A weekend travel guide to Penang, Malaysia: Experience street art, street food and colonial history
Updated: Oct 13
Our weekend travel guide to Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Where to stay - Experience living in Penang's colonial history first hand in a boutique mansion stay
As we stepped through the historical wooden doors we entered into an open courtyard of Chinese gardens right in the centre of our boutique hotel. In 1798 this once East Indies mansion was the home of one of the Chinese founding fathers of Penang. Long since abandoned, in 2000 the building had become so decrepit it was due to be knocked down. We could only imagine the scene of passionate locals barricading themselves against the walls to act as its saviour. Lucky for us, the locals won. The history of this building would live on for all to see as a newly renovated hotel in the heart of Georgetown, Penang. For us, it would be our home for the next two nights. For less than $100 per night, we would sleep in a part of Penang’s history. There are so many historical and boutique homestays like this scattered across Georgetown. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would stay in a western-style hotel when visiting. The accommodation marked only the start of our historical journey through Penang. Find your own historical stay here.
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The Penang Itinerary - A brief summary:
Day One: A morning walk along Georgetown's heritage trail, including hunting for street art around Armenian Street, a visit to Fort Conrwallis and the famous Jetties. An afternoon at the Penang War Museum, a local dinner at New Lane Hawker centre and drinks at China House.
Day Two: A treetop nature walk at the Habitat Penang Hill, followed by a visit to Hin Bus Depot for some more street art.
The full story of our favourite things to see in Penang Malaysia in a weekend
Hunt for street art through the UNESCO world heritage listed Georgetown, enjoying the shop houses along Armenian Street:
As the Saturday morning sunlight and humid air shone down on us, we began our own walking tour of Georgetown, map in hand from our hotels reception. “Watch your footing”, Andrew warned me, as we made our way along the rows of UNESCO world heritage listed colonial shop houses and temples toward Armenian Street. There are no real sidewalks in Penang, but dodging scooters, trishaws and potholes along the road is all part of the charm. Surrounding the tourist centre of Armenian street, down several hidden alleyways, are the postcard famous street art murals. We were determined to find them all and get a picture with each. Our creativity was on display to decide the perfect pose on the swing set or famous scooter. Taking our time in finding these we took in the stunning architecture, and little shops, even stopping at an old man's coin market stall to see his coin collection from the early Straits settlement. By midday, we stopped for lunch in an air condition restaurant, a welcome break from the heat and reward after our success and excitement of finding all the murals we set out for.
Experience one of Asia's top ten most haunted sites, the Penang War Museum:
Our historical journey would continue through out the afternoon with a visit to the Penang War Museum. Chills went down our spine as the ticket officer revealed to us the dark history of the grounds we would walk upon. This once British fort became a POW camp during world war two, of which little survivors emerged. From here most prisoners were sent to work on the death (Thai—Burma) railway. This was no ordinary museum, it was an outdoor living relic of history. The museum is ranked within the 10 most haunted places in Asia. We felt the eeriness of the visit, witnessing prisoners old dorms and torture chambers now overrun with jungle. On the 15th Dec 1941, the orders were given to the British Soldiers of the fort, destroy all weapons and armour, then begin the British evacuation of Malaysia. It was only days later it would fall to the Japanese. What would those days have felt like to the soldiers working here? We crawled through pitch-black escape tunnels with this thought in mind. As we exited the museum, sweaty and tired from a full day in the sun, we felt our knowledge had grown richer from all we’d experienced during the day.
Eat as the locals do and taste Penangs street food from a Hawker Centre:
While history captures the stories of culture, food captures the heart. Just like we opted for an East Indies mansion home-stay over a western hotel, we opted for street food dinner at New Lane Hawker Centre over a western restaurant. Food stalls of local delicacies made by aunties and uncles whose entire life’s passion have gone into their cooking line the street of Lorong Baru. For less than $10 SGD we would experience some of the finest local cuisines Penang had to offer. The aroma of wok style cooking filled the warm air. Queues began to gather for the popular and bustling stalls. If living in Asia has taught us one thing, it’s that the food with the longest queue is almost always the best. With that in mind, we jumped in line for some Char Kway Teow, a national favourite Malaysian noodle dish. Standing in line, we watched the art cooking this dish come to life with the wok smoke and aroma filling our lungs and wetting our tastebuds. We chowed down while sitting on plastic tables with all the other locals and tourists alike, tasting dish by dish of the local delicacies. Our other favourites were the Satay and Popiah, both must a try while in Penang.
Cool down atop Penang Hill & enjoy a leisurely treetop hike at the Habitat:
The following day it was time to escape the heat of Georgetown and take the worlds steepest funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill. We will be honest in saying that arriving at the top felt like stepping back into the 90s before camera phones existed and some of your best holiday photos were taken at a tourist attraction in front of a green screen. Despite offering beautiful views of the city surrounds, it was crowded and gimmicky. We quickly looked for an escape into nature, and to our luck, discovered the Habitat rainforest walk. This beautiful jungle and treetop walk offered us a chance to witness the natural beauty of Penang, including the local flora and fauna. We were even lucky enough to see a giant black squirrel, one of the worlds largest species of squirrel native to Malaysia.
Enjoy cakes and live Music at China House in Georgetown:
At the end of a busy day exploring, still wanting to enjoy some more culture we visited China House upon a local friends recommendation. Set inside three Chinese heritage colonial shophouses, there is both a traditional and eclectic hipster interior to the space. It is a place of many facets, doubling as an art gallery, entertainment space, bar, restaurant and most famously a place for coffee and cake. This is the coolest cafe we visited in Penang. While awaiting our giant slice of cheesecake, we had crayons and paper on the table to entertain our artistic side and a deck of cards to play a few games.
In case there's still time to fit in a few other sites during a weekend visit, we enjoyed a visit to Fort Cornwallis, which is a short walk from the centre of Georgetown. It only takes about 10 minutes to explore and gives a great overview of the early Straights settlement days of Penang. If you're looking for more street art and culture we also enjoyed a quick visit to the Hin Bus Depot walking distance from New Lane Hawker centre. A once art deco 20's style bus depot this is now converted into an art and markets space.
We hope you enjoyed our weekend travel guide to Penang, Malaysia. For more blog posts on weekend getaways and travel itineraries check out the destinations section of our blog.
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