Red lanterns on street, Penang, Malaysia

20 Top Things to do in Penang – 2024 Travel Guide for First Timers

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Penang is know as one of the best foodie destinations in South East Asia and one of the most popular destinations for travellers in Malaysia.

For a first timer, it can seem overwhelming to see and do everything in Penang as it seems that there are endless possibilities on this small island on the west coast of Malaysia.

But with a little bit of planning and a bit of knowledge from someone who has visited more times that I can count, it’s easy to pick some of the top things to do in Penang.

I first went in 2015 for a short stay whilst backpacking around south east Asia. I then returned in 2022 as a digital nomad to stay for an extended period and through happenstance, I’ve been back a few more times since then.

It is a place that I love to visit and one where I seem to enjoy more each time I go back as I explore somewhere new and find another hidden gem.

Penang is the perfect place to visit when travelling around Malaysia as it gives you a little bit of everything Malaysia is famous for, food, friendly people, amazing nature and a mix of cultures.

The 20 Top Things to do in Penang

Eat ALL of the food

Penang is known as the foodie destination in South East Asia, and that’s saying something because, in my opinion, it is already the region with the best food. The best thing to do in Penang is to walk around and visit one of the many hawker stalls that line the streets of Penang.

There are a variety of food courts dotted around Georgetown, with ones close to the centre such as Red Garden, slightly more expensive and more touristy than ones even slightly further out such as New World Park.

The street hawkers around Chulia Street are some of my favourite and offer amazing wan tan mee and char kway teow for 6-10RM.

For those that like finer dining, Kebaya is internationally owned, but still affordable by western standards and offers a mouth watering range of local nonya style food food. I’ve written an enter guide on what to eat in Penang here.

Street food in, Penang, Malaysia
Street food in Penang
Kebaya dining room, Penang, Malaysia
Fine dining in Kebaya

Visit Kek Lok Si

Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Located in Ayer Itam, it stand on a hillside overlooking Georgetown.

Built by Chinese monks at the end of the 19th Century, it now plays a prominent role in Chinese New Year celebrations where it is lit up in red and other lights showing its prominence over the city as the image below shows.

Kek Lok Si is easy to get to from Georgetown with the 201 bus taking around 45 minutes, or a Grab taxi taking 20-30 minutes depending on time of day and traffic.

Visit the beaches of Batu Ferrenghi

Batu Ferrenghi is where you will stay if you end up choosing the stay in a resort when you visit Penang. Even if you aren’t staying in a resort, its still possible to head out to this area of the island on the north west side to experience some of the best beaches on the island.

The main Pantai Batu Ferringhi stretches almost endlessly with white sand making it ideal place to relax in the heat. Despite Malaysia being a conservative nation on the whole, it is possible to be on this beach in bikinis and swimwear, even if many locals won’t be.

If you’re staying in Georgetown, take bus 101 to visit one of the best things to do in Penang.

Explore some of the lessor known beaches

Being an island, Penang has many beaches, but some are a bit more secluded than others. I went to one in the far south west of the island, that even my local friends in Georgetown had never visited.

To get to Pantai Pasir Panjang, the options are a 45 minute taxi which will cost 60-70RM or taking two buses that involve changing at Balik Pulau. I’ve written another complete guide on how to visit this beach which makes an excellent day trip.

If you walk to the end of this beach, be prepared to be completely by yourself with white sands and blue waters. Isn’t that a reason in itself to visit this corner of Penang?

Pantai Pasir Panjang, Penang, malaysia, with Dan

Head to Penang National Park

On the far northwest side of the island, Penang National Park is the smallest national park in Malaysia and one of its youngest, only becoming a national park in 2003.

There are an abundance of hiking trails which takes you through jungle as well as picnic spots that are used by locals to rest between hikes.

Monkey beach is a highlight to see Crab-eating macaques or walk further to the far side of the park for Sunset Beach for beautiful white sands (although be aware that jelyfish may be in the water so isn’t always great for swimming.

Climb Penang Hill

Penang Hill was first used as a place to avoid the heat by the Brits during colonial rule. A funicular takes you to the top for views over Georgetown and across to the mainland.

But if you’re after more of a physical challenge, then hiking to the top from the Botanical Gardens is the way to go. A 2-4 hour hike in the humidity of south east Asia may not be everyones cup of tea but its a great way to stay fit and healthy on the road.

Make sure that the funicular is running so that you can take it back down when you reach the top all sweaty. It is closed for maintenance twice per year (which is when I went…).

