Penang Island, an amazing destination in Malaysia

If you are ready to explore the food, culture, and history of Malaysia in one place, Georgetown Penang is the place to visit. This beautiful Island is located at the Nother-Western end of Malaysia and is accessible by road, ferry and airplane. The driving distance of Georgetown from Kuala Lumpur is around 300 km which takes around 4 hours of drive time from Kuala Lumpur.

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travel to penang from kuala lumpur

Self-driving from Kuala Lumpur is probably the best way to explore this amazing destination in Malaysia. I have driven several times from Kuala Lumpur and added detours to my trip by stopping at Ipoh and Pangkor along the way. The direct drive, however, is a little over 4 hours with stopovers along the way at service centres. The service centres on the freeways are very well managed and are equipped with all amenities, cafes and mosques.

If your plan to drive fro KLIA I suggest checking best car rental rates online. Always book in advance to get best rates in Kuala Lumpur.

The intercity freeway network is amazing across Malaysia and driving to these destinations is the best way to enjoy the trip and explore places on the way. Penang is connected with mainland Malaysia with a 13.5 km long suspension bridge.

If you are planning a road trip from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, I suggest exploring Ipoh and Cameron Highlands along the way. A night stay at Ipoh and a one-night stay in Cameron Highlands are enough to explore these interesting places. Ipoh has plenty of cave temples, the Lost World of Tambun, and plenty of nice restaurants. Cameron Highlands is a hill resort with tea plantation and strawberry farms offering plenty of outdoor activities.

Catching a Bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang

Alternatively, catch a shuttle to TBS  (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) main bus station in Kuala Lumpur and book a luxury bus ticket to Penang. The ticket cost around 38 RM. Various services operate from TBS and you will be able to book a ticket around the clock.

Flying from KLIA to Penang

If you plan to catch a plane to Penang Airport the average ticket costs around RM 125 return fare. This is possibly the quickest way to get to Penang if you have limited time to explore this destination.

Catching a Ferry from Butterworth to Penang

A ferry ride from Penang is a great way to travel to the Island of Island of Langkawi. A ferry service also operates from Butterworth to Penang which is suitable for people travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth by train.

What makes penang a unique destination to explore?

Heart of colonial and rich cultural history of Malaysia

Penang enjoys a rich history of colonial occupation and its after-effects on the economy and cultural history of the Island. British East India company took possession of the Island and established it as a naval and trading base between China and Indian Sub-Continent. The British Rule saw expansion of trade in the region and significant growth in the population of Penang with the arrival of migrants to the Island.

In the 19th century, Penang became the center of the spice trade in the region, exporting pepper, nutmegs, and clovers. In later years, the expansion of tin mining in Perak brought about a financial boom to this region which served as a trading port to the colonies. Most trading operations shifted to Singapore which significantly reduced the importance of Penang as an administrative capital in the region.

fort conrwallis in penang
Fort Cornwallis a historical location in Penang

Fort Cornwallis was the first colonial outpost established by British in South East Asia Region. This fort is one of the best preserved forts in this part of the world.

A cultural shift in Penang society was brought about by settlements of affluent Chinese families in Penang at the beginning of the 19th century. The intermarriage of upper-class Malays and Chinese settlers created a whole new culture called Baba Nyonya or Peranakan culture. Armenian Street is popular for plenty of nice cafes and restaurants and the memorable wall murals that you see on Instagram.

armenian street penang
Armenian Street in Penang

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The distinct style of living is evident in the architecture of that era and a unique cooking style called Nyonya Cooking. The shop housed built-in old quarters of the town are remnants of rich cultural traditions. Baba Nyonya Museum and Fatt Tze Mansion are must-visit locations if you want to explore the rich history of Penang.

Walking through the old part of the town takes you back in time, with narrow alleys, hidden cafes and bars, and amazing colorful murals on the walls capturing rich cultural traditions of the bygone era. The downtown area of Penang is declared a a UNESCO heritage protected area.

Penang is the foodie capital of Malaysia

During my visit to Penang, I visited several authentic Nonya restaurants like Little Kitchen (in Noor-ud-din Alley). The food is cooked by ladies of the house and served by men in the dining area. The dishes are served in small servings and recommendations are made based on your choice of meat or vegetable dishes. Nyonya or Peranakan restaurants must be on the list for all foodies visiting Penang.

Most of the  Nyonya restaurants are decorated with unique furniture dating back to the early 20th century. The wooden furniture is decorated with metal and stone inlays. The houses are designed with two-story structures with the ground floor as a shopfront and the first floor used for living. You will observe this architecture across Melaka, Kuching and other places across the country.

Following in the footsteps of the famous celebrity chef and explorer Anthony Bourdain I also visited the famous Nasi Kandar Restaurant Line Clear” . The street-side cafe attracts large crowds of office workers and locals who want to enjoy the mix of Indian and Arab food. A large platter of rice is served with a number of spicy curries of your choice including goat meat, fish head curry, chicken curry, fish cake and a number of vegetables cooked in traditional style. I enjoyed the food and the vibrant atmosphere of this cafe.

sarkies restaurant in penang

Sarkies at Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Sarkies is another great buffet place in Eastern & Oriental Hotel. This is a modern uptown cafe with a great mix of Malay and continental food of your choice. Finish the meal off with a large collection of desserts. The cost is RM 100 per person.

Shopping in Georgetown Penang

Prangin Mall in Penang is a bargain hunter’s paradise while 1st  Avenue Mall houses big fashion brands, cinemas and karaoke lounges. Little Penang Market every last Sunday of the month is for locals to showcase homemade items from arts and crafts to eatables and accessories.

