I lived in Penang, an island on the west coast of Malaysia, for 6 months and love to share my best Penang insider tips to make your Penang experience unique.
Let’s start with some basics
My first important tip is: Don’t expect another paradise island like in Thailand. Penang is precious for other reasons: the mix of cultures, the capital with its alternative backpacking vibes and the outstanding delicious food. It is also called „Pearl of the Orient“ due to its diversity: 44% of the population is Muslim, followed by 36% Buddhists and around 9% Hindus. This fact is present in many daily life situations, the food of course which various from typical Malay to spicy Indian daals, but also Chinese hot pot, the way how people interact with each other, Malay people are very open-minded and advanced in their ideology as well as in the language – due to many different nationalities most people speak English.
Penang is very versatile: The north of the island hosts the pretty beaches and most of the tourists. The east is mainly represented by the capital Georgetown, the east and southeast are located at the Strait of Melacca which is quite dirty unfortunately and swimming in the sea is almost impossible. The real Penang off from the crowds can be discovered in the south and west of the island. But before heading to the remote places, spending some days in Georgetown is a must. Georgetown is the capital of Penang and was declared to UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Find my favourite places of Georgetown in the following paragraphs.
Penang insider tips: Discover Georgetown – the clash of cultures
As Penang is a former British Colony many colonial buildings can be spotted in Georgetown. In addition, the cultural mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese people is very present in the capital. You can find Hindu temples next to a Mosque, China Town next to Little India and well maintained colonial houses next to old houses in bad condition. But this is what makes Georgetown so unique. You can wander around in the streets of Penang for hours and won’t get bored. Find some impressions here:
But there many more little things which make Georgetown to a unique place. My favorite one are the relaxed backpacker vibes which you especially feel in Lebuh Giulia and Love Lane, where many hostels settled down.
Feel the backpacker vibes in Lebuh Giulia
Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia) developed into an alternative district with fancy little hostels, cosy breakfast places or bagel corners. Don’t miss to try Junk Café or Rainforest Bakery and try the delicious bagels there. Lebuh Giulia also hosts some local handicraft shops and an antique shop and is perfect if you are searching for an authentic souvenir.
Giulia Street crosses China town and Little India – both districts which you shouldn’t miss – it will make you get to know this special cultural mix which makes Penang so unique.
A dream of colours in Little India
Believe me, you will realize when you are in little India. When loud Indian tunes fill the street, the shops become more colourful and overcrowded and you see colourful, magnificent Saris in the shop windows, you’re there! And of course the food! My favourite food in Penang was definitely Indian Food. The best pick in town (in my opinion, and very cheap) is Kapitan restaurants (which has more locations in Penang).
How to get there to Restoran Kapitan:
Address: 93, Lebuh Chulia, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
China House Vibes
This is a real Penang insider tips: China house with its wooden natural interior is one of the places which forms part the special vibes which Penang has. I don’t even know how to define this place, it is a mix of coffee shop, art gallery, library, lunch stop with super delicious cakes and jazz live music in the evenings. It consists of different floors and a little cute backyard to sit outside. You can have breakfast, brunch, lunch, linner, dinner, coffee break or tea time there – every time to the day is suitable for a visit – it is definitely a must-go place in Penang!
How to get there:
Address: 153, Lebuh Pantai, George Town, 10300 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Discover the Street Art in Georgetown
Georgetown stands for street art – I’m not speaking about crazy graffitis like in Berlin, I’m speaking about beautiful, creative street art which is waiting for you in many unexpected corners of Georgetown. But the street art of Penang was not created by any youngsters, the Municipal Council of Penang commissioned Ernest Zacharevic, a very talented Lithuanian, to create a street art project in Georgetown which was called ‘Mirrors George Town’. See some examples here:
Find a map of Penang’s street art here.
Viewpoint for lazy people Komtar building
This skyscraper is Penang’s highest building with 65 floors and offers a great 360-degree view over the whole capital of Georgetown and even more parts of Penang from the rooftop viewing deck. In the lower floors, it hosts a shopping mall with different retail stores. Don’t worry about the 65 floors – Malay people are quite lazy (sorry my friends, but remember we were even changing the classroom in the university by car ;)) and therefore Komtar building has, of course, a lift which brings you all the way up for RM5 operating between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
From the top floor, you will have a 360-degree view over Georgetown and you will get to know the real size of the city which is quite big. Although the centre of town is very concentrated. That is why it never feels that huge when you wander around in the street.
