In a nutshell
Penang is an island at the heart of Malaysia’s fascinating, multicultural history, typified by its European, Chinese, Malay and India. It's famous for the cultural capital of Georgetown, for being the home of some of Malaysia’s best food and for the beaches of Batu Ferringhi, amongst other popular attractions.
Why go to Penang
Visitors looking for cultural and history will love walking the old colonial streets of Georgetown, a city well known for its art scene and vibrant, creative community. There are numerous museums and galleries to take in as well as some exceptional street art. The strong oriental influence can be seen in the old style Chinese shop houses and in areas like Chew Jetty where Chinese immigrants first settled on the island. Little India on the other hand, as the name suggests, boasts mosques and fantastic curry houses.
Those looking to get out of the city will also find plenty to do, from visiting Penang Hill for one of the best view points over the island as well as many other tourist attractions. There are some beautiful and quiet beaches in the north of the island that are easily accessible and offer some great resorts and water sports. There's even a small national park that is an essential stop off for nature and wildlife lovers. It's pretty amazing how much there is to do on a relatively small island!
When to go to Penang
Penang is good to visit all year round although November to January is often the most popular time due to the good weather and many Christmas and New Year celebrations. February to April also has good weather and is a little quieter, whilst the wetter season is between May and October with frequent outbursts of heavy rain.
Where to stay on Penang
The best place to stay in our opinion is Georgetown, as it offers a wide choice of good value accommodation and means you have the whole city easily accessible - including the amazing food and plenty of sightseeing. It's easy to travel around Penang so staying here is a good base even if you're also looking to explore other areas. In Georgetown you can find everything from luxury hotels and apartments to the cheapest of hostels and homestays.
Whilst Penang’s beaches aren't as famous as some other Malaysian destinations, like Langkawi and the Perhentian Islands for example, the northern coast of Batu Ferringhi is a good place to stay for people looking for more of a resort type feel. There's even a Starbucks right on the beach! Accommodation here is mainly hotels and there are some luxurious resorts as well as a few that are more budget friendly. Whilst the rest of Malaysia is known for its budget accommodation, often offering decent double rooms for as little as MYR50 per night, this area is a completely different story.
Where to eat in Penang
The food of Penang is second to none and if you do nothing else on your trip you should aim to eat as much as possible! Just some of the food you should sample includes Malay asam laksa, Chinese hand pulled noodles, Indian curry buffets, and of course plenty of the delicious street food on offer all over the city. Whether you're looking for a high-end restaurant with a choice of international cuisine or a budget snack you'll definitely find exactly what you're after in Penang. Food is also extremely reasonably priced, so there's no excuse not to try out a few different spots.
Those on a budget will probably choose to stick to street food, some of the best is offered from small carts that start to line the streets in the evening, especially in the heritage streets of Georgetown, whilst Little India is also a great spot for cheap eats. There are also veggie options and some nice restaurants boasting sea views, diversity is present in every part of Penang’s food scene.
How to get around Penang
There are lots of options for getting around Penang.
Most of Georgetown is easily walkable although you'll need to prepare for some extremely hot weather at most times of year.
Outside of Georgetown travelling by taxi is the most comfortable and convenient method of transport - you can opt to negotiate a fare with a regular taxi driver, or use Grab or Uber, both of which are very cheap and effective ways to get around.
It is possible to rent a car on Penang, and if you have driving experience elsewhere in the region like Thailand, Cambodia or Laos, you will be pleasantly surprised by Malaysian driving standards. There are many one-way streets and roads are in great condition in general. Parking can be an issue in Georgetown but there are designated parking areas (from MYR2.5 per hour or MYR25 per day).
Tricycles or rickshaws are another option and usually best for taking in the main sights in a specific area - for example you can hire one by the hour to tour Georgetown. Again, make sure to agree a price you're happy with before setting off.
If you're on a budget and don't mind too much about working around public transport then the RapidPenang bus is cheap and easy to navigate with bus stops marked clearly around the town and running frequently.
How to get to and from Penang
It's easy to access Penang by plane, rail, road and boat so you can really take your pick according to budget and timescales.
It's also well served by international flights from countries including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. It's not the cheapest way to arrive but it's probably the most convenient and it's a simple bus or taxi ride from the airport into Georgetown.
By bus there are also several options. It takes around 4 hours and costs around MYR35 from Kuala Lumpur; 5-6 hours and MYR35 from Perhentian Islands and Kota Bhari or 10 hours and MYR65 from Singapore or Johor Bahru.
It's also possible to reach Penang by bus from Thailand and takes 8 hours from Krabi, 14 hours from Phuket or 18 hours from Bangkok. Flying these routes is probably a better choice! Minivans are more expensive but cover most of these routes and can be a cheaper option.
Some choose to get to the island by train – the nearest station is at Butterworth which is on the mainland and a short journey by ferry. Trains run daily from Kuala Lumpur and take around 4 hours. Note that you cannot travel directly between Butterworth and Bangkok by train any more: the current option is to get from Butterworth to Padang Besar (Malaysia), and then change onto Padang Besar (Thailand)–Bangkok train (#46).
There are ferries every 15 minutes between Butterworth and Penang port, run by many different companies. The fare is MYR1.20 for adults each way. Ferries also arrive from Langkawi and cost MYR70.
Is Penang a safe place to visit?
Penang is generally a safe place to visit with most locals very friendly and welcoming toward tourists and a good tourist infrastructure in place. The main risks for travellers are usual city concerns like pick pocketing and petty theft and there has been a recent trend for people on motorbikes opportunistically stealing bags so keep an eye on your things.