Penang is by far our favourite place in Malaysia! An interesting blend of Peranakan culture, beautiful streets full of art in every corner and food that is possibly the best in the country.
On multiple trips to Penang (when our little girl was aged 6 to 10 years), we have largely explored Georgetown – the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Zone. With it’s colourful shophouses, streets lined with hawker stalls, eclectic cafes and art everywhere you look, Georgetown has a vibe that is better experienced than narrated!
Here are 15 experiences that Penang has to offer (most of them are great fun for children of all ages but some which are more suitable for older children and some for younger ones.
1. The Street Art Trail
Street art murals are the almost the cultural landmark of Penang. The most popular ones – by artist Ernest Zacharevic – depict everyday Malaysian life using interesting props like bicycles, trishaws or swings. There’s also a series of over 50 cartoon steel-art murals across the core zone. Get a street art trail map, a hat and some water – and head out with the kids to ‘find’ the murals! It’s almost like a treasure hunt! We found that heading out early (like 8 or 9 am) for this helps – we had the murals to ourselves and mid-day can get very hot in Penang.
2. Discover the Unmapped Street Art
While the popular murals on the street art trail are fun, the by-lanes of Georgetown has so many interesting murals that children will love to explore. As you walk around the town centre, keep an eye out for art all around. Like this, 2-part mural by a design collective in Penang – a bunny going into a hat on Lebuh Ah Quee and the bunny coming out of the hat a few lanes away at Lebuh Kimberley!
3. The Peranakan Museum
The beautiful Peranakan mansion is a great peak into the Baba-Nyonya culture of the region. It’s an interesting walk through for children to see the house of a Peranakan family from the 19th century.
4. Clan houses of Penang
Georgetown has many beautiful clan house complexes. The most popular with visitors is the Khoo Kongsi clan house. We visited the Khoo Kongsi during the mid-autumn festival on one of our trips, when the clan house temple was at its majestic & resplendent best. The temple often hosts traditional lion and dragon dance performances in the evenings; definitely look up their events calendar before you go.
On subsequent trips, we also visited the Yap & the Cheah clan houses – much quieter but equally interesting. The Cheah clan house had a mini museum that would interest kids – displaying life of the Cheah clan from the 19th century – cooking & baking tools, study areas and an interesting zodiac table – ‘look up your personality type’ based on your chinese zodiac 😉
5. Trishaw Rides
Get a Trishaw ride across Georgetown and experience the sights and sounds with this open top ride, with a free history lesson from the Trishaw Uncle 😉
6. The Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion
The stunning blue mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze that is now a boutique hotel, a restaurant and a mini museum. We have never made it inside the mansion on any of our trips, (they have daily tours of the mansion), but the royal blue facade makes for a cool instagrammable backdrop 😉
7. The Busking Drummer on Armenian Street
The Busking Drummer – a senior gentleman from Penang – who has made a drum set using plastic tins, tyres, pots & pans – is a sight to see! He’s usually performs every Saturday on Armenian Street (which becomes a pedestrian only carnival every saturday with art stalls, music & food). One of our trips, he was wrapping up as we got there and he let the little girl try her hand at the drum set!
8. The Street Food Capital
If you walk down the streets of Georgetown in the evening, it is easy to understand why Penang is called the Food Capital of Malaysia! Street food stalls serving food that is freshly cooked/ barbecued/ stir-fried in front of you! From smokey Char Kway Teow to Rojak and from Laksa to Cendol, some of the best street food is right there. (And this is just Georgetown – the touristy centre which has such good food – so you can imagine what the food is like in the non-touristy suburbs of Penang)!
A favourite with our little girl is lok-lok – a range of veggies & meat on a skewer that you can dunk into hot water, cook & eat. DIY food-on-a-stick cooking!
Kopitiams of Malaysia are an experience by itself. We as a family love Kopitiams but even if Kopitiam food isn’t your thing, it is an experience that one must have when visiting Malaysia – kopitiams here are legendary (so are the queues ;)), and some of them have been in existence for over a 100 years! Our little girl loves the dumplings, kaya toast & curry puffs while we dig into our food & kopi!
10. Anti-Gravity experience at the Upside-Down Museum
Super fun for the kids, also not bad for the grown ups! When it’s sweltering hot in the streets of Georgetown, hop into the Upside Down museum for some anti-gravity photo ops!
11. Penang Hill & the Funicular
Penang Hill offers stunning panoramic views of the city. And the funicular tram up the hill is a fun ride for the kids! The funicular has long queues on public holidays or long weekends, but quieter on weekdays. (We went there on a long weekend and waited 2 hours in queue for the funicular, swearing we’d never do that again.. lol) .
12. Kek Lok Si Temple
Perched atop the slopes of Air Itam, this is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. We have only seen the magnificent temple from the outside en route Penang hill, and have never been inside. Like many Buddhist temple complexes, this one, we’re told, have beautifully carved shrines, a fish pond but the highlight is the 36 meter tall statue of the Goddess of Mercy.
13. Take the Rapid Penang Bus
If you’re visiting Malaysia, ride the Rapid Penang bus – public transport bus of the city. We rode the Rapid Penang (air-con & clean) from the heart of Georgetown all the way to Air Hitam. If you choose off peak hours, the buses aren’t crowded, it’s a fun ride for the kids and a great way to chat up with locals on the bus.
14. Discover the origin of Nasi Kandar
The ever so popular (in Malaysia & Singapore) Nasi Kandar, originated in Penang. If you’re visiting Malaysia, eat a meal at a Nasi Kandar but also try to ‘find’ the steel-art mural that depicts how the Nasi Kandar originated. (Hint: it’s not too far from the ‘Boy on the Bike’ mural).
15. Clan Jetties
Clan Jetties are settlements along the waterfront that (back then) housed Chinese immigrant communities into Penang. The Chew clan jetty is the most popular and the most instagrammable 😉 It’s interesting to see community living along the jetty – houses on stilts, fishing nets and while it is very touristy with souvenirs stalls and all, it’s an active community, people actually live there.
These 15 are perhaps just a few of the beautiful experiences one can have in Penang. Georgetown has so many gems that one can explore, simply by walking around the by-lanes: a small-time noodle manufacturer, ‘uncles’ chit-chatting & having kopi at a kopitiam, senior citizens doing Tai Chi at a park and funny street art in almost every lane. It’s a place that will leave you wanting to come back!
Picture Credit: All images by author except for Images 12 & 13 which are from Wikipedia posts: