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Top 10 tips for visiting Penang

Top 10 tips for visiting Penang

Penang might look small on a map, but once you set foot on the island, it soon becomes apparent that it’s jam-packed with things to do with different cultures, languages, and experiences waiting for you around every corner. We know that you will want to make the most out of your visit 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 we now live here. So here we share our top 10 tips for visiting Penang. For more in depth advice, make sure you check out our Penang travel FAQs, which covers everything you need to know, from safety and getting there, to money and plug adaptors.

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1. Download the Grab app

Grab, the e-hailing taxi service popular throughout Southeast Asia, is the easiest way to get around Penang, and no journey is too long or short.

Grab app on phone

Install the app before your first journey and you’ll soon be booking a ride. Search for your destination point and the app will hail the nearest Grab taxi to your location. You’ll then be able to see the driver’s name, photo, registration number, and how far away they are on a map. There’s an inbuilt messaging system so you can chat with your driver before their arrival. You can also link your credit card (international ones included) to the app to pay, which saves scrambling around for cash (although you can pay by cash if you prefer).

On a side note, Grab also has a food section, great for ordering takeaways after a long day sightseeing.

2. Wear lightweight clothing

Light clothing which is loose and breathable is the key to being comfortable in the tropics. Avoid jeans and other heavy fabrics. Moisture-wicking T-shirt, trousers, and even underwear, are an excellent idea. Jay will always be in a moisture-wicking T-shirt, whereas I (Jenny) prefer floaty skirts and trousers. Linen is also better than cotton as it dries much quicker (we’re talking about your sweat).

The same goes for footwear, your shoes need to be light and breathable, yet ensure they’re sturdy for your adventures, especially if you are planning hikes in Penang National Park or long walks around George Town. As a family, we’ve been wearing KEEN sandals for years. They are the perfect exploring sandal for the tropics.

Also, do bear in mind that Malaysia is Muslim country. Whilst it’s common to see many tourists in spaghetti straps and short shorts and skirts, it’s culturally respectable to wear clothes that covers both knees and shoulders, especially when visiting temples. This isn’t really an issue at the beaches or around the pool where swimwear, including bikinis, are very much the norm.

3. Pack a reusable poncho

This is the tropics, and those lush, green rainforests on the island should remind you that it does rain in Penang. Even if you are travelling outside of Penang’s rainy season, you should expect rain.

Downpours are often short and sharp, and whilst you may think a rain jacket you wear at home is fine, you will just sweat underneath your jacket and feel uncomfortable.

A poncho packs up small and is much more breathable for those tropical downpours. Please consider purchasing a reusable poncho, rather than packing disposable plastic ones.

Victoper Waterproof Poncho Adult, Reusable Rain Poncho Adult…
  • PORTABLE POCKET The poncho for men includes a waterproof pocket for a cell phone or some other…
  • LIGHTWEIGHT & EXTENDED DESIGN: Weight only 0.3kg, the size is 217*143 CM. The size is large, it can…
  • LIGHTWEIGHT & PORTABLE & BREATHABLE: The Waterproof Poncho is large size and lightweight, it can…
  • DURABLE & RESUABLE: Rain poncho are made of ripstop nylon material for better weather protection,…
  • MULTI-FUNCTION: This is a versatile product. The hem has eyelets that unfold into a very large tarp…

Alternatively, a foldable umbrella is handy to have in your day bag.

Either way, have a poncho or umbrella with you at all times. There may be blue skies at the start of your day exploring, but trust us, those dark storm clouds can roll in very quickly in the tropics.

4. Don’t try and do it all

There are so many things to do in Penang that you can’t be expected to tick them all off in a one day itinerary, and not even over a one week stay. Racing around in the tropical heat is exhausting, and you probably want to allow some downtime on the beach and by the pool.

Street art in George Town Penang
exploring the streets of George Town is a must for any visit to Penang

Plus the beauty of exploring Penang is seeing how each day unfolds and soaking in the cultural history and tropical vibes.

