The Pearl of the Orient personifies the “cultural melting pot” cliché and revives it in the best possible way. The historic capital of George Town offers all you could want from the exotic East: crumbling colonial architecture, temples, mosques, trishaws, street hawkers, fortune tellers, and shuttered shop fronts. The blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influence has shaped Penang into a unique corner of Asia. Grab a free tourist map and head out for a magical time in Penang.
Fall in Love with Penang While Indulging in Street Food
Explore George Town on Foot
Start your trip by getting acquainted with George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Zone. The centre is compact enough for an enjoyable walk or you can rent a bicycle for a day for RM10. Alternatively, check out the LinkBike system where bicycles are available at various dock stations for only RM2 per day. One thing that you’ll notice straight away is the surprisingly good street art.
Mural artwork: Children on Bicycle
It encompasses a variety of styles including state-commissioned wrought iron caricatures and murals by the incredibly talented Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who perfectly captures the spirit of Penang. Continuing the artistic theme, amateur photographers should stop by the Camera Museum to see an interesting exhibition of cameras from the first models to recent developments.
Discover the Melting Pot of Cultures at the Street Level
Based around Fort Cornwallis, the Colonial District is home to the largest intact fortress in Malaysia and the spot where the British established Penang as a trading outpost. Wander down Weld Quay to see the historic century-old Chinese Clan Jetties, waterfront homes on stilts. Head inland along Armenian Street, one of the city’s most beloved streets where lantern-laden temples stand shoulder to shoulder with museums and art shops.
Penang is a community of Malay Muslim, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians, a diversity that is reflected in the Heritage Zone, so don’t be surprised if you hear Bollywood music in Little India alongside the sounds of the call to prayer from the Kapitan Keling and Lebuh Acheh mosques. You’ll also find modern coffee shops like the Mugshot Cafe and Coffee on the Table slap bang in the middle of the eclectic maze of narrow lanes and busy thoroughfares.
Sample the Street Food
Foodies rejoice! As the food capital of Malaysia, most of Penang’s best food is found at its legendary food stalls and simple restaurants run by the same families for generations. Solo travellers will have no trouble blending in and eating out alone; simply order your preferred specialty at a food cart and sit down at one of the low street-side tables. Follow in locals’ footsteps to Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng for a flavourful broth made with flat rice noodles and meat.
Hainanese chicken rice, curry mee, char koay teow, dim sum, nasi kandar, roti jala and pasembur are available all over the island. Don’t forget to try Penang’s signature dish, asam laksa, an explosion of sweet, sour and spicy flavours made with mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, chili and a dollop of shrimp paste. Feeling indecisive? The Red Garden Paradise Night Market has a range of Asian food stalls where you can sample everything from skewered fish cakes to spicy Vietnamese soup. The live music can be amusingly bad, but it’s a culturally immersive experience and great for people-watching!
Dive Deep into Penang’s Heritage While Experiencing More Foodie Treats
Gain Insight into Penang’s Chinese Heritage
George Town is a huge outdoor museum, but you can learn so much more about its heritage by visiting its interiors. Chinese tycoons gentrified Leith Street at the turn of the century, earning it the nickname “Millionaire’s Row.”
The most famous mansion was built by Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese immigrant who achieved fame and fortune despite being born into poverty. The “Blue Mansion” has won numerous architecture and conservation awards and visitors can take a guided tour of part of the building.
The perfectly preserved Pinang Peranakan Mansion showcases how the wealthiest Straits-born Chinese (Peranakan) lived from the late 19th century. This prominent and unique Chinese community, also known as Babas and Nyonyas, selectively adopted Malay and British colonial ways. Their eclectic style is seen throughout the mansion, which is focused on a central courtyard and decked out in Scottish ironworks and English floor tiles that contrast with the elaborate Chinese decor. Definitely, an attraction not to miss!
Escape the City Streets
Follow your nose to the foot of Penang Hill to Pasar Air Itam Asam Laksa, a famous old hawker stall that has been serving the best asam laksa since 1955. Just a short walk away, Sister Curry Mee has been dishing out the popular national dish of curry mee for more than 70 years.
See more of our favourite dishes to enjoy while in Penang in A Foodie’s Guide to Penang
If you feel like a break from eating, walk to nearby Kek Lok Si Temple. It’s the largest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia and incorporates a huge statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, which is accessible by a lift.
To reach the top of Penang Hill, take the scenic funicular train or walk the picturesque trails that lead to the Hindu temple and mosque at its peak. You can also traverse the hill to reach the Botanical Gardens with their cute resident monkeys.
The hill itself is a blissfully cool retreat from the sticky heat of George Town and provides spectacular panoramic views of Penang in every direction. Bus numbers 203 and 204 can transport you to and from George Town and take around 30 minutes.
Where to Stay
After each day exploring Penang solo, relax each night at The Wembley – A St Giles Hotel conveniently situated in the heart of George Town, right on the doorstep of all the heritage sites.