Unlock the door to one of the most intriguing places in Southeast Asia! The city of George Town on the island of Penang has a diverse mix of religions, cuisines, ethnicities, and attractions. The charming architecture, eye-catching murals, and gritty atmosphere will appeal to any traveler who is longing for something perfectly imperfect.
Similar to Bangkok and Singapore, the historical colonial port is known for its renowned street food reputation. Most visitors come to taste international dishes found within restaurants, side streets, and open-air hawker centers. Michelin-starred spots are plentiful and affordable!
Brad and I spent three months eating and exploring our way around George Town. To keep you busy in between all of the mouthwatering meals, I've shared a few of my favorite activities to add to your itinerary. Don't worry, I've also included plenty of approved eateries guaranteed to satisfy any craving!
Take a leisurely stroll around the heart of George Town and feast your eyes on the splendid Peranakan architecture. Some of the most impressive buildings can be found on Muntri Street, Stewart Lane, King Street, and Kek Chuan Road.
Duck under arched sidewalks connecting adjacent two-story Malaysian shophouses, which come in handy during surprise rain showers. The symmetrical façades have central double doors with intricate carvings, colorful glazed tiles, wooden shutters, and little windows in the shape of four-petaled flowers.
The renovated Pinang Peranakan Mansion, built in the late 19th Century by Chung Keng Quee, showcases the opulent blend of English and Chinese design styles. Purchase a ticket to see the vast collection of antiques, mother-of-pearl inlay furniture, clothing, and gold accessories.
Head to Armenian Street to negotiate a fun trishaw (three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle with a driver behind a passenger seat) ride, browse for quirky souvenirs, and admire the weathered rainbow umbrellas. This tourist zone is a neat place to people watch, sip a refreshing drink, and begin your treasure hunt to locate as many creative murals as possible!
Find a friendly vendor and sample a piece of seasonal durian fruit, which is beloved by Malaysians. The yellow flesh has a pungent odor and either tastes horrible or delicious depending on who you ask. A local told me I had to eat durian at least three times before I could write it off forever, but my first attempt in the form of ice cream was an unpromising fail!
Deteriorating metal and hand-painted signs along Campbell Street, once a red-light district, show a glimpse of a bygone era in Chinatown. The nearby temples of Meng Eng Soo and Ng Fook Thong are worth a quick look. Rest your feet at a café while munching on a flaky mung bean pastry or dense moon cake (available during the Mid-Autumn Festival) before dining on Chulia Street.
Move to the energetic beat of Bollywood tunes blasting from cluttered storefronts as you navigate the large intersection of Little India. Elaborate saris, marigold garlands, and shimmering bangles compete for your attention. Come hungry and follow your nose to the best curry or samosa stand.
Love Lane is the ideal place to chill with a cocktail, listen to live music, or book a room at a cozy guesthouse. Keep an eye out for three-dimensional wrought iron caricatures with informative captions designed by SCULPTUREATWORK. There are 52 sculptures in total. The historical tidbits provide insight into George Town's evolving culture and help newcomers feel more connected to the city.
Hin Bus Depot
If you happen to be in George Town on a Sunday afternoon, drop by the food and craft fair at the Hin Bus Depot. Purchase a fragrant candle, pair of earrings, or funky shirt before relaxing on the comfy lawn chairs nearby the small music stage. Local artisans and cooks are eager to explain their wares and menu items. Brad and I shared a spicy tuna kimchi roll, hearty fish laksa, and couple of decadent desserts.
A must-do activity is wandering the rustic nooks and crannies of the six remaining Clan Jetties. During the 19th Century, George Town experienced an economic boom attracting Chinese immigrants to work as boat operators and dockhands. To stay close to the waterfront, they established floating villages on stilts along Weld Quay.
These unique communities are open to tourists and free to enter. Please respect private property and make way for residents going about their busy day. Chew Jetty is the most popular with souvenir and snack stalls. Rehydrate with a fruity frozen ice ball and watch the mudskippers during low tide.
Escape the crowds with a peaceful visit to Yeoh Jetty, Lee Jetty, and Tan Jetty. Breathe in the salty air on the wooden pier covered in triangular yellow flags and soak up the views. The open-air Taoist shrine at Hean Boo Thean Kuan Yin Temple is wonderful to behold. These three jetties feel more authentic and offer a peek into everyday life, such as men sharing a few beers or repairing walkways.
Ready for a game of hide and seek in George Town? Turn off Google Maps and let your curiosity lead the way to vibrant murals. Discover interactive works by Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, including Boy on a Motorbike and Kids on a Bicycle. Grab your camera and snap away; chances are you'll find some new masterpieces!
Hawker Centers & Street Food
Sharpen your chopstick skills and prepare for a frenzy of flavors! For a wide variety of affordable dishes, go to any of George Town's hawker centers or collection of street food carts scattered throughout the city. Our favorites were Coco Island Street Food, New World Park, and New Lane Street Food Stalls. Bring plenty of cash, hand sanitizer, and napkins!
Browse picture menus until your stomach growls in approval. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Thai cuisines are the most common and delicious. Most vendors serve Halal approved foods, which exclude pork and alcohol, to accommodate the large Muslim population. According to Islamic law, animals must be humanely treated, free from antibiotics, and fed a natural diet to be fit for consumption.
