24 hours in… Penang, Malaysia

Every year for my birthday, I try to do something new and fun. I love birthdays – whether it’s mine or someone else’s, I always try to make it a super special day; after all, it is the day that I/you/we entered the world and made it a much more magical place!

For my 28th birthday, after a lot of deliberation, I booked a weekend away in Penang, Malaysia. Flights were incredibly cheap (approximately AUD$140 return from Vientiane, Laos) and with the Aussie dollar staying strong against the Malaysian Ringgit, the weekend wasn’t going to break the bank.

penang travel guide

I have always wanted to visit Penang – years ago my family travelled there, without me, as I chose to stay home and work over the Christmas break. I was pretty intrigued when my family came back and raved about how much fun they had in Penang, and yes, I did have a bit of FOMO.

Now I had the perfect opportunity, it was too good to pass up! To sum up how excited I was, I spent a week researching places to visit, and the top recommended eating spots – this is the exact opposite of my usual travel style, where I just wing it when I get to my destination. I even printed out a travel guide to take with me! FOMO has it perks I guess.

Here is my 24 hour guide to this amazing island:

penang travel guide
My scrumptious ricotta pancakes with fresh tropical fruit from Black Kettle, Georgetown, Penang.

0800: start the day with breakfast at Black Kettle, located in the UNESCO heritage area of Penang’s capital city, Georgetown. It is the ultimate contemporary cafe serving up both modern and classic dishes. I had ricotta pancakes with fresh fruit and a flat white – both were so yummy! There’s an extensive breakfast menu, with so many mouthwatering options, and the lunch menu is just as good. Service is pretty efficient and there’s free wifi – perfect for preparing for your day ahead.

penang travel guide
One of Ernest Zacharevic’s most popular street art murals, Children on a Bicycle, located on Armenian Street.

0930: there’s one thing that Georgetown is famous for aside from its food: the incredible street art; the most notable works are by Lithuanian-born and Penang-based street artist Ernest Zacharevic. The history behind the street art is that the State Government wanted to revitalise Georgetown, to ensure it lived up to its UNESCO Heritage title. Zacharevic started his first mural as part of the 2012 Georgetown Festival, and after a slow positive reception to his artwork, he started to add more to the walls of the city.

There’s a lot of street art in Georgetown, by multiple artists, both local and international. It’s now one of Penang’s top tourist attractions, and you can’t walk through Georgetown without passing tourists on the lookout for the famed street art.

penang travel guide
Little Boy with a Pet Dinosaur was one of Zacharevic’s first murals, and is a bit trickier to find on Ah Quee Street, a small alley off Beach Street.

Join the rest of the tourist pack and pick up a street art map (usually available from most cafes in Georgetown, or download one online) and start discovering! The most popular ones are located on Armenian Street and Love Lane (not far from Black Kettle), and there are a few more in the surrounding streets. It can get pretty hot during the day so bring a hat and a large bottle of water with you – and most importantly, make sure your camera battery is fully charged and there’s plenty of space on your memory card.

penang travel guide
This cute mural called Boy on a Chair is on Lebuh Cannon, next to a drinks stand. If you ask the stall holder nicely, he’ll be more than happy to take your photo. (excuse the scabby knee, I fell off my bike the week before!)

1200: you’ve scoured the streets of Georgetown for street art and you’re famished. Pop over to Mugshot Cafe for a refreshing iced coffee and one of their famous bagels, which are made by the cafe. While you’re waiting for your order, ask one of the staff members to take a photo of you in front of their mugshot wall (hence called ‘Mugshot’ Cafe) – you can’t say you’ve been there unless you’ve taken a mugshot!

1300: once you’ve refueled, there are a few options you can do from here:

penang travel guide
One of the cute houses at the Clan Jetties – how charming to sit on the balcony and watch the ships go by.
penang travel guide
The opulent Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which also doubles as a very exclusive hotel. The hotel recently underwent an expensive and meticulous restoration.
penang travel guide
The architects used original techniques to return the mansion to its traditional splendour, including restoring the detailed ceramic murals using ancient Chinese methods.

a) keep exploring the Georgetown UNESCO Heritage area – visit the Camera Museum (the first camera musueum in Asia, entry is $20MYR and worth it if you love photography), explore Little India (possibly the most authentic one I’ve ever visited), tour the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (also known as the Blue Mansion, tours are $16MYR for adults and times are 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm), indulge in some tea and cake at China House, famous for their delicious home-made cakes and check out the Clan Jetties for a slice of Penang history that’s firmly enmeshed in the present. Also see if you can spot the original Jimmy Choo shop!!

