Where to Eat, Stay, and Play in Penang, Malaysia
A mosaic of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, food, and architecture, Malaysia’s tropical island state of Penang is one of the most multicultural spots on earth. Due to its riot of Sino-European shophouses, Chinese temples and clanhouses, mosques, Hindu temples, British Colonial buildings and some of the best street food in Asia, its capital, George Town, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its “unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”
But its charm goes way beyond heritage treasures: 2023 marked the first-ever Michelin Guide to Malaysia to anoint its growing fine-dining scene, featuring two Michelin-star restaurants in Penang and two in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, plus many Bib Gourmand eateries. That’s not all: a crop of new hotels, restaurants and attractions have opened, there’s a vibrant arts scene, and more high-rise apartment towers dotting the skyline of George Town, once a major trading hub that made Penang Britain’s first colony in Malaysia.
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The best things to do in Penang, Malaysia
Get a quirky crash course in George Town history, customs, food, and legends by reading the text in the whimsical steel-rod sculptures affixed to exterior building walls by local cartoonists and comic book artists. One depicts a fat man climbing out of the window of his mistress’ house on nearby Love Lane, so-called because wealthy men once kept mistresses there; in another a South Indian “parrot astrologer,” who foretells the future using green parakeets, an ancient custom. Find the street murals by Ernest Zacharevic, called Asia’s Banksy; one, depicting two children seated on a real bicycle attached to the wall, is so famous, you’ll see the Lithuanian artist’s mural reproduced on everything from tote bags to notecards.
A compound of artist studios, a gallery, cafes, shops, bars and restaurants (one-Michelin-star Au Jardin included), Hin Bus Depot is a former motorbus terminal-turned 60,000 square-foot complex, which hosts an arts and crafts market on Sundays plus frequent exhibits, film screenings, talks, and performances. The complex began in 2014 with a solo Zacharevic exhibit.
For an adrenaline rush, seize the world's highest rope course challenge and dangle 784 feet above sea level around Penang’s tallest building for a panoramic view of the city and sea at The TOP, a theme park at KOMTAR tower. Its 18 attractions also feature a round glass skywalk on the 68th floor, an exhibit devoted to the durian, the famously foul-smelling fruit (banned at Penang Airport, as signs marked by a large X attest), and kid-pleasers like over 200 animatronic dinosaurs and over 120 interactive science and technology exhibits.
Sia Boey Urban Archeological Park opened in 2019 as a tree-lined promenade along a koi-filled canal with a children’s playground, revitalizing a trash-strewn canal once used for trading.
For cool breezes to escape steamy George Town, visit Penang Hill, named a UNESCO Biosphere in 2019 for its ancient rainforest and biodiversity, a cluster of peaks where British settlers built their oldest hill station in Asia. Take the funicular railway – 2023 marks its 100th anniversary - from its base station in Air Itam, a suburb four miles west, where Swiss-made metal cars whisk you to the summit in under five minutes, crossing 11 viaducts. A highlight here is The Habitat, whose round glass skywalk, over 2,700 feet high, offers staggering 360-degree views of the city, jungle and sea. You can camp overnight: a Starlight Camping package includes the tram, sunset, a night tour with a naturalist to spot flying lemurs and other nocturnal animals, a guided day tour, a tent with mattress, pillow and blanket, dinner in a tent and a zipline ride. There are also canopy treetop walks, nature trails, a garden of tropical carnivorous plants and a Botanic Garden with non-meat-eating flowers.
Further west, Art & Garden is an enchanting small garden created by Penang artist Fuan Wong to merge the “two great loves of my life: glass and plants.” Admire the lush mountain views on paths lined by his colorful plant-shaped glass sculptures and fish-shaped glass installations, art by his friends, his collection of bromeliads, agaves and orchids and his glass art shop.
