7 Reasons to Love George Town, Penang
George Town is a historic and vibrant city on Penang Island off of peninsular Malaysia's Northwest coast. In fact, George Town was the first British colony in all of Southeast Asia and the historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Full of a world-famous foodie culture, an established street art district, and a high density of immigrant populations, Georgetown is one of the most unique cities in Malaysia. On our recent trip to Penang, Emmett & I based ourselves out of charming George Town for three days at the end of our jaunt around Malaysia. Up until we arrived, it seemed like every other traveler we encountered was saying "Have you been to Penang yet? You've got to go to George Town!" We also ended up falling for the city while we were there and it quickly became our favorite place in the whole country.
In order to highlight just why George Town is so lovable, I've decided to make a list of my favorite things about the city. Hopefully you will also see just why George Town should definitely be the next stop on your Southeast Asia itinerary.
1. The Famous Street Art
In 2012, the artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a series of murals around George Town. The murals quickly became famous and inspired more street art throughout the city. The piece on the left below featuring two children on a bicycle (by Zacharevic) is one of the most photographed sights in all of Penang and is featured heavily on local souvenirs. Quite a lot of Penang's famous street art can be found on Armenian Street and the surrounds - though there seem to be little bits of art around every corner of George Town.
2. Peranakan Architecture
The term "Peranakan" (also called Baba Nonya in Malay) refers to a group of Chinese-descended immigrants known as the "Straits Chinese." Despite eventually losing their native language, this ethnic group has kept up all other aspects of their culture since arriving on the Malay peninsula. Peranakan culture can be found all over Malaysia but is perhaps best evidenced in the traditional architecture and food of George Town, Malacca, and Singapore. I am personally quite the fan of the distinctive bulding style - particularly the rowhouses with their small dog-bone-shaped windows.
Another uniquely Peranakan architectural feature is to include a built-in pedestrian path in the front of local shops and homes. This shaded alley, also called the "five-foot way," is a god-send when exploring a humid city like George Town on a sunny day.
3. Batik Painting Museum Penang
If you find yourself on George Town's Armenian Street already digging the street art, you might want to pop into the Batik Painting Museum Penang to continue your art appreciation. Batik is a form of textile dying originating in Indonesia in the 12th century. Batik utilizes the addition and removal of wax during the dying process to create patterns and images. Batik painting, however, is a recent (1950s) interpretation of the batik form, which takes it from clothing to canvas. The Batik Painting Museum of Penang is full of beautiful, intricate paintings that are a delight to experience in person. (Click on either photo to see a larger version).
4. World-Class Food!
George Town is often referred to as the food capital of Malaysia and it's easy to see why - the ethnic diversity of the island has brought a wide range of cuisines to Penang's streets. Even as vegetarians, Emmett and I had no trouble finding countless tasty food options everywhere in town, whether it was Little India or China Town or the historic city center. A few suggested items to try in George Town area: ice kacang, coconut shakes, Buddhist vegetarian food, fresh-squeezed street-side fruit juice, and any street cart item that catches your fancy. Or, if you're feeling very adventurous, you could always try a durian a.k.a. a popular fruit in Malaysia that's also probably the stinkiest fruit to ever exist.
For more on the vegetarian-friendly cuisine available in Malaysia, check out my Guide to Being Vegetarian in Singapore & Malaysia here.
5. Clan Jetties
Floating over the Penang Strait in George Town, the Clan Jetties are within walking distance of the historic city center. Penang's Clan Jetties are seven separate docks featuring stilt homes, shops, small temples, and shrines. These jetties were built and settled by Chinese laborers who were working to reclaim land along the coast in the late 1800s. The most famous of the seven jetties is the Chew Jetty which features many souvenir shops and food vendors. Emmett and I took our time walking up and down each of the seven, taking in the peace and quiet of the purely residential jetties and the hustle and bustle of Chew. I highly recommend making a visit to at least one or two clan jetties on your visit to George Town in order to get a glimpse of the unique history of the city.
6. The Myriad Mosques & Temples
Another stunning and prevalent testament to the ethnic diversity of George Town is the fact that every block seems to be host to at least one temple or mosque - if not two. There are Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, Taoist temples, Chinese ancestral shrines, Buddhist temples, and Christian churches. I've never seen so many places of worship in such a small area. Not only are there so many, but they all seem to be beautifully built and decorated as well.
7. The Views & Wildlife of Penang Hill
Penang Hill is a tourist park located on some of the tallest peaks of Penang Island. To get there, we took a local bus to the base of the peaks (just look for a bus with signs to Penang Hill or ask your accommodation where to go). From there, we purchased two roundtrip tickets to ride the funicular up to the top. When we went - in March 2018 - two-way tickets for adults were 30 MYR ($7.40 USD). Once at the entrance to the park, we stopped to see the whole of the island from a viewing deck. From there, we took a look at the tourist attractions which seemed random - an Owl Museum, anyone? - and grabbed some food for lunch. Then we were off to check out the park's walking trails through the rain forest in hopes of seeing monkeys and giant black squirrels. Ultimately, we didn't get to see any squirrels but did see a tree full of quiet dusky leaf monkeys and one lone barking macaque.
So, there you have it: seven reasons to visit George Town. I really loved our visit to the city but felt it was too short at only three days. Penang as a whole seemed like such a cool place - I'd love the chance to see more of the whole island. I mean, we didn't even make it to any of the island's beaches... Definitely something I'd seek out on a second visit.