This Is Why Penang, Malaysia Is Our Next Long-Haul Love Affair

With a spice-laden cuisine that spans sizzling street food to Michelin-starred restaurants and a diverse landscape peppered with nature reserves and beaches, Penang makes for an unforgettable getaway

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Travel to Penang Island's state capital, George Town, and you'll find an enduring legacy of the north-west Malaysian region's historic spice trade played out through its beguiling blend of old and new architectural styles. But it's not just the city that enchants; the whole state has an idiosyncratic charm all of its own. Visitors can look forward to exploring palm-fringed beaches and an ever-evolving culture of gastronomic excellence that draws foodies from all over the world. Read our essential guide and get ready to discover it for yourself.

Penang on a plate: seven top tips for visitors

Street art by Ernest Zacharevic, Malaysia
Photo credit: nosonjai /

Art around every corner

George Town is a delight to walk around, with its mix of wide avenues and narrow alleys lined with a jumble of buildings from different historical eras. And it's not only the charming shophouses and hand-painted tiles that make it so appealing - it's the surprise artwork that pops out at you wherever you go. In 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created six unique street murals across the capital. These thoughtful pieces made use of existing structures - peeling window frames, antique shutter doors - and often depict young children enjoying the simpler things in life: riding a bike; hopping onto a school bus. Since then, many other artists have added their marks to George Town's walls, and while they're not all as evocative as Zacharevic's original series, nostalgic street art has become one of Penang's most distinctive features. Start your art walk on Armenian Street, where you'll find arguably Zacharevic's most famous Penang piece, Little Children on a Bicycle, as well as newer pieces by other artists, including Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat, painted by the art collective ASA.

George Town, Malaysia

Michelin-starred dining

Penang has only recently been awarded its first duo of coveted Michelin stars - an overdue recognition for such a vibrant, dynamic dining scene. Both of the restaurants to have received a star reflect Penang's distinctive personality. First, there's Au Jardin, a fine-dining institution that offers up fresh interpretations of European dishes, with chef-patron Kim Hock Su using top-quality local produce to lend a local flavour to the classics. Then, there's Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery, a beloved family-run restaurant that champions Peranakan cooking. A fusion cuisine you won't find anywhere else, Peranakan cookery draws on traditional Malay, Chinese and Indonesian flavours to deliver fragrant, spice-laden dishes. At Auntie Gaik Lean's, you'll find some of the most authentic examples of this nuanced fare, all prepared to chef Auntie Gaik's secret recipes.

Street food, Penang, Malaysia

Authentic flavours

Penang is not all about fine dining, though - far from it. Some of the best eating in the city can be found at its street-food stalls, or in bustling, noisy hawker centres. Stand in line for char kway teow, fried flat rice noodles studded with prawns and fragranced with charcoal smoke, fresh from the wok. Or join a snaking queue around a nasi kandar counter loaded with rich, spicy curries, meats and vegetables, and pile your plate high. Some of the best places to try multiple famous Penang dishes at once are the food courts, with each stall offering a different speciality.

Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion, Penang, Malaysia
Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion

Heritage icons

The most immersive way to soak up Penang's rich history is to base yourself in one of the state's many beautiful heritage hotels. The most famous and most photographed of these is Cheong Fatt Tze, The Blue Mansion, an incredible example of how history can be brought thoughtfully into the present. Built in the 1800s, the mansion-turned-hotel has been meticulously refurbished, its traditional Chinese-inspired architecture rejuvenated by craftspeople and conservationists. Whether you stay at the hotel or book a guided tour, it's worth learning more about the property, its ornate details and fascinating backstory. Then, there's The Edison George Town, a colonial mansion reimagined with a light, modern touch, and the Eastern & Oriental, known locally as the "E&O", a timelessly elegant hotel that has been welcoming guests for 138 years.

Khoo Kongsi, Penang, Malaysia

A living history

Throughout Penang, nestled between hotel blocks and shopping malls, you'll find living, breathing reminders of the port town's incredible past. Case in point is Khoo Kongsi, a gated cluster of houses and meeting places designed and built in the 1850s to support and celebrate the Khoo family clan in Penang. Step through the gates to find yourself transported to a completely different world. The establishment is fronted by the ornate Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall), a traditional clan temple where members of the Khoo family once gathered to pay tribute to their ancestors.

Batu Ferringhi, Penang, Malaysia
Batu Ferringhi

Surrounded by nature

Alongside its thriving urban life, Penang still has pockets of nature scattered throughout the state, from pristine rainforest to sunny beaches. The most famous of its beaches, Batu Ferringhi, is a popular spot for watersports and in the evening is transformed with food stalls and a buzzing market. Make the 10-minute ferry crossing over to Pulau Jerejak, a small island just off Penang's coast, for a quieter beach day. For superb snorkelling and campsites, meanwhile, head to Monkey Beach, found in the national park on the north-west tip of Penang Island. A must-visit is The Habitat, a permanent rainforest reserve atop Penang Hill, where you can learn all about the rainforest and its inhabitants, wander the Treetop Canopy Walk and even camp under the stars.

How to get there

It's easier than ever to explore Penang, whether you're driving or flying. George Town is just a four-hour road trip from Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang International Airport sees direct flights every week. Book your trip to Penang with Qatar Airways, the World's Best Airline and winner of Skytrax Airline of the Year 2022 - the only airline awarded for a record seventh time (World's Best Best Business Class, World's Best Business Class Lounge Dining and Best Airline in the Middle East).

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