I needed a break, a vacation, a time to rest, eat, drink my coffees, explore a place without rush, just take my time.
Because I finished an insane cycling trip of 4000km in 26days, or 180km/day. I lost 6 kg and I was looking pretty shit7y, I mean tired :D.
The fantastic thing of being based in Melbourne is that you have many friends from everywhere in the world, such a cosmopolitan city.
They can all suggest you insider trips to the home town or country they were born.
I met a couple of Malaysian friends that started writing down a small list of the Penang attractions, after a latte I could see already the list increasing beyond my expectations; I ordered another latte and the list over grew to a second page and my friends were getting super excited.
View from the Kek Lok Si temple
If you live abroad and somebody asks you information about a trip in your home town I am pretty sure you give him/her your best list, you have this feeling of being proud of your town/city, maybe because you miss it maybe because you know it better than anybody else, you are basically a local abroad. I left my home town over 20 years ago but I still follow the news, check the best bars/restaurants and things to do and every time I go back I do not waste any single minute.
My Malayan friends go back and forward at least once or twice a year, therefore the list is definitely up to date. Once back home I started scrolling it and I could clearly see a pattern. The two main Penang attractions are street food and coffee, can I complain? I lost 6kg and I needed to gain at least 3kg back. The good news is that eating in Penang is super cheap and the quality is one of the best in world.
I booked my flights and accommodation (see below for more details), it was time to leave and experience the island of Penang
Arriving in Penang with an awesome sunrise
I decided to stay in George Town. It is the capital of Penang and a beautiful city listed by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site. It was indeed an easy choice as I love street art and architecture and these are two of the reasons for George Town to be in the list. In my opinion it is a safe place to walk around, both during the day and during the night. It’s a city (although on the small size), and like in any other city you need to take the normal precautions like not wearing shiny magnetic gold and the likes.
Another important reason to stay in George Town is that most of the attractions in Penang are connected to a street food or a cafe’ experience of which George Town is most definitely the capital.
The alternative is to stay on the north coast, where most of the resorts are. You can find some great packages there, if this is the experience you would like to have. You can always rent a scooter or a car to explore the island. It’s also an easy ride to George Town. Buses and taxi are also available, plenty of options.
I have organised the attractions in few classes
- places to see and visit
- the food experience
- the coffee experience
- the street art trail
Places to see and visit
There are indeed many destinations to see and visit in Penang, of which some of them in George Town. You need to rent a scooter or a car (I had a scooter rented in the backpacker area, quite cheap actually) if you want to visit the island, buses are another options, although it will take more time. See the map at the end of the post for a full geolocation
View from the top of Penang
I loved the Penang Hill . The view from the top is awesome and it’s a nice break from the rest of the busy island. You will realize how populated is actually Penang and how close the Malaysia mainland is. You can take some great photos here, although the time of the day is a problem because the train to the top is open only during the day (the closing time is unfortunately before sunset)
Kek Lok Si temple
The Kek Lok Si temple is another must see of the island. Located high in the hills it is most definitely a popular destination, you will not be alone. Plan it for an early start of the day if you can, to enjoy the better fresh temperature and avoid the crowd. The view of the east coast of the island is breath taking
Spectacular entrance to the Kek Lok Si temple
Penang National Park
The Penang National Park should be in your list as well. It can be visited in two ways. If you are into trekking there are few paths that can be easily followed. The map is at the entrance of the park. I did the walk to the Muka Head lighthouse and it took me around 2 hours (this is one of the longest walk). Honestly, it is a great trekking which I would suggest to everybody
I did it with my flip flops; I though it was an easy one however you go through some rocks and big roots. Proper shoes would have helped immensely, even jogging shoes. Half an hour from the lighthouse there is also a beautiful beach, called Monkey Beach, where you can eat some super fresh fish and buy some water (or beer 😀 ).
The walk in the Penang National Park
Beautiful view from inside the Muka Head lighthouse
Panoramic view of the island from the lighthouse. I was really underwight!
The other option is to take a boat to the beach and watch the coast from the water. I used the boat on the way back and it was great to have a different point of view of the Penang National Park
The Snake Temple is most probably the only temple of its kind in Malaysia, if not in the world. What did I find? Obviously free snakes, vipers, however they all looked very asleep, which is good obviously 😀 there is a corner where you can make photos with them, however I would not really suggest it. It is far away from George Town. It’s quite a trip. Is it worthy? It would not probably be one of my priority.
