I remember the exact moment that going to Penang went on my to-do list. I was on a food tour in Kuala Lumpur and had just gorged myself on reportedly KL’s best banana fritters and our guide said ‘of course, if you want to try the best street food in Malaysia, you need to go to Penang.’
Ironically, when I finally got to Penang about a year later, I didn’t actually eat that much street food on because I was too busy charging around seeing other stuff. And most of that stuff is on the list of fun and unusual things to do in Penang that follows…
(checked and updated in Jan 2023)
1. Visit the Wonderfood Museum
I might not have eaten a lot of street food on my trip, but I did get photographed with a lot of plastic replicas of it.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.
The Wonderfood Museum is one of the many unusual museums in Penang and was my favourite of the ones I visited.
It’s full of models – from tiny dioramas of towns made from broccoli (you need to see it) to giant bowls of soup – and fascinating facts about food around the world. I had an absolute blast.
You can see more about why I loved it on my longer piece on the Wonderfood Museum here, or, just trust me and visit.
The Wonderfood Museum is at 49 Lebuh Pantai in Georgetown.
2. Drink Nutmeg Juice
This is one of the more unique things to do in Penang, as, while most of us think of nutmeg as a dried spice, it’s actually a fruit and the people of Penang turn it into juice.
You find white nutmeg juice, which is often served with a sour plum in it, and, the very interesting tasting red nutmeg juice.
Interesting, because, when you taste it, it will seem weirdly familiar.
You might not be able to place it at first, but once you know what it is, you can’t untaste it.
I don’t want to spoil it, but if it’s driving you, erm, nuts… here’s a clue…imagine the juice brown, fizzy and in a red and white can.
I tried mine at the cute cafe opposite the famous street art Boy on Chair on Lebuh Cannon.
3. Check Out a Temple Full of Sleeping Snakes
From the outside, this small temple by the side of a busy road about a 20-minute taxi ride south of Georgetown doesn’t seem to have much going for it, but, go inside and you’ll realise it’s definitely one of the most unusual things to do in Penang.
As your eyes get accustomed to the dim light, you’ll notice snakes draped all over the incense burners around the altar.
This is the Penang Snake Temple.
Back in the day, the temple was surrounded by jungle and one day, the local pit vipers who lived among the trees decided to move into the temple instead.
The monks left them be and now, you can wander into the temple and be faced with snakes snoozing while wrapped around the incense burners that hang from the ceiling or that line the altar.
To find out more about how to get to here (including how to do the journey by bus), visit my longer piece on the Penang Snake Temple here.
The Other Temple Not to Miss
The biggest temple on Penang is called Kek Lok Si – and in fact, it’s the biggest Buddhist temple in Malaysia so, you’ll probably also want to add that to your itinerary.
There’s a good guide to what you’ll find there, and how to get there here.
4. Sit on Some Street Art
You knew it was coming didn’t you – as well as being known for its street food, Penang is known for its street art – most notably, the work of Ernest Zacharevic, which allows you to interact with the art.
It’s fun, unusual and incredibly clever and it does make for some good photos, but I did find it a bit sad that people were just queuing to take the same photo that everyone else had when there’s incredible street art all over Penang.
Even Zacharevic is now saying he wished he’d never created some of the works as the obsession with photographing his most popular work Children on a Bicycle leads to queues forming along the once quiet Armenian Street – weirdly, there’s usually no queue at other pieces of his work in the city.
I’m not saying ‘don’t get your pic taken with Children on a Bicycle – that would be a bit hypocritical considering the pic above of me on Boy on a Motorcycle (no queue there), but do search out some of Penang’s other, less famous, street art too.
Here’s a guide on where to find some of the best lesser-known pieces.
I mean come on, look at this piece here and tell me it’s not amazing…and it’s just hidden in the alley behind what used to be a bar on 31 Jalan Gurdwara!
Don’t Miss the Ipoh Art Either
PS: If you love street art, you might want to check out the street art scene in Ipoh. It’s halfway between Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Have a look at our Ipoh Guide for an idea of what there is to do there.
5. Go to the Bus Depot
Barfly is also close to another cool spot – the Hin Bus Depot.
This old art deco building contains independent shops and a cafe but is best known for being home to a lot of innovative street art and pop-up exhibitions.
