If you’re only here for a short visit, it can be hard to know what to prioritise. This guide will help you spend your time wisely. Much has been said and written about George Town, one of Asia’s cultural heavy weights; the city is a paradise for anyone with a propensity for art, culture and food and it can be difficult to know where to concentrate your efforts. Follow this guide to some of the town’s best known attractions as well as some lesser known gems.
8am: Wake up at Clove Hall
Clove Hall is like a home away from home and at the same time every interior designer’s wet dream. The ground floor of this carefully restored Anglo-Malay colonial bungalow from the late 19th century houses a living room and dining area complete with lounge areas, books on Penang’s rich history and cabinets filled with 18th and 19th century Chinese, Peranakan and British antiques. In your four poster bed in one of the three guest rooms upstairs, wake to the sun rays making their way through the window shutters and the whiff of freshly brewed coffee rising from the kitchen through the uneven wooden floor boards.
10am: Discover the street art of George Town
Anyone who has ever googled George Town will have read about the city’s bourgeoning art scene and seen the wall paintings of giant cats, children on bikes and old men on rickshaws. You will likely have to fight several other tourists to get that money shot but an Instagram feed from Penang without at least a few of the famed works is no Instagram feed at all, so repeat after us: “When in Rome…” Once that is done and dusted, take your time to wonder the streets and look out for the wrought-iron caricatures that make up the Marking George Town project. The 52 structures that include anecdotes about Jimmy Choo, a local Penangite, amongst others, will give you quirky insight into Penang’s rich history.
12: Have lunch at China House
China House is your one stop shop for everything art, food and music in downtown George Town. The gallery-cum-library-cum-restaurant-cum-bakery-cum-wine bar-cum-shop has enough to offer to keep you entertained for a whole day. But you haven’t got all day so head to the far end of the converted shophouse and treat yourself to lunch at Kopi C, followed by one of their decadent cakes. For the artistically inclined, there’s the option of engaging in a little drawing session over lunch – paper and drawing pencils are available, just ask the waiters – the results of which can be seen decorating the walls.
2pm: Some local history at the Gerakbudaya book store
For a bit of local culture and some intellectual stimuli, head to the Gerakbudaya book store around the corner from the Kapitan Keling Mosque. Set in a row of shophouses that also feature a coffee shop and a gallery, Gerakbudaya book store is the place to go for books on local history and a great place to meet local bookworms or exchange old books. On the shelves you will find books on local history, current affairs, arts and culture as well as popular fiction and even a few university dissertations. There is also a selection of books in Chinese and Malay as well as maps, postcards and guidebooks. Once in a while the owners will organise events such as book fairs, workshops, debates or cultural festivals.
3pm: Head down to Armenian Street
Locals often joke that if you’re pick pocketed in George Town, chances are that sooner or later, your goods will turn up at the second hand market, colloquially known as the Thieves Markets, at the end of Armenian Street. The market is frequented mostly by locals and you will find everything from old kitchenware, somebody’s discarded bathtub, electrical goods from the previous millennia, old shoes and accessories, clothing, toys and leather goods amongst a million other things. You likely won’t find your next vintage dress or those limited edition Air Jordans but you may find yourself a nice Peranakan-inspired plate or vase.
5pm: Teochew Puppet & Opera House
Teochew opera is one of the oldest dramatic forms, involving a dynamic display of music, singing, martial arts and acting. Spread by Chinese immigrants throughout Southeast Asia, it combines literature, music and drama in a colourful display of elaborate costumes and distinctive make up. Once a common art form in the region, Teochew troupes are becoming rarer and rarer and that is why Toh Ai Hwa, a former Teochew actress, decided to open a museum on Armenian Street in George Town. Draws on her own experiences and enthusiasm for Teochew opera and puppet show, Toh has created a museum and performance space where visitors can experience live Teochew opera and puppet shows and cultural talks as well as classes and workshops.
7pm: Get your street grub on
No trip to Penang is complete without sampling the island’s famous street food, combining Indian, Malay and Chinese influences to create one of the most versatile food cultures in the world. Head to Little India in downtown George Town for some soft, buttery and fluffy roti canai or freshly prepared samosas, or lose yourself in Kimberley street, sampling hearty hokkien mee or laksa or diving into a plate of comforting char kway teow. Be a good tourist and end the meal at the famous Teo Cheow Penang Famous Cendol, located in the small laneway of Lebuh Keng Kwee just off Penang Road.
9pm: Grab a night cap at Mish Mash
Finish the day strong with a single malt at Mish Mash in Muntri Street. Owned by two locals with a penchant for whiskey, the bar naturally offers a wide selection of the stuff as well as creative list of cocktails, made with fresh juices and homemade sugars, syrups and oils.
- Clove Hall is the perfect combination of comfort and history. http://clovehall.com/
- To keep up to date with events and happenings at Gerakbudaya book store check out http://gerakbudayapenang.com/
- For some excellent modern Peranakan cuisine, head to the beautiful Seven Terraces and its Kebaya restaurant http://www.seventerraces.com/
- China House is the place to be in George Town, check out new exhibitions, bands and specials at http://www.chinahouse.com.my/