Penang, the second smallest state in Malaysia, packs a punch. Retaining culture and tradition while embracing modernity, it offers a multitude of things to see and experience – from brilliant examples of adaptive reuse in George Town, its capital city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, to a vibrant culinary scene that is the inspiration of many of popular street foods in its neighbouring countries. More recently, it has seen a new addition to its nightlife: a burgeoning cocktail bar scene. Here are some highlights not to be missed on your next trip.
1. Stay in a beautifully restored colonial mansion
Step into Penang’s colonial past at The Edison George Town. Peranakan patterned tilework, cast-iron columns and ornate bedroom headboards pepper this heritage mansion, giving one the sense of time travelling to days of yore.
Located strategically in the heart of George Town, travellers have only to step out of the hotel’s premise to be immersed in the city’s diverse culture and heritage hotspots. The iconic Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is just across the street, while Little India and Chulia Street are both within walking distance.
2. Explore Penang’s five architectural periods
Situated at the tail end of Love Lane, 23LoveLane Hotel is a charming boutique heritage hotel that pays homage to the five different architectural periods seen in Penang since the 1800s, when the building was built.
Choose from rooms and suites that feature pre-war shophouse façades, eclectic colours of the Straits, and the Anglo-Indian interior decor and design. Look no further for food options, as right outside the hotel is a plethora of cafes, restaurants, street food and bars with a bustling nightlife.
3. Bite into Penang street food…
Street food hotspots along Carnarvon Street, New Lane and Gurney Drive are perpetual favourites among tourists and locals alike. You’ll want to hunt for time-honoured staples such as the char kuey teow (stir-fried rice noodle) along Lorong Selamat, kuey chiap (broad rice noodle soup served with various cuts of meat) at Kimberley Street and cendol (iced dessert with coconut milk and palm sugar) at Lebuh Keng Kwee.
4. …then explore an exciting mod-Mexican alternative
Parked in a quieter part of George Town, where Muntri Street and Leith Street intersect, Pablo’$ is a humble RV-styled food truck that serves a modern spin to the traditional hawker’s food stalls.
The young owners have put thought into perfecting their tacos, nachos and pasta, which they serve with a choice of chicken, beef and duck meat fillings. The adjacent Gala House Penang, which doubles as Pablo’$ seating area, serves up beverages that pair well with the honest, down-to-earth Mexican street food.
5. Have some fine Chinese cuisine with a twist
Located along Irving Road, a couple of streets away from Macalister Road’s street food hotspot, Yuè offers a more upscale glimpse of Penang.
Whether it’s an afternoon high tea with friends looking to catch up on a quiet afternoon by the pool, or a 13-course modern Chinese date night dinner that includes Szechuan pepper lamb and gold-foiled tanghulu (sugar-coated fruits), each dish and teatime treat is plated with the utmost precision.
6. Try locally inspired cocktails
Newcomer Nomad Bar is a husband-and-wife venture along Kimberley Street that serves cocktails inspired by their globetrotting. The bartenders’ creations also include locally inspired concoctions, such as the delicately balanced gin and floral Botanical Garden, and the Nyonya-inspired Pulut Tai Tai.
7. Party at an ’80s-themed bar
Opened in April, No Bar Here is an ‘80s-themed bar by the people behind Backdoor Bodega, one of the heavyweights of the modern bar scene in Penang, located just a few doors down on Gurdwara Road.
Unlike its renowned older sibling with its selection of Malaysian-made craft beers, this latest establishment sends patrons back in time, with its offerings of classic Disco-era drinks, such as Sex on the Beach and Espresso Martini, as well as signature cocktails inspired by beloved ‘80s music.
8. Explore the nerve centre of Penang’s contemporary art and culture scene
What used to be a vacant and dilapidated building that had served as the city’s bus depot after the Second World War is, today, a vibrant creative hub that draws massive crowds to its weekend markets. Hin Bus Depot is an exhibition and event space with a lively host of arts and culture programmes.
9. Step into Penang’s ancient, evergreen forest
If the great outdoors is more your speed, check out The Habitat on Penang Hill. It’s the gateway to the city’s very own UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, one of the oldest rainforests in the region.
Nature lovers will find many things to enjoy in this historic park: flora and fauna along a 1.6km-length heritage trail, breathtaking views atop the Curtis Crest tree top walk and the Langur Way canopy walk, as well as guided tour services and outdoor activities. A funicular from the foot of the hill makes the journey accessible and fun.
10. Get souvenirs at a one-stop modern indie shop and stay
This refurbished heritage shophouse along Campbell Street in Penang’s Chinatown has everything. P.66 is home to a cafe, a stationery store and local clothing designer Dennie Yeap’s label. It even houses a host of minimalist Airbnb rooms named after famous contemporary writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
It’s the all-encompassing spot for travellers looking for a momentary pause during their Penang trip: check-in to a room, enjoy a cuppa, and stock up on journalling materials to remember this trip with.
11. Pick up some chic threads
Age-old batik and Peranakan patterns get a revamp at betterthanblouses, a small-batch indie outfit that turns beautiful traditional prints into chic head-turning conversation pieces. This unique homegrown brand is run by the sprightly proprietor Kang Pei Shern and her mother, whom you’ll meet when you stop by the store.
Note that the store is open by appointment only, so reach out via their Instagram or WhatsApp to let them know you plan to swing by.