George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city next to Kuala Lumpur and the capital of Penang, but it doesn’t feel anything like a big city. In fact, George Town’s city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for its preservation of culture and the many historical buildings in the area.
Once a British trading post (the town was named after King George III), George Town is a multicultural place where Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European cultures collide. This melting pot identity shows through in its various architectural styles, types of food, and places of worship. It’s not uncommon to see a Chinese temple, a mosque, and a Hindu temple all within a few blocks from one another. The coexistence of different faiths and backgrounds creates a unique culture in this very special city.
George Town is also crawling with top-notch cuisine, as it’s said to be the gastronomical capital of the country, as well as a bustling social scene and some of the most creative street art I have ever seen. There are a million reasons to love this historical Malaysian city, but I’ve come up with 7 top things that will have you booking your trip to George Town ASAP!
1. The World Class Street Art
I have seen my fair share of street art, but there are few places that have impressed me more than George Town’s art-filled city walls. Ernest Zacharevic was asked to create a series of six murals for the 2012 George Town Festival, where he depicted scenes of everyday life using local people as the inspiration behind the art. Now you will find his world-famous pieces like “Children on a Bicycle” and “Brother & Sister on a Swing” adorned on the crumbling walls of many of George Town’s historical buildings.
I’ve loved street art from around the world, but there is a certain level of creativity with this series in particular that has stood out amongst the rest. The installation of tangible items (i.e real bicycle, swings etc.) alongside the hand-painted artwork allows these pieces to be interactive where people can physically touch and connect with them.
You can find “Children on a Bicycle” on Leboh Armenia (Armenia Street), a street that is not only full of great street art but also boasts many antique shops and souvenir stands, making it a great street to explore!
In addition to all of the beautiful murals donning the town, there are 52 steel-rod cartoon-like sculptures scattered around town which are adorned with anecdotal descriptions about the streets that they are found on. Back in 2008, the government commissioned this exhibition to highlight George Town’s rich and colorful history and to increase tourism. I had fun stopping to read each of these stories while exploring this part of town.
Cannon Street is another street where you will find plenty of art to check out, but my best recommendation would be to spend the day exploring the endless street and alleyways of this historical center. There is so much street art that you’re going to run out of room on your memory card (I sure did).
2. The Authentic Cuisine
George Town’s food scene is on another level, as it offers tastes of Malay, Chinese, Muslim, and Indian descent. I had a blast trying the different types of cuisine offered both on the street and in restaurants, but I’m going to name a few specific places that may help when planning your own gastronomy tour!
Muthu’s Traditional Banana Leaf Food
This was recommended to me by friends who had visited George Town the year before, who said it was some of the best food they’ve had while traveling. They warned me that there was no signage and it would be difficult to find, but it would be worth it. I spent 15 minutes walking up and down Leboh Acheh trying to find house #143, but finally found the door of an unmarked white house to be the entrance to the restaurant.
I was the only foreigner inside the restaurant, and based on the curious looks I received, I don’t think too many foreigners frequent this place! One customer even came over to chat and ask me where I was from! The restaurant serves traditional banana leaf Southern Indian food and it was as excellent as my friends told me it would be. A banana leaf setup costs around RM12.50 ($3 USD). The restaurant closes around 2:30pm so it’s best to visit for lunch. (ADDRESS: 143 Leboh Acheh – look for the sink outside a white house!)
This authentic Southern Indian eatery is known for their Tandoori, so I made it a point to stop by and try some. The owner of the restaurant came over to chat with me and when I told him I never had chicken tandoori before, he put the order in right away and then showed me how to properly eat it once it was ready! The staff is really friendly and the meal plus butter naan and a drink will only run you about RM13 ($3.20 USD).
Wan Tan Mee street food card on Leboh Chulia
There is a street vendor on Leboh Chulia selling a pork noodle soup for RM4 ($1 USD) that will leave you wanting to get back in line for a second bowl. This seems to be a local favorite, as the line was at least 20 people deep at one point! However, they were equipped to handle it as I swear they could pump out a dish per second. I truly was in awe of this lightening speed operation! Next to their food cart was a little dining area of plastic tables and chairs where you can share tables with locals and other travelers who are also enjoying this tasty dish.
Any street food on the corner of Love Lane & Chulia
This is an extremely lively corner of George Town, with tons of vendors next to Wan Tan Mee selling all sorts of other types of food. I stopped by this area a few times throughout my stay to try the different offerings, including fresh fruit and juice each morning costing only RM2 ($0.50 USD).
3. The Cafés & Fun Nightlife
Although George Town is historical and has preserved much of its culture and architecture of the past, it’s also extremely modern and trendy. This is especially apparent in the cafe scene which has exploded in this town as well as the many fun nightlife spots.
Love Lane is the go-to spot for nightlife in George Town. Bars like Micke’s Place has live music and cheap beers to enjoy into the wee hours of the night, and if you get hungry all you have to do is cross the street to all of the street food offerings! As a solo traveler, I typically refrain from walking around at night, but I felt very safe in this particular neighborhood and ended up taking a stroll even after the sun had gone down.
The Mugshot Cafe
Just around the corner from Love Lane you will find The Mugshot Cafe, an artsy cafe serving wood-fired bagels and European style coffee that will probably pull you back morning after morning. The hipster staff and quirky decor give this place a unique feel, and free high-speed internet just puts the cherry on top.
