many options: the touristy-but-enjoyable Gurney Drive, sprawling food courts and hawker centers, street-food carts, and small eateries. Some family-run shops may only sell one or two specialties mastered through decades of cooking repetition.
You’ll recognize some of the familiar favorites from Kuala Lumpur, but George Town has certainly developed its own food scene. If you’re lost for where to start sampling begin as many tourists dom at either Gurney Drive, Air Itam, or the Red Garden Food Court. You’ll enjoy a variety of options and abundant people watching, but ask locals for their top hawker-stall picks once you discover a favorite local dish.
See a Famous Cannon at Fort Cornwallis
Captain Francis Light constructed Fort Cornwallis on behalf of the British East India Company when they took control of Penang. Although the fort never saw combat, it served as a deterrent against pirates and troublemakers who may have disrupted spice trading.
The most ornate of the bronze cannons aimed at potential pirates is the Dutch-made Seri Rambai and dates to 1603. The legendary cannon was fought over, moved, sank, recovered, and is now on display atop the fort.
Fort Cornwallis’s prominent position on the very eastern tip of Penang allows for plenty of good views from the fort’s battlements.
Admire the Colonial Structures
After visiting Fort Cornwallis, wander across the massive lawn to see the colonial architecture of the State Assembly Hall and Penang Town Hall. The impressive Town Hall building appeared in the 1999 film "Anna and the King."
The 60-foot-tall Victoria Memorial Clock Tower sits in a roundabout just to the south, at the junction of Lebuh Light and Lebuh Pantai. The beautiful clock was built by a local millionaire in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 60-year reign.
Walk Along Armenian Street
Strolling along Armenian Street is among the most popular things to do in George Town. The neighborhood hosts numerous galleries, street murals, cafes, souvenir shops, and other draws. Combined, the many local businesses contribute to the charm of the strip. Lebuh Armenian is also home to the famous "Kids on Bicycle" street-art mural by Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuania-born artist.
Trishaw rides are available, and yes, the street is all about making tourists happy — but prices in the artsy shops are reasonable. Plan to do a little shopping for unique souvenirs and enjoy a drink (teh tarik is a local option) in one of the quirky cafes.
Visit Little India
Walking Armenian Street doesn’t take long at all; it’s a lot shorter than most travelers expect. Conveniently, Penang’s Little India is located practically next door, just a couple of blocks to the north.
As is often the case in “Little India” neighborhoods, you’ll find plenty of hustle in an exciting, slightly frenetic, setting. Bollywood provides the soundtrack, and aromatic spices scent the air.
This is the place in Penang for an inexpensive, delicious Malaysian Indian meal. Try one of the “banana leaf” curry houses if you haven’t already. If the timing isn’t right, at least grab one of the stuffed samosas or another tempting snack for later. If you’re dressed appropriately, duck inside the colorful Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple on the island.
Be prepared: Little India feels...well...little, especially if you’ve wandered its counterpart in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Tour the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The indigo-colored mansion once belonged to Cheong Fatt Tze, a wealthy merchant who brought in artists from China to construct the house according to feng shui guidelines.
While exploring the beautiful grounds of the mansion, bear in mind that Cheong Fatt Tze was a poor immigrant who left his homeland to escape war and find success. Although he began as a shopkeeper in Jakarta, he grew his business and wealth from the ground up. The impressive mansion on Leith Street was just one of his residences.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion also doubles as an exclusive guesthouse. Only overnight guests are allowed to take photos indoors. You’ll want to book one of the three daily tours in advance, they cost 18 Malaysian ringgit and last 45 minutes.
For another mansion, check out the Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street (photography is also prohibited).
Enjoy the Decoration in the Khoo Kongsi Clan house
Of the many ornate clan houses in Penang, Khoo Kongsi is certainly one of the most impressive. The temple was finished in 1906 at the height of the clan’s wealth and power. Events and Chinese operas are occasionally staged in the beautiful setting; check the official website for a schedule of upcoming events.
Khoo Kongsi can be tricky to find. Look for it in Cannon Square, not far from Lebuh Armenian. Adult admission is 10 Malaysian ringgit.
See More Chinese Clan Houses
Due to Khoo Kongsi’s popularity and entrance fee, many travelers prefer Cheah Kongsi as an alternative. Cheah Kongsi, established in 1810, is only a 7-minute walk from Khoo Kongsi. Some furniture and artifacts from the era are on display and admission is free.
Another option in the area is Tan Kongsi, a Hokkien clan house and temple established in 1878. The property is only a 5-minute walk to the south. As one would expect in George Town, the surrounding neighborhood is dotted with cafes, galleries, and eateries specializing in just one dish.
Take a Stroll Down Love Lane
Love Lane (Lorong Cinta) is Penang’s backpacker and budget traveler area. Calling Love Lane the “Khao San Road” of Penang would be a stretch, but much like the famous backpacker base in Bangkok, Love Lane and the adjacent Chulia Street are crammed with budget guesthouses, bars with sidewalk seating, and street food carts.
The Love Lane / Chulia Street area is about socializing and nightlife. It isn’t really the place to go for sightseeing, but you will find the Carpenters’ Guild defiantly holding on as cafes and hostels take over the street.
Founded in 1850, the historic Carpenters' Guild building served as home for many of the forgotten immigrants who came to construct the famous clan houses you see around Penang. The temple is dedicated to Lo Pan, the patron deity of carpenters.
Shop and Play in KOMTAR
If the weather is less than ideal, go toward KOMTAR tower, the tallest skyscraper on the island. Back in 1986, KOMTAR was the second tallest building in Asia AT 65 stories tall. Three more floors were added in 2016, bringing the total to 68.
The KOMTAR tower is literally stacked with retail, restaurants, and entertainment in the form of museums, a cinema, and themed attractions. If you want to test your fear of heights, go for the world’s tallest rope course on Level 65 or pay handsomely to walk (without shoes) on the all-glass Rainbow Skywalk jutting out 816 feet above sea level.
The bottom of KOMTAR serves as a primary bus terminal for Penang. You can pretty well get to any part of the island (including the beach) from there.
Run From Monkeys in the Penang Botanic Gardens
The Penang Botanic Gardens are situated on the northern edge of George Town. As the name implies, you’ll be embraced by greenery in a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets.
But there’s a catch: Macaque monkeys patrol this lush paradise. They’re cheeky enough to grab your water bottle, and you’re really in trouble if you happen to be hiding a snack somewhere.
The botanic gardens sit on the site of a spice garden dating back to colonial days. You can enjoy a scenic waterfall along with a tropical rainforest setting and the creatures it attracts.
The gardens have free admission and are open daily from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.; some exhibits may have restricted hours. If you want to avoid dealing with taxi drivers — many are more cheeky than the macaques — bus #10 from KOMTAR will take you there.