In northwest Penang, ESCAPE, an adventure park, boasts two Guinness World Records holders: the world’s longest zip coaster ride (six solid minutes) added in May 2022, and the world’s longest water tube slide, which winds through jungle treetops. Also on northwest Penang coast, Tropical Spice Garden showcases over 500 spices and herbs on landscaped trails high above the sea, nestled within a rainforest; the five acres also feature a cooking school for hands-on classes and exhibits about Penang in the spice trade—which is famed for nutmeg and cloves.
Best restaurants in Penang
Penang’s two Michelin-star restaurants in George Town couldn’t be more different. Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery is a cozy place for Peranakan food in a casual setting with old-fashioned equipment in the windows, but there’s nothing casual about the food. Beh Gaik Lean, 69, and her team make everything from scratch, from gulai tumis (tamarind fish curry), sambal petai (stir-fried bitter beans in a spicy curry paste of raw red chile peppers, shrimp paste and calamansi juice), cucur udang (deep-fried shrimp and vegetable fritters) to nutmeg juice.
"It was about time the Michelin Guide set its foot in Malaysia to rate the best eateries,” says Nazlina Hussin, owner of cooking school Nazlina's Spice Station in George Town. Hussin says she’s happy Michelin honored a restaurant cooking Nyonya food. (Nyonya is another name for Peranakan people of mixed Malay-Chinese ancestry.) The cuisine is known for its intricate layers of flavor, finely hand-cut herbs, and spice pastes ground using a granite mortar and pestle. “Nyonya women could afford to spend hours to prepare for meals because there were many servants, and the kitchen was ruled by a fierce matriarch to maintain exacting standards,” she says.
In contrast, Au Jardin offers French-style tasting menus featuring Malay ingredients, spices, and herbs, which may include cognac- and hay-aged duck, dramatically presented in a smoke-filled box; baby squid crisps with candied nutmeg, green chiles and Kaffir lime; or a curry with smoked mussel custard with mango gel. The elegant 18-seat restaurant in Hin Bus Depot, which also won Michelin’s Young Chef award, also has a gastro bar upstairs called Alchemy.
Beyond the Michelin stars, located in a shophouse on Armenian Street is Jawi House, which serves superb Jawi Peranakan food (a blend of north Indian, Peranakan, Malay, and Arab flavors) at incredibly low prices. The laksa lemak—tuna and mackerel in coconut milk with mint, pineapple, rice noodles, chiles, onions and raw greens for $5.50—will linger in your memory, as will its tomato rice, cooked with lemongrass, mint, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and milk topped with cashews and raisins.
Where to stay
The Blue Mansion is an exquisite jewel box of a boutique hotel, among the top-ranked in Penang. Scenes for Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix series The Ghost Bride were filmed at the cobalt-hued mansion, which was built in the 1880s as the home of a wealthy Chinese merchant and diplomat nicknamed the “Rockefeller of the East.” Exceptionally ornate mosaic porcelain works depicting Chinese myths and animals, gilded carved wood filigree panels, Art Nouveau stained glass, and Victorian cast-iron works are part of its beauty. In 2021, the 18-room mansion also added two duplex townhouses in century-old shophouses, about a 10-minute walk away.
Opened December 2022, The George is a luxury boutique hotel with a white Neoclassical façade inspired by the many British Colonial buildings in the city. Strict laws for brand-new construction in the UNESCO zone meant the 122-room hotel took almost a decade to build. Opened in 2019, The Prestige, a member of Design Hotels, is a luxury boutique hotel with a white palette inside and out, whose abundant potted plants and rattan conjure a Victorian garden conservatory, but with contemporary style (plus a rooftop pool).
More newcomers in 2022 include the Citadines Connect Georgetown Penang, a 143-room hotel whose spacious lobby lounge with communal tables and booths promotes socializing—perfect for solo travelers. Three miles from Penang Airport, Amari SPICE Penang, a 453-room luxury contemporary-style hotel whose rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with city or golf course views, opened, directly connected to the Setai SPICE Convention Centre.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler