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Malaysia’s most colourful city, historic Georgetown on the island of Penang is a melting pot of culture, with its rich mix of scrumptious street food, soulful street art and tranquil temples and places of worship. We’ve been to Georgetown three times now and on our most recent trip, we stayed for a week as opposed to just a couple of days and saw so much more (third time’s a charm, eh – we’re already plotting our return).
Here is our guide to the top things to do in Georgetown, Penang:
Things to do in Georgetown:
Things to do in Georgetown – Street Art
Possibly Georgetown’s best known ‘attraction’, the streets are awash with incredible artistry, illustrations and murals (most by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic), envisaged as a way to breathe new life back into old shops and homes, and preserve the rich and vibrant history of the local area . New pieces still continue to appear on a regular basis, with the main street canvases concentrated along historical and commercial streets like Armenian Street, Lebuh Leith and Weld Quay. See all the main murals in our guide to Georgetown street art >
Alongside the murals, there are cartoon metal artworks that are affixed to various walls around Georgetown. They actually were around from 2010 before the murals and are a fun and novel way to learn more about the area’s rich history.
Penang was a significant and historical trade link between Asia and Europe, and the older Georgetown streets are still well preserved and reflect those early European touches. To a certain degree, it is a little like stepping back in time, especially as you wander around Fort Cornwallis or browse the shops and houses along Beach Street.
Other examples that can still be seen today include the regal Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower (built in the 1890s for her Diamond Jubilee) and St George’s Church (built in the late 1810s and Southeast Asia’s oldest Anglican church). You can also learn more at the dedicated Georgetown Colonial Penang Museum or on the free tourist information organised walking tour.
Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian)
In the heart of Georgetown’s heritage district lies Lebua Armenian, a vivid and brightly coloured historic street with old shophouses that are now home to gift shops, cafes and tea rooms, as well as an abundance of magnificent street art.
Georgetown’s colourful culinary centre is awash with street food stalls and restaurants offering all manner of delicious Malaysian Indian cuisine, as well as several places of worship (Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang is here). Centred around Chulia Street and Queen Street, the area also has a number of shops and stalls that sell everything from gold jewellery, flowers and saris through to cheap trinkets. It is easy to find the area, just listen for and follow the loud Bollywood style music that emanates from many of the stores in this area.
One of only three Chinatowns in the world to be located in a UNESCO World Heritage site (fact-fans, the other two are in Malacca and Laos), Chinatown is a charming concoction of clan houses, souvenir stalls, tea houses and restaurants. Based originally along China Street but since expanding all the way to Little India, the best way to circumnavigate Chinatown is to start in the Kuan Yin Teng Temple, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple built in 1728. Always busy, this place of worship is a wonder to visit, especially the main praying hall. Souvenir hunters can find a wide variety of Georgetown gifts here including jade and crystals.
Located near to the main ferry terminal, these six family jetties are over a century old and each has its own unique character – you never quite know what to expect when you walk down them. Whilst some are geared towards tourists like Chew Jetty (gift shops galore and the longest jetty), some are entirely residential and give you a brief glimpse into the lives of the locals (use common sense when taking pictures as you are wandering around people’s homes).
Hean Boo Thean Kuan Yim Temple
We aren’t actually sure if this is classed as one of the above clan jetties as it is newer (built in the 1970s) so we’ve listed it separately as for us, this is one of the hidden gems of Georgetown. We’ve visited Hean Boo Thean Kuan Yim temple several times and on all of those occasions, we’ve had this serene seabound ‘floating’ temple all to ourselves with no other tourists in sight. Dedicated to Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), this Buddhist temple is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places of worship we’ve ever encountered (small but sublime) – likely something to do with being in a temple surrounded by the sounds of ocean waves.
Everyone knows Penang is renowned for its amazing street food resulting in an array of fantastic food courts and hawker centres to indulge at (and prices are comparatively cheap). One food court foible is that if you want to sit at a table, you normally also have to buy a drink from one of the serving staff, in addition to your food.
Our favourite Penang foodie places include:
Sri Weld Food Court – we discovered this food-court on Beach Street after doing our free walking tour (it is near to the main tourist information office) and were enticed in by the sight of the nasi lemak stall at the entrance. They were making a big batch en masse and were so graceful in how they made it – delicious, filling and cheap as.
CF Food Court – the largest food court in central Georgetown and as visited by Anthony Bourdain, we were regular visitors to the CF Foodcourt both in the day and night, as it is close to all the main historic Georgetown attractions. Lots of choice and mainly frequented by locals which is always a good sign.
New Lane Hawker Centre – actually a collection of around 20 or so street food stalls alongside a busy road, this was a regular pitstop for our late night snacking, when we weren’t at Chulia Street. The rojak here was particularly good – a kind of fruit salad with shrimp paste, tofu and peanuts.
Red Garden Food Paradise – whilst this can be tourist central, the evenings are always entertaining here due to their rather interesting music sets (they were even advertising ‘ladyboys on pianos’ one night we were there). Make sure you get a table before ordering food, as they’ll want to know where you are sitting.
