Things to Do in Penang
George Town (Penang Georgetown) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts a unique mix of cultures. The beating heart of Penang, George Town offers visitors a heady combination of world-class street food, colorful colonial architecture, and street art. This historic enclave, which can be explored entirely on foot, is also famous for its novelty museums.
Hidden in a maze of alleyways in Georgetown sits Khoo Kongsi (Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi Clan House & Museum), one of Malaysia’s most important clan houses. The legacy of the house dates back more than 650 years to the Khoo Kongsi clan from west China and manifests itself in intricate carvings, murals, and timberwork.
Known by locals as the Blue Mansion, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts visitors with its architectural fusion of European and Chinese styles. Featured in the Oscar-winning movieIndochine, the mansion, an important part of George Town’s heritage, is now part hotel, part museum. Indigo blue walls and decadent ornamentation make for stunning photographs.
Colorful Little India is a three-street community in already eclectic Georgetown that envelops visitors with the sights and sounds of a small street in Mumbai. On Jalan Pasar (Market Street), colorful storefronts scrawled in Brahmi script blare Hindi melodies. The community is of the oldest Indian enclaves in Malaysia and dates to the earliest British settlements of Georgetown in the late 1700s.
Wind through the narrow streets and you’ll find sari and cotton clothing shops, wedding florists, Bollywood posters and DVDs, spice merchants, gold jewelers and an abundance of eateries with popular Indian favorites such as roti, briyani rice and tandoori chicken as well as Malaysian Indian fusion cuisine. On nearby Jalan Bandar, the Sri Mahamariammam Temple, built in 1883 in the ornate and towering South Indian style, it is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. The area really comes alive during Indian holidays such as Deepavali (Diwali) festival of lights each autumn.
Kek Lok Si Temple, which translates from Hokkien as the the Temple of Serene Bliss, stands majestically on the slopes of Air Itam, a hill on Penang Island. The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si attracts thousands of visitors with its 7-story white-and-gold pagoda, golden statues, and an elevated setting that provides panoramic views.
Characterized by glittering stupas and fearsome green dragons, the Thai Buddhist Chayamangkalaram Buddhist Temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram) is one of the most ornate in Penang. The temple’s extravagant exterior alludes to the giant reclining Buddha statue inside, whose position signifies peace and freedom from the material world. Opposite the Thai temple sits a Burmese temple of similar grandeur.
A colonial-era hill station, Penang Hill sits behind George Town, about 2,733 feet (833 meters) above sea level. Visit in style on the Penang Hill Funicular Railway, a cliff-side railway dating back to 1924. The trains and tracks are modern, and the sheer ascents through the jungle and over bridges make for a spectacular journey.
Opened in 1985 following 15 years of planning, Penang Bridge (Jambatan Pulau Pinang) connects George Town in Penang with Seberang Prai on the Malaysian mainland. At 8.4 miles (13.5 kilometers), the cable-stayed toll bridge is the second longest in the country and the fifth longest in Southeast Asia.
A visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion provides a good introduction to the history and culture of the Peranakans (also known as Babas and Nyonyas). These Straits Chinese settlers were unique to this part of the world, and adopted certain ways of life from both local Malaysians and the colonial British.
With more than 1000 items on display, this opulent mansion showcases a typical affluent Baba household from a century ago, giving an insight into their lavish lifestyle, as well as their many customs and traditions. Built at the end of the 19th century, this courtyard house features traditional Chinese carved-wood panels combined with English tiles, European furniture, and Scottish ironworks.
A trip to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion can be incorporated into a heritage tour of Penang, which includes visiting other cultural and architectural wonders, such as Khoo Kongsi and Fort Cornwallis.
Penang Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian) is a narrow street located within the Unesco World Heritage Site and Penang capital, George Town. Surrounded by Chinese temples and clan houses, the street itself is lined with old shophouses, art galleries, cafes, and some of the most fascinating street art on the island.
A stroll along Penang's Armenian Street reveals countless shops selling everything from furniture and antiques to crafts and other souvenirs. There’s also a choice of quaint little cafes in which to stop for a coffee and take a break from the daytime heat. In addition, you’ll see an abundance of street art adorning the buildings here, with the most famous, Kids on Bicycle by Ernest Zacharevic, featuring a bike affixed to the wall with two children riding it. This mural attracts huge attention from tourists taking turns to have their photograph taken with it.
If you’re visiting Armenian Street on a Saturday evening, you’ll stumble across the Armenian Street Fair, where you’ll find stalls selling local arts and crafts as well as various music and dance performances.
Armenian Street is part of the itinerary on a Penang George Town heritage tour, which also includes a visit to the impressive Kapitan Keling Mosque nearby, a trip to Pinang Peranakan Mansion, plus a tour around Little India.
More Things to Do in Penang
An essential stop for history buffs, Fort Cornwallis is an 18th-century fortress that played a significant role in the history of Penang. The structure, one of the largest standing forts in Malaysia, was built to defend Penang against pirate attacks and is still, to this day, guarded by vigilant cannons.
