Penang: The Ultimate A to Z Guide
In this series of city guides, we highlight the top spots in each destination, from the most iconic landmarks to the least-known hidden gems, with a sprinkling of survival tips from A to Z.
Penang is more than just a state on the northwest edge of Malaysia. It is a foodie’s paradise, a melting pot of culture, and a burgeoning arts hub. Explore the island and experience how the locals live and eat.
Recreating the mystical world of James Cameron’s blockbuster hit Avatar, the Penang Avatar Secret Garden is an otherworldly dreamland with technicolour LED lights lending the forest-like environment a bioluminescent glow. What’s more, the entrance fee costs only RM1.
Batu Ferringhi, the first beach that comes to mind when you think of Penang, is chock-full of water sports, seafood eateries and local shops that make up the seaside night market. Another choice getaway is Kerachut Beach, an empty, picturesque retreat with a meromictic lake located in the Penang National Park.
It’s impossible not to jump on the cafe hopping bandwagon when you’re here. Its thriving cafe scene has introduced a plethora of top-notch haunts. A few fan favourites include China House (a rustic lifestyle joint with both dining and retail options), Dan Cafe (a nature-infused dessert haven), The Lawn Cafe (a chic glasshouse serving coffee and snacks), and Tasty Toasty (a vintage-style venue famous for their variety of toasts).
Think you’ve tasted every durian variety? Think again. At Bao Sheng Durian Farm, you’ll discover lesser-known varieties of this prickly fruit, such as Black Thorn, Little Red, Lipan and Green Skin Angbak. Opened in 1959, it offers accommodations as well.
Interact with more than 15,000 species of free-flying butterflies at Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm, the largest one in Malaysia. A diversity of flora and fauna accompanies the enclosure, where besides these winged beauties, you’ll get to meet other bugs and snakes. It’s also a great place for kids to learn about nature through its various educational exhibitions.
Get a free ride from George Town to Butterworth on the Penang ferry, and mingle with the locals onboard at the same time. Despite being the oldest service in Malaysia, it shows no signs of slowing down. These giant, two-storey carriers also come painted in bold colours, each one a little different from the next.
George Town Festival
Held at the eponymous capital city of George Town, this month-long annual affair celebrates art, culture and heritage every August and has become a veritable crowd-pleaser since its launch in 2010. Expect a colourful array of dance, music and theatre performances by regional and international artists, amidst other art workshops and masterclasses.
Hin Bus Depot
What used to be an abandoned bus depot has been converted into a subculture hotspot, where the hipsters have taken over and installed an art gallery, a handicraft market and an urban farming joint. The stomping ground of the coolest folks in Penang, Hin Bus Depot now spans over 60,000 sqft.
Pilipala, a minimalist, high-concept cafe, features no more than four transparent igloos, in which you can dine on their pastries and poke bowls. You’ll have to spend at least RM30 to get a table in the igloo, but for such a unique dining experience, it’s well worth the price.
For a taste of the local artisan offerings, head to Jonathan Yun Sculptural Jewelry. It is a local jewellery boutique by a Penang-based designer, who is known for his “neo-peranakan” creations. His handmade, avant-garde pieces also include Baroque and Scandinavian influences.
Kedai Kopi Bobo
Situated in Bayan Lepas, this food joint features a well-loved menu of local delights such as Chee Cheong Fun and prawn noodles. But the highlight of this place is its Kopi Peng Special – iced coffee served in a can of condensed milk. It’s a simple coffee shop drink with a millennial-focused twist, a must-try for the tummy and for the ‘gram.
Lok lok is a type of street food in Penang. It’s essentially food on a stick, which is then dipped into a pot of boiling water or satay sauce. The assortment of food ranges from fish balls and mushrooms, to cockles and pork intestines. Each stick has a coloured tip to denote how much they cost. While the typical price ranges from RM0.80 to RM2, there is a stall in Butterworth that sells everything for RM0.30 a piece. Named 30 Sen Lok Lok, it hasn’t changed its price system since 1994.
Magazine 63 Bar
Of the many speakeasies in Penang, this one holds the most surprises. Magazine 63 Bar is a hidden venue that looks like a dilapidated shophouse from the outside. Through the giant wooden door on the left, you’ll find what looks like a dead end with a brick wall until you locate a second door that leads to the trendiest spot in town.