Find it at 31a Jalan Gurdwara.
If you want to see what special exhibits are on when you’re in town, click here for their programme.
6. Get Spooked by the Haunted School
There’s a few abandoned old buildings around Penang, all of them exuding an air of faded glamour and lots of them being slowly overtaken by nature.
This one, Shih Chung Branch School, however, also has a very dark history.
While the building started life as a family home, it has during its time been a hotel and a school. However, during the war the building was temporarily taken over by the Japanese and used, it’s said, as an interrogation centre – and the spirits of those who passed inside still haunt the building.
The school is all boarded up so you can’t go inside – the car park surrounding it though gives you a good close up view.
Find it at 11 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and, if you want to read up on its history first, check out this pretty comprehensive post by My Penang Stories.
7. Or Hunt Some Other Ghosts
The school isn’t the only place said to be haunted around Penang – the Penang War Museum is said to be one of Asia’s most haunted sights and the Penang Museum has a few leftover spirits from its past history as a hospital.
If you feel like going ghost hunting you’ll find more details on Penang’s creepiest places here.
The closest I got to any spooks was The Ghost Museum on Lebuh Melayu, which is definitely more kitsch than scary (unless you’re under 10 maybe) but does a good job at explaining the lore of many of the spooky legends in Asia and beyond.
It’s full of weird photo opportunities – like sticking your head through the table above.
8. Drink Outside An Off Licence
It’s not a classy night out, but it’s cheap and definitely fun and unusual, so it makes it onto this list.
The off-license in question is known as Antarabangsa Enterprise and it’s located on Lorong Stewart.
When you get there grab one of the plastic tables and a rickety plastic chair set up outside and then head into the off-license and buy whatever booze your heart desires.
For us, it was a couple of cans of cold lager – for the local guys next to us it was entire bottles of whiskey that they knocked back happily over a couple of hours Skol seems to be the other popular brew – I hadn’t seen a can of Skol in years before this moment.
You can sit there for ages watching the world go by.
We were fascinated by the guys on scooters with abnormally large wheels until we realised they were picking up crates full of alcohol to take the other bars and restaurants on the island. The big wheels kept everything stable.
This is a real mix of locals and tourists and you will find yourself chatting to a stranger at some point.
Our buddy at the next table owned a local guesthouse and was full of recommendations – his tip to head back toward the Red Lantern hawker centre for dinner was spot on.
9. Pay Homage to the Guru of Shoes
Close to Red Lantern is this sign – and it’s paying homage to famous shoemaker Jimmy Choo who was born in Penang.
You’ll notice these metal signs all over the city and they represent some of the most important elements of Penang life and it’s people.
If you want to spot them all Pokemon style, you can pick up a leaflet listing the location of all the pieces at the Tourist Information bureaus in the city – the same map also has the main works of street art on it.
10. Visit the Fertility Cannon
Fort Cornwallis is normally listed as one of the ‘best things to do in Penang’ – to say that we were underwhelmed when we went to see it is an understatement.
There are a few ruins left – and those that are there were all cordoned off for repair work (this was Dec 2018) so there wasn’t a lot to see.
Only one thing on the site piqued my interest, the story of the Sri Rambai Cannon.
After a long history of being sailed around the region shooting cannonballs, the cannon was scuttled in shallow water just off Penang.
Then, one day, a local nobleman, for some reason left out of the legend, tied a thread around the end and commanded it to float to the surface. Despite the fact that’s its solid bronze and floating should therefore not be feasible, it did.
If that wasn’t special enough it’s also said to have fertility enhancing powers. Women having trouble conceiving would leave flowers in the cannon’s barrel believing it would bring them luck.
It’s 20 MYR to get into Fort Cornwallis so if you like history then maybe give it a visit – if they’ve finished renovating there will be more to see.
While you’re in the area, don’t miss the Hameed Mee Sotong stall at the food court nearby – the Mee Goreng they serve there is one of the best in Penang.
11. Explore the Clan Jettys
These waterfront homes of Chinese settlers in Penang are listed in every guidebook as a must-do – while this might not class them on a list of non-touristy things to do in Penang, they are interesting and unusual so I’m still going to suggest you see them – all of them.
