Penang is one of the most famous spots in Malaysia and with good reason. Most of the state of Penang is located on an island and as such you can enjoy beaches, sparkling waters, and a laid back island feel coupled with a big city experience. This part of Malaysia is also known for its food, and anyone who loves to eat will truly find a culinary paradise here, much of which is down to the mix of influences in the city.
Penang enjoys a large Chinese and Tamil community, along with the indigenous Malay residents, and you will find a fantastic and diverse food scene that includes fiery curries, toothsome noodles, and a plethora of street food delights. All of this is encircled by gorgeous architecture and the traditional center of Penang is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
This means that you can explore pretty ancient buildings as well as museums, forts, gardens, and temples, and visitors to Penang will certainly not be short of places to visit and sights to check out on a trip here.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Penang:
1. Tour the Tropical Spice Garden
One of the highlights of Penang, especially if you want to get out of the central areas is the Tropical Spice Garden located on Jalan Teluk Bahang.
The garden is an ode to all the gorgeous herbs and spices that are indigenous to this part of the world and sits on the site of what used to be a rubber plantation.
This is an amazing place to visit for anyone interested in Malay flora and fauna and you can even take a cookery class here to learn how these herbs and spices are used to make classic dishes enjoyed across Malaysia.
There are also guided or audio tours of the garden and activities for younger visitors to help get them interested in all the various aromatic plants found here.
2. Learn some history at Fort Cornwallis
Fort Cornwallis is one of the most famous sights in Penang and dates from the 18th century.
It was built by the British East India Company under the direction of Sir Francis Light who was the founder of Penang and was designed to defend the city in case of an attack from the water.
The fort is still in good condition and you can see a famous statue of Francis Light that stands at the entrance to the fort as well as a selection of original cannons.
If you notice any flowers in the cannon, then this is because there is a local legend that says that anyone wishing to conceive should make an offering here.
3. Visit Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si Temple is famed for being one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and as such you should make sure not to miss it if you are travelling to Penang.
Many Buddhist devotees consider this to be an important pilgrimage site and you can spot the beautiful towering Kek Lok Si Pagoda as well as the statue of Guanyin.
The statue is constructed in the shape of the Goddess of Mercy and stands at a height of 36.5 meters and the entire temple complex is built in a range of styles.
As such make sure to look out for the Chinese base, Thai style mid-section, and the Burmese inspired top level.
4. Sunbathe on Batu Ferringhi Beach
Anyone coming to Penang in search of some sun and sand should make their way to Batu Ferringhi which is known for being one of the best beach areas on the island.
Here you will find a long strip of golden beach, part of which is public and some of which is used by the resorts that line the coast.
Popular past times on the beach include sunbathing or swimming in the soothing waters, or just relaxing and sipping on a coconut as you look across the water.
If you can, try to come here at sunset as the views are simply stunning.
5. Have afternoon tea at Suffolk House
Suffolk House offers a glimpse of traditional British colonial architecture in Penang and sits in the scenic part of the island known, rather alarmingly, as Air Itam or Black Water.
The house would have been the former home of Sir Francis Light who is remembered as the official founder of Penang although it fell into disrepair following his death and was closed to the public.
It reopened in 2007 having been lovingly restored over 3 years and now you can take a guided tour that will fill you in on all the history of this spectacular building.
One of the big highlights of a trip here is the onsite restaurant where you can enjoy a traditional cream tea which comes with delicious pastries and a range of delicate sandwiches.
6. Visit Khoo Kongsi
Khoo Kongsi is another one of Penang’s most iconic attractions and used to be a clan-house in the days of old.
Nowadays the home has been turned into a museum and you will find gorgeous architecture here as well as elegant stone carvings that have a heavy Chinese influence.
The home was built in the 19th century and has a number of breathtaking signature features such as a large temple altar that is decorated with gold leaf and inlaid with ancestral tablets.
You can take a tour of the house and if you happen to be in town at the right time you may even be able to watch a Chinese Opera show here as several performances take place throughout the year.
7. Go for a trishaw ride
One of the best ways to see Penang in an afternoon is to use one of its traditional modes of transport in the form of a colorful trishaw.
The trishaws are either operated by a small motor or by pedal power and are usually covered in interesting design features such as fairy lights or flowers.
