Penang Island is a highlight of any trip to Malaysia. The island is a unique blend of traditional Malay, Indian, Chinese, and European cultures, coupled with 21st-century street art and third-wave coffee shops. In this post, I’ll share the perfect itinerary for three days in Penang, Malaysia’s cultural beating heart.
Penang has long been at the center of major east-west trading routes. Beginning as early as the 1st century, Indian merchants used the island as a staging point. Hundreds of years later the Chinese stumbled upon the island and began trading there. Next came the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British. Eventually the traders and colonial forces constructed the city of George Town, still the island’s largest settlement and the center of Penang’s activity.
Today the island maintains a huge Chinese immigrant community, a sizable Indian community, and a Nyonya (Chinese-Malay) community, alongside expats and tourists. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site full of interesting places to discover. During your three days in Penang you’ll explore all these different cultures and histories. And you can do it all without breaking the bank!
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Day One: Chinatown
Breakfast: Toh Soon Cafe
A Penang institution, Toh Soon Cafe is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of place. It really all depends on whether you can get there early enough to beat the crowds. If you do, you’ll be treated to one of Malaysia’s best cheap breakfasts at a traditional kedai kopi (Chinese-style coffee shop).
The open-air cafe serves kaya toast (toasted in a charcoal oven) with half-boiled eggs and good Indonesian coffee spiked with palm sugar. A meal here will cost you under 5 ringgits. Get here before 8 am to avoid waiting in line.
Visit Khoo Kongsi
Some of George Town’s most iconic buildings are the 19th-century Chinese clan houses (kongsi) spread out around Chinatown. The kongsi were designed as places for the Chinese immigrant community to congregate — they were meeting places for people who shared the same last name, many of whom were distantly related.
The buildings’ architecture is elaborate and distinctively Chinese. Dragons, carp, and ceramics feature prominently alongside murals that depict life in China and Malaysia at the time.
You can’t miss a visit to at least one of these stunning buildings during your three days in Penang. And the most grandiose of them all is Khoo Kongsi. Spend an hour or so taking in the art and architecture and learning about Chinese immigrant life in George Town.
Admission to Khoo Kongsi is 10 ringgits. On a budget? Time your Penang tour for the last weekend of the month, when you can get in for free in the evenings.
Learn about traditional crafts and trades
As a merchant center, Penang has long been home to traditional craftsmen and women. Now, when you visit Penang, you can still see them produce their wares at shop houses all around Chinatown — and you can even get custom-made souvenirs!
Start by visiting the handmade joss stick producer just off Stewart Lane. He uses high-quality sandalwood to create the incense sticks, nothing like the mass-produced versions you find for pennies in nearby stores. He’s happy to demonstrate his process for visitors.
Then, check out the man believed to be Malaysia’s last traditional signboard maker, on Queen Street. He maintains this tradition passed down from his father, tracing and then carefully carving his designs. You can purchase a handmade sign with your name on it starting at around 100 ringgits, or just watch him work.
Finally, stop by Acheen Street to see one of the last remaining stone engravers. This street used to be the center of stone workers, but most have now turned their trade over to machines. Today, you can watch this 90-year-old craftsman paint tombstones by hand while modern life continues just outside.
Lunch: Wai Kei Cafe
This George Town institution is classic Chinese Malay. It’s one of the local Chinese population’s favorite lunch spots, but it’s far less popular with tourists. Points for authenticity.
Pork is the name of the game here, and it’s delicious. Do as the locals do and order the char siew with rice for 7 ringgits.
Take a tour of the Blue Mansion
George Town’s most beautiful building is the former home of a self-made Chinese merchant trader, Cheong Fatt Tze, who became a business tycoon. The exterior is painted vibrant blue, while the interior effortlessly combines elements of Eastern and Western design. It’s one of the best places to visit in Penang.
You can only visit the mansion on an hour-long guided tour. They depart at 11:30 am, 2 pm, and 3:30 pm from the ticket office. The tour guides are extremely knowledgeable and very entertaining — this is one of the most rewarding things to do in Penang. You’ll learn about the interior design elements that make the mansion unique, as well as about the life of its occupant and about the cultural blend George Town is so famous for.
