25 Jan Best things about Georgetown Penang (Plus street art + street food map)
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia was recommended to us by fellow nomads. Now that we’ve been, we think Georgetown is the best place to visit in Southeast Asia for first time backpackers, couples, and new nomads. In this post we’ll share:
– 6 Reasons why Georgetown is where to go in Southeast Asia for the first time
– Where to stay in Georgetown, Penang
– Cheap Places to eat street food in Georgetown
– Recommended things to do in Penang
– Georgetown street art walking tour and street food map
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We think Georgetown should be the number one stop for anyone visiting Southeast Asia for the first time. Some say it could become “the next Chiang Mai” (a hub for digital nomads and expats).
Here are our top 6 reasons to visit Georgetown, Penang:
- English. The city was first established as a trading post of the British East Indian Company, so English is widely spoken (among several other languages).
- It’s got character. The historic town center has earned a UNESCO World Heritage designation and we always seem to love those heritage sites!
- Food. The area is known for its street food, where you can get meals for under $2 US. Additionally, there are plenty of artsy cafes and air conditioned restaurants, which are more expensive but still very affordable.
- Easy transit. There’s a free “CAT” bus route to most of the tourist spots in town, but an Uber ride across the city rarely goes over $2 anyway. We also found the Old Town to be very walkable, with a few caveats (see below).
- Sights abound. Whether you love colonial history, ancient temples, markets, beaches, jungle hikes, or street art, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Plus, it’s on an island, and you’re not far from the resorts either.
- Health and safety. Healthcare here is top notch. Most doctors, dentists, etc. are trained in the US, UK, or Australia and – again – speak English. Tons of Westerners come here to get medical procedures done in world class facilities at very affordable prices. (We got full health checks including 66 blood tests, ultrasound, x-ray, EKG, and even breakfast, with results delivered the same day, for $112 US! Our dental cleanings were about $30 US and some of the best service we’ve ever received.)
Penang is also one of the safest areas of Malaysia. We felt completely safe at all times. The number one safety warning seems to be: avoid feeding the wild monkeys, followed by a short mention of pick-pockets on the bus.
In other words, Georgetown has all the benefits of other popular Southeast Asian destinations – affordability, amenities, and interesting sights – plus the very important added benefit of English. Even as experienced travelers, removing the communication barrier is a huge relief. AND though it’s very approachable to foreigners, it has yet to become overwhelmed with tourists.
So if you’re wary about visiting Southeast Asia on your own (as we were when we had never traveled outside of Spanish or French-speaking countries) or you aren’t sure where to start, then consider Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
And when you go, use the following post as your guide!
Where to stay in Georgetown, Penang
There are plenty of hotels, apartments, and rooms for rent in Penang, but we think the best place to stay in Penang is near the center of Georgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage zone. Some people end up in the Gurney Drive area but it’s mostly high rise condos and doesn’t have the draw of the Old Town for us. Vacationers may head around the island to the beach resorts of Batu Ferringhi, but we found that to be too far from the real cultural and historical experiences of Georgetown.
To be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Airbnb offerings in our usual budget range for SE Asia (this will likely change as tourism increases), but we were happy with the place we found. The rooms are very small but well designed with private bathrooms and separate entrances, attached to the host’s house. We “splurged” and booked the largest for 11 nights. It was just around the corner from the shops of Nagore Square (pictured above) and about a 15 minute walk to the Old Town area.
Other highly rated accommodation options in central Georgetown:
Islander Lodge – $ – Just outside the UNESCO zone, an ideal budget option for private rooms. Check photos, price, and availability for Islander Lodge >>
Vintage House – $ – A historic guest house in busy Old Town, with shared or private bath and friendly host. Check photos, prices, and availability for Vintage House >>
Ren I Tang Heritage Inn – $/$$ – Check photos, price, and availability for Ren I Tang >>Unique restored building in Georgetown’s very central Little India neighborhood. Includes a nice breakfast.
Jawi Peranakan Mansion – $$/$$$ – Charming colonial house just outside the UNESCO zone, with pool and breakfast included. Check photos, price, and availability for Jawi Peranakan >>
Le Dream Boutique Hotel – $$$ –Check photos, price, and availability for Le Dream Boutique Hotel >> Central and modern with amenities like complimentary ice cream and snacks on the roof top!
Getting around Penang
One reason we recommend staying in the town center is because it’s easy to get around. The city offers a free shuttle bus that loops around the main tourist area (here’s the most useful info and map about the CAT shuttle bus that we found). City bus rides elsewhere are super cheap, just tell the driver where you’re going when you get on and he’ll tell you the fare (bring small bills and coins as they don’t give change back). Alternatively, you can call an Uber for no more than a couple dollars across town, or get a more interesting experience by hiring a trishaw driver for quite a bit more.
We used a combination of Uber, the free CAT shuttle, and city buses – but mostly, we walked. The temperature was fine in the morning and evenings, granted this was in January and even then the mid-day sun got to be a bit much. You do need to constantly watch your step – and don’t expect to use sidewalks like you’re used to, either.
For the following two sections on Georgetown Penang food and street art, we’ve put together the following map. To access the interactive Google MyMaps version, just sign up below and we’ll e-mail it to you.
