Located on Penang Island, just a few miles off the coast of Malaysia’s peninsular mainland, quirky George Town feels like a completely different world. Though increasingly famed for its food, art, architecture, diversity, and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town is still under the radar just enough that it catches many visitors by surprise.
But this town and island are beloved: nearly everyone we’ve met who’s visited Penang lists it as one of their favorite places in Southeast Asia.
So, what makes George Town, Penang, so special?
The Culture of George Town
While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a melting pot of people and culture: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of English colonialism. This diversity produces a city that feels very new and Western, while preserving the Eastern cultures of the people who originally turned it into a trading center.
History of George Town
Previously part of the centuries-old Kedah Sultanate, George Town transformed into a trading port under the British East India Company in the late-1700s. The British Empire’s legacy is visible in the captivating colonial architecture of the island’s northeast coast, with Penang City Hall, Jubilee Clock Tower, and Fort Cornwallis harkening back to a different era.
Even more central to Penang’s development than the British were the Chinese immigrants who, through their labor, made George Town a commercial hub. Throughout the city, you’ll find ornate Chinese temples (the most impressive is probably Khoo Kongsi), colorful shopfronts, and a wide selection of Chinese cuisine.
One of my favorite areas to explore in Penang was the clan jetties, a collection of wooden piers on the island’s eastern shore. They were originally built to offload cargo from the boats in the harbor, but quickly became home to a community of Chinese immigrants who worked the docks and were often too poor to afford homes on the mainland.
Now, tourists can walk the boardwalks, perusing the small shops and observing the organized chaos of this cramped neighborhood built over the water.
The final key ingredient to George Town’s melting point is its Indian community, which actually predates colonization. Today, Little India’s easy-to-navigate street grid is populated with tailors selling saris, shops hawking Bollywood films, and of course, plenty of restaurants serving up curries. It’s also home to some of the cheapest hotels in the city.
Street Art in George Town
Anyone who’s been to George Town, or just subjected to a friend’s photos of the city, knows it as a street art mecca. Especially in the World Heritage district, any unadorned wall is a potential canvas for the city’s vibrant art scene.
Initially, we thought Penang’s wall art might be an old tradition – but in actuality, much of the art is less than a decade old. In 2010, the government commissioned some humorous iron sculptures to represent the area’s cultural traditions.
Then in 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was brought in to create some murals that would incorporate everyday objects – a bicycle on the street, a pair of window shudders, or a water fountain jutting out from a wall. His works were so popular they inspired a street art revolution in Penang, and it continues to beautify the city today.
Some visitors like to use a map to seek out each piece of George Town’s street art, but we thought it was more fun to just be rounding a corner and get startled by a wall full of color (or a ferocious animal).
George Town’s Food
Street Food in George Town
While Bangkok gets most of the credit when it comes to street food in Southeast Asia (though recent changes to the Thai capital’s municipal code may change that), George Town is no slouch. The culmination of Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian, and Western cuisine means you’ll never be short on places to eat in Penang.
Great street food can be found all over George Town, but if you’re looking for a variety of options, the stalls are more densely concentrated in certain parts of the city. Chuliah Street, part of which runs through the Chinatown neighborhood, is one of the most popular street markets. The further northwest you go, the more signs will be in English (and the higher the prices will be).
Another option is the food courts, where a number of food stalls encircle a central dining area of metal tables and plastic chairs. The Red Garden Food Paradise is one of Penang’s most famous food courts (and was conveniently just a short walk from our hotel).
Thai, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Malay dishes are all available, and sometimes there’s even live music. The lively atmosphere makes it a great place to enjoy a cheap meal.
Honestly, we didn’t eat enough street food during our visit to Penang. Unless you’re familiar with the dishes or don’t mind bothering every hawker about whether there’s meat in what they’re serving, it can be challenging to find vegetarian options on the street. If our travels take us through George Town again, we’ll definitely be sure to sample more of it.
George Town Restaurants
Though not as famous as its street food, George Town also has a wide range of great restaurants, offering an eclectic mix of the world’s cuisines (including a surprising number of good Western options).
For Westerners, the place to get a taste of home is in the neighborhood around Love Lane, the city’s trendy backpacker area. One of our favorite places was Wheeler’s Coffee Shop, where a grilled vegetable caprese sandwich with a small side of fries was about $4.
Just around the corner is Y Not Bar & Cafe, with a variety of tasty veggie burgers and bowls. You can also find all manner of vegetarian and vegan meals a half-mile to the southeast at The Leaf, a hub of both health food and educational information about nutrition. Just down the road from there is Woodlands, a budget-friendly vegetarian Indian restaurant.
Another great option is the mural-covered Armenian Street, where you come across such rarities as fondue at the Edelweiss Cafe and the all-vegetarian menu of Veggielicious (the Indian potato-patty burger is amazing).
George Town also has plenty of gourmet dining establishments. The beautifully preserved colonial buildings along Upper Penang Road are the center of upscale dining and nightlife. If your budget allows for it, we’ve heard the restaurants there are excellent.