Admission and a tour of the Blue Mansion costs 17 ringgits and is worth every penny.
Wander around Chew Jetty
Finish up your tour of Chinatown by exploring Chew Jetty, one of the historic clan jetties. Sure, it’s touristic, but the elevated houses and temples are very atmospheric, and it doesn’t get more authentic than watching the fishing boats bring their daily catch straight to the fish hawkers on the walkways.
This is also one of the best and most popular evening photo spots to add to your Penang trip itinerary. Try to time your visit with sunset.
Dinner: Lorong Baru Hawker Stalls
One of George Town’s biggest night markets is along Lorong Baru. You can’t miss a meal here during your three days in Penang.
Whatever you’re craving, chances are you’ll find a hawker selling it. Oysters, satay, Chinese noodles, grilled shrimp, veggie stir fries…the possibilities are endless. Most dishes cost around 3 ringgits.
Wander around for awhile and see what looks good before deciding. Prepare for huge crowds on weekends, as this is one of the most-loved Penang points of interest. The market gets going in earnest around 6 pm.
Day two: Little India, the Penang Museum, and street art
Breakfast: Any roti canai stall in Little India
Penang may be famous for its Chinese hawker food, but its Indian options are just as good. Get your morning off to the right start when you visit Penang by eating at a roti canai stall — Chulia St. is a good place to look.
Order your lightly fried Indian flatbread with sweetened condensed milk for a pancake-like breakfast, or go with one stuffed with eggs and served with sambal (lentil broth) for something savory. No matter which you choose, it will cost you less than 3 ringgits, and you can throw in an Indian-style chai tea for another ringgit or less.
Explore Little India
George Town’s Little India is the center of Penang’s Indian community. It feels like it could have been plucked straight out of Tamil Nadu, with pirated-DVD shops, people playing music in the streets, and sari shops.
Little India doesn’t have the headline Penang attractions of Chinatown. The main appeal here is just walking around and taking in all the sights, sounds and smells. The one can’t-miss place to visit is Sri Mariamman, a typical Hindu temple with a lovely gopura at the entrance.
A foodie highlight during your three days in Penang, a visit to the tandoori restaurant Kapitan’s is a must. Everything on the menu is incredible, from the biryani to the tandoori sets. It has plenty to offer vegetarians, but the real highlight is the tandoori chicken set. The naan is perfectly pillow-y and even the chai is perfection.
It’s all served in an atmosphere that’s a little nicer than hawker markets and local cafes, but not so nice to make backpackers uncomfortable. Service is quick and you can always snag a seat on the patio.
Even better, Kapitan is budget-friendly. None of the main dishes run more than about 12 ringgits, even for dinner.
Visit the Penang Museum
If you’re looking for things to do in Penang that explore its cultural heritage, the Penang Museum is the best place to start. The museum’s well-explained displays include photos and documents from the island’s colonial days, furniture from some of the old houses, and traditional clothing from each of George Town’s cultural groups. Particularly fascinating is the entire floor devoted to comparing wedding traditions among the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.
The museum only costs 1 ringgit, so you have no reason not to visit during your three days in Penang. It’ll take you about 90 minutes to peruse, and you’ll come away understanding and appreciating this island even more.
Check out the street art
By now, you’ve probably noticed the street art all around George Town. The city is quickly becoming Southeast Asia’s capital of modern art, with murals all across the city blending in with the traditional shop houses. Now, street art is one of the top Penang points of interest and an essential component of your Penang trip itinerary.
The center of all this activity — and of several artists’ studios — is the Hin Bus Depot. This former bus station is now an artists’ collective where you can see everything from sculpture to photography to painting to documentary film screenings.
Want to explore even more? Check out this self-guided walking tour of Penang street art, which will take you to all the island’s most famous murals.
Dinner: Woodlands Restaurant
All the hawker food you eat during your three days in Penang can leave you feeling a bit unhealthy. So to make up for it, head to this vegetarian Indian restaurant.
Woodlands is the place to go for traditional south Indian thalis (all-you-can-eat samples of curries with rice, served on a banana leaf) and dosas (lentil flour pancakes). It’s authentic, it’s cheap (4+ ringgits for a meal), and it’s tasty.