The alternative for not lazy people would be to climb Penang Hill by the way. See more about it below.
How to get there:
Address: 1 Jalan Penang, Georgetown
Viewing Gallery on the 58th floor
Perform good deed and give freedom to a bird
Do it like the locals! This is mostly a good tip for your travels by the way. When visiting Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng temple) you might meet this lovely old guy selling birds and you’ll observe locals buying one and give freedom to it in front of the temple. People believe they perform a good deed and gain merit in their afterlives.
How to get there:
Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Penang insider tips: Rent a scooter and discover the real extent of the island
To get to know the real authentic Malay life on the island, rent a scooter and discover the non-touristy east and west coast. You can find lonely beaches and remote places all over. Be aware that this side of the island is also very basic, partly even very poor, and you won’t find any big restaurants, also it might be that people don’t speak English. But that should definitely not distract you from going. You can discover places like Pantai Nelayan, known as the Fisherman Beach in the south – all real Penang insider tips.
Or the remote, secret beach Pasir Panjang in the southeast of the island where you will definitely don’t meet any tourist.
Discover the best beaches only reachable by a hike through the national park
I don’t want to raise big expectations: Penang is not the typical tropical island, nevertheless, it hosts some beautiful beaches. So if you are seeking for beach holidays only choose wisely your hotel. If you are only interested in beach and don’t care about the cultural background of the island I strongly recommend to choose another island. There are definitely better beaches in Malaysia. For instance think about Pulau Kapas, a real paradise island and insider tip at the east coast of Malaysia (read more about it here).
Batu Feringghi is the most popular beach where all the crowds go and where are many big hotels at the beach. Also many water activities like banana boat or jetski are offered. That’s why I don’t recommend to go there and better listen to my Penang insider tips: The less crowded, more hidden beaches can only be reached by little trails of the Penang National Park, like Monkey beach (Teluk Duyung) or Turtle beach (Pantai Kerachut).
How to get to Monkey beach:
You can’t access the beach by car. You can either charter a boat from the surrounding beaches like Batu Ferringhi or you have to walk through the National Park. Take bus 101 from Georgetown, Batu Ferringhi or Tanjung Bungah beach to the last stop „Teluk Bahang“ which represents the entry of the national park. Now just follow the 3.5 kilometre long paths and the signs to Monkey beach.
Penang insider tips: Visit this hidden beaches in the south
A real insider tip which we found by accident while cruising along the island by scooter is the hidden beach of Bakar Kapor in the southeast of Penang.
Another secret beach is Pasir Panjang Beach in the east of the island. Most probably you won’t meet any tourists there, maybe some fisherman or some Malay people chilling in the shadow.
Penang Insider tips: Do you dare to stay overnight at the spooky island Pulau Jerejak?
Pula Jerejak is an island just 1.5 kilometres off the east coast of Penang. It is a private island and hosts the Jerejark Resort and Spa. But don’t expect a beautiful lonely island with paradise beaches. Be aware that it is located in the dirty Street of Malacca. Pulau Jerejak used to host Jerejak Prison and is known as the Alcatraz of Malaysia. Sounds scary, right? That is why some Malay people think that this place is haunted and are afraid to go there. Not the best conditions for the hotel there. Nevertheless, a day trip to the island is worth it as the hotel offers many adventure activities on the island, like paintball, mountain biking, jungle trekking, there is even a suspension bridge and a climbing wall, as well as archery facilities. The island is great to have a fun day in the jungle full of activities, and if you’re lucky you will be one of few people on the whole island. After the exhausting activities, you can relax at the pool or book a treatment in the spa of the hotel. Be aware that the beach and see is quite dirty (at least it was when we were there) and doesn’t invite for a swim. Nevertheless, I liked our stay there a lot because the location is off-the-beaten-track far away from tourist crowds and my thirst of adventure was satisfied. Make sure to call ahead if you want to do any activities there or book a spa treatment.
