When we started planning our destinations for Malaysia Penang was at the top of the list. This island city has a little bit of everything we love: street art, street food, culture, architecture, and more. Read on to discover how we spent our week in Penang, Malaysia from exploring the UNESCO Culture Heritage Site of George Town, to eating our body weight in Nyonya dishes and street food. We loved the “Pearl of the Orient” so much it’s made the top of our short-list of cities in Asian to consider as a home base in the future.
HOW TO GET TO PENANG
We arrived in Penang from Cameron Highlands via the 8 AM fast bus through Bus Online Ticket. The booking platform works with a wide range of Malaysian bus companies in order to provide travelers as many options as possible from reliable, comfortable, and efficient bus operators. There are many routes to Penang from other parts of Malaysia, such as Kuala Lumpur. Using the bus system is much cheaper than taking a private taxi and safer than taking the minibusses. Bus stands in Malaysia are seriously hectic! When we arrived in our station in Cameron Highlands at 7 AM we were greeted by many hawkers and couldn’t find any signs in English with timetables. Luckily we already had our bus tickets confirmed through Bus Online Ticket and all we had to do was locate the window for the bus company and show them our confirmation. Booking your bus transport in advance through Bus Online Ticket really makes traveling throughout the country much easier. Trust us, we winged it with a few buses and seriously regretted it!
WHERE TO STAY IN GEORGE TOWN, PENANG
We were invited to stay at the awesome boutique hotel, B Street Hotel. Of course, it is located on B Street, aka Beach Street. Beach Street is one of the many roads in George Town that has a fascinating history. It is one of the oldest streets in Penang and was founded around the beginning of the city back in 1786. At the time it was the street nearest to the water, hence the coastal name, Beach Street! Since then the land has been reclaimed and extended the shoreline so now there are two more roads before the Malacca Strait. In the 19th century, the street was lined with financial institutions and bank headquarters, making the road the central finance hub in northern Malaysia. Unfortunately, most of the historic buildings on Beach Street were destroyed during World War II but many others can be seen from the time period in other areas of George Town.
Beach Street is still central in George Town today making the location of B Street Hotel just a stone’s throw away from the area’s historic buildings, famous food markets, and fascinating street art. B Street Hotel actually has one of my favorite murals that we saw in George Town, a cone with a dripping bouquet of colorful flowers instead of ice cream. We were really lucky and even had a view of this mural from our lovely room.
The contemporary B Street Hotel has cozy rooms with my favorite decor color combo–citrus and grey. Complete with ultra modern amenities and a super soft bed we adored our comfortable room. The toiletries were pine with soothing oatmeal soap and white tea lotion.
No hip hotel would be complete without an awesome rooftop terrace and B Street Hotel has one of our favorites. The panoramic views from B’Roof are incredible as you can see many temples, mosques, street art murals, and more. There is 24/7 coffee, tea, and biscuit service in the reception and we often took our refreshments to the roof in the early evening to enjoy the sunset over George Town, a spectacular site that is not to be missed.
We felt like we were at home at B Street Hotel due to the kind staff and the amazing property manager, Steph! Steph took us for a Nyonya lunch one afternoon and then to a local spot to try high-quality durian. It was actually delicious! But not quite as good as Kuih, more on Nyonya cuisine below. We also discovered the coolest coffee spot in Penang thanks to Steph who took us to Moon Shop. The team at B Street Hotel helped us customize a local map by marking all the best murals and hawker centers which really helped make our time in Penang so memorable.
WHAT TO EAT IN GEORGE TOWN, PENANG
Being pescatarian in Penang was no easy feat for me, likely because we ate mostly at street food stalls, known locally as hawkers. I even resorted to telling food vendors that I was Muslim (I am not) in order to ensure they didn’t add pork fat to my meal. For a Muslim-majority nation, it is shocking how many of their national dishes contain pork.
To get the gist of what are the must-eat dishes in Penang we headed out on the Food Tour Malaysia Penang Brunch outing. Our guide, Kevin, was an expert in all the Penang delicacies, he even used to have a restaurant in the historic George Town city center. Kevin did his best to accommodate my no meat dietary restriction and had a laugh trying to convince hawkers to prepared traditional dishes without chicken and pork. During brunch, we went to a variety of hawker markets and hidden gem restaurants to try lots of local dishes. Sampled dishes included Curry Mee, Chee Cheong Fun, a super thick rice noodle dish seasoned with soy sauce mixed with shrimp paste and topped with sesame seeds (usually contains pork), Assam Laksa, a soupy noodle dish with fish and a tangy tamarind sauce. These dishes can be found at most hawker stalls in Penang. To try a few dishes head to an open-air night market, known as pasar malam, the Chulia market operates most nights, Jelutong is on Friday and Macallum is on Monday.
My favorite street food dishes in Penang were Char Koay Teow, a simple flat rice noodle dish served with shrimp, bean sprouts, chives, and egg (usually contains pork) in soy sauce, and Clay Pot Mee. Our favorite Clay Pot Mee was a shrimp version at Red Garden Cafe. I was surprised that I actually really liked fried oyster omelets, they’re pretty extreme in flavor and exactly what they sound like – fried oysters in an egg omelet. A traditional dish that we loved were bamboo beaten noodles and dim sum snacks whenever we could find them. Popiah was another favorite street food dish, it is a thin pancake-meets-spring-roll stuffed with veggies and loaded up with a variety of sauces such as soy sauce, sweet bean sauce, and shrimp paste.