There are six jetties to visit – each owned by a different ‘clan’ – and each differs in character.
Most people stick to the commercial Chew Jetty which has shops, snack spots and street art (and the crowds that go with it) but, a short walk lets you explore the more rustic, still mostly residential jetties like Tan Jetty and the near-deserted Yeoh Jetty, with its lonely bench at the end.
This lends itself to the most excellent Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal style photo.
We found people painting seascapes, tiny wooden houses and small shops.
Do respect the fact that these are people’s homes though and don’t enter to encroach on the privacy of any houses – also, some of the jetties have a donation box to pay for their upkeep. Donate if you can.
While it’s not a jetty per se, also visit Hean Boo Thean Kuan Yin Temple near Yeoh Jetty. This waterfront temple was being renovated when we were there but looking very pretty.
12. Try Loh Bak
The Prawn Fritter lady at the town end of Tan Jetty is a stop on some of the Penang Food Tours.
We didn’t have time to go on a tour, so we decided to pay her an independent visit while we were exploring the jetties.
We arrived to the sight of a batch of new fritters, just being dropped into the scalding batter on the back of the stall – paying for two, we looked forward to our hot, fresh, tasty seafood goodies – so, we were a bit surprised to find that she doesn’t sell you the nice hot fritters she seems to be constantly cooking, but rather the cooled ones on display.
They were pretty tasty though.
However, the unique Penang experience from our visit was the discovery Loh Bak. I’d never even heard of this before I got to the stall, let alone tried it.
It’s basically spiced pork, rather like a sausage, wrapped in bean curd skin and fried – and it was delicious. We had two!
The stall is open from 8-6pm seven days a week.
Book a Food Tour
If you are in Penang for a short period and want to seek out the best street food with a guide, then you definitely want to try a street food tour.
13. Stare at the Walls in Junk Cafe
There are a lot of bars in Penang – if you want backpacker fun, they’ve got it. If you want stylish cocktails bars they’ve got it – if you want to sip your beer somewhere unique, surrounded by a collection of completely bizarre tat the average secondhand store would kill for, you go to Junk Cafe at 401 Lebuh Chulia.
14. Eat All of the Durian
Durian is sold all over Malaysia and has a reputation as being the smelliest fruit known to mankind.
While you can buy it and eat it fresh (it tastes a bit like weird onions to me) Penang is renowned for using durian in interesting ways – you can find durian ice cream, durian lattes, durian cakes.
I tried the Durian Portuguese Tart from Men’s Kitchen on Armenian Street – which wasn’t bad. There was only a faint taste of durian as I bit into it and none of the weird oniony aftertaste I got from the real thing.
Men’s Kitchen and Durian Haven a bit further down Armenian Street are the places to go if you want to experiment.
I picked Men’s Kitchen as it was downstairs from the Asia Camera Museum which is also a cool place to spend an hour if you’re into photography or gadgets.
15. Just Wander
Whenever anyone asks me what they should do in a city, I find it really hard to answer, which, I admit, is a bit of a fundamental flaw for a travel blogger, but the reason is, often the big sights in a city aren’t where I find the best memories – just wandering is.
Wandering during this trip, this led to a fantastic conversation with a group of women drying herbs outside a shop. I asked what the herb was and they all descended into giggles.
Pointing at one of their male coworkers, they basically raised one arm very firmly in the air! That combined with the giggles lead me to believe whatever it was for libido.
Some of the best areas for just wandering in Penang include…
Little India where Bollywood music blasts out of the speakers, flowered garlands and sparkling saris spill out of the shops.
Chinatown is also good – it’s lined with pretty pastel-coloured buildings, quirky shop names (it took me a while to realise that the Great Wall Waving Parlour was a hairdresser not just a really friendly place to go and sit) and markets. You’ll also find street art dotted around every corner here too.
Chowrastra Street in Chinatown is also home to a few local markets which are good for an early morning wander. – but, be a bit careful which alleys you walk down around here.
One of them is where the chickens sold in the market meet their end. I can’t tell you exactly where it is as I backed quite quickly, but if you see a lot of chickens in cages and are squeamish, be wary.
16. Hear Tales of Temples and Triads
If you want to learn as you wander, take the free walking tour from the Tourist Board on Lebuh Pantai.
