George Town is the capital of Penang, a 111-square-mile island off the west coast of Malaysia. The island gets its name from the betel nut tree, called pinang in Malaysian. While some residents chew betel nuts, you’ll probably be more interested in sinking your teeth into the astonishing variety of foods available in this culinary capital. Add in George Town’s historic architecture, which boosted it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and the area makes for a rewarding destination.
Located at the north entry to the Straits of Malacca, the island was used for centuries as a safe harbor for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe. British Capt. Francis Light arranged to have Penang ceded by the Sultan of Kedah to the British East India Company in 1786 in return for promised military protection. Legend has it that Light fired a cannon filled with coins into the jungle to get locals to clear the ground. With the construction of Fort Cornwallis and the founding of George Town (named after King George III), Penang became Britain’s first stronghold in Southeast Asia. Trade flourished — including rubber, tin and opium — and attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. The island was captured by the Japanese in World War II and became part of the independent state of Malaysia in 1957.
Today, the population of George Town totals about 750,000, with the majority being ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays and Indians. The Peranakans represent a distinct subculture. In the past, Chinese traders married Malay women, and a blending of the cultures created hybrid customs, foods and dress.
George Town’s melting pot of cultures contributes to its fascinating food scene, as well as to its many places of worship, including Chinese clan houses, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and colonial-era Christian churches. Now, UNESCO recognition has brought a new influx of tourists. George Town’s crumbling “shop houses” are being rehabbed into boutique hotels, while outside the city, shopping malls and luxury housing have sprung up along beaches.
Many travelers choose to visit in Penang’s dryer months of January and February. The equatorial climate keeps it hot year-round (72 to 86 degrees) with fierce sun, so plan accordingly when packing for your trip.
George Town Attractions
George Town’s historic buildings earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. They include Fort Cornwallis and grand colonial architecture along Lebuh Light and Lebuh Farquhar, as well as historic shophouses (with shops on the bottom and residences above), places of worship, mansions and Chinese clan jetties. The Penang Heritage Trust offers several different heritage walking tours that last two to three hours; be sure to book a few days in advance. Viator also offers walking tours of George Town.
The Penang State Museum is an air-conditioned oasis with excellent, well-curated displays depicting the history and cultures of Penang. You’ll see everything from ornate Peranakan wedding outfits to information on George Town’s food scene.
The “Street of Harmony,” Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street), offers an unusual chance to see major religious communities existing side by side. Just off the street, you’ll find the beautiful, historic Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Indian Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple and Anglican St. George’s Church. You’ll come upon many other historic Chinese temples and clan buildings in the city’s old streets and alleys that are well worth a look.
George Town is becoming known for its clever street art, which appears as engaging murals with 3D elements by Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, or entertaining welded-iron caricatures that illustrate how different streets or neighborhoods earned their names. A downloadable brochure from Penang Tourism offers descriptions and tells you where to find the art (or just look for a gaggle of tourists posing for photos with some of Zacharevic’s most popular works).
See how wealthy George Town traders lived by visiting either the Pinang Peranakan Mansion or Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (also known as the Blue Mansion). Both are huge homes, although the latter also serves as a hotel, so access is more limited. If you have time to visit only one, we recommend the Peranakan Mansion, which is full of furniture and artifacts depicting family life.
Chinese clan jetties jut into the water about a half-mile south of George Town’s cruise terminal, off of Pengkalan Weld. Houses and temples are built along historic piers. The most famous (and, thus, the most visited by tours) is the Chew Jetty. For a quieter, more personal experience, explore the narrow passageways of the Lim Jetty, which you reach before the Chew Jetty.
Nature lovers might want to head to the Botanic Gardens or the Tropical Spice Garden. The 72-acre Botanic Gardens site was founded in 1884 by the British. It’s a five-mile trip outside of George Town by bus or taxi. In addition to the vast collection of unusual tropical trees and plants, you’ll also probably spot long-tailed macaques and dusky leaf monkeys as you stroll the paths. In fact, don’t take any food with you, or the critters might get a bit too friendly. The Tropical Spice Garden, about 13 miles from town and best reachable by taxi, features 500 species of flora and fauna, spread over eight acres of secondary tropical jungle. The facility also has a gift shop and cafe and offers guided tours and cooking lessons. (Book both in advance.) It can be combined with a visit to the nearby beach area, Batu Ferringhi.
Kek Lok Si Temple is a huge complex (said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia) located in the hills about six miles from George Town. Aside from the excellent views, attractions include a funicular train that travels up to a massive 120-foot-high statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, as well as a tower of 10,000 Buddhas, which you can climb under your own power for more views. With its souvenir shops and crowds, the place seems a bit like Disneyland. It can also be combined with a trip to nearby Penang Hill, about a mile away. Viator offers a variety of day trips.
Penang Hill was a cool refuge for the British, who built bungalows along its slopes. The Penang Hill Railway can take you to the top, 2,000 feet above sea level, where food and tea vendors offer refreshments to accompany the views.
Toy lovers can travel back to their childhoods at Ben’s Vintage Toy Museum in George Town. Chances are, the friendly family members who lovingly collected the toys will be there to walk you through the small private museum’s two floors.
