22 Fun Things to Do in Penang On Your First Trip [Updated 2020]

22 Fun Things to Do in Penang On Your First Trip [Updated 2020]

Penang is not just about feasting! These fun-filled activities in Penang will keep you occupied during your trip!

Ah, Penang, the Pearl of the Orient. Unless you’ve been living (or travelling!) under a rock for the past few years, chances are you’ve heard of this magnificent city in Malaysia. In fact, in recent times, it’s been ranked by many travel reviews as one of the very best travel destinations not just in the country or the region, but in the whole world!

From mouth-watering street food to artistic murals which don the streets, here are 22 things to do on your first trip to Penang. Or second. Or third. Actually, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve visited Penang, these activities always seem to captivate the traveller’s mind every time.

Also read: A 2018/19 Insider’s Guide to Penang’s Newest Hipster Hangouts, Food and Cafes

1. Take a walk along Penang’s Harmony Street

Penang’s Street of Harmony is found along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and is by far one of the places which best reflect the multi-cultural uniqueness of Malaysia as a country. The street is filled with multiple places of worship catering to different faiths and it’s not uncommon to see devotees pouring in and out on a weekend or religious holiday. Some of the buildings include the Masjid Kapitan Keling (duh!), Kuan Yin Temple, St. George’s Church, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple and many more. The famous Khoo Kongsi building, along with some of Penang’s famous street murals, are also located here.

2. Experience being a Crazy Rich Asian at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

If you’ve caught the film, then you’ll remember the epic mahjong showdown between Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu – yes, that scene was shot at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion aka The Blue Mansion! The building built in the 1880s by a wealthy Chinese merchant, and features a blend of extravagant East meets West design. Now a boutique hotel, you can choose to live it up by spending a night or two here, or take part in its daily guided tours.

Also read: Penang Isn’t Just All Food! Here are 10 Hotels & Resorts Under $200 Per Night For Your Next Weekend Getaway

3. Play Hide & Seek With The Street Murals of Penang

I think it was around late 2009 or early 2010 when my friends started posting pictures of themselves standing next to creative murals along the streets of Penang. It wasn’t long before tracking down these works of art became the next ‘it’ thing in Penang tourism, even for locals! The streets of George Town are literally filled with these interesting pieces that depict the daily life and culture of Penangites and is one of the main reasons why there are so many more bicycles on the street on the island now than say, 10 years ago. Due to the sheer number of art murals in the city, hunting for them all is a legit day-long activity and most likely (and for your sake of convenience), it would be ideal to rent a bike (some hotels have rental services specifically because of this).

And just in case you DO want to visit them all, here’s a map of the locations where you can find them. Good luck.

Also read: Penang Food Guide: Best Places to Eat as Recommended by a Local

4. Embark on a culinary marathon

Having covered Penang’s street art, I think it’s only fair (and probably required by law) to start talking about Penang Street FOOD. Penang is consistently ranked as one of the best food paradises in the world and it would take a brave soul to argue against that. From hawker food staples like Char Koay Teow to delicious broths like Assam Laksa, and even to scrumptious after meal delights like Rojak, Penang has it all. So much so that ‘Penang’ has become a sort of brand in Malaysia’s culinary field.

I swear, while studying in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve had my fair share of ‘Penang Famous This And That’ which I’ve never actually seen in Penang before! Hah! But certainly, if you don’t go on a food hunt in Penang, your palette might just hate you forever. There are many food courts and hawker centres across the entire island, but a good place to start would be along Gurney Drive. Be warned as it could get really crowded on certain days and seats would be at a premium.

5. Go café/bar hopping across the island

As a bustling port island city, Penang has no shortage of cozy concept cafes, classy bars and party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow clubs throughout the island. One of the best things to in Penang on your first visit is to go on a day-long café and bar hop. Some cafés which I personally recommend are the Mug Shot Café (great yoghurt and sandwiches AND you get to take a mug shot!) and Tavern in The Park (takes the word ‘class’ to a whole new level). If you’re looking for a fun night out with drinks (do it responsibly though), then head on over to Upper Penang Road to discover Penang’s fun nightlife. One of my favourite bars in Penang is Out Of Nowhere, which is the OG speakeasy bar on the island. You’ll have to find the secret entrance yourself but here’s a clue for you: be cool.

