Given its rich history, Penang has many notable structures, temples, and clan houses that attest to its rich ethnic and historical legacy.
Many are in George Town, but other parts of the island also hold some beautiful places you should visit.
Kek Lok Si Temple
It’s the largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. It is impressive to visit right before Chinese New Year in January or February when it is adorned with hundreds of beautiful red lanterns and colourful LEDs lights. Don’t forget to stop at Air Itam market to try one of Penang’s best laksa.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The Blue Mansion of Penang tycoon millionaire Cheong Fatt Tze is a stunning example of Straits Chinese architecture and George Town’s most iconic buildings. You can come here for a tour. You can also eat at their fine dining restaurant Indigo. Or stay overnight in one of their exquisitely decorated rooms.
Certainly one very atmospheric way to spend a night in town. The place is super photogenic and was used as a set for many films, which as of late include the legendary mahjong scene in the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.
Penang Peranakan Mansion
This green-hued heritage house in Little India is the place to learn about the diverse ancestry of the Peranakan, or Baba-Nyonya. Baba-Nyonya is an individual of mixed Chinese and Malay blood. This 19th-century mansion has been now turned into a captivating museum housing 1000-something objects and furniture of the time.
This building also contains the Penang residency and office of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. He usually lived in Taiping, where you can see sophisticated Chinese carved wooden doors and Scottish ironworks. It is an impressive journey to learn about a lesser-known Malaysian culture and a very reminiscent place.
Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade
Perched on the easternmost corner of George Town along the walkable Esplanade, Fort Cornwallis. The Fort was built in the 1786 century by the East India Company helmed by Captain Francis Light to protect the island from attacks by the pirates of Kedah, on the opposite side of the coastline.
It’s the most comprehensive standing fort in Malaysia, although the cannons that can still be seen here never engaged in combat during its history. There is also a lighthouse next to it, the second oldest in Malaysia, which is impressive. The Fort is more attractive from the outside than the inside.
See Penang Avatar Secret Garden
Did you know that Penang has a place that looks like the Tree of Souls of the blockbuster movie Avatar? It’s Penang Avatar Secret Garden in Tanjung Tokong. This place has become a top-rated attraction. The main thing to see is the decorated park set on the hill behind the Thai Pak Koong temple.
The centrepiece is, of course, the big “Tree of Souls” decorated with LED strings. It comes alive as soon as darkness falls. The tree soars above a life-sized checkerboard, and there are stairs and a wooden boardwalk to complete a quick circuit around the tree and back down.
Take a peek at Southeast Asia’s Oldest Anglican Church
Lying at the centre of a well-manicured park at the end of Kapitan Keling Road, St. George Church is a 19th-century Anglican church. It is the oldest church found in Southeast Asia. Opened in 1819, it celebrated 200 years of continuous service in 2019.
A visit is very recommended. The church has an attractive neoclassical facade resembling a Greek temple topped by a pointed tower. The cross dominates above the quaint green surroundings. If you go inside, you will be able to walk on a mezzanine and see the whole building from a vantage position. The old organ here can still make some proud sounds, so try to time your visit during a service.
Take a Stroll on Armenian Street
Armenian Street has become George Town’s tourist centre, lined with all sorts of little trinket shops, art galleries, cafes, and the infamous “Little Children on a Bicycle” mural jotted at one of its ends. But come after dark, the place still retains the charms it had just a decade ago. A beautiful narrow street punctuated by some of George Town’s most influential clan houses and temples. We are not counting the charming Armenian Park, a charming green space to sit on a bench and ponder life passing by for a while.
Penang’s Armenian Street had great historical significance because, after starting as a Malay settlement, in the 19th century, it became inhabited by a majority of Armenian and Chinese, giving the area a distinct multi-cultural character that has come to define Penang. In 1910 Sun Yat-sen organised the Penang Conference in the house that today still functions as his memorial museum in Penang, raising the $8000 which served to topple the Qing Dynasty in China.
See one of the world’s largest reclined Buddhas
Penang wouldn’t be the medley of cultures if it didn’t have at least one Thai Buddhist temple. The Wat Chaiya Mangalaram in Pulau Tikus is the most important, oldest Malaysian Siamese temple. The main feature here is the 32-meter-long reclined Buddha statue, one of the largest in the world, that lays over a columbarium where the burnt ashes of the cremated are housed. There are stupas and other colourful statues of Yaksha and other mythical beings.
The temple is a focal point of Thai celebrations such as Songkran and Wesak Day in honour of Lord Buddha. In front of it is the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple, another critical in Penang, with its striking collection of Buddha statues that imitate the Buddha figure as depicted worldwide, from Cambodia to Afghanistan to India and beyond.