Gurney Drive is a must-visit for a feel of the ultramodern waterfront shopping, food and nightlife experience. Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon Mall house some of the biggest fashion labels from around the world. Gurney Drive area hosts a night market where you can eat local delights and local seafood.

gurney drive in penang
Waterfront at Gurney Drive in Penang

Gurney Plaza is a massive shopping Center with international food chains, fashion outlets, and cafes. I parked my car at the waterfront area and did not notice a no-parking sign on the roadside. On my return from exploring this area, the car was being towed by a towing truck. I was lucky enough to find the police offers on the spot and got away with paying a 60RM fine on the spot. PLEASE WATCH OUT FOR THE TRAFFIC SIGNS WHILE DRIVING IN MALAYSIA. 

Driving at night time on a weekend night is fun in Penang as the weekend bring plenty of people to the city and street-side restaurants and cafes are packed. Jalan Chulia and Lebuah Queen are marked with hundreds of restaurants and bars serving a wide mix of food local to Penang.

Some more interesting things to do in Penang

Explore Batu Ferringhi Beach in Penang

Batu Ferringhi is a popular beach area with a number of high-end resorts including Bayview Resort, Hard Rock Resort and Hilton Doubletree that are quite popular with families.

where to stay in Batu Ferringhi Penang
Hard Rock Hotel at Batu Ferringhi

Batu Ferringhi is popular for watersports, seafood restaurants and night markets on the weekend. The driving distance of Batu Ferringhi from Gurney Drive is approximately 20 minutes. The winding road passes through seaside development and the Floating Mosque of Tunjung Bunga. The drive is very scenic and you will observe a number of seaside resorts and residential homes.

Batu Ferringhi has a number of cheap hotel and resorts as well as this area is quite popular with local crowds.

Visit Peranakan Musuem in Penang

The Peranakan Museum reflects the colourful and rich cultural history of early settlers on Penang. A good mix of painting, historical artifacts, furniture and rich decoration of the building reflect the rich sensibilities of 19th century Malay and Chinese.  The richness of Nyonya culture is evident in the mural, designs, colourful building and heavily inlaid furniture.

Visit Tanjung Bungah Floating Mosqe

The beautiful mosque is visible from the road connecting Gurney Drive and Batu Ferringhi. The beautiful architecture of this mosque is representative of motifs and murals of designs used in the middle east and other parts of the Muslim world.

a beautiful mosque near batu ferringhi penang
Tunjung Bangah Mosque on the way from Gurney Drive to Batu Ferringhi

I stopped at this mosque in 2018 to say my asr prayers. The atmosphere of the mosque is very relaxing and the location commands an amazing view of the Penang coastline.

Catch a tram to the top of Penang Hill

A tram service will take you to Penang Hill that commands amazing views of the Island. This area can also be explored by a number of walking tracks leading up to the botanical gardens. The Penang Hills area is locally known as Bukit  Bendera which consist of a number of hills. Flagstaff Hill is the most developed area with a number of tourist attractions. Other hills include Haliburton Hill, Government Hill and Tiger Hill. Flagstaff hill has an altitude of 833m above sea level.

The funicular railway system is one of its kind in Malaysia. The train operates from 635am to 11 pm and the ride takes approximately 5 minutes to reach the station on the top of the hill. The observation point on the top of the hill is a great location to observe the scenic views of Penang at sunrise and sunset.

The hills are rich in greenery and home to some of the unique and exotic plants in the region. You can spot some unique species of animals including Leaf Monkey, Giant Black Squirrel and Racket-Tailed Drongo along the walking tracks in the rain forest.

Where to stay in Georgetown Penang?

Georgetown has a number of quality hotels and serviced apartments catering to all budget groups. During my first visit to the Island, I stayed at Eastern & Oriental Hotel which is one of the oldest hotels was build during the colonial era. This beautifully preserved hotel has a large number of celebrity guests throughout history including Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang
Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang

The architecture, furniture, and decor of the old wing take you down memory lane. Even the doorman is dressed in an outfit from the previous century. Enjoy lunch or dinner buffet at Sarkies or drop by the cafe near the pool for a hot expresso. This establishment must be on your list if you want to explore the colonial history of Penang. The hotel is ideally located near 1 Penang Road which is the heart of nightlife with a number of quality bars and clubs including Slippery Senoritas and Mois Club.

What are some of the best places to stay in Penang?

If you want to enjoy the old town and get the cultural kick, the old part of the town is most suitable for you. Gurney Drive is ideal for more modern and trendy-style hotels. The road to Batu Ferringhi has plenty of new developments and serviced apartments-styled accommodation. For beach lovers, Batu Ferringhi should be the first choice.

During my previous visits to Penang, I stayed at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on 1 Penang Road. E&O is a very famous heritage hotel with beautiful buildings and amazing service. I enjoyed a two-night stay at Hard Rock Hotel along the Batu Ferringhi Beach in Batu Ferringhi.

Staying in Gurney Drive Area in Penang

If you want to enjoy shopping and be close to night markets and fast food joints, I suggest booking a hotel in the Gurney Drive Area in Penang. The recommended hotels include Hotel Gurney and  Vouk Hotel Suites. 

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Overall, Georgetown is a great location for a day trip or a weekend break from Kuala Lumpur. You can also catch a ferry from Georgetown to Langkawi. Most international cruises on West Coast Malaysia pass by this interesting Island destination.

If you are planning a family holiday from Pakistan, Penang should definitely on your list.