Riding in a trishaw also gives you to opportunity to check out some of the less visited parts of Georgetown and most drivers also act as guides and will fill you in on all the history of the areas you visit.
8. Visit the Penang Peranakan Museum
The Penang Peranakan Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Peranakan people who are also sometimes referred to as Straits Chinese.
The Peranakans moved to Malaysia in the days of old and a unique culture came with them which is a blend of traditional Chinese and traditional Malay customs.
As such, if you want to know more about this amazing culture then the Penang Peranakan Museum will take you back in time and there are even recreations of traditional homes from the 19th century as well as galleries of photographs and antiques.
9. Scare yourself at the Snake Temple
As the name suggests, the Snake Temple in Penang is full of resident slithery creatures and as such is one of the most unique temples in Malaysia.
Most of the residents here are pit vipers and the temple dates from 1805 when snakes found their way to the building and the benevolent monks allowed them to take up residence here.
Nowadays you will see snakes coiled in corners all over the temple as well as lounging on the temple altars and you can also have your picture taken holding one of the snakes if you are feeling brave.
This is a great place to come with all the family and the snakes are said to be safe and do not attack visitors.
10. Have lunch at Pelita Nasi Kandar
Pelita Nasi Kandar is known across Malaysia and is not to be missed if you want to try some of the best local food in Penang.
Nasi Kandar is basically rice which is heaped with meat, fish, seafood, and vegetable side dishes, and is then liberally doused in delicious curry sauce.
All the food is presented in a glass fronted case and you can simply point to what you want to eat and have it added to your plate.
The food has a strong Tamil influence due to the local Tamil community in Penang so expect Indian style curries and flavors with dishes such as cabbage and okra fried with mustard seeds and turmeric.
11. Explore Little India
Little India represents a small section of Penang but it is certainly not to be dismissed because of its size.
There is a strong Tamil population across Malaysia and in Penang and you could be forgiven for thinking that you have taken a wrong turn and ended up in a completely different country.
As you walk around Little India look out for shops selling gorgeous colorful saris as well as perfume emporiums and incense shops.
Other venues blast Bollywood music onto the streets and this is also one of the best places in Penang to sample some street food.
These include deep fried pastries such as samosas and this is also a great place to find one of the most famous drinks in Malaysia which is Teh Tarik or a kind of tea made with condensed milk and poured from one cup to another in order to create a thick foam head.
12. Have a cup of tea at Huang Chen Tao Tea Art
One of the less known facts about Penang is that it is covered in dainty little tea shops thanks to the strong Chinese influence in this city.
Many of the tea houses sit in shop houses and it is easy to walk past and miss one without realizing the delights that are contained within.
Huang Chen Tao Tea Art is one such place and you will find a traditional Chinese tea supplier here with packets of tea stacked all over the shop.
There are also a range of little tables arranged in the front of the shop where you can sit down and have a cup of the delicious leaves on sale and this makes a great place to pick up some tea-based souvenirs of your trip to Penang.
13. Tour Tanjung Bungah Floating Mosque
Tanjung Bungah is the name of a town that lies between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi.
The main reason to come to this quiet part of Penang is to visit the Tanjung Bungah Floating Mosque which was built on stilts over the water, hence the reference to it ‘floating’. When the tide is low you can walk directly underneath the mosque and check out this amazing feat of engineering which was also the first of its kind in Malaysia.
14. Take the ferry to Butterworth
Many people think that Penang consists only of Georgetown but actually the name refers to the whole state of Penang which also includes Butterworth which is just across the water.
Butterworth is actually part of the mainland of Malaysia whereas Georgetown is located on an island, and one of the best things to do here if you want to explore is to take the ferry across the water.
This means that you can enjoy the sea breeze and take in some of the best vistas both of Georgetown and Butterworth.
15. Go shopping at Batu Ferringhi Night Market
Batu Ferringhi is known for its night market and makes a great place to visit if you are looking to shop for some bargains.
The night market sells a huge number of products such as clothes, bags, watches, and DVDs, and you will also find a wide selection of souvenirs such as wood carvings.
Another key reason to come here is to check out the street food scene as you can get a variety of dishes here such as barbecued meats, noodles, and fried rice.
16. Have dinner at Northam Beach Cafe
If you want to find one of the best ways to end a day in Penang then come to this fantastic hawker center which sets up in the evenings and lets you take in gorgeous views across the water as you dine.