Reigning supreme from the center of Penang Island, Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera Pulau Pinang) offers travelers much more than panoramic views. Ride up in a century-old funicular, or take a hike, keeping an eye out for grey macaques and elusive dusky leaf monkeys. At the top, you’ll find a Hindu temple, an owl museum, and even an earthquake and typhoon pavilion.
When Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm opened in 1986 as the Penang Butterfly Farm, it was the first facility of its kind anywhere in the tropics. This living museum showcases more than 15,000 rare, endangered, and indigenous butterflies and dragonflies representing some 120 species alongside 200 species of plants. A multistory indoor discovery center known as the Cocoon lets visitors explore the world of invertebrates through a series of hands-on exhibits and activities. Entopia doubles as a research and conservation center for butterflies, insects, and their habitats.
Variously known as Hock Hin Keong, Cheng Hoon Giam, or Fu Xing Gong, depending which Chinese dialect you favor, Penang’s Snake Temple does exactly what it says on the tin. Dedicated to Chor Soo Kong, a Chinese healer turned god, this 19th-century temple boasts fruit trees decked with vipers and snakes in the prayer hall.
In 1910, the Chinese revolutionary and future president Sun Yat-sen spent six months in Penang. The Sun Yat-Sen Museum Penang occupies the restored historic shophouse where he and his family lived and his political party met. Besides perusing displays about Sun’s activities in George Town, you can learn about historic George Town architecture here.
Built by the British as a fortress in the 1930s, before then being used by the Japanese as a POW camp, the Penang War Museum is now open to the general public, serving as a memorial to its darker days.
The museum is strategically located on the hills above the fishing village of Batu Maung, on the road to Teluk Kumbar on Penang’s southern coast. Sprawled across some 20 acres of land, it’s billed as being the largest war museum in Southeast Asia. The fort was originally constructed in a bid to protect the island from foreign invasion, and today a walk around the site invokes a sense of what once was.
Visitors can take a sombre walk among various displays and historical items, and even venture into the old underground tunnels and ammunition bunkers, which are located nine meters underground. It’s also possible to explore the barracks, cookhouses, and gun emplacements, with plenty of signposts to guide the way.
A trip to the Penang War Museum can be combined with visiting Penang Island’s other major highlights, including the Snake Temple and Penang Bridge.
Part archive and part exhibition space, the Penang House of Music focuses on the diverse musical heritage of this historically and culturally rich city. Visitors to the museum, opened in 2017, can play radio announcer, view vintage films, and learn about puppet theater, Chinese opera, local dances, musical instruments, and Malaysian pop bands.
Set in a former quarry below Penang Hill, the 71-acre (29-hectare) Penang Botanic Gardens (Taman Botani Pulau Pinang) blend jungle with formal gardens to magical effect. Founded in 1884, and sometimes known as the Waterfall Gardens for the stream that tumbles through them, they’re crisscrossed with walking trails.
Travelers looking for an easily accessible way to explore Penang’s much-storied history will find what they’re seeking at the Penang Tunnel Museum (Penang Time Tunnel). This unique interactive museum features 12 tunnels that cover periods of time between the early 1700s and the contemporary 21st century, which together tell the tale of this incredible place. Illustrated maps, photos, artifacts and indigenous artwork cover the walls of the museum’s galleries, and while adults will find detailed information about each of the exhibits, shorter (both in height and in length) versions of placards are available for the museum’s younger set, too.
Visitors say the Penang Tunnel Museum puts the country’s culture, history and architecture into context. Whether it’s learning about the 10-day riots in this now peaceful place or exploring the migration of its every shifting populations, Penang Time Tunnel helps create a fuller picture of local life for visitors who’ve spent time wandering the streets, exploring the shops and sampling local cuisine.
Set atop a hill in George Town, the 68-story Komtar skyscraper towers above Penang and houses a range of dining and entertainment options. From the Rainbow Skywalk, a glass bridge suspended 816 feet (249 meters) above the city, to aquariums, amusement rides, and 200 animatronic dinosaurs, there’s plenty to see and do here.
The Wonderfood Museum in Penang is a fun and informative museum all about food. As Malaysia’s culinary capital, Penang draws travelers for its delicious food. At this quirky museum, visitors can learn about the cuisine of Penang and wider Malaysia through dozens of realistic models of food, in addition to taking some amusing photos.
ESCAPE Adventureplay is one of Penang’s most unique attractions—a sky-high ropes course that throws visitors into an all-out balancing act above the forest floor. Navigate complex obstacles that increase in difficulty the higher you climb. A scooter park and kids playground offer fun closer to the ground.
Penang’s history—from the settlement of the islands to the notorious Penang Riots—and rich cultural heritage—from the Peranakan people to the British influence—take center stage at the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. Touted as one of the country’s best state museums; the vast collection holds plenty of interest.
Nature lovers will enjoy exploring Penang National Park, home to the secluded Teluk Duyung, better-known as Monkey Beach for the long-tailed gray macaques that call the cove home. The area is also home to sea otters, fruit bats, and eagles, and the clear, green waters are perfect for cooling off.
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