Malaysia’s cultural melting pot arrives steaming to the table in Penang, where Taoist temples and the mansions of Peranakan (Straits Chinese) merchants share the streets with Malay mosques and South Indian Hindu temples. Once a British colonial trading hub, this idyllic tropical island is now renowned for its beaches, cultural treasures and fabulous food.
The historic centre of Georgetown is easily explored on foot, by rented bicycle or by trishaw, and taxis and the air-conditioned buses of the Central Area Transit network provide access to other parts of the island. To reach the summit of Penang Hill, board the funicular railway at Air Itam.
Start your explorations in the historic centre of Georgetown, where Penang’s rich colonial history is written large in museums and monuments. The air is heavy with Chinese incense at the historic Kuan Yin and Khoo Kongsi temples, while ceiling fans calmly stir the air at the Kapitan Keling Mosque, founded by Indian traders in the 1800s.
The Hindu community are represented by colourful temples across the city, including the handsome Sri Mariamman Temple on Lebuh Queen. Colonial architecture is in rich supply, from stately Peranakan homes such as the Blue Mansion to the battlements of Fort Cornwallis. The Penang Museum brings Penang’s colonial history vividly to life.
Georgetown is only the beginning. From the suburb of Air Itam, a funicular railway climbs to the summit of Penang Hill, which offers stunning views across the island. Nearby are the island’s agreeably tropical Botanical Gardens and the towering seven-tiered pagoda that soars above the Kek Lok Si Temple.
Circling round the island, Batu Ferringhi has the best of the beaches, with a long sweep of blonde sand and a scattering of beach resorts. There are more stunning strips of sand inside Penang National Park, accessible from the fishing village of Teluk Bahang.
There’s plenty to see off the main tourist trail. Start with the city’s eclectic street art, created by mural artists such as Ernest Zacharevic along Armenian Street and Lebuh Ah Quee. The backstreets of Georgetown spring to life on the last Sunday of every month, as the Little Penang Street Market fills the north end of Lebuh Penang. En route to Penang’s beaches, stop off at the Snake Temple in Sungai Kluang, where sacred vipers slither across the shrines. Pick up a local map to find dozens more historic temples, mosques and shrines scattered around the streets of old Georgetown.
Penang hawker food is famous across Asia, with hundreds of vendors stewing, stir-frying and boiling everything from Thai-style tom yam soup to Chinese-inspired char kway teow noodles and the city’s legendary Assam laksa, flavoured with mackerel, sour tamarind and lemongrass. As you might expect, Little India bubbles with Indian flavours, while Jalan Burma is a banquet of Malay and Nyonya cooking and Lebuh Cintra stirs up a Chinese feast. For fine dining, head to the top hotels – Kebaya at the Seven Terraces fuses Asian flavours with French haute cuisine.