On the first day in George Town (a city in the state of Penang, Malaysia) we were assaulted by that feeling of “I could live here for a long period of my life”. It was in November, we had only been there for a few hours and we had already fallen in love.
We have not had that immediate feeling of “living” at first sight with many cities on our travels. The other one with which we felt something similar was in Trujillo, during our trip to Peru.
It is very difficult to choose the words to describe George Town (the post’s photos will be worth more than a thousand words) but we will try: you breathe an Asian Havana. An ex-colonial decadence made beauty. Music for all tastes (jazz, Bollywood, or reggae lovers: get ready). A happy Chinese, Malay, and Indian fusion that is palpable in its people, streets, its smells, colors, and flavors: George Town is the Malaysian gastronomic capital par excellence. And lots and lots of street art.
For all this, George Town (along with Malacca, two of the oldest cities in Malaysia) has held the title of Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008.
We arrived with the intention of staying 5 days and ended up staying 12. Apart from being addictive, George Town is an excellent base to explore the island of Penang, known as “the pearl of the Orient”.
In this post, we tell you the 10 must-see things you can’t miss in Penang in general and George Town in particular.
- Immerse yourself in the best Street Art (and make photographic evidence of the experience).
- Taste the best gastronomy in Malaysia
- Take a free guided tour of the historical area (passing by the famous Kuan Yin Temple).
- Getting lost in Penang National Park (and getting to the beach as a reward).
- Visiting the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia: Kek Loc Si
- Be impressed by the views from the top of Penang Hill.
- Enjoying the sunset by the sea with street music
- Visit the Penang Museum
- Spend the afternoon at the Hin Bus Depot art center.
- Let yourself be carried away by the surprises that the city has for you.
- Where to stay in George Town
- Where to eat in George Town
- How to get to George Town
Immerse yourself in the best Street Art (and make photographic evidence of the experience).
George Town is a city for street art lovers. With every step you take, you will find a new work of art and if you get lost in its narrow streets you will find them in the most unexpected corners.
From what we’ve been told, street art began to take off in the city during the 2012 George Town festival, which commissioned a series of murals from Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (whose passion for mixing objects with figurative paintings is notorious), and from there, the art began to grow in the streets of the city. Today, more and more different artists from all over the world are collaborating and the preservation of the works is increasingly safeguarded.
We recommend this route so you don’t miss the main works, and the best thing is to dare to find the most recent ones by yourself (if you want some help, this website is usually updated with the most recently painted ones, by selecting “Street Art in Penang” ).
And of course, don’t forget to get involved in each one of them, giving wings to creativity. As you can see from the pictures, we did it and we had a blast!
Taste the best gastronomy in Malaysia
Another reason why George Town (or rather the whole island of Penang) is so appealing to foodies like us is that here we found the best street food so far. And in most cases, dinner for the two of us did not exceed 2 euros…
After a month in Indonesia, we needed new smells and tastes, and George Town has given them to us, as the culinary capital of Malaysia that it is.
Eating in its street stalls is a must if you visit the city, and you won’t have enough days to try everything (and repeat, if possible)!
There are so many delicacies in Penang that they deserve a post of their own. If you want to know what to try and where to try it in George Town, and even where to find the cheapest beer, click here.
Street Food in George Town. Above (from left to right), our adopted grandparents from George Town and Inês tasting an Apom Telur. In the middle (from left to right), the shrimp with tamarind sauce and chicken with Thai sauce of the house at Tek Sen restaurant and the Wanton Mee made by the grandparents. Below (from left to right), Prawn Hokkie Noodles, the famous Laksa and Little India samosas.
Take a free guided tour of the historical area (passing by the famous Kuan Yin Temple).
George Town is a city made on a human scale where people walk everywhere and invites people to interact in its corners of captivating architecture and street art.
Being flat and without slopes, it is time to wear comfortable shoes and walk around the whole city. If you like to do it in a more planned way but to your roll, in the center of tourism of the city (in the street Lebuh Pantai) they facilitate leaflets with self-guided routes and a map of the city.
If you prefer to do it with a guide to delve into the history of this multicultural city, in the same center they organize a free tour with an authorized guide. This tour goes through the oldest part of George Town and is organized every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10:30 a.m. (although you must arrive at 10 a.m. to register) and lasts approximately two hours.
We did it with Desmond, our charming guide who told us so many curiosities during the walk that we can’t stop recommending you to do this tour. Thanks to him we discovered anecdotes that do not come in the guidebooks and curiosities that go unnoticed.