I didn’t love Sotong Bakar, paper thin dry squid, Mee Sotong, a noodle dish in a thick ketchup-like sauce with squid, or Penang Rojak, a mixture of fruits and squid. Basically, I didn’t love the Penang squid dishes!
Ais Kacang and Cendol are traditional Penang chilled deserts. They’re quite similar, but also totally different. Cendol is sort of like a snow cone, but with toppings you’ve never had during a hot American summer–sweet corn, red kidney beans, and pandan jelly noodles. Somehow when mixed together with coconut milk the concoction is surprisingly delicious and refreshing on a hot day. But then again I am an addict to all things pandan leaf. Ais Kacang is similar to Cendol, except it is missing the pandan, so I wasn’t as much of a fan as this sweet dish. It has ice shavings, red kidney beans, jelly cubes, sweet corn and loads of condensed milk.
Nyonya cuisine is notorious in Penang. The specialty comes from the Peranakans, Chinese that immigrated to Malaysia. Nyonya is actually the name for Peranakan ladies, the cuisine is lovingly nicknamed for them in honor of the complicated process it takes to make most of the delicious Nyonya meals. We tried Sambal Goreng, Jiu Hu Char, and Gulai Tumis. But my favorite thing from the Peranakan culture in Penang is their rice flour coconut desserts, known as Kuih. The colorful sweet cakes are typically served for breakfast or with tea.
Penang also has an awesome cafe scene, most of which have super reliable WiFi making this an up and coming hub for digital nomads. Our favorite spots with excellent coffee and great decor are Gugang Cafe, Lavish, On The Table, The Twelve Cups, The Postcard Shop, The Light’s Cafe, Kim Haus, and Merry Me. If you’re strictly vegan you’ll love the Japanese plant-based Sushi Kitchen, make sure to try one of the udon noodle dishes and the seaweed rice. They do not use white sugar, white salt, egg, milk, garlic, or onion, in order to satisfy all vegans.
With all these amazing dishes to try it’s no wonder that Penang was voted the “World’s #1 Best Food Destination” by Lonely Planet in 2014. Are you drooling yet? Tell us in the comments which dish sounds good to you!
WHAT TO DO IN PENANG
Between meals walk off that extra caloric intake by setting out to discover George Town’s many street art murals. You’ll have to grab a map to find them all, or just head out and wander to discover murals as you go. George Town is very walkable and there are murals to be found every few blocks. The most famous piece of work was just a five-minute walk from B Street Hotel including, Brother and Sister on Swing, Kids on Bicycle, Boy on Chair, and Children Playing Basketball. The Real Bruce Lee Would Never Do This and Boy on Motorcycle were located on Lebuh Ah Quee. The Trishaw Man is the size of the entire building in the parking lot of Red Garden Cafe. See more of my mural shots over on the Photo Journal: Penang Street Art.
All of the cat murals, like Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat, were created by Artists for Stray Animals who aim to raise awareness for the animals living in the streets and the shelters that care for them in Penang. As you can see the majority of the murals around Penang showcase daily Malaysian life, from children playing to street food vendors. Interestingly enough some of the localized pieces, like Boy on Motorcycle were actually painted by Lithuania born Ernest Zacharevic. Others, like Brother & Sister on a Swing, were created by Louis Gan, a deaf-mute local Penang artist. I loved that the murals were created to honor and memorialize these simple moments of daily life and capture them in ink. I really love how a lot of the murals are 3D and have components of the real physical elements of their pictures, like bicycles, food carts, swings, and so on. It is also very cool that the murals are not painted over by the government but instead encouraged as they’ve become a key reason for travelers to visit Penang.
Throughout the city, you’ll find steel-rod cartoon structures depicting daily life in Penang and historical occurrences. These sculptures are a part of an outdoor art gallery dubbed Marking George Town. They help visitors to understand the importance of the street in which they’re standing, from the piece on Lebuh Carnavon that pictures the Chinese belief of burning bungalows, cars, and other worldly possessions in order to ensure they’ll be waiting for you in the afterlife to the parakeets in Little India that tell the tale of how astrologers in the east use the birds to foresee the future. There are 52 to discover and if you find them all you’ll certainly have an understanding of the fascinating city you’re visiting.
If you don’t love street art as much as we do there are still plenty of beautiful things to discover. There are 1,700 protected historic buildings in the UNESCO core zone. Stroll around the different neighborhoods to enjoy architecture. The temples are fantastic and stand out like gems among the shabby buildings with paint chipping off. The doorways of the homes of Penang were darling, from the intricate tile floorings, grand doors, and shrubbery accents, we wanted each and every one to be the entrance to our home.
There are also many exhibits to enjoy in the city. We happened to be visiting during the George Town Festival and saw many fantastic galleries such as Before They Pass Away, a gallery of photos by Jimmy Nelson capturing stills of indigenous tribes in Asia and around the globe. Nearby was a textile exhibit where native women were showcasing the process of creating the Ikat fabrics that are customary in Borneo, Malaysia.
Have you been to George Town? What were your favorite activities? Tell us in the comments as we plan to go back again someday!
Thank you to B Street Hotel, for hosting us, Food Tour Malaysia for feeding us, and Bus Online Ticket for helping us get to Penang! All opinions and photos are my own. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.