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The island of Penang has always been a city we love visiting. When we lived in nearby Ipoh, we always looked forward to a weekend getaway in Penang and our youngest son was born there.
Penang is an island off the north west side of peninsular Malaysia that gained prominence as a major hub of British trading through the Malacca Straits in the 1800s. While Penang has evolved to be a centre for IT, it still possesses an old Asia cultural charm with its Chinese heritage shop houses, trishaws with umbrellas, and street food spilling out onto the streets.
Nowhere else can you experience multi-cultural Malaysia more than in Penang with its Chinese, Malay, Indian and more recently expatriate population. It is a great entry point into Southeast Asia as it is safe, English is widely spoken and the cost of travel fairly low. Penang is one of the most popular and best places to visit in Malaysia.
When visiting Penang, most visitors choose to base themselves in the heritage quarter of Georgetown, or out near the beaches of Batu Ferringhi. The island is small enough that you can travel between the two easily and there are lots of great things to see and do in both areas. When trying to determine where to stay in Penang, choose Georgetown if culture and food is your priority or Batu Ferringhi if you are interested in some beach time and relaxation.
- 1 Things to do in Georgetown
- 2 Things to do in Batu Ferringhi
- 3 Our Verdict
Things to do in Georgetown
UNESCO Heritage District & Street Art
This trendy area of the island bustles with tourists wandering the picturesque streets with colourful shops and street art that you can interact with. We based ourselves here, in a converted Chinese shop house. Our little Airbnb had great atmosphere and we really felt like we were experiencing Georgetown.
Grab a map from the tourism office and wander the streets. There are numerous temples, clan houses and heritage buildings to visit. You have probably seen photos of the charming scenes painted throughout Georgetown that you can take photos with. You can ride on the back of a bicycle or swing beside local children in these colourful scenes of local life.
Georgetown’s Little India is right in the UNESCO heritage zone, but has its own unique feel. It is sensory overload with its colourful flowers, booming Bollywood tunes and sweet smelling incense burning. This is one of our favourite places in the city to eat – you can’t go wrong with a banana leaf thali, masala dosa and cups of chai. Browse the shops for bangles, gold and other Indian specialties.
The 8 clan jetties of Georgetown are wooden piers that extend out into the sea and are still home to the Chinese families that have lived here since the 19th century. Each jetty is named after a family (clan) and the most accessible one to visit is Chew Jetty. This can easily be incorporated into a walk through the Heritage Zone.
While the residents of Chew Jetty still live here, the pier has become quite touristy with most homes having a shop in front of it. It is still fun to wander out to the end and see a glimpse into how people live over the water.
Eat Hawker Food
Penang is renowned for its food and you don’t have to look far to find street food stalls in Penang. The best thing about hawker stalls is the huge variety of dishes available so every one can eat what they want. Prices are low so you can afford to test out dishes you have never tried before. A food tour is a great way to sample street foods with the help of a local (more on that below).
One of our favourite hawker centres is at Gurney Plaza, an outdoor food court where you can find all your favourite Penang foods like char kway teow, asam laksa and won ton mee. These stalls are popular with tourists and locals alike and the outdoor setting has a great atmosphere.
Simple Enak Food Tour
The food in Penang is absolutely superb and while you can enjoy it on your own, a food tour will take it to a whole other level. We did a food tour with Mark from Simply Enak and in addition to trying lots of new foods, we learned so much about the culture and history of the island. Mark is born and bred in centre of Georgetown and he took us to his favourite places to sample the best of Georgetown. Our Harmony Trail tour had us stuffing our bellies with Indian breakfast foods, Chinese street food and roti canai. You can read our full review of our food tour here.
Kek Lok Si Temple
This impressive Buddhist temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and with its commanding views of the sea and Georgetown, it is definitely worth a visit. Kids will love taking the funicular up to the top of the temple and there are beautiful gardens to explore. Located on the outskirts of Georgetown in Air Itam, you can drive here or take bus #203 or #204 (30 minutes from Georgetown).
Kek Lok Si is a sprawling temple complex built by the “Hakka tycoons”, rich businessmen in Penang in the late 1800s. The 7-story Pagoda of Rama VI sitting atop the hill is the most spectacular and this is where you can get wonderful views over the city and sea. Wander through the temples to see monks chanting, worshipers burning incense, and beautiful Chinese prayer halls.
Combine a visit to Kek Lok Si temple with nearby Penang Hill, which offers even better views over Georgetown. The Penang Hill Railway is an efficient funicular that will take you 2,007 m up in 5-10 minutes. Return journeys cost 30 MYR/adult, 15 MYR/child 7-12. You can enjoy the viewpoint and visit the Indian temple atop. There is even a small playground beside the temple for kids to enjoy. Avoid weekends and go early to avoid queuing.
Things to do in Batu Ferringhi
The beach at Batu Ferringhi is not Malaysia’s best, but is still a beautiful place. Most popular with burqa wearing tourists from the Middle East; contrasted with the Hard Rock Cafe, Batu Ferringhi has a number of fun things to do in Penang.
