a first-timer’s guide to Penang, Malaysia: where to eat, stay, and play in Penang

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Malaysia is most commonly known for its diverse capital city, Kuala Lumpur, that serves as a major hub for international flights, specifically Air Asia’s budget hops across the Southeast Asian region.

But what about Penang?

Penang is located in northwest Malaysia. On Penang Island, you’ll find stunning cultural landmarks {like Kek Lok Si Temple}, delicious street food {think Indian samosas for less than USD $1}, and world famous interactive street murals. As a first-timer to Penang, I was impressed with all that the small area offers its visitors.


KEEP READING THIS POST FOR MY first-timer’s GUIDE TO PENANG, MALAYSIA


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WHEN TO VISIT + HOW TO GET THERE

It’s recommended by most travel blogs to visit between November and January, since the temperatures are a little cooler and thus more conducive to lots of sightseeing {Malaysia is insanely hot and humid}. If you like off-peak travel {think lower prices and fewer crowds}, consider visiting between February and April. I visited in October and found the heat uncomfortable, but bearable.

You can get to Penang by bus from Kuala Lumpur, but it will chew a huge chunk of time out of your travel itinerary {anywhere from 6-10 hours}. This it the most affordable option, but I have heard it’s a bit of an uncomfortable journey. If you’re long on time and short on cash, grab the bus.

There are budget flights available through Air Asia and other cheaper airlines from Kuala Lumpur. If you have less time, get car sick, and have a little more money in the bank, flying is your best option. I flew for the sake of time and convenience and had zero regrets about spending a little extra coin.

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WHERE TO STAY

I recommend places I’ve stayed myself, and thus, I highly recommend staying at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton. The DoubleTree Resort is located between Georgetown and Batu Ferringhi. The DoubleTree offers free shuttles that run to Georgetown, the location of all the famous street art and plenty of cultural heritage sites, and Batu Ferringhi, where you’ll find a local night market selling souvenirs and plenty of seafood restaurants nearby.

You can read my full post about my stay at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton here.

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WHERE + WHAT TO EAT

My friend, Frances, from So The Adventure Begins told me to make sure I ate at Hameediyah Restaurant, which serves the oldest Nasi Kandar {a northern Malaysian dish that was popularized by Muslim traders from India } in Penang. Hameediyah Restaurant recently underwent renovations, but eating there felt like stepping back in time for a moment. The exposed brick interior and original menu offerings hold firmly in the establishment’s traditions. Hameediyah also has another extended space three doors down called, ‘Hameediyah Tandoori House’ which has the same menu but accommodates larger dining groups. Portion sizes are massive, so this is an ideal place to grab food with a group of friends.

INSIDER TIP: Vegetarian options are incredibly limited and I didn’t find anything vegan on the menu.


You can grab a bite to eat at Hameediyah Saturday through Thursday from 10 AM until 10:30 PM.

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WHAT TO SEE + DO

scout out GEORGETOWN STREET ART

It’s basically an unwritten requirement that those visiting Georgetown trot around the UNESCO stop to soak up the interactive street art. It was the #1 thing on my list of “must-sees” and it remains my favourite experience from my trip to Penang. The art is scattered around Georgetown, making finding each mural a bit like a treasure hunt.

INSIDER TIP: Downloading the free Maps.Me app on your phone will help you navigate where to find the murals, since you don’t need data or WiFi to use the app. It may cut out the “treasure hunt” aspect, but it also cuts out time in the heat.

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peep the largest buddhist temple in Malaysia

Kek Lok Si Temple was truly a highlight of my time in Penang. I’d never been to a temple quite like it. No, I’m not Buddhist. No, it’s not a traditional temple as far as dress code goes. And, yes, it is a very large complex you’ll want to take some time to visit thoroughly. The colours of Kek Lok Si in conjunction with its size and position on a hilltop make it something seriously cool and well worth a visit. 10/10 would do again.

You can read my full guide to Kek Lok Si Temple here.

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ENJOY UNCROWDED BEACHES

Beaches in Penang are among the least crowded I’ve visited. After grabbing a bite to eat at Miami Beach Cafe, my travel partner and I went swimming in the ocean almost every evening. You can sit in the sand and have a private picnic without worry of souvenirs being shoved down your throat or other beach-goers invading your space. There are also some pretty big rocks to pose on if you’re feeling “Instagrammy”.

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VISIT LITTLE INDIA in georgetown

Fancy a vegetable samosa on the go? Good news! Delicious street food vendors selling impossibly cheap samosas and rotis line every avenue of Little India. As you walk around, you’ll see garlands of flowers in bright yellows and deep reds hanging from store fronts and hear music playing from sari {also spelled saree} shops.

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EXPLORE CHINATOWN in georgetown

Chinatown in Georgetown is filled with colourful lanterns hanging across alleyways and incense wafting through the streets. Wandering around Chinatown, you’ll inevitably stumble upon temples with intricate tile details and lines for street food vendors selling everything from shrimp dumplings to stir-fried rice noodles.

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PICK UP A GOOD READ

It can sometimes be difficult to find a good book in English in Asia, especially outside of hostels where travelers often ditch the extra weight of a paperback from their bags. Those traveling through Penang are in luck! Gerak Budaya Bookshop houses so many amazing collections of poetry and literature. They had a cover of the Great Gatsby I hadn’t ever seen anywhere and was dying to pick up {but the cost was atrocious}! While the prices aren’t exactly budget-friendly, if you are craving a page turner {new or used} to feed your mind, you’re bound to find something to read at Gerak Budaya.

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GET ARTSY AT HIN BUS DEPOT

The Hin Bus Depot was my absolute favourite little spot in Georgetown simply because it surprised me more than any place I’d been in Malaysia. Part open art studio, part hippie commune, Hin Bus Depot is like an open air complex filled with vegan cafes, interactive murals, and artists in residence. The decaying walls of the old bus depot are slowly being overrun by greenery, as if Mother Nature is making a graceful declaration of her ownership over the area.

INSIDER TIP: On the weekends you can head to Hin Bus Depot for their market, where vendors make sell everything from Kombucha to plant-based baked goods.

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