Sample the Best Parts of Asia in This Unparalleled Island City

Worlds collide in this cultural melting pot.

You know it’s good when UNESCO describes a city as a “unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.” Georgetown—and pretty much all of Malaysia—is surely still blushing from such high praise. But it’s easy to see how the capital of Pengang merited the awe.

Despite being an island, the biggest attractions in Penang are not along the beach but in the city. Malaysia itself is a lovely mishmash of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures, and Georgetown personifies that global blend.

Where else can you see colourful Chinese shophouses, British-style buildings with gleaming white façades, and extravagantly painted Indian temples, all within a one mile radius? Or eat nasi lemak for breakfast, a spicy south Indian meal served on a banana leaf for lunch, and Hainanese chicken rice for dinner, washing it all down with Asian craft brews at a beer garden (if you’re still hungry, there’s also barbecue at Kafe DuaBotol).

things to do in georgetown
Matteo Colombo/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Penang local and former convenor of the Georgetown Festival, Joe Sidek, calls his hometown a cultural melting pot that has been cosmopolitan since the 1700s, with Chinese merchants and British traders alike making their way here. In the profusion of contemporary street art rubbing shoulders with traditional architecture, it’s obvious to see what he means.

Here’s what to see and do and eat (definitely eat in this cuisine heaven) in Georgetown.

georgetown street art
Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock

Interact with clever street art murals

The easy-going island vibe of Penang has attracted artists through the ages, and Georgetown today is a thriving creative hub. The street art movement started in 2012, when the town council hired Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to breathe fresh life into the streets. His interactive wall murals —where you can pose as part of the painting, such as in the popular “Little Children on a Bicycle”—are one of Georgetown’s biggest attractions.

For your own mural-spotting quest, begin at Armenian Street, and then turn into Cannon Street for some scintillating cat-themed art. Just be sure to wear a hat and carry plenty of water. In and around Love Lane, look for the cool black wire sculptures that narrate Penang’s untold stories – including the street’s name (it used to be lined with brothels) and how shoe god Jimmy Choo is originally a Penang boy (he apprenticed at Georgetown’s Hong Kong Shoe Store).

Zacharevic came upon the Hin Bus Depot when he wanted a space for his solo exhibition, and this bus-terminal-turned-community-hub is now one of the most interesting art spaces in town. Plus, less than an hour drive from Georgetown is Art and Garden, where local artist Fuan Wong has combined his stunning glass art with a flourishing garden filled with bromeliads and giant ferns.

Penang Hill
The Habitat Penang Hill

Take the train up Penang Hill

Just outside town is the other world heritage site of Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve, “a mosaic of urban, agricultural and natural landscapes,” according to UNESCO. Go for a moderate hike or take the funicular ride up the hill, and stay for the birdwatching and langur spotting (including the rare and elusive dusky leaf monkey).

And don’t miss the forest bathing experience at The Habitat. This sustainable tourism initiative introduces people to the wonders of this 130-million-year old rainforest, with nature trails and treetop walks.

restaurants penang

Taste the world on a plate

Penang’s star cuisine is undoubtedly the food of the Peranakan community, blending the best of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Thai flavors. Don’t leave Georgetown without sampling the spicy-sour asam laksa. This soupy noodle dish is topped with onions, chilies, mint leaves, fish paste, and pineapple (even those who hate it on pizza will love this one, promise). You can find versions of it at Laksalicious on Hutton Lane or Penang Road Famous Laksa on Lebuh Keng Kwee.

The latter is a great idea for those with a sweet tooth, since it is right next to the Penang Road Famous Cendol, the iced dessert that just hits the spot after a fiery laksa.

Book a table at Kebaya Dining Room inside the Seven Terraces hotel, if you want Peranakan cuisine away from the heat and dust of the street stalls. Irama Dining has recently introduced Malay fine dining to Penang (no alcohol served here), while Jawi House has unique Jawi Peranakan food, which has more Arab heritage mixed in, with hummus and babaganoush finding a place in the menu, along with mutton biryani and beef rendang.

End the day on a sweet note with a slice of cake at China House, a cool café that doubles up as an art gallery and music venue.

blue mansion
Cheong Fatt Tze - The Blue Mansion

Go mansion hopping

Georgetown has the best-preserved collection of Chinese shophouses—two storeyed buildings with a shop at the lower level and residences above—that are a delightful mishmash of Eastern and Western influences. Think Venetian blinds and Corinthian arches with a splash of Feng shui and a smattering of Chinese floor tiles.

For a look at how the prosperous Chinese traders lived, head to the Blue Mansion, the late 19th-century residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, whose rags to riches story has earned him the local title of ‘Rockefeller of the East.’ To reinforce his status, he imported only the best and most expensive materials from as far away as Scotland for his unmistakably Chinese house (restored in 1995). On a guided tour (daily at 11 am and 2 pm), look out for the ornate flourishes on the indigo blue outer walls.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, a house museum filled with antiques and artefacts, is another rich repository of Penang’s multicultural history. With its dark rooms, richly carved doorways, and elaborate exhibits, this one can be both overwhelming and fascinating.

hotels georgetown
Eastern & Oriental Hotel Sdn. Bhd.

Sleep in Penang’s best hotels

Both Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Seven Terraces are boutique hotels, their rooms adorned with both exquisite period furniture and the most modern amenities. For something more contemporary, The Prestige is a newish hotel that takes great pride in its sleek glass and chrome design ethos.

Known simply as the E & O, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel has hosted several celebrities since it first opened its doors in 1885 (look for the portrait gallery to see if your screen idol has stayed here). Ask for a room with a view of the Penang Straits at this seafront hotel, built in English colonial style, where the doormen wear British-era khaki shorts and pith helmets.

If boutique hotels are your thing, then look no further than 23 Love Lane, a building that originally used to be the residence of a European family and was renovated into its present form with the help of a conservation architect.

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Charukesi Ramadurai is a contributor for Thrillist.