You’ll learn all about the history, architecture and people of Georgetown – including the very interesting triad-based secret behind the shape of this roof.
We also visited the Street of Harmony, so named as it houses places of worship from four different religion – and heard all about when Albert Einstein came to town.
The tour runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and is free – but only 20 people may join.
You have to register before 10am on the day you want to take the tour (it leaves at 10.30) and it does fill up.
I signed up about 9.30 and then went to grab breakfast at the Sri Weld Hawker Centre opposite – I picked noodles, but the queue of local workers and guys on scooters for the Nasi Lemak stall out front was long enough to make me think I should have picked up a takeaway.
17. Watch Some Tea Acrobatics
Drinking a Tea Tarik was another one of the things I really wanted to do in Penang. It took me a while to find somewhere but I ended up at a stall in Little India.
Tea Tarik is a black tea made with sweet condensed milk, but instead of just adding one of the other, the Tarik makers pour it from one pot to another at arm’s length which gives it a kind of frothy taste – and the name of pulled tea. In the Wonderfood Museum, however, they call it Tea Acrobatics which I just loved.
Watch it being made here…
I had mine in Little India at a stall on the corner of Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Pasar.
18. Check Out Art Lane
I walked past this a couple of times while exploring Penang not realising how cool it was going to be.
Run by the local China House cafe it’s a place for less well-known artists to paint and it’s just an explosion of ideas and colour and cool, cool street art.
If you’ve got a bit of an artistic bent, you can even apply to paint there yourself.
The entrance is pretty much next to the Ice Cafe (see below) and the alley runs between Lebuh Victoria and Beach Street.
19. Find the Painted Houses
Another thing I found while wandering.
This row of pretty pastel-coloured houses is all your Instagram dreams come true.
They are on Jalan Kek Chuan close to the Penang State Museum.
20. Visit The Ice Cafe
Noticing that Penang was full of odd museums and tourist traps, I made it my mission to pop it as many as possible, just to see what on earth was going on.
Which is why I found myself in the middle of a hot afternoon surrounded by snow – well, stuff pretending to be snow.
For some reason, the whole place is done up with igloos, penguins, ice blocks and other frosty freezing type excitement.
It’s a hokey as heck, but they did make a very nice ice cream and fruit shake. It’s probably not something you want to do if you only have two days here, but, if you’ve got more time, hey, spend some time living out your Frozen fantasies.
The above are all the cool and unusual things to do in Penang that I managed to get to, but there are lots of other things to do there I just didn’t have time to see properly – but that maybe you might want to check out. Two really unique things to do in Penang, I wish I could have tried are…
21. Visit the Floating Mosque
I couldn’t get my timings right to visit this, but it looks beautiful – and definitely one of the unusual things to see in Penang.
The Masjid Terapung Mosque at Tanjung Bangah is built out over the water and, at high tide, it looks as if it’s floating.
You can see the optical illusion of floating from outside the mosque.
If you want to go inside, you must ask permission from the mosque officials. You must also be respectfully dressed which means arms, legs and head covered for women.
The mosque is not open to anyone who is not intending to worship during Friday prayers.
The Mosque is on the way to or from Batu Ferringhi beach resort and Georgetown. You can get the 101 or 103 bus from town.
22. Walk on Air
The Rainbow Skywalk is a glass walkway on top of Penang’s tallest building.
It’s 250m above ground and juts out from the side of the building.
I’m scared of heights and got jittery just looking up at it, but, if you want to give it a try, it costs 68MYR. Either turn up on the day or beat the queues by buying tickets in advance here
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.
Where To Stay in Penang
There are a lot of hotels in Penang, but if you’re looking for something a bit different there too, check out the Jawi Peranakan Mansion.
We picked it because rather that just offering normal hotel rooms, it had some rooms in their own self contained mini villas.
Each one had their own private courtyard with a day bed that was great for reading on, a downstairs with more seating, the bedroom was upstairs and it had two bathrooms – we don’t have that luxury here.
It also had a pool which I intended to use, but, rather like the street food, went the way of exploring all the fun things.
It looks super expensive, but we don’t stay anywhere that is, so trust me, it’s considerably more affordable than you think. Click to check out the prices here.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles include The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.
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