Food and Drink in Penang
Penang's melting pot of cultures results in some great cuisine. You'll find Indian, Chinese and Malay dishes -- all with uniquely Penang-style twists. In addition, there's Peranakan Nyonya ("mama") food, a cuisine that developed when Chinese traders married local Malay women, as well as an abundance of fresh local seafood. For a look at 12 iconic local dishes, and where to find them, download Penang Tourism's excellent Food Trail brochure.
Some of the most popular dishes include assam laksa (hot and sour fish broth with noodles, vegetables and shrimp paste), fried koay teow (rice noodles stir-fried with prawns and cockles) and roti canai (crispy, flat Indian pastries cooked on a griddle and served with spicy lentil dip). Desserts tend to be shaved ice, with toppings like sweet beans, corn, coconut milk and green pandan noodles. For a fascinating, cooling drink, try ais tingkap, described below.
To sample George Town's famous hawker food at lunchtime, visit Lorong Selamat, between Jalan Burmah and Jalan Macalister -- less than 2 miles from the pier. Heng Huat Cafe is famous for its char kuey teow (and rude proprietor), as is its competitor Low Eng Hoo Cafe. T&T Hokkien Mee dishes up several versions of the classic soup noodles while, farther down the street, you'll find oyster omelets, duck rice and laksa vendors. To suss out the best vendors, look for lines of locals.
The ais tingkap street vendor concocts one of the most interesting beverages you'll ever consume. The base is shaved ice, which makes it fabulously refreshing. To that, the Indian proprietor adds rose essence, coconut water, a bit of sugar syrup, fresh coconut water, tender "young coconut" meat, a dash of herbs and -- most unusual of all -- soaked basil seeds, which form a gelatinous coating around their crunchy center. It all sounds rather strange, but trust us, the rosy-pink drink is worth a try. And the show's good, too, as the complex concoction gets mixed for you. To find the vendor, look to your right as you head down Lebuh Tamil for tables against the wall and a man surrounded by various buckets and jars of ingredients. (Lebuh Tamil, left off Jalan Penang in the Chowrasta Market complex)
Tek Sen Restaurant is a simple spot that's renowned for its siew yuk, or double-cooked pork, but the extensive menu (in English) provides plenty to choose from, with several Chinese ethnic cuisines represented. (18 and 20 Carnarvon Street; 6012-493-9424; Wednesday through Monday noon to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 8:30 p.m.)
De Tai Tong Cafe is a classic dim sum spot, where you'll find "aunties" pushing carts of Chinese dumplings through the decor-free room that harkens back to the 1960s. In addition to the usual dumplings, they also serve noodle dishes. (45 Lebuh Cintra; 604-263-6625; daily 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6:15 to 11:30 p.m., but sometimes closed on Mondays)
Ivy's Nyonya Cuisine, about 2 miles from the pier, offers favorites like assam prawns and beef rendang in a nondescript atmosphere with warm, friendly owners and reasonable prices. Set menus let you sample more dishes with smaller portions of each. (58 Jalan Chow Thye, off Burmah Road; Wednesday through Sunday noon to 3 p.m. and to 9 p.m.; Tuesday, 6 to 9 p.m.)
Kapitan offers a wide variety of Indian food in a bustling but scruffy environment. We're suckers for the roti canai, and their butter chicken was tasty, too, especially washed down with a mango lassi. They're also known for their clay pot nasi briyani, a spicy rice dish. (93 Chulan Street; 604-264-1191; open 24 hours daily)
1885 Fine Dining Restaurant serves British afternoon tea in the landmark E&O Hotel. Dress appropriately for the elegant environment. (Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Lebuh Farquhar; 604-222-2000 ext. 3170; tea daily 2 to 5 p.m.)
Suffolk House offers refined European dining and afternoon tea in a beautifully renovated heritage building. The chef is best known for his truffle mushroom soup. (250 Jalan Air Hitam; 604-228-3930; daily noon to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 2 to 6 p.m. for tea, 7 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner)
Kebaya Dining Room is only open for dinner, but if you're in port overnight, it's worth a visit for upscale "modern" Nyonya cuisine, using innovative ingredients and techniques, in a stylish fine-dining environment. (Seven Terraces Hotel, Stewart Lane; 604-264-2333; daily 6 to 10 p.m.)
Beaches in Penang
Best for Beach Fanatics: If you really must hang out at a beach, rather than enjoy Penang's other sights, Ferringhi Beach (Batu Ferringhi) is located about an hour from George Town, depending on traffic. The waters aren't as pristine as you might hope for, and there's a constant buzz from water sports vehicles, but you'll still find white sand and palm trees amid the resort hotels. As dusk falls, a famous night market stretches more than a half-mile along the beach. (By the way, Ferringhi might sound familiar to Star Trek fans. It actually means "foreigner.")
