Penang, nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient“, is a vibrant mix of ancient and modern. Its state capital, George Town, has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 2008, and the Malaysian island offers a heady mix of 19th and early 20th-century architecture, soaring modern skyscrapers, and an impressive cultural heritage.
Cruise port location
The Swettenham Pier, where most cruise passengers disembark, was completed in 2009 and lies right in the heart of George Town. It has four berths, a large three-storey high terminal building, and two landing points that can cater for ferries and cruise vessels up to Quantum-class (4,000 passengers).
Can I walk to any places of interest?
No public transport is needed to reach most of the attractions in George Town. For those that are located farther out, passengers can either take a bus, taxi or a local app service like Grab, though organised cruise tours are often more reliable in terms of returning to the ship on time.
It’s relatively easy to get around Penang. The public transportation is well organised, and there’s a free hop-on shuttle bus service known as CAT (Central Area Transit), which stops at the island’s major sightseeing spots; it runs every 15 minutes and stops are well marked with a number system.
What to see and do
Penang is a busy and vibrant island, with plenty of see and do. The main hub is George Town; you can visit the main sights in a leisurely half a day, but there are also activities further afield if you have a full day to explore.
What can I do in four hours or less?
From Swettenham Pier most of George Town’s key sights are within easy striking distance. Lines such as Princess Cruises operate walking tours, but it’s easy to explore the same sights independently.
Right next door to the port lie the star-shaped remains of Fort Cornwallis, which was named after the Marquis Cornwallis (a governor general of India), and built between 1808 and 1810 using convict labour; it’s possible to walk the outer walls, and explore the park and exhibits within the ground.
From here you can walk along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling—nicknamed ‘the street of harmony’ due to its several places of worship — to Armenian Street, home to dynamic street art such as Ernest Zacharevic’s famous scenes of local life (look out for “Kids on Bicycle” and “Old Motorcycle”).
Nearby, on Canon Street, is Khoo Kongsi; one of the most lavishly decorated clan houses in Penang, it was built in 1898 and includes the ornate Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall).
Also close by is the magnificently-restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Lebuh Leith, modelled after a traditional Chinese courtyard house and built in the 1880s by imported Chinese artisans. It doubles as a boutique hotel and offers daily guided tours.
For superlative views over the city, head to the Komtar Penang, a mall and architectural landmark with a 58th-floor viewing platform.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
With a little more time, its worth visiting the striking yellow and blue Wat Chayamangkalaram, the largest Thai temple in Penang, and home to a 32-metre long gold-plated Buddha.
For a pleasant trip outside the centre, take the historic funicular railway up Penang Hill (10 minutes) to find the first colonial hill station developed on the Peninsular Malaysia, and more splendid views over George Town.
Another popular hilltop site is the sprawling Kek Lok Si temple, a Buddhist pilgrimage site built between 1890 and 1930, with multiple prayers halls, a scenic bell tower, a pagoda filled with 10,000 statues of Buddha, and a 30-meter high statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy; it’s easily reachable with public transport.
Slightly further out are the Penang Botanical Gardens, aka the Waterfalls Gardens, which contain a wide variety of indigenous and exotic plant species divided into themed gardens, tropical houses, parks and walkways. For a special experience, walk the steep uphill path through the Moon Gate, lined with macaques and other exotic wildlife.
Eat and drink
The island’s thriving street food culture is influenced by Chinese, Nyonya and Indian-Muslim influences. Look out for dishes like the noodle-based char koay teow and spicy asam laksa, the latter a Peranakan dish and local specialty, while sweet tooths will doubtless enjoy cendol. All can be found at venues like Esplanade Food Court and Sri Weld Food Court.
Don’t leave Penang without…
There are shops dotted all over Penang, but the biggest concentration are in George Town. Antiques are popular and can be found along Penang Road, Jalan Burmah, Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh Chulia. Chowrasta Bazaar is also a great place to find local food products such as traditional sweets, crackers and pickles.
Need to know
Around 13 hours with Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines.
One of the biggest dangers here, more an annoyance, is unscrupulous taxi drivers; make sure you ask them to use the meter. It’s relatively safe to move around, but be aware of belongings. There is a tourist information centre at Beach Street where cruise passengers drop-in to get information / brochures or report anything amiss. Note that female tourists are encouraged to adhere to local standards of dress.
Best time to go
Penang’s climate is generally warm and equatorial all year round, with temperatures averaging 29°C – 35 during the day, sometimes higher. August-November are often the most comfortable months, with October being the wettest. Events like the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Penang International Food Festival, and George Town Heritage Celebrations are dotted throughout the year and can be busier than usual, but also fun to attend.