Georgetown, Penang food tour
A Georgetown Penang food tour is a must do for any food lovers and is a great way to check out some local hidden gems you might not find by yourself. We did an evening tour and got to sample some of Penang’s classic dishes from a variety of street food stalls, hawker centres and restaurants. Read more in our food tour in Penang blog post >
Other Georgetown Penang food tours:
- Penang Food Tour (Small Group)
- George Town: Food Hop with Heritage on a Plate
- George Town Night Food Tour
Check out our What to eat in Penang food guide >
Chulia Street Night Hawker Stalls
Chulia Street comes alive at dusk with the hustle and bustle of hawker vendors and the unmistakable aromas of incredible street food. Most nights, we’d indulge in Char Kway Teow (flat noodles with chinese noodles, cockles, shrimp) from either one of the stalls or restaurants. Plus get our fill of fish balls or veg at the lok lok stall, whereby you steam / boil your food on a stick, and pay based on the colour of your stick.
Love Lane is a narrow street in Georgetown’s historic quarter, where the brightly coloured colonial style homes and houses have generally been transformed into all manner of hostels and cheap (ish) backpacker accommodation (most with their owns bars too) – quirkier hostels include the 80’s guesthouse, the Reggae Hostel and the Love Lane Inn.
Once home to Penang’s redlight and brothel district (possibly how the ‘Love Lane’ name came about), this is worth a walk down in the early evening: the Holy Guacamole restaurant here always seemed insanely busy, likely due to its happy hour drinks deals.
FURTHER READING – The perfect 2 week Malaysia itinerary and travel guide
Kek Lok Si temple
Meaning the ‘Temple of Paradise’ and the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, our visits to Kek Lok Si Temple are one of our best ever South East Asian experiences. Just a short bus or Grab taxi ride away from Georgetown’s historic heart, Kek Lok Si is located at the base of Air Itam Market. We cannot recommend it enough, from the tranquil temples and pagoda views, through to the funicular railway up to the huge Kuan Yin / Goddess of Mercy statue which you can see from miles around – here is a dedicated Kek Lok Si temple blog we wrote, including how to get there.
The tallest tower in Penang houses a mall below it and several attractions offices, and theme parks – which are always strangely quiet when we’ve visited, especially their hawker food centre. However the main reason to visit the Komtar Tower is the fact that the 58th floor is an incredible observation deck, with panoramic views of the surrounding bay. On the rooftop of the tower is the open air Rainbow Skywalk where you can walk on a curved glass ledge and look down at the streets of Georgetown. The views are awesome and we recommend arriving just before sunset so you can take photos during dusk and at night.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The beautiful Pinang Peranakan is a Chinese courtyard style mansion that was lovingly restored in 2004 after being abandoned and left to decay after World War Two. It once served as the residence of Chung Keng Kwee, the richest man in Penang in the late 19th century but is now a museum dedicated to Penang’s Peranakan heritage, housing more than 1000 pieces of antiques and collectibles. The decor inside is gorgeous and has architectural elements from both east and west, featuring Chinese crafted wood panels along with British floor tiles and Scottish ironwork.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion is open to the public everyday for a 20 MYR entrance fee and guided tours are available.
A sublime and spiritual experience, visiting the Khoo (their family name) Kongsi (clan house) is one of the most rewarding things to do whilst in Penang. Said to be the finest clan house outside of China, this version was built in 1906 after the earlier temple burned down (said to have incurred due to the wrath of the gods, eek). It was also bombed during WWII and has since been restored by the clan members. The admission fee includes access to a museum exploring the history of the Khoo Kongsi
Constructed by the British East India Tea Company in 1810 to protect the island from invasion (which never actually happened) and named after Lord Cornwallis, the fort is the largest of its kind in Malaysia – it also marks the location where Captain Francis Light, the ‘founder’ of Penang Island first landed in 1786 (he has a statue within the fort). Today, of the 100 or so cannons that were once installed, only a handful remain and make for a poignant photo opportunity. One for history buffs as we were a little underwhelmed by what we found inside – very little to see or explore (maybe other forts have spoilt it for us).
Free Georgetown Penang walking tour
Free 90 minute walking tours are run by the tourist information centre every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at 10.30am and are a perfect introduction to historical Georgetown Penang. The booking system is a little odd – you have to arrive early on the day of the tour to claim your place, and then return at the appointed time (you cannot book the day in advance). We recommend you definitely do this as they limit guests to around 20 people per group. Tipping is greatly appreciated at the end of the tour.