Without wanting to uncover too much of what you can learn and with the sole intention of whetting your appetite, we will share with you some of these curiosities of the city and the country in this post of curiosities of George Town and Penang.
Getting lost in Penang National Park (and getting to the beach as a reward).
With George Town as your base, set aside at least one day to explore nature in Penang National Park. After a few days of urban hustle and bustle, it is very easy to get to.
Bus 101 takes you to the Park entrance for MYR 2.70 per person/trip (approx. 50 cents).
Upon arrival, you register at the entrance (it is totally free to enter the park), they give you a map and you can choose between two hiking trails: a shorter one through the forest to “Monkey Beach” (about 2h approximately) or a longer route to the “Turtle Beach” (about 3h30 we were told). We chose the first one.
The best part is the walk through the National Park, almost always by the sea. You go up, and down, avoiding more intrusive trees or trunks that do not want to let you pass, almost always with the whispering of the waves’ soundtrack.
The beach itself is not one of the best we have been, we must say. But after the sweaty walk, a swim is always appreciated.
The return can be done walking or by boat, we decided to do it by boat (about 50MYR for the boat, which we shared with some friends we made there on the beach, Bittor, and Valentin!) And then the same bus 101 to return to George Town.
Visiting the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia: Kek Loc Si
Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple is as impressive as it is photogenic and is located 30 minutes from the city center, on top of a hill in Air Itam. To get there, you have to take bus 204 from the city center (MYR 2.70 person/trip – 50 cents approx.) and exit at the last stop.
Also known as the Temple of Supreme Happiness, Kek Lok Si is said to be among the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and undoubtedly one (if not the) most famous in Penang.
We were told that it is an extremely popular retreat destination for monks and Taoists seeking immortality.
They say that the ideal is to go as early as possible to avoid the crowds, but we are sleepy (more me than Chris, lol) and the truth is that we took the bus around 10:30 am and there was no queue at all.
We spent several hours getting lost in its nooks and crannies, gardens, prayer rooms, bell towers, labyrinthine pagodas, and even a turtle pond (although fortunately this one will soon be moved, as they are so crowded…).
From the point where the bus drops you off, you have to pass by all the souvenir stalls until you reach the Ban Po Thar (the pagoda of the Ten Thousand Buddhas), seven levels and 30m high.
Construction of the temple began in 1893, inspired by the senior monk of the Pitt Street Goddess of Mercy Temple, which we visited a few days earlier on our tour of George Town.
After losing yourself in its beautiful temples and prayer halls (and skimming the various stores inside – yes, unbelievable but true) take the cable car to the top to enjoy the magnificent views from Penang Hill to the city and the imposing statue of the goddess Kuan Yin.
Be impressed by the views from the top of Penang Hill.
You can’t leave the island without enjoying the view from Penang Hill.
Bus 204 (2 ringgits per person), the same bus that takes you to the Kek Lok Si temple – since they are close to each other, leaves you in front of the entrance of the funicular. In fact you can combine these two visits on the same day to make the most of the trip.
The funicular costs 15MYR round trip per person (3.20€ per person).
The funicular ride is very nice, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top and makes 3 stops if you want to get out and walk into the forest of Penang Hill.
We recommend doing it at sunset to enjoy the luminous metamorphosis of the city in a few minutes. Besides, when we went there was no queue at all.
Here’s a photo that doesn’t do justice to the view at all (but we didn’t have a tripod…).
Enjoying the sunset by the sea with street music
In the city center of George Town, on the shores of the Strait of Malacca, grab a beer (or a smoothie, or a juice) and enjoy the sunset.
On Sundays, there is also live music by local youths as a special soundtrack. The music mingles with the laughter of children playing, the shrill sounds of toys for sale, and the indistinct conversations of groups of women, kids, or families strolling around. If you get hungry, go to the market next door (also by the sea) and enjoy some delicacies.
Visit the Penang Museum
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Fridays
This museum with a symbolic price (1MYR = 0.20€) is very useful for knowing a little more about the history of Penang, with its great mix of culture and history of colonizations and immigrant population. The museum is located in the old Penang Free School building, in theory, the oldest school in Malaysia.
The tour will not take you more than an hour and is a good alternative when it is very hot in George Town!
Spend the afternoon at the Hin Bus Depot art center.
Culture alert! This is the place to be! The most hip happening center we found in George Town!