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The original Jimmy Choo store – wow! This had to be one of the highlights of my trip!!
penang travel guide
Ice Kachang! Mine was pretty special as it had vanilla bean ice-cream and sarsparilla added to it! Interesting taste, is all I can say…

b) visit Penang Hill, the island’s highest point. This is an amazing spot to visit; the views are gorgeous and you can really get a sense for how Penang has grown from a port into an economic hub. It’s not just a pretty lookout, there’s a guided nature walk, an Owl Museum, a cafe, their own version of a Love Lock bridge, a Hindu temple, a mosque, amphitheatre with live music, and hawker stalls all claiming to sell the original Penang Ice Kachang (shaved ice with red bean, grass jelly, tapioca, corn kernels, rose syrup, palm sugar syrup). I’d say it’s about a half day trip so if you leave at 1pm you will be back in Georgetown before dinner.

penang travel guide
At the lookout at Penang Hill, where you can get sweeping views of Georgetown and the harbour – super picturesque. (ps. that’s henna on my hands)
penang travel guide
Some of the colourful statues depicting Hindu gods at the Sri Mariamman temple on Penang Hill.

c) for some serious retail therapy, hop on a bus and head to Gurney Paragon, en route to Batu Ferringhi beach. This is a mega mall and has all you could need – Sephora, Kate Spade, TWG, H&M, L’Occitane and Michael Kors, to name a few! This is also a great option if you want to escape from the heat for a few hours, as you can then get back on the bus to Batu Ferringhi beach and the night markets (be warned, it is a long bus ride, so you might want to catch an Uber instead).

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Nagore Square, a cute little hipster area filled with cafes, boutiques and bars, located on Jalan Nagor.
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More street art, this time in Nagore Square, of a 60s style Malaysian socialite, located appropriately, outside a bar.

d) explore the less touristy side of Georgetown and catch the bus to the main bus terminal at Komtar, the commercial area of the city. Not many tourists head in this direction, opting for the charm of the UNESCO area of the city, or for the beaches of Gurney Drive or Batu Ferringhi. There’s actually plenty to discover here, including Nagore Square, located off Jalan Burma. This is another gorgeous historical area with a strong Chinese influence – there is more street art, boutiques, cafes and some new hip bars opening up, something that wasn’t around five years ago. On the other side is Jalan Macalister, with lots of Nasi Kandar stalls, local restaurants and after sunset, one of the side streets is transformed into a street-foodie’s heaven.

1800: if you’ve been snacking the whole day (good work!) you’re probably not quite ready for dinner. Head back to your hotel to freshen up, as I’m sure you’ve worked up quite a sweat after a whole day of exploring, like I did! Have a power nap as well, as the evening’s humidity will take it out of you!

2000: once you’re awake again and ready to go, catch a bus or Uber to Jalan Macalister for dinner. There’s a street food night market on Lorong Baru, where Sunway Hotel is located (you can’t miss the smell and sounds), or if you hate queuing, I would recommend a local Nasi Kandar stall called Sup Hameed (has a bright purple and yellow sign). While the staff can be slightly aggressive, don’t be put off – they’re highly efficient and the food is to die for! I really enjoyed their Mee Goreng, and their murtabak is not too bad. The fact that this place is always filled with locals is a good testament to how great this stall is.

penang travel guide
This guy was such a joy to watch, making char koay kak (a variation of char kway teow) on the back of his ute!
penang travel guide
The end result: a finger-licking dish that is smoky, spicy, salty, sweet, soft and crunchy all at once. You simply must try this!!

You could also check out the Batu Ferringhi night markets. If you’re taking public transport, it can take between 40 minutes to an hour to reach the market strip, so if you choose to head there, leave your hotel earlier. There’s an amazing hawker centre called Long Beach Cafe, very popular with tourists as it’s one of the top rated eating places on Trip Advisor, but don’t let that deter you. It’s a great way to sample all the different types of cuisine on offer in Malaysia and it’s all cheap. Alternatively, you can dine at one of the more Western-style restaurants located along the strip. The markets themselves are average, selling the usual faux-designer ware and local handicrafts you can find anywhere in SE Asia. There is a lady who does henna tattoos, which I love and with prices starting from $10MYR (about AUD$3) it’s a fun way to try something new and learn more about this ancient art form.

2130: you’ll be in a happy food coma right now, and you should, this is Penang after all, the world capital of wonderful food. If you can waddle your way out, head back into the UNESCO area of Georgetown and make a beeline for China House. While this is a cake shop during the day, at night the back area transforms into an entertainment venue called The Canteen, which has live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. It’s a popular hangout spot with the locals and its not far from the main jetty bus terminal, so you have an easy way home.

Extra notes:

  • How I got there: I flew with Airasia, departing from Vientiane, arriving via Kuala Lumpur.
  • Where I stayed: being on a tight budget, I booked a bed at Sogor Girls Dormitory, on Lorong Kek Chuan, off Jalan Macalister. It’s about a one hour bus ride to the accommodation from the airport. The accommodation is really safe and clean, and you can come and go as you please without disturbing anyone.
  • How I got around: I walked a lot and used public transport to visit places like Penang Hill, the UNESCO area and Batu Ferringhi night markets. The bus system is so easy to use and the State Government have done a great job in providing useful information on bus timetables and routes. You can pick up a free map and timetable from the main bus terminal info counters. Bicycles are also available to rent for $10MYR a day, mainly in the UNESCO Heritage area.
  • Additional things to do: I would highly recommend just hopping on a bus and seeing where it goes! I did this after getting a bus going the opposite direction of where I wanted to go and it was so fascinating to see the local neighbourhoods, making mental notes of really cool local hawker stalls. It’s quite interesting to see that the different cultural groups are fairly segregated and stick to their own neighbourhoods; also a poor reflection on Malaysia’s efforts at cultural harmony and diversity.
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