If you’re travelling in Asia I highly recommend you carve out a few days to visit the old town of George Town, Penang. This colourful, colonial city is regarded as a living museum thanks to its heritage-listed shophouses and mansions and in recent years the murals and sculptures that grace these crumbling walls have made the city an Insta-hit.
The unique medley of historic architecture and modern art is complemented by Penang’s delectable food scene and intriguing Peranakan history.
So, whether you crave street art or custard tarts, these are the best things to do in George Town, Penang, including some stunning heritage hotels to stay in.
Best things to do in George Town, Penang
Explore the world-famous street art
Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was the first to make the crumbling walls of George Town his canvas in 2012. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage City is an outdoor gallery, dotted in murals that paint a picture of Penang, past and present.
It’s easy to navigate the Insta-famous murals on foot with a map you can pick up at most hotels, restaurants and shops. If you’re short of time you can also hire a trishaw to whisk you to all the major murals.
Shop, eat and gallery hop at Hin Bus Depot
An abandoned bus depot has become an unlikely arts hub in George Town. After hosting mural artist Zacharevic’s first solo exhibition, the dilapidated Art-Deco style building and surrounding shophouses have flourished into an arts and community hub where you’ll find exhibitions, events, hipster cafes, craft shops and a pop up Sunday market.
Come to shop and stay for ice cream!
Hin Bus Depot, 31a Jalan Gurdwara, 10300 George Town, Penang
Learn local history at Penang Peranakan Museum
Gain a greater understanding of the multi-layered Peranakan culture at Penang’s Peranakan Museum. Housed in the green-hued mansion of a 19th century Chinese merchant, the museum features ornate furniture, antiques and artefacts that are unique to Penang’s Peranakan community.
Entry costs RM20 and free guided tours take place at 11:30 and 15:30.
Penang Peranakan Museum, 29 Church Street, George Town, Penang
Sip & snap 3D coffee art at Coffee On The Table
Break up all that snapping of Insta-famous murals with a coffee that’s pure Insta-fodder.
I’ll admit I was dubious about the claims of Coffee On The Table’s 3D latte art when I saw the street signage but what these baristas do with a bit of foam is simply amazing. Not only does the iced coffee taste good but I think the big kid in us all will enjoy the novel lion or kitty that comes on top of it!
Coffee On The Table, 164 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang
Visit the Clan Jetties
Penang’s heritage trail extends beyond the mansions and shophouses to the stilt houses of the Clan Jetties. Various Chinese clans began these overwater settlements in the 1800s and they remain a residential area of George Town today.
The most well-known jetty, belonging to the Chew Clan, has become somewhat of a tourist spot complete with souvenir stalls and food outlets that are fun to explore.
For a glimpse of more everyday life you are welcome to wander (with respect) some of the other 5 jetties. There are donation boxes near the entrance if you’d like to leave something by way of thanks.
Sample elegant Peranakan Dining at Kebaya Restaurant, Seven Terraces
My husband and I were looking for somewhere fancy to celebrate our anniversary when I discovered the rave reviews of Kebaya Restaurant at Seven Terraces Hotel. As the name suggests, Seven Terraces is a row of 19th century Anglo-Chinese terrace houses that have been transformed into a stunning boutique hotel and restaurant complete with traditional open-air courtyard.
In the sublime Kebaya Dining Room (think: rich red drapes, shining chandeliers and crockery envy) they serve Indochinese and Peranakan cuisine with a modern twist.
A 4 –course meal starts from RM128+ per person but everything from the presentation to flavour is immaculate. They have only 2 seating sessions per evening (6 and 8pm) and it is set menu only, so book ahead for a special food-filled evening.
Kebaya Dining Room, 14A Stewart Lane, 10200, George Town, Penang
Try Penang’s famous street food
For a more affordable foodie experience in George Town simply get involved in the street food. Try Penang Road’s famous TeoChew Chendul (Malaysian shaved iced dessert) in Lebuh Keng Kwee. (You’ll know you’ve found the spot when you see the giant mural and perpetual queue).
From char kuay teow to laksa you’ll be spoilt for choice at Pesgrave Street Hawker Centre but if you’d like a local to point you in the direction of Penang’s best dishes you may want to check out a food tour.
Eat egg tarts at Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop
Still on the subject of food, you simply must try the egg custard tarts at Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop, conveniently found just around the corner from the famous chendul stand on Penang Street.
We managed to bag a table at the old-school shop on Penang Road and watched the bakers pull fresh tarts from the oven while tucking into bbq pork pao buns and the famous crumbly, custardy tarts.
The desirability of Ming Xiang Tai’s pao is so well-known in Penang that they’re the subject of a mural on Armenian Street. I certainly wasn’t keen to share them!
Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop, 475-A Jalan Penang, George Town, Penang
Where to stay in George Town, Penang
If you ask me, a visit to George Town is not complete without a stay in a heritage mansion or colonial-style hotel. The accommodation options in George Town are just as rich in culture as the UNESCO protected streets and there’s a boutique or budget hotel to suit everyone.
We stayed at the grand Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which is a luxury colonial hotel owned by the same brothers behind Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel. With 2 pools, sea views, suites with roll top bathtubs and elegant dining rooms, it proved to be a classy base for our explorations in George Town.
If I was to return, however, I’d like to stay in one of George Town’s heritage mansions that have been converted into boutique hotels.
My top picks include:
Seven Terraces – approx £117 per night
The Edison – approx £118 per night
The Blue Mansion – approx £100 per night
Jawi Peranakan Mansion – approx £70 per night
Have you been to George Town? What did you enjoy the most?
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