There are tons of Things to Do in Penang lists out there, but few geared towards first timers and families traveling to Penang. The island of Penang is a unique corner of the world steeped in history and a rich cultural heritage, and blessed with stunning natural beauty. It’s also a major tourist destination.
In our first visit, we didn’t set out to see everything. For one, that’s not how we travel. Two, we were making the trip with a toddler and a baby in tow. For us, the quality of our visit was so much more important than the quantity of sites we can cram into each day.
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We spent two weeks on the island, which is nowhere near enough time to see everything we wanted to see. But that’s generally the case for most short-term visitors.
Lori and I had high expectations for Penang, given George Town’s UNESCO status and the promise of tropical beaches. Overall, Penang didn’t disappoint — far surpassing our expectations in most cases, though falling a bit short in a couple of areas that we’ll cover in this article as well.
Whether you’re traveling solo, as a couple, or with kids, we’re sure you’ll find this first-hand guide useful, particularly if you, like us, find yourself visiting Penang for the first time.
While our guides are generally geared towards independent travelers, we’ve included more than our usual share of guided tours and day trips, owing to the amazing value foreign tourists are sure to find in Malaysia, and the high quality of tours on offer in Penang relative to other destinations across Southeast Asia. So be sure to check those out, even if you usually DIY your travels.
10 Best Things to Do in Penang for First-Timers
1. Get Lost in Old George Town
George Town is the oldest settlement and beating heart of Penang’s rich cultural heritage, dating back centuries.
The UNESCO World Heritage core zone is small enough to be perfectly manageable on foot for most visitors, while large enough to offer a wide range of fun and worthwhile sites and activities for days on end.
George Town is also where you’ll disembark if arriving to Penang Island by ferry from Butterworth. The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge. But taking the public ferry is quicker, cheaper, and much more convenient than the land route, so we highly recommend accessing Penang by ferry.
There are so many things to do in and around George Town, you could easily spend your entire time based out of Old Town for a week or two and still have plenty to see and do for your entire stay.
Don’t miss Love Lane, Penang Waterfront and Clan Jetties, Armenian Street, and Penang Street Art, to name a very few of this historic city’s sites and attractions.
If you want to maximize your time in George Town while getting the most out of your stay, we recommend choosing a city tour.
Read more about visiting historic George Town.
2. Catch the Train to the Top of Penang Hill
A mere five miles from Old Town, Penang Hill rises 800 meters (2,700 feet) for commanding views of the island and a welcome break from the often stifling heat at sea level.
Penang Hill might just be the most popular attraction on the island, but there’s plenty of space to spread out and lose the crowds.
Enjoy ocean breezes, hill temples, exploring colonial properties open to the public, and meanderings through the forest along miles of walking paths.
Read more about doing a day trip to Penang Hill and what to expect from your visit.
3. Hike Rugged Penang National Park to the Island’s Best Beaches
Few jaunts through the jungle are more satisfying than a day spent hiking in Penang National Park, making this day trip one of my very favorite things to do in Penang.
While the Canopy Walkway is closed for the foreseeable future, following the many numerous trails throughout the park not only offers a chance to commune with nature, but one heck of a workout as well.
And the reward for your efforts? The island’s most beautiful beaches, often devoid of tourists due to their relative isolation.
Piece it together yourself or book your visit through a local company.
4. Sample George Town’s Renowned Culinary Offerings
A number of visitors to Penang visit just for the food, and its not difficult to see why. Penang’s local cuisine bursts with complex flavors, combining distinct tastes from a variety of cultures.
Don’t miss Nasi Kandar and just about anything from Penang’s street stalls. Our absolute favorite places that we’d recommend are Line Clear Nasi Kandar, New Lane Foodstalls, Teksen, and China House.
By far the best way to experience George Town’s legendary culinary offerings is joining one of the city’s excellent food tours.
Hungry for more? Read our George Town Guide for Visitors.
5. Beach Bummin’ in Batu Ferringhi
If you’re looking for a legit beach holiday on Penang, Batu Ferringhi is what you’re after. Penang has several nice beaches scattered around the island, but none offer the number of restaurants, accommodation, and level of comfort and amenities as Batu Ferringhi.
Batu isn’t going to win any awards for the best beach destination ever, as we discuss in detail in our Batu Ferringhi visitor guide. But in terms of beach bumming, Batu Ferringhi Beach and Town will surely satisfy most visitors’ beach destination requirements for a great holiday.
6. Hunt for Penang’s Famous Street Art
A decade ago, a Lithuanian graffiti artist was commissioned to breathe new life into George Town’s crumbling walls and shabby alleyways. The result is what is Penang’s Street Art, now one of the most popular and beloved things to do in Penang.
Whether you opt to see the murals and art installations scattered across Old Town as part of an organized tour or DIY self-guided scavenger hunt, make sure you don’t miss this unique opportunity to dive deeper into George Town’s past, present, and future.
Read more about Penang’s whimsical street art and what to expect.
7. Experience Butterflies + Native Species at Entopia
Entopia (formerly Penang Butterfly Farm) consistently finds itself at the top of most travel guides’ Best Things to Do in Penang lists. And after visiting this amazing attraction ourselves, it’s easy to see why, particularly if you are traveling to Penang with kids.
With or without little ones in tow, Entopia is a worthwhile way to spend a half day on the island. It’s important to note that this is no ordinary butterfly farm. Entopia is more like a sprawling tropical conservatory experience that combines butterfly farming, native reptiles, first-class interpretive exhibitions, and hands-on interactive opportunities for all ages.
It’s not a cheap outing, but Lori found a few ongoing deals that are worth checking out. For all the details read this post.
8. Wander the Historic Clan Jetties
Quite possibly one of the most unique and memorable things you can do in Penang is to explore the historic waterfront clan jetties.
Originally settled by Chinese laborers a century ago, these communities over the water stand as a testament to the island’s strong Chinese heritage that endures today.
In these fast-paced times, respectfully wandering some of the lesser-visited jetties offers a rare insight into a unique way of living stretching back generations.
9. Explore a Tropical Spice Garden in the Jungle
When Lori told me we were visiting a spice garden, I had my doubts. But wandering through Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden is far from an average walk in the park.
This amazing property set on a densely forested hillside just minutes from Batu Ferringhi offers a well-maintained network of trails weaving through a vast tropical botanical garden punctuated by native and exotic herbs and spices.
Read more about Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden.
10. Visit Penang’s Unique “Floating” Mosque
We end our list of top things to do in Penang with the Masjid Terapung Tanjung Bungah, or “floating mosque” of Tanjung Bungah.
As you may have gathered from the image above (and quotation marks around the word “floating”) is that the mosque doesn’t actually float on the water, but is a stilted mosque over the water. No matter what you call it, Penang’s floating mosque is still a worthy stop en route from George Town to Batu Ferringhi.
With that said, if you’re pressed for time and want to experience the best of Penang island, we’d advise skipping Tanjung Bungah and focusing your time on Old Town, Penang Hill, Batu Ferringhi, and Penang National Park.
A Word About Health & Safety in Malaysia
The majority of visitors to Malaysia don't encounter serious issues with health and security. But stuff does happen. Personally, we've had plenty of surprises affect our health and itinerary while traveling over the years — severe weather, road accidents, broken bones, tropical illnesses...
Each and every time, we've been very relieved to have a good travel insurance policy. We've personally used World Nomads for the past decade for all of our independent travel overseas and have found them to be affordable and responsive. You can see a full list of what they cover here.
Be prepared, use common sense, and travel safe!
And That’s Our List of Top Things to Do in Penang!
Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.