The ultimate itinerary for 5 fabulous days in Penang.
Penang is brimming with Malaysian, Chinese, Indian and Western influences. Historic streets, intricately decorated temples and amazing food all equals the perfect holiday! If you’re wondering what to do in Penang in 5 days, this travel guide will help you get the most out of your trip.
As first time travellers to Penang Island in Malaysia we were excited to be going somewhere off the normal travel routes. From the moment we landed, we knew this visit was going to be the first of many.
Georgetown is the colorful, multicultural capital of the Malaysian island of Penang. Best known for its British colonial buildings, Chinese shop-houses, temples and mosques, Penang is alive with cultural, social and religious influences.
Join us as we explore the best of Penang, visit our new-found favourite restaurants and experience the history, culture and beauty of the island.
My favourite things in Penang
- Penang Street Art
- The Habitat at Penang Hill
- Pearly Kee’s Homecooking School
Clan Jetties in Penang
The Clan Jetties are a series of six jetties that form part of the Penang Heritage Trail. As one of the last of the old Chinese settlements on the island, this was initially a wood yard littered with planks and firewood until it was developed into short public jetties.
Over time, settlements grew on these foundations, with each named and dominated by family clans. Due to constant rivalry over access and monopoly of work consignments on the docks, relationships between the clans were at times, very antagonistic and often led to bitter fights and disputes.
Seven different clans still reside at the Clan Jetties: the Lim, Chew, Tan and Yeoh jetties are the oldest and the Koay, Lee and Mixed Surname jetties were built most recently.
Walking through the Jetties was interesting. Strong communities have grown from very modest beginnings. Many of the jetties and houses are being rebuilt and refurbished. Nearby shops and eateries have thrived as people go about their daily business. At times I felt I was intruding but the residents were welcoming and gave directions to nearby temples and sights.
Penang Street Art
Penang’s Georgetown has become well known for the street-art paintings and iron rod sculptures lighting up its many lanes and alleyways.
Murals depicting a story from the people of Penang’s daily life or something historical. Commissioned by Penang Municipal Corporation, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic has breathed life into this old city.Here are some of our most favourite street art pieces from Georgetown that you must check out yourself.
Other artworks also feature in this space such as the work by Louis Gan. Louis is a self-taught artist from Penang. A freelance artist, Louis was born deaf and is also mute.
The highest concentration of street art in Penang is in Georgetown, around Armenian Street, Chulia Street and Muntri Street but other pieces are appearing right across the city. The best way to explore this area is by foot or by cycling so explore the narrow alleys to find these hidden treasures.
Tip: Penang Tourism has published a great map with most of the artworks detailed so, plan your city walks in advance. Download your copy here.
Tip: Sunset on Penang Hill is magnificent!
Just 6 kilometres from Georgetown standing 821 metres above sea level, Penang Hill offers the best lookouts over Penang. Enjoy spectacular 180 degree views over Georgetown on a clear day.
Walking trails through dense rainforest, delicate ferns, stunning orchids and thousands of unique plants are just some of the things to so. Stop in for lunch at one of the restaurants and cafes at the summit to experience the magnificent views.
The Funicular Railway
Walking to the top is an option but be aware, in high humidity travelling via the Funicular Railway is the best way to reach the summit. The Penang Funicular Railways is known as the steepest tunnel track in the world.
As an alternative, ride the Funicular up, and walk back down again. We’ll be opting for this on our next trip to Penang just for something different.
Top tip: We paid a little extra to take the Fast Lane to bypass the crowds and take the first car for an amazing ride downhill!
Penang ‘The Habitat’ is set on the fringes of 130 million rainforest on Penang Hill. It’s an untouched forest reserve which includes a 1.6 km Nature Trail, the Langur Way Canopy Walk and the spectacular Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk.
Look out for some of Penang’s rare animals such as the Dusky Leaf Monkey, Black Giant Squirrel and the Grater Racket-Tailed Drongo amongst the tropical rainforest of Penang Hill.
