Things to do in George Town: A first-timer's guide to Penang
George Town in Malaysia is the capital city of the state Penang and is located on Penang Island. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city and is a melting pot of different cultures. George Town is a city you shouldn’t miss when you’re traveling to Malaysia. In this first-timer’s guide to Penang, we share all the things to do in George Town and Penang’s must see places!
History of George Town
Historically, Penang Island (and George Town) used to be an important trade route for Europe, the Middle East, India and China. Penang is well-known for its diverse melting pot of cultures. George Town itself was founded by Sir Francis Light in 1786. It was the first British settlement in Southeast Asia. George Town shows the island’s colonial past and mix of cultures very well. Currently, the majority of inhabitants of George Town are Chinese. This historical mix of cultures makes George Town a unique destination.
The historic city center of George Town
George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site
Since 2008, the historic part of George Town is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. George Town contains one of the largest collections of historical, pre-World War buildings in Southeast Asia. George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage Site is practically located within Transfer Road on the west and Prangin Road on the south, on the south-eastern part of the city. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a tourist attraction you wouldn’t want to miss, and was one of our main reasons to visit George Town in the first place.
You’ll find street art everywhere while wandering the streets of George Town’s historic part of the city. All wall art is based on local culture, inhabitants and lifestyles. Besides wall art, you can also find iron caricatures throughout the historic city, that all show a unique aspect of the history and culture of George Town. There’s literally so much to see and to explore in the historic city center of George Town. We spent an entire day strolling around the historic streets and didn’t even get to see everything!
Make sure to stop at some of the amazing coffee shops you’ll come across in the historic city center. They all have a very unique vibe, just like the rest of the city. We loved stopping by Ome Space for a much-needed coffee after hours of shooting all George Town’s street art we stumbled upon.
Shopping malls in George Town
1st Avenue Shopping Mall
George Town has a few very modern malls, among which 1st Avenue Shopping Mall is the largest and our favorite. 1st Avenue offers a large variety of shops and restaurants. If you’d like to watch a movie in the cinema, 1st Avenue is the place to be. The majority of the movies in Malaysian cinemas are in English, which makes it the perfect place for a night out at the movies!
Penang Times Square
Penang Times Square is another mall we visited a lot as it was near our hotel. If you’re not staying close to Penang Times Square, it’s not worth visiting. The variety of shops and food is not great and the place is not special at all with a lot of empty store space.
The Komtar Tower is an iconic, 68-storey building on the island of Penang. The Komtar Mall is situated at the first few floors of the tower. The mall isn’t anything special at all. There are a lot of (shady-looking) bargain and electronics shops. We went there once and never went back.
The Top Rainbow Skywalk
The Top Rainbow Skywalk at the Komtar Tower is a famous tourist attraction in George Town and a must do if you’re in Penang. The Rainbow Skywalk is an open-air observatory deck which is situated at the highest floor of the Komtar Tower (level 68). The Skywalk offers a stunning view over George Town and the rest of Penang Island. You can also walk across a glass floor, so you can get a view of what’s underneath you as well. If you’d like, you can enjoy lunch or dinner at their restaurant while soaking in the views, or just have a drink at one of the seating areas on the observation deck.
Prices: RM 68 (adult)
Opening hours: Sunday-Thursday: 11.00-22.00 Friday & Saturday: 11.00-23.00
Food in George Town
George Town is famous for its street food and is considered the food capital of Malaysia. The Penang cuisine is a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan, Thai and European influences. When you’re in George Town, you have to at least try Char Koay Teow, Assam Laksa and Curry Mee. Char Koay Teow is a dish containing flat rice noodles, prawns, cockles, sausage and eggs. Penang Assam Laksa has a mix of sweet and sour that foreigners often find strange. Curry Mee is actually the same as Curry Laksa in overseas Malaysia and it’s Mika’s favorite dish. Curry Mee’s main feature is the coconut based soup with added chili. The types of noodles and ingredients can vary depending on where you get the dish and what your preferences are. Of course, there are many other foods worth trying in Penang. Best places to try the delicious Penang cuisine is at street stalls or hawker centers.
Beaches in Penang
We didn’t go to any of the beaches in Penang, as we were just coming from beach destination Langkawi where we had plenty of beach time. There are, however, multiple beaches in Penang that are worth visiting. The best beaches in Penang are, among others, Batu Feringghi, Tanjung Bungah and Monkey Beach. There are also a few beaches accessible by hiking in Penang National Park, like Pantai Teluk Kampi and Pantai Kerachut. You could also go to one of the smaller tropical islands around Penang Island, like Pula Jerejak, Pula Aman and Pulau Kendi.
Where to stay in George Town
George Town’s main tourist attraction is the UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are many hotels located in this part of the city. Staying in the historic part of George Town is the perfect location as you can find many cafés, restaurant and street food stalls in the area and it’s just amazing to wander the historic streets every day.
However, we stayed a little bit outside of the historic part of George Town in one of the higher and newer buildings. The hotels just outside the World Heritage Site often offer more luxury like a rooftop swimming pool. The historic part of George Town is still within walking distance, but you’re also closer to shopping malls. We really loved the location where we were staying in George Town and having a rooftop pool overlooking George Town was amazing!
How to get to Penang Island
From Kuala Lumpur you can get to George Town by bus, which takes about 5-6 hours. There are buses that bring you directly to Penang Island and there are buses that take you only to Butterworth. From Butterworth you need to take the ferry or taxi to reach Penang Island. Traveling by bus to Penang Island is the cheapest, but also least comfortable way of travel.
There’s a direct train that brings you from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth, where you have to take the ferry or taxi to reach Penang Island. The train journey takes 4-5 hours.
There are multiple daily flights departing from Kuala Lumpur to Penang Island, but also from other cities in Malaysia and surrounding countries. We flew from Langkawi to Penang Island, a flight of only 40 minutes. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Penang takes around one hour. Flying is absolutely the fastest and most comfortable way to reach Penang Island. In general, it’s also the most expensive way of travel (but still very cheap). However, if you’re flexible with dates you could be able to lock in a great deal.
Best time to visit Penang
In Penang Island, there’s summer weather all year round due to its equatorial climate. Temperatures in Penang are always high, with highs between 29° C and 35° C during the day, and lows between 26° C and 29° C during the night. Rainy season in Penang is from April to November, with October being the wettest month and September being the coolest month. The driest month is January and the warmest month is February.
We visited George Town and Penang in November and had perfect weather. It wasn’t always sunny, but we prefer exploring cities when it’s cloudy over when it’s sunny. We experienced some rain showers, but they always lasted very short. If you just want to experience the historic city of George Town and the culture of Penang, there’s no need to avoid rainy season. If you’re main purpose of your visit to Penang Island is sunbathing on the beach, you might want to consider visiting from January to March.
How many days should you stay in George Town
We stayed in George Town for four days, which was perfect for our purpose of just exploring George Town. If you want to explore more of Penang Island or visit other nearby islands, we would recommend staying longer. Make a list of what you want to do and see and how easy it is to get to these places. This way, you can easily determine how many extra days you would need on the island.
Have you ever been to Penang or are you planning to go? Let us know in the comment section below!
Be sure to check out more of our visual experiences on Instagram!
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