View from Penang Hill, Penang, Malaysia
The view from the top of Penang Hill

Visit street art in Georgetown

Georgetown is famous for its street art. Since a Swedish artist painted onto some of the walls in 2014 that quickly went viral all over the world, street art has become synonomous with this part of Penang.

One of the most famous pieces, and the one that went viral, was the boy on the bike which can be found on the corner of Lebuh Armenian and Beach Street.

There are now a number of pieces of street art all over the city, some commissioned as artwork, and some done in the style of street art that actually just acts as advertising for the shops in the buildings they adorn.

Street art of bike in Penang, Malaysia

Head to the top of Komtar

If you’re a family or have kids and looking for the best things to do in Penang, heading to the top of Komtar tower will be on your list.

This tower is one of the tallest on the island and can be seen pretruding from all over Georgetown (where regulations prevent tall buildings being built amongst the tradtional shophouses that make it a UNESCO destination).

The rainbow skywalk is a must do, heading out onto a glass deck that has views unobstructed views of Georgetown.

Georgetown with KOMTAR, Penang, Malaysia
Komtar stands out as the only skyscraper close to Georgetown

Take in the Chinese shop houses

When you picture Penang, it is likely that you are picturing the Chinese shophouses that have adorned this part of Malaysia since Chinese traders started making the island their home.

These are now what makes Georgetown a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tradtionally, you would find the shop housing a workshop, restaurant or shop on the bottom floors of these colourful terraced units, with the family living upstairs. The slatted windows made the open space cooler than outside.

Being a UNESCO area, it isn’t possible just to renew these in any old fashion and it costs money and care using traditional methods to rework these into functional homes, and many are now in a state of disrepair. But the ones that are lovingly looked after, like the AirBnB I stayed in are a testament to Penang’s history.

My AirBnB,, Penang, Malaysia
The AirBnB I stayed in
Abandonded chinese shop house, Penang, Malaysia
And a shop house that has seen better days

See Fort Cornwallis

Another remnant of British colonial rule, Fort Cornwallis was the first bastion on the island and the largest fort of its kind in Malaysia. It costs 20RM to get in and walk around the ground seeing cannons that are over 100 years old.

Just outside the fort is Queen Victoria Clock Tower, built to commemorate her diamond jubilee in 1897.

Take a trip to the Jetty’s

The jetty’s are another famous landmark of Penang. Extending from the east side of Georgetown, this is where Chinese traders and fishermen lived when they first came to the island in the 1800’s

There are a few jetty’s that you can visit including Lim Jetty and Tan Jetty but my favourite if you had to visit just one is Chew Jetty as it has a fine mix of still feeling like a traditional village of people living on stilted homes but also providing enough information and souvenirs to tourists without it feeling tacky.

Whilst you’re in the area, consider a visit to Hean Boo Thean Kuan Yin Temple, a beautiful brightly painted, yellow and red Chinese style temple.

Street art on the jetty, Penang, Malaysia
Chew Jetty street art

Experience the modern coffee scene

Although Penang is traditionally known for its excellent food, it now has something new to rival it.

Coffee is booming in Penang with modern coffee shops selling artisan coffee popping up all over Georgetown. These coffee shops take on a whole new style of coffee that I haven’t seen before. Baristas will weigh the coffee beans to make sure there is an exact amount. I’ve seen them make sure the temperature of the water is exact using a thermometer. They mix the beans carefully with scientific accuracy.

Still relatively unknown by the outside world, coffee is becoming a thing for Penang and anyone with a taste for caffeine will enjoy exploring its many coffee shops.

norm cafe coffee, Penang, Malaysia

Don’t forget the kopitiams

Despite new coffee shops arriving on the scene in Penang, traditional coffee shops still have their place on street corners.

Known in Malay as kopitiams, this is where you will find an elder generations enjoying their kopi and teh like they have done since Chinese settlers arrived on the island hundreds of years ago.

The coffee, known locally as kopi is sweetened by condensed milk. The tea is often pulled and poured from one glass to the next to aerate it, known as teh tarik. Unlike a latter which will often cost a similar amount to western prices, drinks in kopitiams will be between 1-5RM making an affordable and traditional stop for drinks when visiting Penang.

Spend time in the museums

There are countless quirky museums dotted all over Georgetown, and they are some of the best things to see in Penang. The Upside Down Museum and Ghost Museum are some of the more unusual choices if you want to spend a rainy day inside.

