If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia and you have even a passing interest in food, you need to visit Penang. Simple as that.
It’s easily one of, if not the best food city we’ve ever visited. We thought KL was good, until we got here, and then we understood why residents of KL are known to drive all the way here just for dinner!
Beyond the food, it’s a fascinating place with a unique history and culture. It’s an amalgamation of the many different ethnic groups that have called it home over the years, with a resulting culture that’s very unique from the other places we visited in Malaysia. The street art is incredible, and the architecture and historic buildings are also really interesting.
We stayed in Georgetown on Penang Island (Penang is technically partly on the mainland too, but it’s mostly taken to mean the island). It’s definitely the most touristy part of the island but it’s also the most charming, and it’s very walking friendly which was great for burning off all the food calories. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as a result all the colonial buildings in the city center are incredibly well preserved and meticulously maintained. They almost look new, and the buildings are all lit up at night. It’s really beautiful.
To get to Georgetown, we took a bus from Kuala Lumpur that took around 5-6 hours and cost around $10 per person. Buses leave from BTS station in KL every 30 minutes. Some buses stop at Butterworth on the mainland, from which you have to take a short (10 minute) ferry over to Georgetown. Others, like ours, go all the way to Penang Island and stop at Sungai Nibong terminal. We did not find a clear way of determining which companies use which route, but you can ask the bus station attendant, though it doesn’t really matter which route you take. From the bus terminal we took an Uber to our hostel in Georgetown, because it’s more direct and Uber here is really cheap. When we checked Google Maps, public transportation seemed to be very time consuming, e.g. 2 hours versus a 25 minute drive, so I would recommend Uber.
Our hostel was the Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel on Muntri Street. The location was fantastic - right in the middle of the historic zone - and our private double room was immaculate. We were able to walk most everywhere in downtown Georgetown easily and felt totally safe at all hours. The hostel is in a great location if you’re looking to explore the city’s street art, as there is tons of it nearby. Penang’s street art is pretty famous, so you should definitely walk around and see as much of it as you can.
We didn’t do that much ‘touristy’ stuff in Penang other than eat. One morning, we paid a visit to the Blue Mansion aka Cheong Fatt Tze, one of the most well-known historic buildings in Georgetown. The mansion is a relic of the 19th century Chinese influence on the city, and it’s a beautiful building that’s painted the most vivid shade of blue I’ve ever seen. It’s now a hotel, but tours are available every day (tickets cost MYR 17). We paid for the tour, but the tour guide’s mic was broken and sounded horribly tinny, and the group was so huge we couldn’t hear a single word she was saying, so we actually ducked out 5 minutes into the tour! We couldn’t get a refund, but it was seriously almost impossible to stand there with screaming children running around, trying hard to laugh at jokes we couldn’t hear, so we bailed and just photographed the outside. It wasn’t a huge loss, though apparently the interior design is quite interesting so if you get lucky with your guide and their mic you’ll probably be fine.
We also spent a lot of time on foot exploring the streets of Georgetown. Because of its unique cultural heritage and the many ethnic groups that have called Penang home over the years, there city has developed many distinct neighborhoods. For example, Little India is (as you might guess) home to countless Indian restaurants and sari shops and spice markets all blasting bhangra tunes at full volume and the smell of incense is thick in the air. With all the noise and chaos in the streets, it honestly felt like we had traveled back to India for a minute, and we were happy to be able to order a thali again (my god, how we’ve missed them). There’s also Armenian Street, which has cafes and little shops, as well as some street art and cute old buildings.
One evening we went to the Three Sixty Bar & Restaurant for drinks. It’s a revolving rooftop restaurant inside the Bayview hotel that literally revolves, giving guests a 360 (hence the name) view of the city. We went during happy hour and the rotation doesn’t start until 7pm, so we had to resign ourselves to not moving, but the view was great and the drinks were way more affordable than a rooftop bar in KL.
As I said earlier, Penang is renowned for its cuisine, and people come from all over just to eat here, so the vast majority of our time here was spent either eating or thinking about our next meal. The street food here is so good that in our six total nights in Penang we ate a sit-down dinner exactly once, instead opting to visit several different hawker centers around town. Hawker centers are sort of like open-air food courts (but much more casual) where you just browse the food stalls and order a bunch of stuff from different vendors. Usually there are a bunch of tables set up in the middle of all the food stalls and you can sit anywhere, though you’ll be expected to buy a beverage from one of the drink sellers (which is fine, because you’ll want something to wash down all your delicious food with).
