At a compact 2.5 sq km, and packed with narrow, bustling streets littered with picturesque shopfronts, George Town is perfect for exploring on foot.
An easier option for your feet is Linkbike, a bike-sharing programme which lets you get around with ease while keeping your carbon footprint light. See all the stations on this map.
Head for Armenian Street, where a staggering number of historic buildings, stately temples, galleries and shophouses congregate. A must-see is Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, noted for its remarkable architecture and opulent temple, and Sun Yat Sen’s former Penang base.
The tourism boom has had its downsides: long-time residents who can no longer afford the rising rents have been driven out, chipping away the social character that made George Town unique. Take the time to appreciate some of the remaining traditional crafts that make up Penang’s heritage — look out for old shops where graying artisans make signboards, handmade shoes, anchors and rattan furniture.
Next to Kuan Yin temple, 91-year-old Lee Beng Chuan takes pride in teaching visitors the art of making joss sticks. In Little India, Kedai Songkok OSM Mohd Shariff is the only place left in Penang to find handmade songkoks, which are Muslim headgear.
Penang’s famed street art is unmissable as you wander through George Town. The colourful murals had their beginnings in 2009, through Marking George Town, a government-run competition that saw 52 steel rod sculptures depicting local customs and heritage installed on various historic streets. In 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned by the George Town Festival to do a series of public paintings – and the rest is history. Ask your hotel for a street art map to see them all.
If you’re in the mood for something quirky, visit one of the many offbeat museums that have sprung up in Penang. If you only have time for one, head for Wonderfood Museum, which celebrates Penang’s food culture with hyper-realistic replicas of Malaysian dishes. Gimmicky but fun, you'll have a ball posing with massive models of cendol, laksa, curry mee, char kuey teow, and ais kacang. There’s also an educational side that shows how some dining choices can harm the environment – such as a wedding banquet table scattered with models of bloodied sharks to highlight the cruel process of producing shark’s fin soup.
Feel like shopping instead? Consider Jonathan Yun’s exquisite sculptural Peranakan jewellery, or 41 Living Story, a souvenir shop that carries products made by Stepping Stone Work Centre, an organisation that employs people with special needs. Book-lovers will love Gerakbudaya, an independent bookshop with an excellent selection of titles by South East Asian authors.
You can’t claim to have visited Penang without eating at Joo Hooi Café, Penang’s most popular kopitiam for Chinese street food classics. While queuing for your laksa/cendol/char kuay teow/ lobak, look up at KOMTAR, the island’s tallest landmark — and interestingly, the only building visible from any point in George Town.
Longing for somewhere less crowded? Make your way to Hin Bus Depot. Its founders turned an abandoned a 60,000 sq ft old bus depot into an open-air arts hub where cafes, artist studios, and an art gallery co-exist with the original coffee shop, hardware shop and motorcycle repair shop. Check their calendar for exhibitions and pop-up markets. The in-house vegan café, Wholey Wonder, is opened by a couple who wanted to debunk the misconception that vegan food is boring – think scrumptious chickpea-crust pizza and almond-and-date-based “Snickers”.
Penang is not all food, murals and architecture porn. Just 20 minutes’ drive from George Town is Penang Hill, a former colonial hill station turned recreational hub. Pro tip: once you get off the funicular that stops at the main recreational area, avoid the crowds and head straight to The Habitat, an eco-tourism attraction on the fringe of a 130 million-year-old forest reserve.
Opened in 2017, The Habitat offers fun experiences designed to promote awareness of and preserve rainforest biodiversity. There’s a well-crafted 1.6-km nature trail that serves as an outdoor classroom of indigenous flora and fauna; a vertigo-inducing tree-top walk that requires you to brave a lot of stairs, but rewards you with thrilling 360-degree views all the way to Langkawi island; a canopy walk that puts you so close to the giant trees, you can almost touch them. Those seeking a rush can jump on the 700m zipline that whizzes you across the valley into the rainforest and back again.