Brimming with history, heritage, and a dash of cosmopolitan buzz, Penang is a kaleidoscope of charm and culture, sort of like taking a step back in time to a place that's half Old World and half modern. Across its colorful shop houses and quirky wall art murals, the vibrant island has an infectious energy that welcomes all sorts of travellers - from history enthusiasts and camera-wielding explorers to street food junkies and sprightly shopaholics.
At the heart of it all lies its capital of George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where colonial buildings sit next to lofty skyscrapers under the gaze of Penang Hill's lush peaks. An ideal spot for a weekend getaway - especially if you're flying in from nearby countries in Southeast Asia - the city is home to some of the best street food stalls in Malaysia, coupled with a sprinkling of speakeasies and cool cafes.
Planning a trip? Read on for the lowdown on what to do, see, and eat in Penang.
BE AT ONE WITH NATURE
As bustling as Penang is, there's always room for you to spend time with Mother Nature at one of her numerous pockets of greenery. To escape the crowds, board a bus to the National Park for a day's worth of beach time, jungle trails, and wildlife sightings. Or burn those extra calories you ingested from street food and sweat it out on a hike up Penang Hill to catch some glorious views.
For more leafy landscapes, the Botanic Gardens offers a verdant vista of flora and fauna, while the Entopia Butterfly Farm flutters with living creatures. Alternatively, you can tour the Tropical Spice Garden to traipse through over 500 plant species and take a cooking class to learn about the use of herbs in Malaysian dishes. Oh, and don't forget to swing by the Penang Avatar Secret Garden, a manmade attraction that immerses you into the fantastical world of Pandora.
EMBARK ON A STREET ART TRAIL
Penang is well known for its art murals lining the alleyways and shop house walls of the city, so you really can't miss walking past at least a few, even if you're not intentionally looking out for 'em. To see it all in one day, check out places like Muntri Street, Balik Pulau town, Ah Quee Street, Cannon Street, Jalan Penang, Chulia Street, and Armenian Street for Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic's famous Little Children on a Bicycle work.
EXPLORE "FLOATING" VILLAGES
Picturesque views of stilt houses on calm waters await at the Clan Jetties, where water villages have been around for more than a century. Each jetty takes the name of a Chinese clan, with walkways for camera moments, which are best captured at sunset. Just be aware of your surroundings when you visit, as the area is still inhabited by families.
GET A SHOT OF ADRENALINE
Towering above its neighbours, The Top at Komtar is the tallest structure in Penang, and once you climb past its attractions and retail outlets, you'll find yourself on the sun deck rooftop with panoramic sights of the island. If your legs don't turn jelly from the bird's eye scenery on the 68th floor, walk across the glass-encased Rainbow Skywalk to watch the world go by beneath you.
Once you've conquered your fears, take things up a notch at the Gravityz obstacle course, which is touted as the world's highest ropes course challenge. Strapped to a harness, you'll walk the perimeter of the building and attempt elements like the flying fox.
Further afield, Escape Theme Park is a water park and adventure attraction about 45-minutes' drive from George Town. Thrill-seeking activities here include bungee jumping, zip lining, and water slides.
HUNT DOWN ALL THE FAMOUS FOODS
Penang's street food is one of the city's biggest draws - once you get a whiff of all that goodness emanating from any number of the many roadside hawker stalls dotting the city, it's almost impossible to say no, even when your belly's already close to bursting.
Top eats include noodle dishes like Hokkien mee, curry mee, mee goreng, assam laksa, and char koay teow, plus rice-based dishes like nasi lemak, nasi kandar, and duck rice.
There's also excellent roti canai, murtabak, and rojak, and in sweets, chendol is the must-have classic dessert. You can pretty much find all of these eats at the city's street food hot spots like the Air Itam Wet Market, Chulia Street, Cecil Street Market, Jelutong Night Market, New Lane, and Jalan Penang.
Even if you have to get in line, it's absolutely worth the wait.
SHOP FOR KNICK KNACKS AT NIGHT MARKETS
Can't stop that shopping itch? Let loose your shopaholic side at the Batu Ferringhi Night Market, where an eclectic array of trinkets abounds, from local handicrafts and paintings to toys and affordable apparel. Or pop by the Macallum Street Night Market for a mix of sizzling street food and retail goods. There's also Little Penang Street Market, which offers a great mix of food, souvenirs, and lively performances.
