If you’ve only got time to visit one destination in Malaysia, it’s gotta be Penang. Although the bustling Malaysia capital of Kuala Lumpur is the perfect place for a quick stopover, Penang’s where you’ll really start to love this often overshadowed Southeast Asian country.
Whether you’re visiting for a history lesson, relaxation on the beach, some active pursuits or—perhaps most importantly—a culinary adventure, fit it all in with gusto by following along with this complete 3-day Penang itinerary…
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3 days in Penang: Things to know before you go
When to go to Penang
In general, the weather in Malaysia is a bit of a mixed bag. And like much of the country, you’ll need to choose your dates wisely to ensure that the bulk of your Penang trip isn’t spent huddled up indoors to escape raging monsoon rains.
Although you could conceivably visit Penang year round, overall, the best time to go to Penang is between December and March.
During these months, the weather in Penang is at its most pleasant. You’ll fewer rainy days on average than other times of the year and plenty of blue, sunny skies to enjoy your trip to the fullest.
Getting to Penang
Unless you’re in the midst of a longer Malaysia itinerary, the best way of getting to Penang is by plane. My favourite option is AirAsia, offering daily flights from KL that can rival the cost of the long drawn-out bus ride from the capital when booked ahead of time.
What to do in Penang in 3 days: A complete itinerary
Day 1: George Town
There’s no better way to launch your first 24 hours in Penang than exploring George Town, Malaysia’s second biggest city, and—at least in my opinion—the country’s most interesting oversized urban experience.
As much as I love spending time in Kuala Lumpur, George Town wears its history on its sleeve far more compellingly than the ever-changing capital. Wander past George Town’s ornate temples, unique street art, and hawker stalls, and you’ll quickly see exactly why you need to visit Penang!
Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas for what to do in George Town in one day:
Explore Old Town
If you’re crunched for time in Penang (and even if you’re not), focus your attention on the sights & sounds of George Town’s UNESCO-listed Old Town. There’s plenty to see & do in Old Town, including some of the Penang’s top attractions and—most importantly!—some of the best food in Penang.
The best way to experience Old Town George Town is to simply let your senses guide you as you wander through the streets. Nevertheless, be sure to stack your Penang itinerary with these must-sees:
Beyond being the centre of Penang’s backpacker universe, Love Lane is, well, a lovely stretch of colonial area shophouses, and the perfect place to launch your itinerary. Start your day strolling along its entire length to transport yourself into the George Town of old.
If you need a cup o’ java to start the engine, fuel up at one of the many hip cafés along here. Don’t miss out on a chance to sip Malaysia’s famous white coffee featuring beans lightly roasted in palm oil and served with condensed milk either hot or cold. Wheeler’s Coffee is a great choice here.
Chulia Street Hawker Stalls
Although the real action here begins to buzz after 6pm, the Chulia Street Hawker Stalls at the corner of Chulia and Carnarvon are the perfect place to grab a quick snack before exploring Old Town further.
It might not seem like much of a breakfast snack, but I’d highly recommend a mouth-watering bowl of wonton noodles. Topped with succulent BBQ pork, this Chinese dish, one of the most popular in Penang, will have you quickly drooling for more!
Kapitan Keling Mosque
Venturing deeper into Old Town, you’ll be ever more enchanted by Penang’s diversity, especially when you stumble upon Kapitan Keling Mosque. Built in 1801 by Indian Muslim, this Indo-Moorish-style mosque is absolutely striking.
With its pristine whitewashed façade, punctuated by ornate archways and Mughal-style domes, the Kapitan Keling Mosque is a must-see on any Penang travel itinerary.
Further north on Pitt Street (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling), history & culture buffs should also set their sights on St. George’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia; and the Goddess of Mercy Temple, a Taoist temple dating back to 1728.
Visitors rave about Penang’s street art. And one of the most famous places in George Town to see it in action is on Lebuh Armenia in Old Town.
Even without its famous street art, Lebuh Armenia is one of the city’s loveliest and liveliest corners. The street is graced with everything from Buddhist temples and food stalls to souvenir shops sprouting up in age-old Chinese merchant houses.
Wander around for a bit here, slipping into the side streets to escape the tourist crowds and revel in Old Town’s charming atmosphere.
Dazzle at The Clan Jetties of Penang
Follow Lebuh Armenia east to stumble into one of George Town’s most compelling attractions, The Clan Jetties of Penang.
Featuring houses built atop the water on stilts with lovely strait views as their background, these waterfront settlements, dating back to the late-19th century, are a pleasant surprise in a country that’s modernizing at a breakneck speed.
Even if they seem like a Disneyland-esque tourist attraction, keep in mind that The Clan Jetties of Penang are a living neighbourhood. As you’re wandering through, be sure to remain respectful of the area’s residents by keeping your noise levels to a minimum and obeying the “no photography” signs where visible.
Soak in seaviews at Fort Cornwallis
From The Clan Jetties, it’s about a 20-minute walk along Pengkalan Weld to Fort Cornwallis. One of the most popular places to visit in Penang, Fort Cornwallis is the largest remaining British fort in all of Malaysia.