Note: Due to the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) currently being implemented in Malaysia, all bars and pubs will be temporarily closed.

Also read: Non-Stop Eating on the Penang Food Trail

6. Hop on a trishaw for a breezy tour of George Town

Well, in Penang, apart from cars and buses, there are bicycles and…trishaws. Though it’s gotten a little bit tougher to find these three-wheeled vehicles compared to the past, you can still find a number of trishaw peddlers around the George Town area and some near the pier of the SuperStar Libra cruise ship. It’s a nice and traditional way to get from point A to B in the city or simply for a breezy tour around Georgetown. (Psst, it’s a great way to beat the crazy traffic in Penang). Though prices may vary between drivers, the general hourly rate should not exceed RM30.

7. Pay a visit to the famous Kek Lok Si Temple

The Kek Lok Si temple is one of the finest and largest temple complexes within the region. Adorned with many sculptures and carvings, and even more images of Buddha, the temple is an essential aspect of Buddhism and Chinese cultural rituals in Penang. The temple’s architecture, with its many pagodas and archways, is even more enchanting during the Chinese New Year and Wesak Day celebrations as the temple will be covered in dazzling lights. It is also during those times when the temple is most crowded, usually by worshippers but also tourists who wish to soak in the serene atmosphere.

8. Get your feet moving and visit the waterfall hilltop temple

Moving now from a temple dedicated to Buddhism to one dedicated to Hinduism, the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple is one of the island’s oldest Hindu temples. It is built in dedication to the deity Murugan and to get to the top, you would have had to climb…wait for it…500 steps. Make it and you’ll be rewarded by a spectacular 180-degree view of the area near Gurney and Mount Erskine. While most people associate Thaipusam with the Batu Caves, the waterfall hilltop temple in Penang is the main attraction and star of the festival within the island state.

9. Visit one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha statues

Image credit: CEphoto; Uwe Aranas

In case you weren’t keeping track, we’ve gone from a Chinese Buddhist temple, to a Hindu temple, and now we’ve arrived at the Siamese Wat Chayamangkalaram Buddhist temple. The temple was commissioned in 1845 by Queen Victoria and it houses a 180 feet, gold-plated reclining Buddha statue, one of the (if not THE) largest in the world. The temple is located on Jalan Burma and it is just a stone’s throw away from Bangkok Lane (because, obviously) and is truly a remarkable sight to behold.

10. Pay a “visssssit” to the Snake Temple

Image credit: Khalzuri Yazid

I promise you, this is the final temple on the list. What? Penang has deep cultural roots, of course there were bound to be more than the odd temple or two. Anyway, the snake temple was featured at one point on The Amazing Race and it is essentially a Buddhist temple.

The temple is filled with snakes (no prizes for he or she who guesses why it’s called Snake Temple) and even though they are venomous vipers, they have had their venom extracted and for the most part, they just laze around peacefully, apparently lulled into a sense of nirvana by the smell of incense in the temple. But just in case of the odd jumpy one, visitors are still advised to not pick up the snakes for a selfie. Just don’t.

11. Catch the spooks at the Penang Ghost Museum

Image credit: Penang Ghost Museum

Yep, you read that right. A museum about ghosts. Of course, understandably, you might not be looking to be scared silly on your first ever trip to Penang, but rest assured, not all sections in the Penang Ghost Museum would give you nightmares…I think. That being said, it is indeed a one of a kind attraction found only in Penang.  Visitors can take pictures with the ‘exhibits’ which also include detailed explanations of the various ghosts and the legends associated with them. The exhibits cover a range of ghost a creatures from various cultural and religious folklore and it’s just a truly memorable experience. While the exhibits are mostly made of wax or synthetic cotton, I wouldn’t touch the exhibits themselves per se…you just never know…BOO!