For more of an educational outlook, Penang Peranakan Mansion shows the life of the Peranakan people on Penang in the last 200 years, and the Batik Museum is a must for anyone into the arts to learn more about the traditional stylings of Malaysia that also feature heavily on Malaysia Airlines flights.

China town

The Chinese influence is all over the island of Penang and make up the largest ethnic group on the island. China Town, which is focused along Campbell Street in downtown Georgetown, is home to an abundance of Chinese shophouses selling Chinese goods and has signs that are only written in Mandarin.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Penang for Chinese New Year, the town comes alive with red lanterns everywhere, street performers wearing dragons and firecrackers going off with a bang. Many of the celebrations are centred around the Goddess Of Mercy Temple along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, also known as Pitt Street, which is well worth a visit at any time of year to experience the smell of the burning joss sticks.

China town, Penang, Malaysia

Little India

Located on the other side of the road to the Godess of Mercy Temple is the start of Little India.

This is where Penangs Indian population  congregates and it feels more like the streets of Mumbai that than anywhere else. Shops sell sari’s, gold and Indian sweets. The street food changes to samosas instead of noodles and the colours explode from everywhere.

I once saw a newspaper stand with newspapers in five different languages for sale on the corner of Little India (English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and Hindi if you were wondering).

You must try all of the Indian food in Little India and take a visit to the incredible Sri Mahamariamman Temple, an extremely colourful Hindu temple even by Penang’s standards.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple temple, , Penang, Malaysia
Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Little India sign, Penang, Malaysia

Chowrasta market

This market used to be the centre of trade in Penang, started in the 1890’s by Indian immigrants to the island. Go early in the morning and there are still fresh fruit and vegetables for sale along with sweet treats and local handicrafts.

However, in my opinion, if you go after these times, those stores close down and there are then only a few places that sell tacky plastic toys looking to lure in kids and tourists.

Definitely worth a visit if you’re walking by, but it isn’t a must see destination considering everything else on this list.

Drink the night away on Chulia Street

Despite being known as a hub of cultures mixing together, there is still a place where it is possible to let your hair down with a few drinks at the end of the day.

Chulia Street is one of the oldest roads on Penang, being built shortly after the city was founded by the British. Now there are an abundance of bars that line the street, especially the eastern end.

Grab a seat and get a Tiger beer, one of my favourites I’ve had around the world, and drink with music playing until the early hours.

For something a little bit more upmarket, head to the Sphere Rooftop Bar, located in the Chulia Mansion Hotel for cocktails and fine spirits until late. One of my favourites.

Sphere bar, Penang, Malaysia

Dan at Sphere bar, Penang, Malaysia
Having a cocktail at Sphere Bar

Get to the backpacker scene of Love Lane

My first visit to Penang was in 2015 when I visited as part of my backpacking trip in Asia.

I stayed in a hostel on Love Lane and met my (now ex) girlfriend there. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Today, many of the hostels along Love Lane have been a victim of the pandemic but there is still a lively bar scene, some dessert places and a few restaurants of international cuisine if you are bored of rice and noodles. It is still the place to be if you want to meet other young western backpackers and the 7Eleven on the corner always has a steady stream of business from those looking for convenience rather than culture.

Armenian Street

Armenian Street is now a relic of when another ethnic group joined the cultural melting pot of Penang. Armenian traders moved in during the 1880’s but had mostly left by the middle of the 20th Century, but the name has stuck

It is the site of the Children on the Bicycle street art that you have probably seen before, and has a street full of umbrellas close by. It is a hub of tourism and culture in Georgetown and a place to visit to feel what Penang is all about. It should be one of the first places to visit when you’re looking for things to do in Penang.

Tricycles, Penang, Malaysia

Summing up the best things to do in Penang

I have been to Penang many times and spent over 6 weeks there working for my longest stint. It is a place I could keep going back to over and over again (and I do!) and each time I discover something else that takes my fancy.

This is just the top things to do in Penang and I could have mentioned so many more including exploring all the shopping centres that have oh so blissfull air conditioning, heading out to the marina, exploring more of the colonial architecture like the old fire station and old town hall, learning about the different religious sites inclusing a church and mosque along Pitt Street and so much more!

There are countless things to do in Penang, with most of them centred around Georgetown, even if you’re only on the island for a short visit, you won’t have to go far for some amazing food, experience incredible culture and an unforgettable trip.

Check out my other posts for travelling around Malaysia:

Sarawak

Kuala Lumpur

Penang

Langkawi

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