Truthfully, if you’re tight for time on your Penang itinerary, anyone without more than a passing interest in Malaysian colonial history wouldn’t be missing out on much to pass on paying the entrance fee (RM 20) to see Fort Cornwallis up close.
Far better is to soak in the coastal views here and pop into the nearby Padang Kota Lama Food Court or Esplanade Park Food Court, two popular hawker centres that are perfect for lunch or a midday snack with sea views.
Revel in the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (The Blue Mansion)
From Fort Cornwallis, walk west along Lebuh Light for about 15 minutes to catch a glimpse at one of the most classic examples of Penang architecture, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
This former Chinese merchant house is one of the most staggering buildings in George Town. Painted bright blue and sporting a traditional Hakka–Teochew-style façade, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion will catch your eye from the moment you see it.
To get a glimpse of the mansion’s lovely inner courtyard, you’ll have to time your visit: Official tours of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion only depart a couple times a day.
Even better is to book a stay at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. The mansion is no longer simply a tourist attraction, but houses one of the best boutique hotels in Penang—it’s well worth the small price to experience an important piece of Penang history firsthand!
Eat to your heart’s content in Old Town
After spending some time exploring George Town’s centre freely, feed your growing appetite and tackle some of Penang’s most famous foods elsewhere in Old Town.
As George Town is truly one of Asia’s best food cities, there’s no shortage of food stalls & restaurants to gobble down some delectable dishes. Give your tastebuds a little excitement at one of these top places eat in Penang:
- Lebuh Kimberley: A popular food street in the heart of Chinatown that starts to burst at the seams with hawker stalls come nightfall. This is one of the best places in town to chow down on char kway teow, a famous dish consisting of noodle draped in a dark soy sauce and topped with seafood.
- Chulia Street: Even if you’ve already taken the suggestion to eat here in the morning, head back to the Chulia Street Hawker Stalls to experience a lively atmosphere full of chaos and mouth-watering food (including the famous wonton noodles I raved about earlier)
- Lebuh Keng Kwee: A short alleyway one block south of Lebuh Kimberley that’s famous for its assam laksa (hot & sour tamarind-based seafood soup) and chendul (shaved ice with green rice jelly).
- Lebuh Queen: A street in the heart of George Town’s Little India that serves the city’s best Indian delights. Dig into some nasi kandar (fragrant curried rice and meat) here.
- New Lane: A fantastic food street just west of Komtar off Jalan Macalister. Many of the dishes here are Chinese in origin. Try out an oyster omelette or some savoury chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls).
Day 2: Penang National Park & Batu Ferringhi
After a day of bustle in George Town, you’ll cherish getting to spend a little time exploring the quieter western side of Pulau Penang. This is precisely one of the most compelling parts of travelling to Penang: There’s a little of everything for every type of traveller.
Get wild in Penang National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Pinang)
Grab a quick bite in George Town and stock up on some supplies, including snacks and plenty of water, before hopping aboard Bus 101 for the hour-long ride to Penang National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Pinang).
This lovely slice of nature—actually one of world’s smallest national parks!—is the perfect escape from George Town’s big city buzz.
From hiking through its tropical interior to uncovering some of the best beaches in Penang, there’s plenty to do in Penang National Park.
Hiking in Penang National Park
By far, the best way to experience Penang National Park is on a hike. From the park entrance where Bus 101 drops you off, there are two main trails: one to Monkey Beach, the other to the Turtle Sanctuary and the off-the-beaten-path beach of Teluk Kampi.
With only three days in Penang, you’ll need to make a judgement call; you won’t have the time nor the energy to do both trails in one day as they are each about a 1.5-hour hike each way.
Keep the following in mind:
- The trail to Monkey Beach is the slightly easier of the two hikes. It’s also the most popular. If you’re looking for serenity and peace, this might not be quite the idyllic escape you’re picturing.
- The Turtle Sanctuary trail is steeper, more difficult, and, naturally, quieter. If you’re looking for a more relaxing seaside experience on a cleaner and less-crowded beach, this is the trail you should set your sights on.
Whichever trail you choose, be sure to bring all all the essentials including as much water as possible. In the hot & humid weather of Penang you’ll need to hydrate frequently to avoid heat exhaustion or sunstroke.
To plough through the steep jungle trails, you’ll also need to wear excellent footwear. I’d recommend a good pair of hiking shoes (check out these top choices for men & women) with good support & excellent traction. No flip-flops unless a sprained ankle (or worse) is in your trip plans!
Boat trips in Penang National Park
If hiking isn’t your cup of kopi luwak, opt instead for a boat ride to Monkey Beach or the Turtle Sanctuary. It’s a huge time saver, but comes at the expense of missing out on Penang National Park’s spectacular scenery.
Instead, why not get the best of both worlds? Combine a hike to Monkey Beach with a boat ride to the Turtle Sanctuary, returning to the park entrance either via the alternative hiking trail or by boat (you’ll need to ask your captain to wait for you).
Experience Batu Ferringhi Night Market
You simply can’t visit Asia without spending time in a night market. And on Pulau Pinang, Batu Ferringhi Night Market reigns supreme.