We think this is such an under-rated attraction and we were super impressed by this water and adventure park. Located past Batu Ferringhi in Teluk Bahang, Escape’s goal is to reintroduce play into our lives and unplug and have fun together. The setting completely lends itself to doing just that with its lush grounds of palms and impeccable facilities.
The park consists of a water park and adventure park and you definitely want to allocate a full day for your visit. The adventure park consists of tons of fun activities like high ropes courses, rock climbing, giant swings, coconut tree climbing and so much more. We were impressed by the safety standards and the friendly staff. The water park looks almost brand new and in addition to the usual water slides, lazy river and wave pool, there was a fun water obstacle course, a crazy banana launching slide, dunk tank and more.
In addition to super fun activities and excellent facilities, we loved their focus on environmental education. They have green roofs on the buildings, collect rainwater and actually had recycling bins. I cannot recommend this place enough and I had to drag the kids away at closing time (they said it was “super duper duper epic”).
Close-toed shoes are needed for the adventure activities. You can save up to 50% off tickets by booking through their website in advance. Full prices tickets cost 128 MYR/adult, 85 MYR/child 4-12, but buy online and save big! We went mid-week and there weren’t any queues. You can’t bring food and drinks into the park (they are reasonably priced though). They use a cashless system within the park, so you can load money to your account.
Penang National Park
If you are looking for something more active where you can get close to nature, a visit to Penang National Park is a great full or half day activity. Located on the northwest coast of the island about 15 minutes west of Batu Ferringhi, it is Malaysia’s smallest National Park. It’s lush jungle, beaches and hiking trails are only accessible by foot or boat. If you don’t have a car, you can access the park via public transit with the Rapid Penang bus.
The most popular walks are to Monkey Beach and Kerachut Beach (Turtle Beach), although in July 2018, the path to Monkey Beach and the Canopy Walk was closed due to landslides. The most common route people were doing was hiking 90 minutes from the park entrance to Kerachut Beach, then taking a boat to Monkey Beach, followed by another boat back to the park entrance.
When you arrive at the National Park, you have to sign in with what route you are taking and you will immediately be approached by boat companies wanting to transport you. If you are planning on using a boat to get between beaches (which we had to due to the trails being closed), organize before you set off. They will schedule pickup times for you at Turtle Beach. The standard price is 90 MYR ($30 AUD) for a boat that can accommodation 12 people, so try to share with other travelers.
The walk to Kerachut Beach starts out on a paved walking trail, but that changes into a true hiking trail. Bring lots of water and set off early as it gets very hot. At Kerachut Beach, walk towards the end of the beach to see the turtle sanctuary. There isn’t much to see here as it is a working sanctuary more than a tourist attraction, but they do have some rescued turtles you can see. You cannot swim at Kerachut Beach, so you don’t need too long there, but it is a very peaceful and pretty spot.
The boat ride to Monkey Beach is about 10 minutes and this beach is littered with beach shacks selling drinks and basic meals. You can also swim at this beach although we did get a few jelly stings. We really enjoyed our day at Penang National Park and recommend a visit for nature lovers and those who enjoy hiking. If you aren’t into hiking, it is possible to simply hire a boat to take you to and from the beaches.
Long Beach Hawker Stalls
This food court is a great place to start your street food adventures. The stalls are used to catering to foreigners and there are a number of Western options for kids like mine that prefer pizza to noodles. Order your food from your favourite stall giving them your table number, wait a few minutes and your food will be delivered right to your table. This is also a great place to sample some delicious fresh fruit juices.
Batu Ferringhi Night Market
Every night of the week vendors set up along the main road selling anything and everything. This is a great after dinner activity as it doesn’t really get going until about 7pm. Bargain hard to get the best prices on all your tourist souvenirs.
Tropical Fruit Farm
Wander any of the markets in Penang and you will notice lots of weird-shaped exotic fruit, including the king of fruit, the much beloved and smelly durian. You can visit this Tropical Fruit Farm and learn about how these fruits are grown on a 30 minute tour. The part that the kids and adults will love the most if the fruit buffet at the end where you can taste all of these exotic fruits. 40 MYR/adult, 30 MYR/child. Access by car 10 minutes from Batu Ferringhi or use the Rapid Penang bus.
Entopia Butterfly Park
This very well run butterfly park is one of the best things to do in Batu Ferringhi. With over 15,000 free-flying butterflies set in beautiful gardens with waterfalls and ponds, kids will be delighted by Entopia. There are lots of educational, hands-on learning opportunities, making this a great place to spend a few hours. 60 MYR/adult, 40 MYR/child 4-12, 184 MYR/family 2+2. Located right near Escape in Teluk Bahang, you can access it by car of Rapid Penang bus.
Georgetown truly is one of the great cities of Southeast Asia and it makes for a great family destination. The secret is out about Penang, but it still manages to deliver laid-back Asian charm. Families will be attracted to the heritage buildings, rich mix of cultures and delicious street foods, as well as the numerous family-friendly attractions. It is an island that we absolutely adore and we are sure you will too!
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