Ferringhi Beach (Batu Ferringhi) is located up to an hour from George Town, depending on traffic. The waters aren’t as pristine as you might hope for, and there’s the buzz of water sports vehicles, but you’ll still find white sand and palms amid the resort hotels. As dusk falls, a famous Night Market stretches more than a half-mile along the beach. (By the way, ferringhi might sound familiar to Star Trek fans. It actually means “foreigner.”)
George Town Restaurants
George Town’s melting pot of cultures cooks up some great cuisine. You’ll find Indian, Chinese and Malay dishes — all with uniquely Penang-style twists. In addition, there’s Peranakan Nyonya (“mama”) food, a cuisine that developed when Chinese traders married local Malay women, as well as an abundance of seafood. For a look at 12 iconic local dishes and where to find them, download Penang Tourism’s excellent Food Trail brochure.
Some of the most popular dishes include assam laksa (hot and sour fish broth with noodles, vegetables and shrimp paste), fried koay teow (rice noodles stir-fried with prawns and cockles) and roti canai (crispy, flat Indian pastries cooked on a griddle and served with spicy lentil dip). Desserts tend to be shaved ice, with toppings like sweet beans, corn, coconut milk and green pandan noodles. For a fascinating, cooling drink, try ais tingkap, described below.
The water in Penang is safe to drink, and hygiene among street food vendors is of a higher standard than most places in Asia. We dined on a variety of street foods with no problem.
To sample George Town’s famous hawker food, your best bet at lunchtime is to visit Lorong Selamat, between Jalan Burmah and Jalan Macalister. Heng Huat Cafe is famous for its char kuey teow (and rude proprietor), as is its competitor Low Eng Hoo Cafe. T&T Hokkien Mee dishes up several versions of the classic soup noodles, while, farther down the street, you’ll find oyster omelets, duck rice and laksa vendors. To suss out the best vendors, look for lines of locals.
The ais tingkap street vendor concocts one of the most interesting beverages you’ll ever consume. The base is shaved ice, which makes it fabulously refreshing. To that, the Indian proprietor adds rose essence, coconut water, a bit of sugar syrup, fresh coconut water, tender “young coconut” meat, a dash of herbs and — most unusual of all — soaked basil seeds, which form a gelatinous coating around their crunchy center. It all sounds rather strange, but trust us, the rosy-pink drink is worth a try. And the show’s good, too, as the complex concoction gets mixed for you. To find the vendor, look to your right as you head down little Lebuh Tamil for tables against the wall and a man surrounded by various buckets and jars of ingredients.
Tek Sen Restaurant is renowned for its siew yuk, or double-cooked pork. (With a name like that, it has to be good, right?) But the extensive menu (in English) provides plenty to choose from, with several Chinese ethnic cuisines represented. The decor offers very little, though.
De Tai Tong Cafe is a classic dim sum spot, where you’ll find “aunties” pushing carts of Chinese dumplings through the decor-free room that harkens back to the 1960s. In addition to the usual dumplings, they also serve noodle dishes.
Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine offers favorites like assam prawns and beef randang in a nondescript atmosphere with warm, friendly owners and reasonable prices. Set menus let you sample more dishes with smaller portions of each.
Kapitan offers a wide variety of Indian food in a bustling but scruffy environment. We’re suckers for roti canai, and the butter chicken was tasty, too, washed down with a mango lassi. It’s also known for its clay pot nasi briyani, a spicy rice dish.
Kebaya Restaurant, located at the Seven Terraces Hotel, is only open for dinner. It’s worth a visit for upscale “modern” Nyonya cuisine, using innovative ingredients and techniques, in a stylish fine-dining environment.
1885 Fine Dining Restaurant serves British afternoon tea in the landmark Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Dress appropriately for the elegant environment.
Suffolk House offers refined European dining and afternoon tea in a beautifully renovated heritage building. The chef is known for his truffle mushroom soup.
Shopping in George Town
While you might pick up a “souvenir” of five extra pounds after sampling George Town’s delectable food, you might also decide to bring back an inexpensive outfit from Little India or a more expensive lacy, embroidered kebaya, the traditional jacket-like top worn by Peranakan women. (You’ll find some ready-made models available at the Chowrasta Market complex.)
Peranakan Nyonya beaded shoes can also be pricey — but beautiful — souvenirs. The best are made to order at places like Hong Kong Shoe Store at 20 Kimberley Street, where native son Jimmy Choo apprenticed, or Nyonya Beaded Shoes at 4 Lebuh Armenian. You’ll also find less-expensive ready-made versions around town.
Under the roofs of neighboring Penang Bazaar and Chowrasta Market (on Jalah Pinang near Lebuh Campbell), you’ll find everything from spices to fabric and souvenir fridge magnets. If you enjoy markets, it’s worth poking around. The second floor of the market houses a mind-boggling collection of used books, while alleyways between buildings host street food vendors.
Shoppers who prefer an air-conditioned mall environment can head to Gurney Plaza, offering nine floors of upscale shops and food outlets. International brands and local clothing and crafts can be found here.
–written by Gayle Keck