Cheap places to eat street food in Georgetown
Many will tell you that the best food in Penang is the street food. With the mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other influences, there are all kinds of interesting dishes to try.
Guided Street Food Tour: Taste the best of Penang on a 4-hour tour of Penang’s street food stalls with an expert guide. All food and drink, transportation with AC, and local guide included. Learn more and check availability >>
Our interactive map (accessible via the form above or at the bottom of this post) includes all of the recommended places we ate, along with notes and photos for each location. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of street food places you should try at least once:
1. The coffee house/food court: This typically has a covered, open-air seating scenario where various food cart vendors are stationed along the outside. You can order dishes from any combination of the food carts and tell them where you’ll be sitting. The coffee house owner or food court operator will then take your drink order – drinks are required for use of the tables, or else you’ll be asked to pay a fee. Often they’ll make juices fresh with real fruit (and sugar); other options may be soft drinks, tea, coffee, or a coconut. Drinks and food will arrive to your table whenever they’re ready, and you’ll pay separately for each.
Examples of food courts on our map include:
– Chulia Street Night Market
– New World food court
– Gurney Drive Night Market
– Ho Ping Kafe
– Red Garden food court
2. The specialty shop: These restaurants specialize in just one or two things, and they usually do them really well! It may be chicken noodle soup, or fish ball soup, or Hainan chicken rice, or roti bakar (toast). Often they’re only open for half the day, depending on whether their specialty is a breakfast food or dinner fare. Either way, if the locals are flocking to it and you see everyone eating the same thing, take that as a very good sign.
Examples of Penang specialty restaurants on our map include:
– Kafe Evergreen
– Hutton Lane Roti Bakar
– Anba Coconut
– Fook Cheow Fishball Noodles
– Chowrasta Pork Porridge cart
Again, if you want more details about where to eat in Georgetown specifically, get access to our map for free via the form at the bottom of this post.
Top recommended things to do in Penang
1. Street Art Walking Tour
Hunting for murals and interesting wall art in Georgetown was probably our favorite activity, next to eating, of course. We’ll share more on that below – and you can see all of the specific locations we visited in our map, accessible at the bottom of this post.
2. Visit historic sites
George Town is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its exceptional example as a multi-cultural trading town, with influences from both Asia and colonial Europe. Simply walking around the core heritage zone and the “buffer zone” will bring you to numerous historic commercial buildings; temples of Chinese, Malay, and Indian origin; and colonial style homes.
3. Hike Penang Hill and Penang National Park
Overlooking Georgetown is the highest point on the island, Penang Hill. There are various ways to hike up – from the “Moongate” near the Botanical Garden or via the Heritage Trail near the tram’s lower station. On a typical day, you can also take the tram up and/or down to get the panoramic views at the top (though we didn’t have that luxury when we went).
Any way you cut it, it’s a challenging (and sweaty) climb to the summit but a rewarding hike nonetheless. Start at sunrise, bring extra water, and maybe even a change of clothes! You can also get the view above by doing a shortened hike from Moongate to “Penang Hill Station 5” – an outdoor fitness area in the jungle – and returning by the same way.
We took city bus 101 to its end point, Penang National Park, for less than 4RM (under $1). The Park is free to enter, but you do need to register at the entrance and tell them where you’re going. (You do pay a fee in advance if you want to go on the canopy bridges.) You can also hire a boat to take you to the beaches on the other side.
The entry trail along the sea is mostly flat and populated with monkeys. Then you can choose to hike left for the beach with small turtle sanctuary or right for Monkey Beach and lighthouse.
Monkey Beach was closed when we went, so we took the other route to Kerachut Beach. The hike is up and down and gets very hot and sweaty! It is said to take most people 90 minutes one way. It was a cool trail and a nice, quiet beach. The turtle sanctuary is not really worth visiting unless baby turtles are hatching, as there are normally just a few sea turtles in small, depressing tubs.
Georgetown street art walking tour
The municipal council wisely commissioned a Lithuanian muralist and a steel rod sculpture company, who – along with several other artists – have created enticing wall art throughout Georgetown. Penang street art offers a whimsical, modern contrast to the historic architecture of the heritage zone. What makes it especially fun to explore is that much of the Georgetown street art is interactive.
Georgetown street art is best explored by foot, but if you’re not staying nearby, you might want to take the free CAT bus around the Old Town where there’s a higher concentration of murals.
In this post, we’ll share some of our favorite Georgetown street art photos to entice you. If you’re wondering where to find this wall art in Penang, then check out our interactive map with a suggested street art walking tour route all laid out for you. (You can access the street art map via e-mail by using the form at the bottom of this post.)
Pictured above is just one of the many artsy rooms in China House, which is definitely worth at least a walk-through, if you don’t stop for a bite of cake.Some of the older residences are works of art in themselves, with ornate doors, decorative tiles, and pops of color.The former Hin Bus Depot has been renovated to house a few trendy shops, small art museum, cafe, and more street art in the courtyard. Visit on Sunday to hit the weekly craft market.
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Get our Georgetown, Penang map
Access our free interactive Google MyMaps to find the top sights and cheap street food in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Includes our Georgetown street art walking tour itinerary.