Inside the Snake Temple
Inside the Snake Temple
The Camera Museum in George Town is a place to visit if you are into photography. Stop at the cafe on the exit for a relaxed afternoon tea
Although I am not a fan of this tall building, the KOMTAR (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak) has probably the best view of the north of the island from right in the centre of George Town.
Gurney Drive Attractions
The Gurney Drive Attractions are also very popular in Penang. The Gurney Drive is a popular seafront promenade which in the night gets populated with many food hawkers, a great place to have dinner. During the day you can visit the many temples and churches; during the evening, beside the food, you can visit the shopping centres Paragon Mall and The Plaza.
The evening bric a brac market at the end of the Armenian Street can also reserve some good surprises. It goes down to luck 😀
What I missed:
- the Penang Botanic Gardens. Unfortunately I did not have enough time and I allocated my days to different Penang attractions.
- the Pinang Peranakan Museum. It was closed for refurbishment
I really want to go back and they are both already in my bucket list
The food experience
My background is Italian, I was born there and I grew up with what is considered to be some of the best and most liked food in the world. Maybe due to my nomadic life, that has been covering my last 20+ years, I am not probably the typical Italian saying that anything else which is not Italian food is not that good. I like to try and taste new food, receipts, ingredients, flavours.
I was completely blown away by the quality of the Penang food, mainly street food. Oh my gosh, if you like eating this is a heaven, and even better a heaven you can easily afford because it is cheap! With $5-10 you can eat without problems, sometime even less. Did I experience any stomach problem? Never and most of the time I had street food
The list of the street food stalls to visit made by my friends helped me to experience the best of the best and my taste buds were partying for the full stay as happy as ever. To me, this is most definitely a good reason to visit Penang and George Town. If you ask any Malaysian, he/she will tell you that Malaysian food is good however you need to visit Penang at least once in the life for the great and amazing variety and quality.
George Town is a must visit for your food. See below a full map with all the amazing stalls to visit and the corners not to miss.
Cooking in the street
Where to eat in Penang
- Padang Kota Lama Food Court : you can try here mee goreng and nasi lemak. Lots of locals say it is the best (there is always a big friendly fight between stalls). Coconut milkshakes are also to die for
- Mee Goreng @ Bangkok Lane : not sure it is still a secret, it can be quite busy 😀
Jelutong Night Market : visit any stall as you feel, outstanding quality overall. Open from 6-7pm till late
- Nasi Kandar @ Line Clear : probably the best Nasi Kandar in George Town, maybe Penang and possibly Malaysia 😀
- Char Keoy Teow @ Siam Road : the locals say this is the place to be for Char Keoy Teow, I was blown away
Curry Mee @ Lorong Seratus Tahun : both friends were 100% this is the place to be for the Curry Me. I visited it and I was again well impressed
Loh Mee @ Kim Leng: that’s where you go for some Loh Mee 😀
Seafood Popiah @ Anson Food Court : just Beautiful
Lor Bak @ Kheng Pin Cafe : famous for the Lor Bak
- Chendol @ Joo Hooi Cafe : the chendol colours may look too bright and not inspiring to western people, however once you try it you are gonna love it! Expect to find a queue here, the best chendol I was said
- Indian food @ Restoran Kapitan : the Penang cuisine includes some tasty Indian Food options as well. I visited the Restoran Kapitan twice, gorgeous food
- Backpackers corner: this is the area where you will probably meet the most of the foreigners. There are some good food options as well, Good Wanton Mee is one of them. Visit the Rainforest Bakery, just opposite, for few biscuits
(are you local? any more to suggest here? add a comment)
Beside the last two, all of the others were given to me by my local friends. These are places which locals love to visit. I am not certainly in a position to say what is better. Just reporting what I tried, I loved and I would certainly suggest. I enjoyed the Restoran Kapitan however probably it is not what is considered to be the best by the locals as most of the customers were tourists (is it an indication?)
You can find more information on the dishes with photos of the food on the GoPenang website.
The coffee experience in Georgetown
I was really surprised by the coffee scene in Penang and even more evident in George Town. I would have never expected such an addiction that definitely rivals caffeine cities like Melbourne. And it’s not only about the coffee, it’s also about the interior, down to the small details, and the way the coffee is prepared, I even found a cafe’ that prepared me a latte with a 3D foam face on top.