The beauty of this way of dining is that there are a wide variety of stalls available here so you can order a range of different dishes as you see fit.
Just some of the choices here include Penang prawn noodles, barbecued chicken wings, and dim sum, and you can even get traditional English chicken pies or sausage and mashed potatoes.
This is also one of the best places to come if you fancy a cold beer as you watch the sunset.
17. Take a tram ride to Penang Hill
Penang Hill is without a doubt one of the top attractions in Penang and towers to a height of 812 meters above sea level.
The hill offers some much needed respite from the fierce heat of the city and getting there is part of the fun.
Penang Hill is serviced by the Penang Hill Railway which is one of the oldest funicular systems in the world and once you get to the top you can take in the amazing views across to Langkawi and Kedah.
There are also a range of nature trails here if you like hiking and you can also trek to the hill from the neighboring Botanical Gardens if you fancy a workout.
18. Check out the nightlife at Upper Penang Road
Compared to other parts of Malaysia Penang has a lively nightlife scene, much of which is located along Upper Penang Road.
Visitors and residents alike flock to this area for the bars and nightclubs that line the street and some of the best known venues include Slippery Senoritas and the Soho Free House.
Many clubs and bars have happy hours and different nightly promotions so make sure to spend some time walking along the road to find the best deals.
19. Explore Penang National Park
Penang National Park is the perfect place to come if you want to get out of the city and spend some time communing with nature.
There are a variety of trails here which lead to pretty little beaches and you can even walk to an ancient lighthouse that dates from 1883. There are also trails that lead you to Kerachut Beach which is the home of a Turtle Conservation Centre and it’s a great idea to pack a picnic and spend the day exploring the park.
20. Eat your way around Chulia Street Night Market
Penang is well known for its amazing street food scene and if you want to experience this first hand then head for the Chulia Street Night Market where you will be able to sample some of the most delicious plates on offer in the city.
The street market sets up as the sun goes down and you will find a range of dishes served piping hot from small pushcarts.
Some of the toothsome bites on offer include creamy soups like laksa as well as wonton mie, a dish of noodles and dumplings.
You can also get classics like carrot cake which is actually a savory pancake made with radishes and other treats like Hainanese chicken rice.
21. Enjoy the water sports at Batu Ferringhi
One of the reasons people come to Batu Ferringhi is to enjoy the water sports that are on offer here.
If you are looking for an adventure, then Batu Ferringhi is a great choice as you can try sports such as parasailing or jet-skiing.
There is also the chance to take a banana boat ride, or you can go out in a boat and enjoy some deep-sea fishing.
If you want to stay on dry land, then you can rent a beach buggy and zoom around the sands in style.
22. Tour the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery
If you are interested in the history of Penang then a great place to visit is the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery.
The actual museum building is a piece of history in itself as it is located in a traditional colonial building that dates from 1821 and you will find a wealth of galleries here including an exhibit dedicated major events in the Penang over the years.
There are also models of traditional homes here include a reconstruction of a marriage chamber.
23. Have dinner at China House
If you are looking for some upscale dining in Penang then you need to come to China House which is located in a gorgeous colonial heritage building.
The restaurant is actually made up of three separate areas which all have a different feel to them including a main dining hall, a cafe and a swish bar area.
Each area serves different kinds of food and you can get a lovely afternoon tea with delicious dainty cakes at the cafe.
24. Check out the butterflies at the Butterfly Farm
Anyone who likes flora and fauna should check out the Butterfly Farm in Batu Ferringhi.
Here you will find an amazing 4,000 butterflies and 120 different species, all of which flutter around in a large and colorful garden.
Some of the species here include rare finds such as Yellow Bird Wing butterflies and Indian Leaf butterflies and the farm also works as a conservation center which is focused on breeding and caring for the habitats of these endangered species.
25. Wander around the Yahong Art Gallery
The Yahong Art Gallery is dedicated to the gorgeous art form of Batik printing which is said to date from the 4th century.
The craft involves painting designs on fabric with wax and then dipping the fabric in a selection of different dyes to create colorful patterns.
Much of the Batik on show here is the work of Chuah Theng Teng but you will also find a mix of pieces by other Malaysian artists and a few works from around the region.
Other galleries also showcase different crafts and you can find anything from watercolor paintings to ornate jewelry.