Nyonyas and babas
The peranakan culture in Penang is known to be slightly distinct from that of other states and countries. For instance, the nyonyas and babas of other cities may speak only in Malay, but in Penang, they’re fluent in Hokkien, Malay and English. Learn about the history and heritage of this group of people at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
Oldest biscuit maker
This title belongs to Ghee Hiang, a Penang-based biscuit maker that has been around since 1856. The business produces traditional Chinese pastries such as Tau Sar Pneah, Hneoh Pneah and Phong Pneah, the same treats that they’ve been making from the start. Recently opening a cafe (Teels Heritage Cafe) to cater to the modern crowd, it allows patrons to enjoy the signature cookies fresh-off-the-oven.
Penang Car Free Day
Every Sunday, certain parts of George Town becomes completely car-free. It is part of the government’s initiative for a greener environment, so in place of these smoke machines, citizens are encouraged to take their bicycles and skateboards out for a spin instead. To aid this effort, Project Occupy Beach Street organises a weekly slew of street activities, injecting some fun into the car-free affair.
Straits Quay is a shopping destination that’s located by the marina, where you can satisfy your inner shopaholic. Pop out for a break in between your retail escapade to take in the cool sea breeze and glistening waterfront. This mall also contains a trampoline park and the Penang Performing Arts Centre.
At Komtar’s Rainbow Skywalk and Observatory Deck, you’ll get to test your fear of heights from the 65th and 68th floor. The highest walkway is an open-air space, while the one on the 65th storey has a glass floor for a more thrilling experience.
This temple comes with a warning sign. Built in the 19th century as a tribute to Buddhist monk Qingshui, it is filled with free-roaming Wagler’s pit vipers and green tree snakes. Legend has it that the monk was known for taking care of these wild reptiles in his time, and when this temple was built, the snakes started to appear and make it their home.
The Blue Mansion
For a visually and historically unique hotel experience, book a stay at The Blue Mansion. Built in the 1800s, it boasts a striking Egyptian blue exterior with traditional Chinese architectural details still intact. Before it became a bed and breakfast, it was the residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, a powerful business magnate who has been dubbed “the Rockefeller of the East”. It is also one of the places featured in Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians.
Upside Down Museum
This George Town gem plays tricks with your head. A zany museum where everything is, as its name suggests, upside down, it will make for some creatively wild pictures and herald a host of hilarity. Inside, the rooms replicate apartments, cafes and boutiques.
View from the top
Climb up the Penang Hill and savour the romantic view from 833m above ground. Start your adventure by foot from the Penang Botanical Gardens, or take the tram from the Penang Hill Railway for a steep ride up. If you’re too captivated by the scenery to leave, you can spend the night at Bellevue, a quaint little hilltop hotel.
Worship at Kek Lok Si Temple
This 19th century Buddhist temple complex is a sight to behold. One of the largest and most grandiose of its kind in Southeast Asia, it blends traditional architectural elements from the Thai, Burmese and Chinese culture. It also houses a 30m representation of the Goddess of Mercy in an octagonal pavilion.
Xing Zhou Qiao
Also known as the Chew Jetty, it is one of the oldest and most popular Chinese clan settlements in Penang. Scores of stilt houses built over the water, connected by a 300m wooden walkway, preserve the rural culture of the late 1800s. While you’re admiring the bright blue fishing boats parked along these water villages, don’t forget to check out the many Taoist temples in this UNESCO Heritage Site.
Fancy a more luxurious treat? A wide range of private yacht charters is available in Penang for you to enjoy the tranquil Malaysian tides, while sipping on Champagne and nibbling on fresh strawberries. It’s perfect for catering to both big parties and intimate get-togethers.
Ernest Zacharevic is a famed Penang-based Lithuanian street artist, who is responsible for some of the city’s most snapped public wall murals. His art playfully interacts with physical objects found on the streets, combining two-dimensional imagery with three-dimensional installations. While most street art brings to mind spray painted graffiti tags, his demonstrates the intricacy of fine art techniques.