12. Whacky Fun @ Interactive Museums

For a place of its size, Penang is home to a surprising number of interactive museums! Off the top of our minds, we can easily count more than 8 places to visit, including the Wonderfood Museum, where there are replicas of over 100 types of local street food. It’s mind-boggling to see how realistic these replica dishes are, and definitely fun to pose with.

upside down museum

Image credit: Upside Down Museum

The Upside Down Museum is also popular among families – put on your best balancing act to get the best photos of yourself hanging off things!

Although 3D museums are the norm in many places, what makes Penang 3D Trick Art Museum special is the deep Penangite vibe of the ‘exhibits’. The motto of the museum is to ‘rediscover Penang’. Many of the exhibits convey just that. From the island’s famous clan jetties to scenes and sights deeply adored by locals, there’s plenty of whacky fun to be had here!

Also read: 12 Destinations in Malaysia for Your Next Weekend Getaway

13. Get a blast from the past at the Pinang Peranakan Museum

Image credit: Hajotthu

The Pinang Peranakan Museum is housed in a refurbished peranakan mansion from the 1900s. The museum houses exhibits which showcase the many tools and lifestyles of the Baba and Nyonya, prominent communities in Penang, Malacca and Singapore in the past.

It is a truly magical experience and many visitors exclaim that they feel as if they are siphoned back into the past when they step through the threshold of the mansion. The museum has even been featured multiple times in the Amazing Race and the Amazing Race Asia. It is also the filming location of the 2008 Singaporean drama, The Little Nyonya.

14. Surround yourself with thousands of butterflies at Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm

As one of Penang’s most endearing tourist attractions, the Penang Butterfly Farm received plenty of awards throughout its years. However, if you haven’t visited since 2016, boy, will you be in for a pleasant surprise! After extensive expansion and renovation, the Penang Butterfly Farm was turned into Entopia in 2016. Where the humble farm once stood, an impressive dome-like structure now greets visitors. Inside, over 15,000 free-flying butterflies roam in the Natureland, a living garden vivarium which also houses other invertebrates and small reptiles. It is Malaysia’s largest butterfly garden and it is indeed majestic.

There are also multiple levels and zones in Entopia showcasing the many different faces of Mother Nature. The Breeding Ground houses a countless number of cocoons and pupae. Hang around long enough and you might just be lucky to see a butterfly emerge from its cocoon right before your eyes! Before you wrap up your day at Entopia, make sure to take part in the butterfly release event which occurs daily. Make a little wish before releasing a butterfly and let it carry your wish to the winds!

15. Take a train ride (or hike!) up Penang Hill

Also known as Bukit Bendera in Malay, Penang Hill is one of the top attractions in Penang and one of the coolest (the temperature is literally cooler at the top of the hill). One of the main attractions of Bukit Bendera is the funicular train ride to the top of the hill. It only takes five minutes but if you’re one who fancies the embrace of nature, you may also choose to hike up the hill.

Either way, you’ll be surrounded by lush greenery and minty-fresh air. The top of the hill is home to a few restaurants, a souvenir shop, a temple, a bird sanctuary and a mosque. Personally, I recommend foregoing the restaurants there. It’s not that they’re not good enough, it’s just that the top of Penang Hill has many ideal spots for picnics, so if you have the time, definitely go for that.

16. Immerse yourself in nature at The Habitat

The Habitat is a natural haven located on the fringes of virgin jungle reserves. As you trek through the lush nature trails, you’ll be walking in one of the oldest forests in the world (almost 130 million years!). There are plenty of scenic areas providing jaw-dropping views, of course. If you’re lucky, you might even come across some curious forest animals along the way as well.

That being said, nothing is quite as impressive as the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk. As the name suggests, you’ll find yourself climbing a few flights of stairs to walk among the trees in the area. Because the Habitat is situated at the top of Penang Hill, the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk is the highest scenic viewing point on the entire island! A circular structure allows you to admire a 360-degree view of Penang. You can even join a flying fox tour and zip through the trees, providing you a once-in-a-lifetime view!