The Hin Bus Depot arts and cultural center is a huge former warehouse that hides the most alternative exhibitions, concerts, and events of young local and international artists.
We learned of its existence from an exhibition that caught Inês’ attention called “Pussy Power”. We found it in the free booklet ‘Free Penang Sheet’, with all the interesting events happening every week in Penang.
If you want, you can also have dinner there or have a beer with the fun staff of the bar “Good Friends Never Bojio” (which basically means that friends never invite… hahaha).
Let yourself be carried away by the surprises that the city has for you.
The best way to discover George Town is to let yourself go, without a specific plan. Get lost in its streets.
If you get tired at some point, nothing better than stopping at one of the terraces of the beautiful Chinese shophouses in the city, and enjoying iced tea, juice, or even a craft beer. If you are still tired, you can always use the free Hop On Hop Off bus service to get back.
Don’t forget to take the weekly cultural booklet called “Free Penang Sheet“. You can find it not only in the tourist center but also in different cafes, bars, restaurants, and even in some hostels. There you will find everything that will happen that week in terms of exhibitions, concerts, and shows in the city. In addition, many of the events are free :)
If you have the opportunity to visit this city during the dates of the summer George Town Festival, don’t hesitate. If we already found it to be a city in an exciting cultural bustle, we have been told that during the festival it is even better.
A few days after we were there, the “10 days, 3 festivals” started: 10 days of Literary Festival, Arts Festival and Jazz Festival. What a pity to have missed it!
On Sundays stroll along Armenian Street. This street comes alive with performances, smoky street food stalls, and local crafts.
Discover charming art galleries, such as the Penang Malay Art Gallery on Chulia Street. The man in charge of the gallery will give you an impromptu tour of his works, many of them by his brother, and you’ll get an idea of what’s going on in Penang’s art scene, as well as an insight into the island’s history.
In addition, you have very geeky museums to visit such as the 3D Museum, the one with the giant meals, or even the one with the glow in the dark (yes, that’s right, it’s called Dark Mansion – 3D Glow In The Dark Museum…).
Let yourself go, meet people and who knows, you might make some friends. It happened to us with Yemmy. We shared a table by chance at Tek Sen restaurant and that’s where our friendship began. The restaurant was packed and we ended up sharing a table with her. Dinner tasted much better that night with this fun friend, born in George Town, as addicted to gastronomy as we are. How food brings us together! Between tastings of clams, spicy vegetables with shrimp, sweet and sour pork, and fish soup, our laughter, shared experiences, daily venting, and future plans were all there for us to share.
Although the dinner lasted longer than usual, we had to make the most of the evening together. He invited us to dinner (without us knowing), opened the door of his car at the exit of the restaurant, and took us to several of his favorite places in the city, some of which are not in the guidebooks and you can hardly get to them even if you get lost, as we like
Thanks, Yemmy, see you in Singapore for more tastings from you! We have a blind date with some spicy crabs ;)
Where to stay in George Town
There are many options to sleep centrally in George Town, but after trying 3 different ones, we highly recommend the Broadway Budget Hotel, which is centrally located, has hot water, and private bathroom, and air conditioning, the staff is very nice and it cost us 82MYR (18€) per night.
Where to eat in George Town
Penang is the gastronomic paradise in Malaysia, so trying different dishes and restaurants is one of the points to include in your itinerary around the city.
To make it easier for you, we have written a post exclusively to talk about its food, with many recommendations for you to try the best of Malaysian gastronomy: Where to eat in George Town and where to find the cheapest beer.
How to get to George Town
George Town is located in the northwest of Malaysia and is very easy to reach as it has very good connections with the rest of the country’s points of interest.
In Penang, there is an airport with quite cheap flights from Air Asia / Scoop, from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok… The easiest way from Spain is to look for cheap flights to any of these 3 cities and then buy a flight to Penang. We recommend you to search on Kiwi.com (you can put all the destinations and dates you want to travel and it will find all the options and possible combinations) or in Skyscanner.
By car / bus
From within Malaysia itself, you have bus connections to Penang from most points of interest in the country. We went from Kuala Lumpur by bus, and then from Penang to Cameron Highlands also by bus. You can search for bus schedules and fares in Easybook.
Thank you Georgetown, you are the city that has made us fall in love the most in this journey, so far. “So long!”, we say to you (we don’t say goodbye, we know we’ll be back soon).
Have a good trip (and, you know… go on an empty stomach!) :)
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