Don't Miss in Penang
George Town's UNESCO World Heritage Area: George Town's historic buildings earned the city UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. These buildings include Fort Cornwallis and the grand colonial architecture along Lebuh Light and Lebuh Farquhar, as well as historic shophouses (buildings with shops on the bottom and residences above), places of worship, mansions and Chinese clan jetties.
The Penang Heritage Trust offers several different heritage walking tours (604-264-2631; firstname.lastname@example.org) that start at 9 a.m. and last about three hours; be sure to book in advance. If you'd like to tour on your own, Penang Tourism offers a colored map that you can download and print. It includes the locations and photos of many heritage buildings.
Penang State Museum and Art Gallery: This is an air-conditioned oasis with excellent, well-curated displays depicting the history and culture of Penang. You'll see everything from ornate Peranakan wedding outfits to information on George Town's food scene. The art gallery features Malaysian artists past and present. (Lebuh Farquhar; 604-261-3144; Saturday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
"Street of Harmony": Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly known as Pitt Street), offers an opportunity to see major religious communities existing side by side. Just off the street, you'll find the beautiful, historic Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Indian Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple and Anglican St. George's Church. You'll come upon many other historic Chinese temples and clan buildings in the city's old streets and alleys that are also well worth a look.
Street Art: George Town is becoming known for clever street art, including engaging murals with 3D elements by Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, as well as entertaining welded-iron caricatures that illustrate how different streets or neighborhoods earned their names. A downloadable brochure from Penang Tourism offers descriptions and tells you where to find the art (or just look for a gaggle of tourists posing for photos with some of Zacharevic's most popular works).
Pinang Peranakan Mansion: See how wealthy George Town traders lived by visiting this huge, airy historic house, which also has examples of furniture, artifacts, clothing and lovely beaded shoes. If you have time to visit only one mansion, we recommend this one. (29 Church Street; 604-264292; daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: This bright blue mansion also serves as a hotel, so access is a bit more limited, but the tour is interesting. (14 Lebuh Leith; 604-262-0006; daily 45-minute guided tours at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.)
Chinese Clan Jetties: These jetties jut into the water about a half-mile south of the cruise terminal, off Pengkalan Weld. Houses and temples are built along historic piers. The most famous (and the most crowded) is the Chew Jetty. For a quieter experience, explore the narrow passageways of the Lim Jetty, which you reach before the Chew Jetty.
Botanic Gardens: This 72-acre garden was founded in 1884 by the British. It's a 5-mile trip outside of George Town by bus, taxi or tour. In addition to the vast collection of unusual tropical trees and plants, you'll also probably spot long-tailed macaques and dusky leaf monkeys as you stroll the paths. In fact, don't take any food with you, or the critters might get a bit too friendly. (673A Jalan Kebun Bunga; 604-226-4401; daily 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Tropical Spice Garden: About 13 miles from the pier and best reachable by taxi or hop-on hop-off bus (Beach route), features 500 species of flora and fauna, spread over 8 acres of secondary tropical jungle. The facility also has a gift shop and cafe and offers guided tours and cooking lessons. (Book both in advance.) The garden can be combined with a visit to the nearby beach area, Batu Ferringhi. (Lot 595 Mukim 2, Jalan Teluk Bahang; 604-881-1797; daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Kek Lok Si Temple: This huge complex is said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. It's located in the hills, about 6 miles from the pier. Aside from the excellent views, attractions include a funicular train that travels up to a massive 120-foot-high statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, as well as a tower of 10,000 Buddhas, which you can climb for more views. With souvenir shops and crowds, the place feels as much like a tourist attraction as a religious site. It can also be combined with a trip to nearby Penang Hill, about a mile away. (1000-L, Tingkat Lembah Ria 1, Ayer Itam; 604-828-3317; daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Penang Hill: This hill was a cool refuge for the British, who built bungalows along its slopes. The hop-on hop-off City route bus stops at Penang Hill and, once here, Penang Hill Railway can take you to the top, 2,000 feet above sea level, where food and tea vendors offer refreshments to accompany the views. (Perbadanan Bukit Bendera, Jalan Stesen Bukit Bendera, Air Itam; 604-828-8880; daily 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed for annual inspection during one week in January)
Ben's Vintage Toy Museum: Toy-lovers can travel back to their childhoods at this small, but delightful museum. Chances are, the friendly family members who lovingly collected the toys will be there to walk you through the small private museum's two floors. (55 Lebuh Acheh; 604-308-6657; Saturday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Wonderfood Museum: The Instagram crowd will go for this "museum" filled with giant 3D depictions of local food, as well as some crazy food scenes that make great backdrops for selfies. (49 Lebuh Pantai; 604-251 9095; daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)