Part island, part sprawling mainland port, Penang is one of Malaysia’s most well-known tourist destinations, and as heady today as it’s always been. People come to Georgetown for the combination of faded history and cosmopolitan thrills, but it’s the food that draws the most visitors. Devotees would say that it’s the best place to eat in Malaysia, with a wealth of eateries and street-food hawkers offering tempting delights wherever you turn. It’s not the best destination for peace and quiet, but is the place if your travels are led by your appetite for foodie flavour and culture.
Obviously there’s a lot more, this is just to get you started.
Like its southern sister port of Malacca, Penang’s soul food comes from Malaysia’s Peranakan community in the form of Nyonya cuisine: fondly-remembered dishes from grandma’s kitchen. Penang’s Nyonya dishes have their own distinctive signature, from the sour tamarind tang of asam laksa, to the comforting noodle tangles of char kway teow and mee goreng Mamak. These traditional dishes combine with others from across Asia and beyond in Georgetown’s markets and hawker stalls, and there’s always something new to tempt your tastebuds. Fill up for a song at the Joo Hooi Cafe food court, and cool down with a bowl of cendol: coconut-milk ice, pandan jelly and brown sugar.
Modern Malaysia’s journey to becoming the vibrant country it is today began in the wake of the trading vessels that have been taking the region’s spices across the globe for centuries. Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden is a window into how the enigmatic scented seeds and powders we use in so much modern cooking begin their journey. Wander through the lush gardens and see ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, clove and pepper growing alongside coffee, tea and cocoa, discovering as you go that these extraordinary plants are not just the fragrant heart of our best-loved dishes, but often beautiful too.
Penang Hill, or Bukit Bendera, is a collection of peaks just outside central Georgetown. Collectively, they form a hill resort that’s been an escape from the city’s maelstrom since the British colonial era, and the highest of the peaks, Western Hill, stands a lofty 2,733ft above sea level. From its summit, the busy streets below seem calm, the air is cool, and you have sweeping views across Georgetown and over the bridge to the mainland. Travel to the top on the funicular railway, originally built in the ‘20s and recently updated to make the journey swifter and smoother, or take the more challenging option of hiking up via a trail that starts in the Botanical Gardens.