Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia, is a popular destination for travellers and is known as the Malaysian food capital thanks to its delicious peranakan, or nonya, dishes, which take aspects of cooking from the region’s different cultures – Chinese, Malay and Indian.
Although it’s a small island, 295 square kilometres in size, Penang has a lot to offer and is a great choice if you’re looking for somewhere new to visit in Asia.
Its merging of cultures makes it a very relaxed and welcoming island, and I loved it so much that it currently sits at the top of the list of possible destinations for my ‘eventual retirement in Asia’ plan!
Eight great things to do in Penang
Here are my recommendations for eight of the best things to do during your first (and hopefully not your last) trip to Penang.
Explore the Batu Ferringhi night market
Every evening Batu Ferrighi’s night market comes alive, and it’s a great place to pick up some gifts to take back home as well as some cheap (read: knock off!) designer threads or DVDs.
Batu Ferringhi is one of the main tourist areas on the island, with the main road home to many big hotels overlooking the beach. The market brings the area to life every evening (it’s dead quiet during the day) and is so big you could spend an entire evening wandering from one end to the other.
You can find almost anything here; local art and crafts, knock off clothes, hats and bags, homeware, swimming gear and beach outfits, and if you love to barter you’ll be in shopping heaven.
Insider tip – never buy from the first place you see; lots of stalls offer similar items so be sure to shop around to get the best deal…
Eat in the food courts
My absolute favourite thing about Penang was the food. If you enjoy South East Asian, Chinese and or Indian cooking you’ll adore the delicious dishes on offer at the food courts.
We ate in these almost every day we were in Malaysia, as you’re spoilt for choice and the food is both very cheap and damn tasty. Justin and I ate for less than £10 in total most evenings, and would slowly wonder around the different stalls, picking out dishes that caught our eye.
Favourites included the butter chicken, freshly made roti and murtabak, plus we learnt to arrive early at our local food court in Batu Ferringhi in time to grab one of the giant spring rolls a local lady makes and sells every night. She usually makes up a batch of 100 and it’s first come, first served!
Visit the Tropical Spice Garden
The Tropical Spice Garden is a wonderful eco-tourism site to visit during a trip to Penang. Set on the site of a disused rubber plantation, the garden is beautiful place to explore, with over 500 species of tropical flora and fauna.
There are several different garden trails you can follow, taking you past mini waterfalls and streams and you can also take a guided tour around the garden which I strongly recommend, as the knowledgeable guides will share so much information on the different plants and spices and their uses. You may also get to see some of the local wildlife that call the garden their home…
Take a cooking class
Having eaten gorgeous food and explored gardens where the fresh ingredients are found the best way to finish your foodie exploration of Penang is through a cooking class!
We try to do one of these wherever we go, as it’s a great way to learn how to make some of the best local dishes you’ve tried so you can continue to enjoy them when you get home.
During our visit we took a cooking class with locally renowned nonya chef Pearly Kee at the Tropical Spice Gardens, where we learnt how to make the most delicious local chicken curry as well as having lots of laughs attempting to make our very own roti jala.
Explore George Town’s street art
George Town, the island’s capital, is well known for its extensive collection of street art, and rightly so. Gorgeous artworks can be found all across the city and you can pick up maps to do your own walking tours or book yourself on a guided tour.
The most famous, and my personal favourites, were by Ernest Zacharevic, who was commissioned to create a series of artworks across the town for the 2012 George Town Festival. Be sure to head into the city and see how many you can find.
Why not take the Ladies what travel virtual tour of George Town’s street art before you go and see it for yourself?
Take a trip to Fort Cornwallis
Love history? Then the 18th Century star fort Fort Cornwallis is well worth a trip!
Originally built by the British East India Company, the idea of pirates comes to mind, but the fort was used more for administrative purposes than military. Even so, there are cannons to see, but for the more romantic, there’s a beautiful little chapel hidden away.
Here you can also see the only lighthouse in Malaysia that looks like a ship’s mast!
Check out Khoo kongsi
A kongsi is a Chinese clan house where families come together to discuss social and spiritual concerns and commitments.
In Penang these were built by the five largest Chinese clans that came to the island, one of these being the Khoo family. Craftsmen were brought over from China to design and build the highly decorative clan house, which is also known the Dragon Mountain Hall.
A trip here lets you learn more about the cultural diversity in Penang and the history behind the Chinese that came to settle here. Not only for history lovers, if you enjoy architecture and design this should definitely be on your list to visit.
Have afternoon tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel
If, like me, you have a love of tea and cake, you should not miss experiencing afternoon tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel.
Built in 1885, the E&O is still considered one of, if not the best, hotels on the island. It was built by the Sarkies Brothers, who off the back of its success went on to build the Strand Hotel in Rangoon and the world famous Raffles, Singapore, so when you arrive and see it in all its colonial beauty, you know you’re in for a luxury treat.
An elegant dining area, exceptional service and delicious food make this a must-visit for foodie lovers, as well as those looking for a little peace, quiet and cool air, away from the sweaty, bustling capital city.
Read our review of Afternoon Tea at the Eastern & Oriental, Penang.
Have you been to Penang? What would you add to our list of must-sees on the island?