Select a few must see sights, and take it from there. Penang is likely to be a place that you will return to again on your travels.

5. Check for public holidays

As befitting such a multicultural place, Penang has many public holidays throughout the year, reflecting the different religions and people making up the population. The larger ones to look out for are Hari Raya Aidilfitri (known elsewhere as Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan), Chinese New Year, Deepavali, and Christmas.

There are several other public holiday days, some of them specific to Penang (e.g. George Town Heritage Day). Check using this website to see when the dates fall for the current year and prepare for some disruption to local life on those days.

6. Get an early start

The coolest time of day is first time in the morning. This is the time to enjoy long walks or anything that requires exertion.

But for tourist attractions, we’re especially talking about Penang Hill here, it’s worthwhile arriving early to beat the crowds. The queue for the funicular up Penang Hill can be exceptionally long at weekends and public holidays. However, the funicular service actually opens every day at 6:30am and it’s worthwhile catching one of the first rides up to enjoy sunrise from the top and fewer crowds.

Penang attractions are generally busier in the afternoons, particularly weekends and public holidays.

Penang sunrise at Chew Jetty

7. Install an eSim

If your phone is compatible, consider using an e-SIM rather than a traditional physical SIM card. It’s a simple process and means you’ll be online within minutes with no need to visit a shop and register. We’ve used Airalo in Penang and have always found them reliable, easy to set up and good value.

The other advantage is you can keep your own SIM active in your phone, handy for receiving the ever-increasing number of one time passcodes we receive nowadays.

8. Consider Airbnb

Penang Island offers a wide range of accommodation options, from the 5* beach resorts, colonial heritage hotels in George Town, hostels, and even campsites (yes, you can camp on Penang).

However, for longer stays, or perhaps families who want separate rooms to sleep, or even as a better value option, consider Airbnb. The range of properties varies but tends to be more focused on high-rise apartment blocks on the northeast coast of the island. You’ll also find many cute options in George Town with more of a heritage feel.

Prices tend to start from RM200 per night for an apartment and will usually include use of the swimming pool, gym, playground, etc. Most of the apartments also come with kitchens, washing machines, and ensuite bathrooms, so you tend to get quite a lot for your ringgit.

However, there is a change on the horizon due to the announcement in 2023 of a state-wide ban on short-term holiday rentals, of which most Airbnb properties are included. The specific implementation and enforcement of the ban seems to be variable at the moment, with many Airbnb properties continuing to be listed on the site. Airbnb themselves haven’t released a definitive response, other than to note it’ll affect tourism in Penang.

Officially, serviced apartments are excluded from the ban if they meet certain criteria but it’s important to check with any potential hosts before booking to understand how the ruling relates to their property. Hopefully the situation will become clearer as time passes because Airbnb is an ideal option for visitors to Penang.

9. Eat out as much as possible

The first thing most people associate with Penang is the cuisine, both in terms of variety and quality. The Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities introduced their own cuisines to the island and you’re never far from a restaurant selling such delights as Hokkien Mee, Curry Mee, Laksa, Nasi Lemak, and hundreds of other dishes.

Take advantage of the opportunity to sample world-class cuisine on a budget and eat out as much as possible; it’s likely you’ll never eat this well, for so little cost, ever again.

Penang street food

10. Beware of the monkeys

Your first sighting of a monkey in Penang will always be a novelty, although our kids still get excited every time they see one, and we live here!

You will definitely see them if you visit Penang Hill or Monkey Beach (which is part of Penang National Park).

However, please do not feed these monkeys as this only encourages them to rely on humans for food when jungle fruits are their natural diet. Plus, they can get rather aggressive around food and will be waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch that ice-cream off you!

They are also known to rummage around in bags looking for food. So if you are at Monkey Beach and plan on venturing out onto the water (better on a kayak rather than swimming as the water is rather murky here and jellyfish are common), make sure you store your bags somewhere securely. Either leave them with one of the bar owners, or as a minimum, wrap your towel tightly around your bag and keep an eye on it from the water.