How to get there:
The hotel offers an own ferry to Pulau Jerejak which leaves from Penang Jetty.
Penang Insider tips: Have dinner at the seaside of Georgetown
Penang bridge links the island to the mainland, it is approximately 13.5 kilometres long and considered as the longest in Southeast Asia. It is illuminated in the night and you can even see the skyline of the mainland and its reflection in the sea. Take your scooter or walk along the harbor and the coastline of Georgetown and pick one of the restaurants located at the coast. And now: Just enjoy the more chilly climate at night time, the little breeze of the coast and the beautiful view!
The food (This is a warning!!!)
Penang is FOOD HEAVEN. Be warned: If you like Asian Food, you will definitely gain weight during your stay in Penang. Due to the mix of culture there is a extremely diverse food. Typical Malay dishes like Assam Laksa, a spicy noodle soup, Mee Goreng, some variation of fried noodles; Indian style dishes, like Roti Canai, a flat bread (a bit like salty crepe) with 3 spicy dips (my absolute FAVORITE one, I ate it once a day I think) or the Indian classic Butter chicken, or how about a Chinese hot pot or sushi? You will really find everything you are craving for. Penangs cuisine is not only influenced by the three main cultures of the island but many more southeast asian nationalities. Which means you can also find spicy Thai restaurants or Indonesian peanut sauce dishes. Pure food heaven!
In addition (and that is what will kill you) food is so cheap and you can eat (almost) everywhere – even little stands in the streets are totally trustworthy. I strongly recommend to skip all your diet plans during your stay!
How to get to Restoran Kapitan:
93, Lebuh Chulia, George Town, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Meet monkeys at Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the highest mountain on the island. As the name tells already it is not really a mountain (833 m). Nevertheless, it offers a great view at Georgetown and the rest of the island and is very recommendable. You can either take the cable car up or walk up the main road. And for the adventurers among you: You can take little paths through the jungle. All ways somehow lead up and you can’t get lost.
One big warning: Pay attention to the monkeys! Unfortunately, they are very open-minded and looking forward to every tourist who passes them. They will steal your food if you’re not paying attention. Yes, you read correctly. This monkey is just eating my ice cream:
And this one jumped on me and took my pieces of my watermelon out of my hand and just ate it:
Not kidding! Unfortunately, the monkeys of Penang hill are classical conditioned, meaning: they know if the approach tourists and show their teeth people will be afraid of them and they will get their food. And in case the tourist doesn’t give it they learned that they have to jump on them to get the food. So be warned and carry your food deep in your backpack. The third time when this stupid (or should I say smart?) monkeys tried to steal my fruits, I ran away, at least 200 meters. This was the only chance to escape them.
But this should of course not distract you from going to Penang Hill. Just don’t walk around with food or make them know that you are carrying food with you, w.g. with a plastic bag in your hand.
Besides the monkey incident, Penang hill is very nice and also a good change of environment compared to busy Georgetown. On top of the hill is a range of sights like a Hindu temple, a mosque or an owl museum. In addition at the feet of the hill is a botanical garden. We didn’t do any of these attractions, only the hike up and strolled around on top to enjoy the view.
How to get there:
The cable car leaves from:
422, Jalan Bukit Bendera, 11500 Ayer Itam, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
The trail up starts there as well.
This one is not a secret and doesn’t belong to my Penang insider tips but it is all you need on a rainy day in Penang. Queensbay Mall is a huge shopping mall, and not comparable to any shopping centre in Georgetown. It is very modern and well maintained, air-conditioned of course (take a hoodie), hosts many many good shops, a cinema, a food court with a delicious cake shop and even a pretzel stand. The shops range from little retailers to big brands, like GAP, Esprit or Guess and well-known shops like Forever 21. You can easily spend a day here if the weather is bad or you feel like you need to escape the heat.
How to get there:
1F-78 Queensbay Mall, 100 Persiaran Bayan Indah Bayan Lepas, 11900 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
or by bus from Georgetown
I hope you like my Penang insider tips? If you have more tips, drop me a comment!
Have fun exploring Penang!