What to do in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, the historical UNESCO-recognized town on Penang Island, Malaysia, is known around the world for having two things: cool and interesting street art, and some of the best street food in all of Asia. While you could spend a weekend just exploring the narrow streets and hopping from restaurant to restaurant, there’s a lot more to do in Penang than just eat! Georgetown is full of history, culture, and charm.
Explore Georgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town
In 2008, two of Malaysia’s historic colonial cities were recognized as a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca site recognizes the historically and culturally important colonial architecture that has been remarkably well-preserved in both cities. In Penang, you can spend hours wandering through the twisting streets of the old town. It’s the perfect place for exploring and street photography. You’ll see historic British-era monuments (including the Victoria Jubilee Clock Tower and the WWI Memorial Cenotaph) alongside colonial administration buildings and centuries-old family shop houses.
Find the street art hidden in Georgeown’s historic alleyways
Penang is famous, especially among photographers, as a city with incredible street art. Dozens of talented artists have decorated the old town with murals depicting local Malaysian life, cartoon characters, and lots and lots of cats. The best place to start your street art walk is along Armenian Street, but you can find incredible art and murals throughout the city. Pick up a street art walking map from your hotel or guest house for a guide to the best and most famous art in the city.
Taste some of Malaysia’s most famous street food
It’s hard to recommend what to eat in Penang because nearly everything you will try is going to be delicious! Penang’s (and Malaysia’s in general) rich and diverse cultural history is reflected in the food. Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines come together to make Penang a wonderful food paradise.
My advise is to just wander to whatever street food stall, shop house, or restaurant looks good and giving it a try. You won’t be disappointed, and you will never go hungry in Penang!
Visit churches, temples, and mosques
While Malaysia is an officially Muslim country, 40% of the population follow other religions. The largest minority religious groups include Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. Penang has its share of interesting mosques, including the Penang State Mosque (designed after the Cathedral of Brasillia) and the floating mosque along the southwest coast of the island.
There are also beautiful and historic churches, including the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, which houses a historical diocesan art museum. Nearby, St. George’s Church is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia.
Dozens of both Hindu and Buddhist temples are also scattered throughout the city. The most famous Buddhist temple in Penang is Kek Lok Si, but in my opinion, even more interesting is the Haen Boo Thean Temple, which is located along the Chinese clan jetties and built on stilts out over the sea.
Learn the history of Penang at the State Museum
The Penang State Museum, housed in an old colonial administrative building, may be small, but hey! it only costs 1 ringgit to enter! The museum houses informative displays and artifacts of the British colonial period and earlier (dating back to the founding of the local sultanate), including exhibits about the native spices and resources that made Penang such an important port city.
Ride the Hop-on-Hop-off bus around the island
Despite its name, the Penang Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus no longer allows guests to hop off or off at the various stops along the route. While keeping the same name, the company has reorganized into a sightseeing tour company offering trips through the old town and across Penang Island. The tickets might be a little pricey for a budget traveler, but it’s one of the most convenient and fun ways to see the island. Check out their sunset tour or the trip across the island to the Penang Funicular and the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
Walk down the clan jetties
On the eastern coast of Penang, just outside of the Old Town, are the famous "clan jetties". The six long jetties are the traditional relics of the Chinese merchant family settlements on Penang island. A rickety boardwalk twists around dozens of houses, temples, shrines, and shops, all of which are built up on stilts above the water.
In the past, there used to be seven clan jetties, but the seventh burnt down in a terrible fire. Today, the six remaining jetties are historical sites along the Penang Heritage Trail, and are popular places for photography.
Visitors are welcome to walk down and explore the jetties, but do be mindful that these are people’s homes. Despite being an interesting historical site, local families really do live along the water in their ancestral stilt houses. Be quiet and respectful, don’t try to enter any of the houses, and don’t take photographs through any open doors or windows of people’s houses (as I saw some very rude tourists doing when I was there!).
Visit Penang’s most interesting historic Clan House
Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi (known as Cheah Kongsi for short) is one of the grandest and most impressive of the Chinese clanhouses in Penang. When mercantile families from southern China began immigrating to Penang in the 17th and 18th centuries, they organized into clans that provided both protection and financial support. You can pay 10 ringgit for a ticket to enter and explore the historic mansion, which has been converted into a museum.
Part of the clanhouse served as a sort of bank, and had long counters for doing deals and exchanging money. The clanhouse was also part financial institution, and issued loans to its members in order to further their business dealings in their new country.
The second floor of the clanhouse is made up of a Chinese-style temple honoring the Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and traditional family deities that the family worshiped.
If you are interested in history or culture, I highly recommend a visit. The ticket is well worth the price.
Check out the cannons at Fort Cornwallis
The old British colonial-era Fort Cornwallis is one of the top sights in Penang, but in my opinion, it’s not exactly worth the ticket price. Nowadays, almost all that remains of the fort are the walls and cannons, which are visible from the outside. Save 5 ringgit (and buy yourself a nice cold glass of Teh Tarik) and admire the fort from the outside while walking around the city. It’s significant as a historical site, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend paying for admission unless it really interests you.