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One day Penang itinerary: your ultimate guide

One day Penang itinerary: your ultimate guide

For such a small patch of land, Penang Island squeezes in enough sights and activities to keep you occupied for a lifetime. Indeed, there are so many things to do in Penang for every style of traveller. So what’s the best approach to visiting Penang if you only have one day to spare?

First things first, don’t try to do too much; Penang will always be here and you’re guaranteed to want to revisit time and time again. On this one day Penang itinerary, we try to capture the best of the island, with a glimpse of the different characteristics which make this island so special. With beaches, rainforests, an iconic colonial city, epic views and world-class cuisine, a day in Penang is like no other.

aerial view of Penang Island

Top 10 tips for visiting Penang

We know that you will want to make the most out of your visit to Penang and it’s worthwhile noting the advice of travellers to Penang before you. We’ve travelled to Penang multiple times (our first visit was back in 2007) and now we live here. So here we share our top 10 tips for visiting Penang.

How to get to/around Penang

Penang has an international airport in the south of the island but is mainly served by regional flights from within Southeast Asia. If you’re coming from further afield, it’s likely you’ll need to fly into Kuala Lumpur first and then take a connecting flight.

There’s an excellent railway network in Malaysia and the closest station to Penang Island is the mainland town of Butterworth, just a short ferry ride from George Town. There are also frequent long-distance bus services to Penang Island from most major towns and cities within Malaysia.

Once on the island, Grab taxis are the easiest way to get around, especially if you’re only visiting for a short time and want to spend your time sightseeing rather than travelling. Grab is often the most cost-effective way to move around, without the worry of haggling over fares and language problems. Check out our guide to using Grab in Penang.

There is a useful and convenient 101 bus service on the island which links the Jetty Bus Terminal with the town of Teluk Bahang (close to Penang National Park and Escape), via central George Town and Batu Ferringhi.

The buses run from 5:30am until midnight and cost between RM1.40 and RM4; make sure you have cash on you, ideally the correct change.

Trishaw in Penang

How to get around Penang

Penang an easy island to get around, helped by the fact that most of the sights are concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the island. This post details how to get around Penang as well as the easiest way.

Do I need to book a tour guide in Penang?

At times, tour guides can be useful and sometimes help you find parts of the city you might otherwise ignore, but we’d tend not to recommend one for your day in Penang.

The tourist trail in Penang is well-trodden and most of the major sights are easily accessible. You’ll also probably enjoy wandering around at our own pace and seeing where you end up; it’s that kind of place.

How to spend one day in Penang

Not all travel days are created equal and one day in Penang packs in more than most. But what’s the best way to spend it? We’ve tried to create a balance between seeing as much of the island as possible, without overloading the itinerary and leaving no time to let it all soak in.

Now the below is a very outdoor activity day, if you find that you need to shelter from a rainstorm or the heat, then you may want to check out our guide to indoor activities in Penang.

Morning

A good way to begin your exploration of any city is to get your bearings, and there’s no better place than the top of the island at Penang Hill via the funicular at Air Itam. It can get busy, especially at weekends and public holidays, so the morning is the best time to miss the crowds, both at the queue and once you reach the top.

the funicular up to Penang Hill

The funicular has been whisking visitors up the hill for decades and makes for a unique and interesting journey, taking about fifteen minutes to ascend to the top. The funicular is open seven days a week from 6:30am to 11pm (when the last trips heads down from the Upper Station) Ticket price are:

  • Round-trip: International adult/child (RM30/15), MyKad (RM12/6)
  • One way: International adult/child (RM15/8), MyKad RM6/3)

The queue is well-controlled and you’ll be directed to a certain carriage but, if it’s not too busy, veer off towards the carriage facing downhill to get picture-perfect views as the funicular makes its way up the hill. On a clear day, you can see across the island towards the mainland and the Straits of Malacca.

The fun doesn’t stop once you reach the top as there’s a surprising amount of activities, sights and exhibitions waiting for you. First and foremost, take some time to absorb the view of Penang Island, George Town and the mainland, linked to the island by two mega-bridges. Stay long enough and you’ll start to see the city waking up.

If you’re in the mood for some morning exercise, try one of the three excellent walking trails which loop around the summit, giving you the chance to burn off breakfast and see the flora and fauna before the day gets too hot.

Other recommended activities at the top are:

  • Visit Penang Hill Gallery @Edgecliff a fascinating and detailed gallery/museum in a distinctive white heritage bungalow, set on the hillside. Focusing on the history and background to Penang Hill, it’s a great option as an indoor activity for kids to escape the heat and learn more about the famous hill. Open everyday (apart from Tuesdays) from 9:00 to 4:30pm, it costs RM10/5 for adults/children.
  • There’s a well-laid out playground with if you’re visiting with children (or fancy trying out the rope course yourself!)
  • As befitting on the religiously-diverse island of Penang, there are several interesting religious buildings including Penang Hill Mosque and Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Hindu Temple, plus a few interesting colonial-era buildings like the Convalescent Bungalow, Police Station and Bellevue Hotel.
  • The Habitat Penang Hill is a real highlight of any visit to Penang Hill, a small but beautiful rainforest reserve where visitors can study flora and fauna, hike on a short 1.6km nature trails, enjoy a treetop and canopy walk, disappear off into a immersive VR world, or, for the more adventurous, try the zipline to witness the rainforest and Penang Hill from a whole new perspective. The Habitat is open from 9:00am to 7:00pm each day, and ticket prices start from RM60 for adults, RM40 for children (slightly cheaper if bought as the Family Combo package).