My go-to meals were char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles with prawns, soy sauce, bean sprouts, chives, and sausage), laksa (sour fish soup with veggies and chewy noodles), dumplings, and BBQ pork wonton mee. If you're ever overwhelmed by the choices, join the longest line and order whatever is popular!
Malaysia's gastronomical capital also has a plethora of international restaurants. Even though Brad and I enjoyed all of the Asian fare, we appreciated a Western option every now and then to switch it up. Below are my top picks for a mouthwatering meal in George Town!
• Lunch - Your belly will adore the airy French baguette banh mi with lemongrass chicken and crispy vegetables at Saigon Sisters. Whenever we were in the mood for sushi, Edo Ichi always delivered with its nishoku salmon and unagi crispy rolls. Heat things up with a savory hot pot dumpling noodle soup or vegetarian Sichuan Chongqing facet at Weifang Taste of China.
• Café - In the mood for something indulgent? The rose lychee cream tart and smooth oolong tea at Lepetitfour Patisserie had my taste buds performing summersaults! For a Korean treat, try one of the bingsu (milk shaved ice) flavors at Oh My Bingsu Dessert Cafe. Each bingsu is big enough to share, but light enough to squeeze in before dinner.
• Dinner - If you're hankering for an Italian slice, try the funghi pizza with garlic and fresh mushrooms at Otto Pizza. Pay homage to the English influence on George Town with the outstanding fish and chips with mushy peas at Emily's Steakhouse. Pair a lime margarita with either the chicken enchiladas or massive tacos at Holy Guacamole if you need some Mexican comfort food. Let's just say I'll be dreaming of the phenomenal steamed lime and chili sea bass at Para Thai for the rest of my life!
• Cocktails - Toast your Malaysian travels with a fruity cocktail. The romantic setting at Archipelago is ideal for date night. Cozy up with a rosemary peppercorn gin and tonic or lavender yuzu gin creation. Tag Social Lounge & Bar knows how to mix the classics, such as a piña colada or cosmopolitan. Cheers!
On the outskirts of George Town are several free and affordable attractions easily accessible via Grab (similar to Uber/Lyft). The cheap rides are a reliable and stress-free way to get around the island.
Unfortunately, I can't recommend Batu Ferringhi Beach due to its murky water, unsightly trash, and lackluster bars. Entopia, a butterfly park, was also a letdown with its cramped zoo-like enclosures for insects, lizards, frogs, and snakes. We made the best of our blunders, but suggest the following activities instead!
Penang Botanic Gardens
You don't have to go far to find an array of exotic creatures and plant species in George Town. The Penang Botanic Gardens offer visitors an enchanting experience with lush paths, shallow streams, and picnic pavilions. Venture inside the dense tropical rainforest of the Curtis Trail, which finishes at the tranquil Lily Pond. Brad and I were thrilled to find a Greater Racket-tailed drongo and White-throated kingfisher!
Tropical Spice Garden Night Walk
The jungle comes alive at night with croaking frogs, hungry fruit bats, and suspended Orb Weaver spiders. Our guide, Ethan, took us on a two-hour private walk through the Tropical Spice Garden property and identified three Wagler's pit vipers in different stages of sexual dimorphism. The highlight of the night was spotting a nocturnal Sunda flying lemur (Malayan colugo); a rare wildlife encounter!
The Habitat Penang Hill
Critters high and low are ready to greet you at The Habitat Penang Hill. Rowdy Long-tailed macaques, gorgeous butterflies, acrobatic Black Giant squirrels, and colorful birds are just a fraction of the biodiversity in this rainforest oasis! Listen closely and you may hear a troop of elusive Dusky Leaf monkeys foraging in the trees. The scenic park trail is approximately 1.6 km (1 mi) long with canopy bridges, paved walkways, and sitting areas. Brad and I used Klook to purchase discounted tickets.
Kek Lok Si Temple
The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si, is a hillside complex full of jaw-dropping architectural grandeur. Start at the top to admire the 37 m (120 ft) tall bronze statue of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) before riding the funicular down to the other two levels.
Some areas of the temple are in disarray with ongoing renovation work. Focus on the beauty of the soaring pagodas, golden altars, grey limestone reliefs, and flower gardens. There is a large pond at the bottom of the complex where you can watch turtles, symbols of longevity and immortality, compete for snacks.
Kek Lok Si is also a popular location for Chinese couples to take their engagement photos. Red fabric with embroidered golden dragons or phoenixes is traditionally worn to bring good luck and happiness to the marriage.
George Town was our longest international stay and a solid base to try out a digital nomad lifestyle. Fortunately, Brad's friend and former coworker, Scott, recommended the city as a place to check out. Whenever we needed a break from the laptops, we always found something fun to do or scrumptious to eat! Plan at least four days to see the sights at a relaxed pace.
If you're looking to add a bit of character to your Southeast Asia circuit, George Town is a worthwhile destination. Although the main entrée is undoubtably the cuisine, the charming streets are a tantalizing appetizer and natural attractions are a delightful dessert. All of the courses blend together to form a well-balanced adventure!