SNUGGLE UP IN BOUTIQUE HERITAGE HOTELS
To make the most out of your trip, stay the night at one of Penang's refurbished historic hotels and get cosy in your vintage surroundings. If privacy is high up on your list, the Jawi Peranakan Mansion is a restored Anglo-Indian structure with just a couple rooms and suites, while the ten-room East Indies Mansion is the former home of Koh Lay Huan, the first Kapitan Cina of Penang. If you're a Crazy Rich Asians fan, The Blue Mansion actually made an appearance in the movie, and its regal halls lead to suites decked out in different traditional designs.
Other boutique names to book include Noordin Mews, 23 LoveLane, The Edison, and Areca Hotel.
TOUR QUIRKY MUSEUMS
Obsessed with spooky stuff? Scare yourself silly at the Ghost Museum, a slightly cheesy space where creepy creatures lurk at every corner. Then head over to the Dark Museum for a little glow-in-the-dark fun.
On the cultural side, the Penang Peranakan Museum is an introduction to baba and nyonya culture, with gallery rooms full of antiques and traditional furnishings. Meanwhile, the Penang War Museum is nestled in an abandoned WWII fort, with after-dark tours for you to explore its tunnels and war artifacts. Other highlights include the Colonial Penang Museum, Wonderfood Museum (in case you haven't had enough of good grub), Penang Tunnel Museum, and the Penang House of Music.
UNCOVER THE ISLAND'S SECRET BARS
We love a good ol' neighborhood bar, but it's those hidden ones that we adore the most - perhaps because we're suckers for secrets. You have to be in-the-know to enter these spots, which contributes to their hip factor - plus, once you've gotten past the unassuming door, it's like you've just set foot in the Narnia of watering holes.
To go bar-hopping, speakeasy-style, add these names to your bar bucket list: Golden Shower by Chin Chin, Secret Door, Magazine 63, Good Friends Club, 12 Senses, Norm/Noct, Room 495, and Out of Nowhere (its entrance is an actual fridge in a cafe). Too cool.
VISIT MAJESTIC TEMPLES, CHURCHES, AND MOSQUES
You don't have to have faith to appreciate the gorgeous structures of Penang's religious sites, with their intricate, traditional architectural elements that are rather awe-inspiring. These include St George's Church (the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia), Kek Lok Si Temple and its gleaming gold pagodas (it's the largest Buddhist one in Malaysia), the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque (built in 1801 by the first Indian Muslim settlers of Penang), the Goddess of Mercy Temple, and the Snake Temple, where actual pit vipers reside.
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE
For a spot of chillin', Penang's got a great cafe scene of modern eateries decked out in photo-worthy trimmings, with affordable prices to boot. Whether you're in the mood for a leisurely brunch or a quick cup of joe to get your morning started, you can unwind at places like Awesome Canteen (for that industrial vibe), China House (a cafe/library/shop), Pik Nik (home to a pink room), Dan (a sun-lit, seaside space), Lavish Fusion Bakery (for cakes and bakes), Macallum Connoisseurs (a high-ceilinged warehouse), and Kraffmen (an Aussie-style minimalist hangout).
WIND DOWN WITH A MASSAGE
When you're done tracking down every stall in Penang with the word "famous" stamped across its name, treat your aching muscles to an afternoon at the spa, where you can unwind in peaceful bliss. If you're not quite up for a massage, you can always opt for equally relaxing treatments like body scrubs, facials, or body wraps, enveloped by soothing scents. Feeling flush? Luxuriate in pampering sessions at hotel spas like Panpuri Organic Spa, Rock Spa, Penaga Spa, and St. Gregory Spa.
Or head to a former British colonial mansion to de-stress at Deluxcious Spa, which also houses a restaurant and a beauty salon. If you're up for some therapeutic floating, try Float For Health, where you'll drift on water in a dreamy state with nothing to distract you from your time of tranquillity.
Getting there: If you're going from KL and prefer ground transportation, then there are a handful of bus companies that regularly make the trip (average drive time of four hours, starting at S$11.50 for a one-way ticket).
If you'd rather fly direct, then budget carriers offer pretty good rates from around the region. For reference, one-way airfare through AirAsia starts at S$50 from Singapore, S$65 from Bangkok, S$59 from Jakarta, and S$50 from KL. Prices are applicable for travel from now until July 31, 2019.
This article was first published in Coconuts Singapore.