Afternoon

It’s likely the views from the top of Penang Hill over the ocean and rainforest will have whetted your appetite for a tropical island experience and Penang has its fair share of golden sandy beaches to explore. Keep in mind that the ever present annoyance of jellyfish means swimming isn’t always an option, but the beaches on the north coast of the island more than make up for it with kayaking, jungle hikes, and sunbathing.

the boat to Monkey Island

One of the best places to spend an afternoon is at Monkey Beach, a stretch of sand in a remote corner of Penang National Park. Head back down the funicular to the base station at Air Itam and take a Grab taxi to the national park entrance which should take about forty minutes.

Once you reach the park entrance, you’ll find several stalls selling boat tours which also double up as mini-supermarkets and restaurants. The prices are fairly fixed-price but there might be some room for negotiation depending on the time of year and your haggling skills. If you’re hungry, this is a good place to grab a simple meal from any of the nearby restaurants.

There’s a few options to get to/from Monkey Beach; either take a boat trip both ways, walk there and back, or a combination of the boat one way and walking the other. A single boat ride should cost around RM70 but keep in mind that if you walk, you’ll need to pay the national park fee (there is no fee if you only take the boat). It costs RM100 for a return trip and is recommended on this one day itinerary to save you some time and give you longer at the beach. Perhaps save the hike until your next visit, it’s a rewarding (but hot and tiring) way to spend a few hours.

At Monkey Beach itself, you have the option of either sunbathing, taking a hike up to the lighthouse (about 2 hour return trip, including time to enjoy the stunning views over the Strait of Malacca).

view from Penang Lighthouse

If you’re in need of either a snack, drink or kayak, head over to Tiger Monkey Bar and Leisure where the friendly owner can help with all three. Just keep an eye out for the monkeys who love to snatch anything which isn’t nailed down.

At the end of your visit, message your boat driver on WhatsApp and arrange for your return transfer, you should be back at the park entrance within twenty minutes.

Evening

From the national park entrance, order another Grab taxi for the forty minute journey back into George Town. If you fancy something slightly more upmarket (and have some slightly smarter clothes available after your island visit), consider asking to be dropped off at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on the waterfront. This is one of the best hotels in Penang. It’s a fabulous place to get a sunset cocktail, and also a handy starting point for a heritage walk around the colonial streets.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel Penang
The E&O hotel, George Town

The heritage area of George Town is, for many people, the main drawcard of the island and it’s easy to see why. You’d be hard pressed to find any other city in the world which manages to pack so much into the 3km2 of UNESCO protected land which make up George Town.

It’s a great place to visit in the early evening, when the heat of the day is ebbing away and the dramatic light from sunset gives a beautiful orange tinge to many of the white buildings. It’s a lovely place to stroll around, there’s few other places like it, where crossing the road can make you feel like you’ve crossed into a different country. Malay, Chinese, Indian and colonial districts, blend into each other giving you a whistle-stop tour of the island’s heritage.

Street art in George Town Penang
‘Boy on Motorbike’ by Ernest Zacharevic in George Town

Some sights to perhaps include are:

  • Street art; starting in 2012 international and local artists have started creating colourful murals on various walls around the city. Sometimes with an important message and at other times irreverent, the street art has become a George Town institution, with new examples popping up all the time. The most famous, ‘Boy on Motorbike’ by Ernest Zacharevic can be found on Armenian Street, but prepare to join a queue of fellow photographers. Take a look by all means, but there are plenty of other cool examples you’ll have to yourself.
  • Fort Cornwallis; the original fort in George Town built by the British, Fort Cornwallis’ place is the city is changing over the years, moving away from a tourist site and towards a meeting place for locals with cafes and exhibitions taking place. The colonial history is still tangible and worth a visit, try to visit early or late though as there isn’t much shade
  • UNESCO listed architecture; Love Lane, Armenian Street and the streets around show off the architecture which makes George Town famous, make sure to keep looking up as you walk, there is always something beautiful to see.

It’s been a long (and hopefully, fun) day so make sure you leave some time to enjoy dinner; George Town is well known as a foodie destination after all and many people are drawn here for the cuisine from Malaysia and beyond.

Try to choose a restaurant which is busy with locals as this is usually a sure sign of an excellent (and tasty) venue. One of our favourites is Restoran Kaptitan on Chulia Street, make sure you try the naan bread and claypot biryani.

Final thoughts on a day in Penang

Penang is a beautiful island with so many things to see and do, it’s impossible to do it all in one day. This one-day itinerary aims to give a taster of what makes the island so special.

From the wonder of Penang Hill, to the golden sand and lush rainforest of Penang National Park, and the world-famous UNESCO city of George Town, Penang has so much to offer. Today was just an introduction, we’re sure you’ll be back to keep on exploring.