In addition to its great food, George Town also has a strong coffee culture, and we found quite a few places to get our caffeine fix and get some work done. Jen’s favorite place to work was Coffee Addict, near the Penang Plaza shopping mall. Seating is pretty limited, though, so go before lunchtime to get a spot.
For a more whimsical experience, head to Coffee on the Table, a few blocks west of the Clan Jetties, where your delicious cup of java comes topped with ornate 3-D foam art.
Hin Pop-Up Market
No place in Southeast Asia has reminded us of home quite like George Town’s Hin Pop-Up Market, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the SoWa Open Market in Boston. Every Sunday, George Town’s old bus depot transforms into a festival of food, music, and crafts, with artisans selling unique items like hand-drawn postcards, beautifully crafted toys, and a wide variety of T-shirts.
There are also all the hipster treats you might expect at a farmer’s market, like ginger beer and artisanal ice cream. And since this is George Town, the depot’s walls are covered in intricate murals.
Just outside the Hin Market, Jen was also excited to find Wholey Wonder, a combined yoga studio and vegan health food restaurant, where the classes, food, and atmosphere all deserve rave reviews.
More Penang Attractions
Museums in George Town
One of the stranger trends we encountered in George Town was the city’s many “art museums.” We visited the 3-D Glow in the Dark Museum, not realizing that it’s less a museum and more a series of backdrops set up for visitors to pose at.
Instead of museum exhibits, it’s made up of sets that make it look like you’re teetering over a waterfall, hopping around Mario World, or sitting inside a traditional hut. An employee trails you as you walk through the museum, pointing out each place you can take a picture, telling you where to stand, and using your phone to take photos of you inside this bizarre world.
Besides this museum, there are many other similar ones in George Town, from the Upside Down Museum to the Interactive Museum to the Ghost Museum. This phenomenon is part of a selfie culture that I fail to understand, but these museums are fun for kids – and, from what we saw, popular with many adults as well.
George Town also has several other museums that are not, in fact, staged photo studios, many of which are still quirky in their own way. We didn’t visit any of these, but there’s the TeddyVille Museum, the Wonderfood Museum, the Camera Museum, the Owl Museum, and the Vintage Toy Museum, to name a few.
Let me warn you that they have mixed reviews, and one of the biggest complaints about almost all of George Town’s museums is the price, especially given that most of them are quite small.
We did make a trip to the Chocolate Boutique, a chocolate and coffee factory that offers free tours. Back in Boston, we loved visiting the Taza Chocolate Factory, which teaches visitors all about how chocolate is grown, processed, and turned into delectable treats. George Town’s Chocolate Boutique was like a bizarro-world version of that experience, with the “tour” lasting less than three minutes (yes, actually).
While there are some interesting- and informative-looking exhibits set up, the “guide” drags you quickly past them – our guide talked so fast, we couldn’t understand anything she said, and we weren’t sure why they wouldn’t let us stop and look at the exhibits. You do get some free samples of their overpriced chocolate and coffee at the end, but they come with a heavy guilt trip.
No trip to Penang would be complete without a ride up the funicular railway to Penang Hill, located an hour outside of George Town. British colonists once used this 2,700-foot-tall mound in the center of the island as a respite from Penang’s oppressive heat. It’s normally about 10 degrees cooler there than down at sea level, and it definitely feels like a relief.
The top of Penang Hill has a well-developed visitor’s center with some overpriced food stalls and a crowded seating area, as well as an observation deck. Quite often, though, you won’t get much of a view from it, as thick cloud cover obscures the city below. But if you have the time to wait around, a break occurs periodically and will give you an iconic shot of the island.
Other than the visitor’s center, the hilltop has retained much of its colonial-era vibe, with meandering country lanes, low garden walls, and ornate houses, and we enjoyed the peace and quiet. We also stumbled upon a trendy coffee shop, which was surprisingly empty.
For the more adventurous, there’s an abandoned house you can explore, but we couldn’t find it among the dense foliage and fog.
Just getting to the top of Penang Hill is an interesting railway adventure; the original train to the summit was built over a hundred years ago, though it’s been upgraded a few times. Now, it only takes about five minutes to reach the top, so the scenery goes by quickly.
A round-trip ticket costs about $7, and the train leaves every 20 minutes or so. Alternatively, you can get a one-way ticket for $4 and then walk back down on the hiking trail.
Other Places to Visit in Penang
Penang Island has a few other must-see spots that we unfortunately missed. Having just come from Thailand, where we’d been in Koh Lanta and Krabi, we weren’t too desperate to spend more time at the beach, but the sands of Batu Ferringi are world famous.
Digital Nomad Life in George Town
George Town hasn’t made inroads with digital nomads in the way Chiang Mai and Bali have, probably due to the surprisingly slow Internet speeds at most places and Malaysia’s higher cost of living. Given those two downsides, it’s not too surprising that the digital nomad community there isn’t huge.
That said, George Town’s popularity does seem to be growing, and several co-working spaces have sprung up. We could definitely see it as a great spot for people working online: beautiful scenery, convenient transportation, less of a backpacker vibe, and plenty of art to fuel your creativity.
Does George Town sound like a place you’d enjoy visiting?