Soak the colonial charms of Beach Street
Beach Street runs from Fort Cornwallis all along the coast, encasing George Town, and historically was one of the oldest streets in George Town. Established in 1786, it quickly became one of the most thriving streets for business in old Penang. Of course, part of that legacy is still visible today in the string of beautiful buildings — most converted into banks — that line both sides of the street, making it a magnet for couples on their pre-wedding photoshoots.
Climb to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Waterfall Temple
Set on a flank of Penang Hill close to Moongate and the Botanic Gardens, the Waterfall Temple, with its striking white gopuram, maybe the most beautiful of Penang’s Indian temples. For this reason, it is often the backdrop of pre-wedding photoshoots in Penang.
This temple is the epicentre of the dramatic Tamil festival of Thaipusam. Local devotees, with lips and cheeks pierced by skewers in honour to the Lord of War Murugan, walk barefoot from the centre of Penang Little India and end their pilgrimage here. This is a hectic and yet spectacular time to visit. But you can come any other time and enjoy the peace of the surroundings sheltered by nature.
Marvel at Penang Floating Mosque
The Floating Mosque is Tanjung Bungah’s most iconic sight. Opened in 2007 and built on stilts over the sea with significant choreographic effect, it came to be this way to accommodate the more substantial number of Muslims with no space on land.
Non-Muslims can appreciate this mosque best at sunrise and sunset when its prominent minaret and colourful rooftop glitter against all the pink, red, and yellow hues.
Learn about World War II History at Penang War Museum
Malaysia’s own War Museum in the southern Penang district of Batu Maung testifies the Penang’s history of occupation by the Japanese during World war II. But even if the museum’s management doesn’t like to admit it, Penang War Museum is better known worldwide for having been portrayed in several documentaries as a “haunted museum”.
National Geographic starred the Penang War Museum among the most haunted places in Asia. The spooky story of merciless Japanese colonel Suzuki and the prisoners of war he tortured and killed here. The bullet holes in the walls serve as a grim reminder. But beyond the spooks, a visit to the Penang War Museum today should be a good lesson to learn about the resilience of local Penang people against the invaders. It also offers a 100 Feet Underground Tunnel that’s guaranteed to test your nerves.
Have a Go at the Snake Temple
This temple, situated only 3km away from Penang Airport, was built in 1850 in honour of Chor Soo Kong. He was a famous Buddhist monk and healer. Devotees come here as far as Singapore, Taiwan, and China to pray to him. But the place has become somewhat of a tacky tourist attraction because of the tame snakes found here.
Legend says that Chor Soo Kong used to shelter snakes inside of this temple. After his death, they started to come on their own. However, a few snakes are always hanging on wooden poles set at the sides of the main altar. Don’t come with high expectations, but the place makes for a good photo opportunity by all means.
Experience Islam at the Masjid Kapitan Keling
The Masjid Kapitan Keling in central George Town is a unique mosque, and not only because of its magnificent black domes, sleek architectural style, and white walls. It’s mainly because it was built in the 19th century by Indian Muslim traders in the multi-ethnic port of Penang. Its significance within the UNESCO-inscribed old city of George Town is that this was the first Islamic institution built in the city’s Tamil neighbourhood.
You can visit the Masjid Kapitan Keling mosque outside of praying times. Volunteers will be happy to show you around and answer your questions. If you arrive without proper long clothes, the volunteers will be offering you a tunic to cover up and be allowed inside the Masjid’s grounds.
Visit Penang’s stunning Town Hall and City Hall
Set on the left side of Padang Kota, Penang City Hall dominates over the Esplanade with its white-washed Victorian facade, neo-baroque colonnades and arched windows, and a characteristic rooftop silhouette. Initiated in 1903, today, the Town Hall housed the Penang Island City Council offices and was built to expand the space of the adjacent Town Hall, completed in the 1880s.
The Town Hall is George Town’s oldest municipal building. Back in the day also used to be the place where the ruling Europeans congregated for their social events. In 1999, the Town Hall was one of the settings for the movie Anna and the King. Walking along this road today, you can’t avoid feeling a sense of grandeur as the two buildings. Still in perfect conditions, radiate a notable sense of history and are a delight to photograph, too.
Take a dip at Monkey Beach
Perched on the westernmost corner of Penang Island in the beautiful Penang National Park is Monkey Beach. Monkey Beach is one of Penang’s most popular beaches. It takes its name for the population of macaques that live in the forest behind the crescent of sand. But these days you’ll probably see more day-trippers than primates, to be honest.
You can hike to Monkey Beach from the entrance of Penang National Park. But do remember that a group of more than ten people need to get a guide from park headquarters. And if you are unfit, lazy, or in a rush, can get on one fo the shared boats.