Day three: Get out of the city
Breakfast: Dim sum at Tai Tong or Tho Yuen
No three days in Penang would be complete without a breakfast of dim sum at least once. These two restaurants both serve up fantastic pork dumplings, egg tarts, and red bean buns.
Dim sum is always best in a group so you can try more dishes, but both restaurants are also solo traveler-friendly. Don’t count on your English skills to help you here — just point at what you want. Dim sum range from 1-3 ringgits each.
Head to Teluk Bahang for some hiking in Penang National Park
Penang National Park is home to jungles, monkeys, and isolated tropical beaches. It’s a great place to do some hiking, swimming and relaxing during your three days in Penang.
The park’s entrance is a short walk from the last stop of Bus 101, which leaves from George Town every ten minutes and takes an hour. You can enter for free.
From the park office, you can hike to several beaches — Monkey Beach is the most popular. The hike takes about an hour. If you’re not up for hiking, you can also hire a boat, but it’s not cheap (figure on 50 ringgits).
Each of the park’s beaches has a handful of food stalls — have lunch at one of them. Then, spend the afternoon exploring more hiking trails or taking a break from your Penang tour by lounging on the beach. Alternatively, head back out to the main road and walk a bit back toward George Town until you reach the Tropical Spice Garden. This spectacular garden is a great place to learn about local flora, including medicinal plants. It’s a pricey 27 ringgits to enter.
When you’ve finished exploring the more nature-focused Penant attractions, catch a bus back to George Town. Spend the rest of your afternoon wandering around Chinatown some more, including browsing the tourist stalls on Armenian Street.
If you want to stretch your legs but don’t want to head all the way out to the park, you can also check out the Penang Hill Hike closer to town.
Dinner: Lebuh Presgrave Hawker Stalls
Finish your three days in Penang at the most natural place — another hawker market. This one is a bit more high-end than others on the island, but well worth it.
Hokkien noodles are the main draw, but plenty of seafood and grilled/fried meat stalls offer variety. Oyster omelettes are another popular option.
Dishes start from 5 ringgits — pricey for street food, but you won’t regret the splurge.
Practicalities for your three days in Penang
Getting to Penang
The easiest way to get to Penang is from the Butterworth Terminal on the mainland. Take a ferry (1.20 ringgits, pay in the Butterworth-to Penang direction only) across to the port in George Town. Buses serve Butterworth from Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands, Kota Bharu (for the Perhentians), and most other destinations. You can also take a pricey tourist shuttle for a faster trip.
There are also (fewer) buses that go directly to Penang by driving over the bridge from Butterworth. Specify the final destination of your bus when you buy the ticket.
Headed to Langkawi? You can take a direct boat. It’s a pricey 70 ringgits. Book in advance and prepare for a two-hour trip on sometimes rough seas.
Both the ferry dock and the bus terminal are in George Town’s business district, a short walk from Chinatown.
Penang is a convenient jumping-off point for Thailand. Direct buses go to Hat Yai, where you can change for Krabi and other destinations in southern Thailand. Keep at least 3 ringgits in cash to pay the exit fee at the border.
Where to stay in Penang
George Town is the island’s cultural and administrative capital, and it’s where most backpackers stay. It’s also convenient to the top places to visit in Penang. The budget crowd can choose from party hostels or small local guesthouses. If you have a bit more cash, boutique guesthouses abound.
My favorite of the Penang hotels is 100 Cintra Street. Sure, the more modern hostels have nicer facilities. The walls are thin and the doors’ locking mechanisms are questionable. And A/C would be nice. But for under $15 USD a night, this guesthouse provides clean private rooms in a great location — which, to me, matters more than all the amenities in the world.
Given the tourism boom that the island is experiencing, you should book your accommodation in advance for your three days in Penang, especially if you’re traveling during high season.
Overall, Penang is one of the most fascinating places in Malaysia. You could spend much longer here just soaking up the atmosphere, wandering around, and visiting some of the lesser-known kongsi and museums. But even if you only have three days, it’ll surely be one of the best parts of your trip through Southeast Asia.
Have you been to visit Penang? What was your favorite of the Penang attractions? Leave a comment!
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