In celebration of George Town Heritage Day this week, we explore the Unesco World Heritage site’s best attractions – both old and new
Old meets new in Penang’s vibrant capital of George Town, where heritage buildings and bustling street hawkers coexist with trendy new eateries and contemporary murals – a peephole into Malaysia’s rich and diverse history. In 2008, George Town was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site and despite the influx of tourists since, it’s still well worth a visit.
Just shy of an hour’s flight from Kuala Lumpur, George Town’s culinary scene has earned its reputation as a food capital. Culture enthusiasts will love the centuries-old heritage that brims here at every corner. In recent years, a trendy bar scene, hip boutique hotels, fascinating street art – and even various annual arts festivals including the likes of George Town Writers Festival and George Town Festival – have also cropped up, lending it that extra cool factor. If you’re looking for a quick weekend jaunt or a change in scenery, get inspired with our list of top things to do in George Town, Penang.
1. Visit Penang’s oldest mosque and temple
The ornate domes of Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang’s oldest mosque, is a must-see in person. Built in 1801 by the city’s first Indian Muslim settlers, the Indo-Moorish structure bears homage to both Mughal and Indo-Islamic architectures. You’ll also find the Goddess of Mercy, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple, and Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple, all within walking distance from the mosque, a testament to Penang’s multi-faith society.
2. Take a walking tour around the historical Lebuh Light
Lebuh Light, also known as Light Street is a bustling maze of narrow, busy alleys named after Francis Light, Penang’s colonial founder. Here, you’ll find all the vestiges of the island’s colonial past, like the grand Victorian town hall, the adjacent City Hall, Fort Cornwallis and the High Court. All of George Town’s Unesco World Heritage sites are great to discover on foot, but do get an early start to avoid the afternoon temperatures.
Read more: Take a walking tour of old and new in Ipoh
3. Check out its Instagram-famous street art
George Town has in recent years become synonymous with the street art and murals along its alleyways. (Just earlier this year, Penang’s container art festival made headlines around the world for its stunning mural designs.) Spotting them is a bit of a treasure hunt, so plan your street art tour with this handy map from Penang’s official tourist office. You’re probably already familiar with the Instagram-famous murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, but do look out for the cartoon steel-rod sculptures depicting everyday life in George Town, courtesy of local artists like Baba Chuah, Reggie Lee, Tan Mun Kian and Julian Kam, as part of the state’s Marking George Town project. Note you’ll likely have to wait alongside the throngs of tourists all determined to capture them for their ’grams too.
4. Enjoy its world-renowned street food for lunch
No trip to Penang is complete without a taste of its street food culture. Swing by the famous Kimberley Street hawker stalls for a piping-hot plate of char koay teow, try the juicy satay at the bustling food carts along New Lane or feast your way through Chulia Street Night Market for supper. Penangites are obsessed with their seafood too, and few places beat the fresh offerings at beachside restaurant Ocean Green, popular for its locally fished garoupa, steamed pomfret, baked prawns and more.
5. Tour the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion
You might recognise this iconic 19th-century indigo mansion, which made an appearance in the hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians (2018). It was the home of its namesake, Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese politician and businessman, who built it in the 1880s as a gift to his seventh wife. It was eventually sold to a Penang-based group of conservationists in the 1980s. Today, it’s a quaint boutique hotel offering daily tours around its famed courtyard and premises – now resumed since the easing of the MCO with new safe distancing rules in place.
6. Shop its homegrown brands
To pick up some keepsakes from Penang’s local labels, make a beeline for The Warung. This store carries a slew of homegrown artisanal brands, and there’s everything from hand-poured candles to textiles, all housed in a charming colonial shophouse with a striking whitewashed façade and exposed brick interiors. Or, for something a little more traditional, check out Sams Batik House, a Penang institution that sells batik, kurtas and traditional garments in every design and colour imaginable.
7. Cafe-hop about George Town
Penang has a burgeoning coffee scene, with plenty of cool cafés to stop by for freshly brewed speciality coffee and baked treats. Try the flat whites at The Mugshot, an eclectic café on Chulia Street with a simple but delicious menu; the kopi luwak (civet coffee) at Kopi Loewak on Armenian Street; or, if you’re feeling hot, a sous-vide cold brew at Coffee Downstairs.
Read more: Where to go for specialty coffee in KL
8. Visit its local indie bookstore
Gerakbudaya is the perfect place to discover the best of the literary scene in Penang, Malaysia and beyond. There’s everything from current affairs and political reads to local fiction and arts. It’s no surprise that Penang-born Man Asian Literary Prize winner Tan Twan Eng counts the store as a favourite too.
9. Grow your plant collection at this bonsai gallery
Something a little different to inject into your George Town itinerary: M’atural, a bonsai gallery-meets-café has plenty of specimens to add to your collection and even a guided workshop on kokedama (a centuries-old Japanese garden art form).
10. Enjoy a tipple at its hidden bars
No longer just a stronghold for wallet-friendly dives, George Town has, in recent years, seen a crop of cool new bars. At the lantern-festooned Manchu Bar, the striking old-world Chinese interiors ooze plenty of wow-factor and the affordably priced cocktail list doesn’t disappoint. China House, another crowd-favourite houses a bakery, an area for live music, as well as a hidden cocktail bar behind its in-house library.
11. Step back in time in George Town’s restored heritage hotels
There’s everything from backpacker-friendly hostels to luxurious boltholes in George Town – but its storied heritage hotels, like the Cheong Tze Fatt Mansion and the eight-room Macalister Mansion, offer a uniquely local stay. For those looking to splash out, the waterfront Eastern and Oriental Hotel, fondly known as E&O, promises the ultimate five-star digs with spacious suites, a stunning infinity pool and other creature comforts. Or, check into the Prestige Hotel, a new opening whose heritage façade belies a modern and minimalist all-white interior.
Read more: Three of Singapore’s best heritage hotels
12. Swing by a Sunday pop-up market
Once a run-down bus station, Hin Bus Depot is now arguably George Town’s coolest arts and lifestyle space. Here, murals deck the walls and exterior, and eye-catching sculptures can be found scattered around the space. Keep your eyes peeled for a painting by self-taught Iranian artist Nafir; Penang-based British artist’s Thomas Powel’s mural of a tiger-headed Bornean headhunter; the eccentric baby sculptures by Low Chee Peng; and various works by Ernest Zacharevic. Every Sunday, Hin Bus Depot also hosts a pop-up market where local small businesses and musicians showcase their crafts and talents.