17. Escape the city at…well, ESCAPE Theme Park

Probably one of the newest outdoor tourist attractions in Penang, ESCAPE Theme Park first opened its doors in 2012 and is still relatively an unearthed gem, even among Penagites. The theme park is near the previously-mentioned Entopia and is surrounded by lush greenery and trees. This family-friendly outdoor adventure park offers many exciting activities including tower climbing, free-falling, balance beam walking and many more. It is also here where you can go for a ride on the world’s longest water slide!

18. Trek to your heart’s content at Penang National Park

Image credit: Syed Abdul Khaliq

Penang National Park is…by every way of the word, the smallest national park in the world. That being said, its 2.5 hectare area contains a rich diversity of habitats. You can find beautiful lakes, wetlands, mangrove plantations, coral reefs, and even turtle nesting beaches at the Penang National Park. And, if you’re up to the challenge, there are multiple trekking routes around the park that are sure to put your mettle to the test. Survive and you’ll be rewarded with many breathtaking views of the park. You can also access some pristine beaches from the park by boat!

19. Be dazzled by the LED lights of Avatar Secret Garden

Located along Tanjong Tokong, the Avatar Secret Garden is a dazzling location meant to mimic Pandora of the Avatar film series (I hear Avatar 2 is already in the works). The trees here are decorated with ambient LED lights and as night falls, they light up in a multitude of colours. The area isn’t all that big but it’s a lovely location for a date. Plus, it’s free! You do have to pay a small parking fee though, so take note of that!

Also read: Road Trip to Penang

20. Satisfy your inner bibliophile at one of Malaysia’s largest book stores!

Occupying the entire 7th and 8th floor of Gurney Paragon Mall, BookXcess Gurney Paragon is easily one of the largest book stores in the country and a true haven for book lovers. Stocking works of many different genres and even vintage comic books, you could easily spend the entire day here just browsing the available titles. What’s more, all the books sold here are extremely well-priced (cheaper than most chain retail stores), so you might just need an extra bag for your one-hour shopping trip here!

21. Admire a bird’s eye view of Penang at The Top

Part of a project to revitalise the island’s iconic Kompleks Tunku Abdul Rahman (Komtar) building, The Top is one of Penang’s newest hotspots. It features plenty of quirky, interactive attractions (such as Penang Music House) but the Rainbow Skywalk, located at the very top, is by far the most memorable place to visit. Set on the 68th floor of Komtar, the Rainbow Skywalk gives visitors an uninterrupted view of Georgetown’s skyline…IF they’re brave enough to step onto the glass panels protruding out of the building. My advice? Don’t look down. No, seriously, don’t look down!

22. Finally, relax and unwind on Batu Ferringhi Beach

Image credit: Ronald Tagra

It would be a real travel sin on my part if I were to write an article about Penang and not once mention any of the numerous beaches on the island. But of course, but hard-pressed to make a pick, pick the best one. And in Penang, it would have to be Batu Ferringhi beach. There’s a reason why so many top-class resorts have decided to open shop in and around the area. It’s pristine sandy beaches and an array of water activities keep visitors coming back for more.

And hey, if you’re not one to hop about in the sun, you too will surely be able to appreciate the idea of lazing around on a beach with an ice-cold cocktail in hand. Believe me when I say that watching the sun set over the horizon at Batu Ferringhi beach is just one of those things you never knew you’d like until you’ve experienced it firsthand. And then, it becomes one of those memories which never seem to go away.

Truth be told, I’m pretty sure I missed out more than just a couple of things on the list. There are just too many things to see, do and enjoy on Penang Island. In fact, I have to admit, I’ve not done a few of those things myself yet and I live in this beautiful city. There’s no way to say it more clearly than this: The reviews are on point. Visit Penang once, and you just might never want to leave again.

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.

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