I also stopped by The Canteen at ChinaHouse which is known for having really great live music most nights of the week. With dimensions of 400 ft x 25 ft, ChinaHouse, is one of Penang’s longest establishments and is a mecca of all things art, entertainment, and dining. It’s is a traditional compound of 3 heritage buildings linked by an open-air courtyard and converted into 14 spaces comprising of shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and even a black box theatre. The courtyard in the middle of the complex has a reflection pool and string lights as well as a ping pong table, and a burger truck.
I walked the length of this crazy amazing compound a few times because there is just so much to see within this one building! There is art covering the walls and each section of this venue is designed and styled in such an artistic and detailed manner. In other words, you have to go here when visiting George Town!
4. The View From Penang Hill:
Penang Hill is a peak located 3.5 miles west of George Town sitting at 2,700 ft above sea level. The view from the top of the hill is amazing and is definitely worth a trip in the afternoon so you can see the sunset over the island. The sun actually sets on the opposite side of the viewpoint so you won’t see the sun disappear behind the horizon, but the way the sky changes into a watercolor painting is really quite beautiful.
It takes a little time to get there via public transport, but it’s cheap and relatively easy. Jump on bus #10 from Komtar Station in George Town to the last stop on the bus line. The bus, which costs RM2 ($0.50 USD), will let you off near a large green garden with fountains, and there will be signs pointing you in the direction of the entrance from there. You can either hike up, ride the cable car, or take the funicular up.
The hike takes 3 hours through the lush jungle where you will come across giant bamboo, beautiful plants, and if you’re lucky – some monkeys! The paths are not clearly marked, so I would exercise caution and find a buddy to go with. I met some other solo travelers back in George Town and organized to go along with them. It’s definitely not an easy hike, so if you’re not looking to break a sweat, it may be a better idea to take the funicular or cable car to the top for RM15 ($3.70 USD).
To get back to George Town, take the cable car back down for RM15 and wait for bus #204 to take you back to the city center’s Komtar station for an additional RM2. Before leaving, however, see if you can stop by Kek Lok Si Temple while it’s all lit up at night. I didn’t have the chance, but I saw it from a distance while riding the bus and it was spectacular!
WARNING: I hiked up to Penang Hill back in February 2017. It seems that there has since been an advisory posted to the Penang government website suspending the trails as well as the funicular due to the unstable terrain. Make sure to check their website before making plans to Penang Hill!
5. The Clan Jetties:
When Chinese immigrants arrived in Malaysia in the 19th century and couldn’t afford housing on the land, they resorted to building wooden homes along the jetties of George Town instead. There are eight jetties, “Lim”, “Chew”, “Tan”, “Lee”, “Yeoh”, “Koay”, and “Peng Aun,” which are all named after the families who built the villages. Descendants of these immigrants still inhabit these floating villages today.
Chew Jetty is the biggest and most popular for tourists to visit, with a temple at the beginning and end of the Jetty. A lot of homes on this particular jetty have since been turned into shops where you can buy souvenirs, snacks, and drinks, but many families still live here too. While you stroll down the wooden walkway, make sure to take notice of the details on how these villages were built – it’s honestly very impressive!
I didn’t love how touristy Chew Jetty was, so I headed to nearby Tan Jetty to get a better idea of what an authentic clan jetty looks like and how the people live here. To avoid being disrespectful, I refrained from taking any photos or starting at their homes, and simply took a walk down the wooden path. After all, these are people’s homes and I didn’t want to be intrusive!
6. Little India:
As mentioned earlier in the post, George Town is such an interesting melting pot, and one ethnic community that adds to the cultural richness of this city is Little India. You will know as soon as you’ve hit the entrance, as there will be Bollywood music blasting through speakers, shops selling colorful saris everywhere you turn, and the sweet smells of curries and other treats will be floating through the air enticing you to try everything you see!
People from all walks of life are welcome to visit this colorful neighborhood, but you will notice that the majority of its residents are of South Indian descent. While strolling the streets you will come across Sri Maha Mariammam Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. I found this to be one of the most beautiful Hindu temples I’ve seen so far. Located directly across the street is a line of street food vendors and a small dining area, giving temple-goers and visitors the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
Getting to George Town
From Cameron Highlands:
I took the Uniti Express bus from Cameron Highlands to the Butterworth Bus Terminal in Penang which took approximately 5 hours and cost RM32 ($7.90 USD). I easily booked online using easybook.com and had no issues. Upon arrival to Butterworth Bus Terminal, there will be signs guiding you towards the ferry entrance. The ferry from mainland Malaysia over to Penang Island takes only 15 minutes and you can purchase a ticket from the ticket window for RM1.20 ($0.30 USD).
From Kuala Lumpur
Air Asia is really cheap if you’re looking to save time by flying, but there is also a train you can take from Kuala Lumpur directly to Penang that could be a really good option too. I found this blog post which has a really great description of how to go about taking the train that can aid in your decision!
Where To Stay
I stayed at the Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel and I was very satisfied with my stay. It’s clean, quiet, has decent wifi, cozy rooms with lots of electrical plugs, big lockers, free breakfast and drinking water, and is in a great location (close proximity to Love Lane but far enough away where you can’t hear any partying). At RM40 ($9.80 USD) per night for a 4-bed female dorm, it’s a great option for the budget traveler.
Have you been to George Town? If so, did you love it as much as I did?!