Other fun things to do in Georgetown / Penang
The Habitat Penang Hill
Canopy Walk with 360-degree panoramic view of Penang Island – the highest viewing point of Penang. Click here to book
ESCAPE Theme Park in Penang
Over 30 thrilling activities including ziplining, water slides, rides and games with aerial views of Penang’s forest – just half an hour away from Georgetown. Click here to book
Unique museum in the heart of Penang featuring oversized replicas of traditional Malaysian dishes. Click here to book
Tropical Spice Garden Experience
Landscaped award-winning gardens set out over 8 acres of secondary jungle valley and more than 500 varieties of tropical flora and fauna from around the world. Click here to book
Dark Mansion Museum
3D glow in the dark museum with special light effects creating day to night transitions. Click here to book
Georgetown Scenic Night Tour
See Penang after sunset on a night tour that includes a ferry ride and dinner at a hawker stall. Click here to book
How to get to Georgetown Penang
Penang is a popular tourist destination and there are plenty of affordable ways to reach there:
The island of Penang has an international airport which operates more than 20 flights a day to and from the island (including budget airlines such as Air Asia). We have booked flights as cheap as £5 (25 MYR) one way from Kuala Lumpur to Penang in the past, and is definitely the most convenient way to reach Georgetown. Check Skyscanner for the best fares >
Taking the bus to Penang is an affordable option which is great for backpackers or for travellers who are in no rush. Most coach operators run clean and comfortable services, and Penang has direct routes to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and other destinations (make sure your final drop off bus station is in Georgetown).
Use 12Go Asia to find the best bus fares for your trip to Georgetown:
There are 2 fast Electronic Train Service (ETS) routes from Kuala Lumpur every day taking 4 hours 15 minutes, and is one of the quickest ways to reach Penang. The train arrives at Butterworth, so you will need to hop on a short 15 minute ferry ride from there to reach Georgetown. Overnight trains are also available from KL, and one advantage of taking an overnight train is that is does save one nights accommodation!
If you also plan to visit Langkawi Island as part of your Malaysia itinerary then you can get the ferry to and from there direct from Georgetown! The ferry departs twice a day from Langkawi to Penang’s Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal, costing 80 MYR for a 2 and a half hour journey.
FURTHER READING – Top things to do in Langkawi, Malaysia
Getting around Georgetown Penang
Georgetown is pretty compact so easily explored by foot. If you do not feel like walking or need to go somewhere a bit further out of town then we highly recommend Grab taxis. They are widely used by both tourists and locals, and the fares are really cheap! Download the Grab app here >
Georgetown Penang accommodation
Some hostel accommodations that come highly rated include:
House of Journey hostel
Family owned hostel is located in the heart of Georgetown. Check out prices and availability for House of Journey hostel
Old Penang Guesthouse hostel
Charming heritage guesthouse a stone’s throw from Penang’s major historical landmarks and tourist attractions. Check out prices and availability for Old Penang Guesthouse
Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel
Highly rated hostel located in the heart of the UNESCO Heritage zone. Check out prices and availability for Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel
If you are looking for something mid range then these hotels are in excellent locations with great reviews:
We have stayed at this hotel twice and love it’s central location and rooftop bar area. Check out prices and availability for Chulia Mansion
Le Dream Boutique Hotel
Modern accommodation featuring a rooftop spa tub, restaurant and rooftop bar. Check out prices and availability for Le Dream Boutique Hotel
Nam Keng Hotel
Comfortable rooms with traditional decoration in a great location. Check out prices and availability for Nam Keng Hotel
Alternatively if you are looking for something more special then treat yourself to a stay at one of these beautiful hotels in Georgetown:
Stylish hotel with swimming pool and rooms with balconys. Check out prices and availability for Seven Terraces
Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion
Boutique accommodation with individually designed rooms housed in a Chinese courtyard-style mansion. Check out prices and availability for Cheong Fatt Tze – The Blue Mansion
Eastern & Oriental Hotel
19th century heritage accommodation with spacious colonial-style suites and an outdoor swimming pool with ocean views. Check out prices and availability for Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Sim cards and pocket WIFI
Having data on your phone whilst travelling is almost essential these days – from planning your route around the city, booking a Grab taxi or for staying connected with friends and family back home. SIM cards are pretty cheap in Malaysia with generous data allowances and are available to purchase from airports, malls and convenience stores (bring your passport along for identification purposes).
You can also prepay online and collect a SIM from KLIA2 airport. Just remember to make sure your phone is not locked to your local network provider before purchasing one.
Alternatively if you do not want to change your sim card then renting a pocket WIFI device might be for you. We’ve used them multiple times and love that we can both connect our devices to it, however the downside to the Malaysian ones is that there is a data allowance of 1GB per day. Pre-order one online with Klook for collection when you arrive at either KLIA or KLIA2 airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Other Malaysia blog posts
- The BEST 2 week Malaysia itinerary and travel guide
- Cameron Highlands attractions: the ultimate guide
- A guide to Georgetown’s street art in Penang, Malaysia
- Cruising in Langkawi – a ‘spirited’ sunset adventure
- Tasting Malaysian cuisine on a Kuala Lumpur food tour
- Visiting Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur for the Thaipusam Festival
- Exploring Langkawi’s Mangrove flora and fauna
- Island hopping in Langkawi
- Exploring Kuala Lumpur from above – KL Tower and Eco Forest Park