Langur Way Canopy Walk
The world’s longest two-span stressed ribbon bridge, the Langur Way Canopy work is the most remote and highest altitude stressed ribbon bridge in the world.
Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk
Kek Lok Si Temple
Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si is was founded more than a hundred years ago. It is made up of a series of monasteries, prayer halls, temples and beautifully landscaped gardens on a hilltop in the small town of Air Itam.
A striking seven-tiered pagoda called The Pagoda of 1000 Buddhas, combines Thai, Chinese and Burmese religions into one and houses a stunning collection of Buddha statues made from a variety of precious materials. Statues of The Four Heavenly Kings, guarding the four points of the compass – North, South, West and East – with the statue of The Laughing Buddha in the middle can be found in the complex.
The hilltop is home to an enormous statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin as well as more gardens and temples.
Carved into the rock face and perched atop the slopes of Air Itam, it is a cornerstone of the Malaysian Chinese community and is also called the ‘Temple of Supreme Bliss’.
Cheong Fatt Tze Manion
The home of an influential Chinese industrialist in the early 1890s, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion represents the best of 18th and 19th-century Chinese architecture.
A team of master craftsmen from China took more than seven years to build the mansion, in line with Feng shui design which includes five granite courtyards, 38 rooms, seven staircases and 22 stained glass windows.
Locals call it the Blue Mansion and it remains one of only three traditional Chinese mansions outside of China. In 1989, it was restored and converted into a 16-room boutique heritage hotel and museum best known for its indigo blue colour.
Tip: Dine at Indigo, the famed Blue Mansion Restaurant for an extraordinary experience.
Fort Cornwallis is one of Penang’s most well known landmarks. With ten-foot-high walls, a 17th century chapel, prison cells and ammunition storage areas.
There are a number of old bronze cannons, including a Dutch one which superstitious locals believe has a positive effect on women’s fertility.
The largest fort in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis was intended as a defensive against pirates, Kedah forces and even the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Built in 1786, it is set close to the Penang Clocktower and was named after Marquis Charles Cornwallis.
Penang Cooking School with Pearly Kee
On recommendation from friends, we booked into Pearly Kee’s Homecooking School in Penang to learn the art of Nyonya cooking. Malaysian cooking expert, Pearly Kee is an award-winning author sharing her skills and culinary expertise with students all around the world.
Starting with a market tour, Pearly walked us through the fresh herbs, spices, vegetables, seafood and meats that she uses, explaining their role in Malaysian cooking. It was fascinating to see coconut being freshly prepared – cut, milked and shaved from the 4 generation-old coconut market vendor.
Pearly also introduced us to sugar noodle snacks and traditional peanut pancake from local street-stalls which made a great start to our day.
The menu of the day was Beef Rendang, Ngor Hiang Lor Bak (5 spice Meat Roll) and Sambal Prawns. OMG – I cannot believe we mastered this – let alone, in one day!
Our lessons took place at Pearly’s home in her outdoor kitchen, where we had one-on-one time with Pearly teaching us the techniques and flavours of Malaysian food. A group of 6 in our class meant that there was lots of laughter, many questions, interesting conversation and great learnings from our chef.
The day was great fun, relatively easy and ultimately delicious.
Try it for yourself: Book a day with Pearly Kee for a wonderful adventure in cooking when you’re next in Penang.
Cafes, Restaurants and Street Stalls
Coffee shops and cafes generally serve good coffee and usually offer a menu for meals as well. Food hygiene standards are generally good and it’s safe to eat from most food-carts.
We also ate at a number of cafes and small traditional stalls many of which either didn’t have names, or we stumbled upon them on our walks.
Tip: Eat at the busy cafe’s, they’e usually a good indicator that the food is good.
Our favourite dining experiences
Sarkies – One of the best Breakfast buffets ever. Fruit, freshly baked pastries, omelettes, eggs any way you like, chinese or indian breakfast options. My favourite breakfast choice was a freshly cooked Banana Roti.
Sarkies is located at E&O Hotel.