Some of Penang’s most famous dishes come from these hawker centers, and they each have their own famous stalls. We tried a gazillion different local dishes across town, but our favorites were char kway teow (stir-fried noodles with duck egg and prawns), wonton mee (just really delicious wonton soup), fried oysters (served with egg, omelet-style), and lor bak (fried pork rolls).
Closest to our hostel, and the most ‘user-friendly’ of the hawker centers we visited, was Red Garden Food Paradise. This had a good mix of locals and tourists, with live music most evenings. It’s open-air, but covered, which is nice since it tends to rain quite a lot in Penang. Fans of Anthony Bourdain might recognize this place from one of his old No Reservations episode. You can pretty much get anything you could possibly want here - both local Penang-style favorites and more diverse fare like dim sum, Thai, Korean, Indian, and even pizza (if you want it for some reason).
We went to Red Garden three times because it was convenient and really delicious. Our favorite vendors included the char kway teow guy, Obama Spring Rolls (yes, named after the president), and the dim sum stand - the ‘juicy buns’ (egg custard sweet buns) are especially delicious. The Indian guy on the corner by the entrance (he also sells pizza and waffles for some reason) is amazing - the naan is excellent.
Red Garden is a good, easy introduction to the world of Penang’s hawker centers because you simply go up to each stall and tell them your table number, then you pay when they bring the food to your table - easy peasy. I definitely think this was a more ‘touristy’ experience than some of the other centers we visited, but we were fine with that because the food was still out of this world good.
Apart from Red Garden, we also took an Uber to Gurney Drive Hawker Center near the Gurney Plaza mall. This was probably our least favorite of the hawker centers, because (without realizing it) we went on a night when most stalls were closed. As a result we pretty much stuck with char koay teow and lor bak. This center is quite popular and well-known, so it was just our fault we didn’t do a lot of research before heading over there.
Probably the most ‘local’ experience we had was at Presgrave Street Hawker Center, which we walked to from the hostel. It was a long walk, but worth it to work off all the calories. The biggest draw here is the hokkien mee (noodles with seafood and pork) stand, which has a line literally the entire time it’s open. Most of the patrons here were locals getting food for takeaway, and we didn’t really know what to order so we just got in the longest lines and winged it. It worked out: we tried the hokkien mee (amazing), char koay teow cooked over charcoal (it makes a difference in the flavor) and some really incredible BBQ pork buns, as well as far too many lor bak. This center is a little more haphazard than the others we visited - the tables are all mismatched and you have to squeeze in behind food stalls to sit down, and the whole time you feel like you’re in the wrong place, but once you get a table it’s the same drill with drink vendors coming by to sell water and beer.
At the hawker centers, we quickly established a routine: upon arriving, we’d make a lap to see what foods were on sale, then we’d find a table and one at a time we’d go up and order anything that suited our fancy. Even when we went absolutely nuts on food and drink, ordering far too much food for the average family of four) we never spent more than $25 (and that was mostly on beer). It’s so cheap and delicious, we never even missed ‘normal’ restaurants. And the atmosphere is just incredible: it’s loud and chaotic and cheerful and full of crazy smells and laughter and (often) music - it’s an experience that can’t be missed.
Because we ate so much for dinner every night, we’d generally eat light the rest of the day. Typically each morning we would get up and head to a cafe for brunch and to do some work before sightseeing. Georgetown is full of cute little coffeeshops that serve surprisingly good coffee and delicious food. Our favorite was Wheeler’s Coffee - they have tons of breakfast options, delicious coffee and good wifi. The bagel sandwiches at The Mugshot Cafe were yummy, The Alley is well-known for its amazing churros, and The Daily Dose has a ton of different kinds of pancakes and French toast to choose from. Coffee And Friends is another favorite, their iced matcha latte is the best I had in Malaysia.
Penang was an amazing, highly fattening and rewarding journey from start to finish. It’s so easy to get to from KL that it would be crazy to not carve out at least a few days here if you’re planning to visit Malaysia. The food scene is unparalleled, the city is beautiful, and it’s an affordable, fun, and safe destination. We honestly left wishing we had more time just because there were so many hawker centers we missed out on, but that will have to wait until next time.