Located in the small seaside town of Batu Ferringhi, just 15 kilometres from George Town’s centre, this bustling night market has a little of everything to keep your attention.
The buzz of Batu Ferringhi Night Market begins after about 7pm as shop vendors roll in their carts along the town’s main road to peddle everything from knock-off Adidas shoes & sandals to boarder shorts & backpacks.
And, of course, who could forget the food?
Batu Ferringhi Night Market could well be one of the best places to eat in Penang. Besides choosing one of the random restaurants along the strip, pop into the Long Beach Kopitiam for a wide selection of reasonably-priced & delicious local Penang favourites including satay, char kway teow, chicken biryani, assam laksa, and mee rebus.
Day 3: Kek Lok Si & Penang Hill
With your three days in Penang coming to a close, we’ve saved some of the island’s best attractions for last. After waking up in George Town, hop onto Bus 203 in the centre towards Air Itam to get your day off to an exciting start.
Marvel at Kek Lok Si Temple
Since it’s outside George Town proper, many first-time visitors to Penang miss out on the glorious Kek Lok Si Temple. Peering onto Penang Island from its hilltop perch at Air Itam, this humongous Buddhist temple complex is the largest in Malaysia and one of the most important in all of Southeast Asia.
At the centre of Kek Lok Si is the (literally) unmissable Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda. Standing seven storeys and 30 metres high, this pagoda mixes up three different Buddhist architecture styles: Its top crown, crafted in typical Burmese style; its mid-tiers, in distinctive Thai design; and its base, a typical Chinese octagon.
Elsewhere on the grounds of Kek Lok Si, you can stroll leisurely alongside fish ponds, pavilions, and Buddhist statues. Don’t miss a chance to burn your quads on a walk up to the highest levels of the temple where a massive 36.5-metre-high bronze statue of Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) peers down upon the complex.
Breathe breathtaking views of George Town at Penang Hill
Once you’ve had your fill of Kek Lok Si, hop back on the bus for a short three-kilometre ride to Penang Hill. As the first hill station built by the British, there’s plenty of history to back up this small slice of paradise in the middle of Penang Island.
Penang Hill is a popular destination not just for its views (which are indeed spectacular), but for its coolest climate. At the summit, you’re welcomed by a steady breeze and a temperature up to five degrees cooler than in George Town.
Now, here’s the fun part.
Depending on your energy levels, there’s two ways to get up:
- The famous (and crowded) Penang Hill Railway
- The lesser-known Penang Hill Heritage Trail
My absolute impatience for waiting in lines, led me to the latter. Asking around on how to find the Heritage Trail will be of little help as its not a popular option for getting up Penang Hill compared to the easy historical funicular.
To find the trail, walk down the hill from the Penang Hill Lower Staton Terminus and take the first street to your left. As you walk up the hill, stay left, walking past Then Kong Thnuah Temple until the road turned into a narrower paved trail.
Soon, you should see the Penang Hill Railway up ahead. Walk towards it and you should see the trailhead. Take the stairs directly left of the trailhead sign.
Just a word of warning: The Penang Hill Heritage Trail is NOT an easy hike. Although the trail conditions are fine, it’s all uphill. Be sure to take plenty of water.
TIP: If you get completely gassed mid-way through (a distinct possibility in this heat!), you can catch the funicular at the Middle Station to complete the rest of the journey.
Once you’re atop Penang Hill, there are once two options for returning: 1) the funicular; 2) the Jeep Trail to the Penang Botanical Gardens.
Once again, because I have no patience for waiting in massive line-ups, the Jeep Trail (let’s face it: it’s a road) it was.
Although it’s only 5 kilometres down to Penang Botanical Gardens from the top of Penang Hill, the Jeep Trail can be a tad challenging. The road is quite steep in parts and after a couple kilometres, there’s no doubt you’ll start feeling a little shakiness in your quads and calves.
Gobble down Penang’s best food at Gurney Drive
Once you’ve returned from Penang Hill, spend your last evening in George Town relaxing and recovering from the crazy hike. (You did take my recommendation to hike up and down Penang Hill, right?)
If savouring some more Penang’s best food is on your agenda, I’d recommend heading over to the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre. This food court is among the top hawker centres in Penang, and is an absolute must for foodies. You’ll find all your Penang food favourites here—from char kway teow & chee cheong fun to laksa & satay.
Where to stay in Penang
Given the island’s popularity, choosing where to stay in Penang can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. There’s a huge inventory here (especially in George Town) with varying degrees of quality. Here are a couple of the best hotels in Penang:
- Le Dream Boutique Hotel: A clean & modern boutique hotel in the centre of George Town. Plenty of extras like a rooftop spa tub and rooftop bar help this property perform well above its pay grade.
- Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion: A historical property converted into a boutique hotel, this lovely 4-star is undoubtedly one of the most unique places you could stay anywhere in Asia!
- Eastern & Oriental Hotel: The absolute top 5-star in Penang, this 19th-century heritage hotel delivers the ultimate Penang luxury experience. From its glorious sea views to its six on-site dining options, this hotel’s not one to miss.