Canton-i – Traditional Chinese dishes. You must try their exceptional ‘Signature’ Giant Shrimp Wonton Soup.
Canton- i is located at Gurney Plaza.
Chin’s Stylish Chinese Cuisine – A funky modern restaurant serving a selection of traditional Chinese dishes with a modern twist. Chin’s served a banquet of unique courses, beautifully presented and all rich in flavour. Try the Cod Fish Soup, it is one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted and came to our table, flaming. Chin’s is located on Church Street Pier.
Farquhar’s Bar – A great place for an evening cocktail and delicious tapas before dinner (or instead of dinner as the case may be).
Farquhar’s Bar is located in the Heritage wing of the E&O Hotel.
1885 – Elegant french influenced dining. A romantic setting, fabulous table service and a delicious menu. Our selections were Foie gras and Alaskan crab as entrees, followed by perfectly cooked Venison and mine, a delicious Red Snapper.
Desert Tip: Choose the Crepes Suzette flamed at the table.
1885 is located at Heritage Wing of the E&O Hotel.
David Brown’s – Enjoy a late lunch accompanied by a cold beer. A traditional Beef Rendang and a Seafood Linguine Prawn Bisque was a perfect finish to our day walking though the Habitat rainforest.
David Brown’s restaurant is located at Strawberry Hill on Penang Hill.
Indigo at the Blue Mansion – Fusing East with West cuisine, Indigo restaurant was a beautiful setting to enjoy lunch on our last day in Penang. We started with a delicious Smoked Duck and Orange Salad followed by perfectly cooked Snapper and finished with a Lemongrass Creme Brulee. Perfect choices!
Indigo is at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion commonly referred to as the Blue Mansion.
Where we stayed in Georgetown
We usually choose to stay somewhere central. We love hotels with history, that can provide a touch of luxury and an indulgence if we want, and usually will try their restaurant and bar during our visit.
For this trip, we decided to stay at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in George Town. Known simply as ‘The E&O’ to generations of travellers, this hotel has the grand elegance of the British colonial era right down to the pianist playing in the foyer each afternoon.
The Heritage Wing is the heart of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Built in 1885, the E&O has played host to some of the world’s most celebrated artists, writers and heads of state.
How to travel to Penang
- Air – Penang’s International Airport is well connected with major cities throughout Asia. Singapore was our connection to Penang however, Kuala Lumpur and Phuket also have direct flights. Flights to Penang from Singapore & Kuala Lumpur take about an hour.
- Car – Driving from Kuala Lumpur is an option most don’t think of. It’s easy enough to hire a vehicle and travel the 350 km from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. Malaysian roads are right hand drive with similar road rules to Australia.
- Train – It’s easy to travel to Penang by Train from Kuala Lumpur. A direct train from Kuala Lumpur Sentral station to Butterworth station in Penang (on the mainland) takes about 4-5 hours. From Butterworth, catch a ferry across the Malacca Strait or hop on a bus to cross the Penang bridge leading to the island. The ferry takes about 15-20 minutes while the bus takes about 30 minutes to reach Penang island.
- Bus – There are a number of direct buses travelling daily between Kuala Lumper and Penang taking approximately 4 – 5 hours. This is one of the most popular means of travel between Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Are you staying longer?
If you’re looking to extend your stay here are a few suggestions:
- Visit some of the wacky museums like the Upside Down Museum and the Penang 3D Trick Art Museum
- Check out the Penang Butterfly Park
- Explore the Botanical Gardens
- Visit the Tropical Spice Gardens
- Penang Bird Park is the largest bird park in Malaysia and a ‘must see’ on your visit.
Only staying 5 days in Penang meant there were so many things that we didn’t get to see or do on our visit, so we’re already planning our return.
My recommendation is a 2 – 3 week stay will give you enough time to explore the island, do some of the fabulous walks, eat some of the best Malaysian dishes and take time out to do some relaxing to get the most out of your Penang adventure.
Inspired? Why not pin it for later!