Relaxing at the cafe’. Is it the top attraction in Penang :D?
On the downside, the latte can be as expensive as a main meal, just a touch cheaper than in Australia, at around $3. It’s all relative at the end of the day. The price is not about the coffee as such, it’s about the full experience
I can definitely say that Penang is a must visit for the coffee scene. Here below a map of few cafes that I loved
The clocks on the wall of the Moon Tree 47 cafe’
The Penang cafe list
- Cafe @ The Camera Museum : could it be different? I had to see it of course. The cafe at the entrance provides some gorgeous and tasty cakes
- Great colours @ PIKNIK : I love the choice of the colours in this cafe, all pastel tones. Great choice. Great waffles sandwich with ice cream
- Moon Tree 47 Café : next to the camera museum, this cafe’ has a lovely interior with walls full of clocks. There is also a small central yard, great spot for an early morning breakky
- Cafe 55 : Come here to see the 3D coffee art. Your latte will have a 3D sculptured foam on top the cup, one of the many unique Penang attractions. Beautiful. Remember to visit also the art atelier next door, both in a great architectural old building
- Armenian House : I stayed here for a week and I had a great feeling. I loved the coffee and the cakes. Unfortunately the breakfast is on the poor side
- China House : great heritage building including an art gallery. You will remember this cafe’ for the selection of the cakes
- Behind 50 : In Penang cafes are not just for breakfast or lunch. Behind 50 opens in the late afternoon to provide dinner in an 50s environment. Come here for one evening meal, a touch more expensive than street food however worth the experience
- The Mugshot Cafe : if you have a love for bagels this is the place to go, right in the main backpacker area
(any more to suggest here? add a comment)
The street art trail in Georgetown
Street art in George Town is big and definitely one of the Penang attractions. You will encounter multiple sites during your visit, some of them even three dimensional as well, like the kids with the bicycle. Enjoy the photos below of the 3D street installations. For my trail I used the exhaustive free guide provided by the tourist office which can also be downloaded here. Visit these places in the night for some spectacular photos.
My personal suggestion is to take the guide as a reference, walk around and you will find small pieces of street art that appear, and disappear, every once in a while.
Kids on bycycle
Hot or Not > Sad to leave
I was indeed sad to leave. I had such a great time in Penang and I loved George Town, definitely a place I will go back, possibly to spend more than one month, maybe actually half a year.
What I liked the most is the street food scene and yes I was able to gain 4 kg 😀 It was actually great to seat and relax after such a physical effort. It was also great to receive an email with a business proposal to follow the Tour de France as a photographer, but that is another story I have to write about!
Lovely corner I spotted in George Town during my night photography sessions
There is a simple decision, the location. If you are after the best food selection stay in Georgetown. There are lots of hotels and backpackers places around, really a wide selection. I booked in the Armenian House, straight in the Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian) where most of the wall graffiti are (like the one on top). Super convenient also for restaurants and cafe, plenty around. I loved the architecture of the building with an awesome historical facade and an old time central yard.
The breakfast is not to call back home about, either a sandwich or a cake with your coffee and juice. However that was really more than enough considering all the food I had during the day 😀
Travel & Photography tips
- If you fly into the Penang airport, take the bus to George Town, it’s cheap and it takes you right in the center
- You can rent the scooter in several places in the backpackers area. I went for mine at the Wheeler’s Coffee in Love Lane (see map below). It was the most convenient one. Car are also available in the same area
- Safety was not an issue when I was there, both in the day and in the night
- Air Asia flies to Penang. It’s a good no-frills company and much cheaper than the competition, especially if booked well in advance
- The best viewpoint in George Town is the top of the KOMTAR building, go there for a sunset photography session
- Sunrise is the best time if you want to photograph Malaysia mainland from Penang
- The best viewpoint in Penang is Kek Lok Si temple, really great
- If you are after documenting the high density building, head to the central part of the island. Some hive 70s building up there, I was really open mouth when I saw them
- Consider some night photography of the street art in George Town. You will have some nice colours and it won’t be that hot
- Any cafe’ is a great place for interior photography
- Take a fast lens (F/1.4, F/1.8) with you. It can be useful in temples and in the cafes
Map of places to visit in Penang