Penang is an incredibly exotic destination steeped in history, with all the best bits conveniently packed into a charming centre. The Penang region is actually made up of two halves – Penang Island, where the capital city of George Town is located, and a strip of mainland Peninsula named Seberang Perai. Our visit was focussed around George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Penang Island.
There is loads on offer for families with children of all ages and we spent many happy hours exploring the sights. Beautifully restored historic buildings now house cafés and boutique hotels wedged between ancient-looking stores and workshops.
Despite being busy, George Town feels surprisingly small. If your kids are sick of sightseeing, there are plenty of opportunities to get out of the city and enjoy the great outdoors. Here are some of the highlights from our trip. Note that the food was so delicious that it warrants a blog post of its own. Keep an eye out for that in the very near future!
1. Ride a trishaw and get a first-class tour of George Town
A visit to Penang is not complete without a ride on a trishaw. It’s a great way to get about and give your weary legs a rest. Chances are that the kids will spot them first – drivers will often decorate their trishaws with flowers, lights and tinsel to stand out from the crowd.
Traffic in George Town can be pretty bad, so don’t expect to get around particularly quickly. Remember to agree a price beforehand and expect to pay around RM30 (£5) per hour.
If you are feeling energetic (and we weren’t), you can hire a trishaw to pedal the family around in. Check out hire options from Metro Bike near the George Town jetty.
2. Take a train up the side of a mountain
A trip up Penang Hill was definitely a highlight for us. The funicular railway was faster, higher and steeper than any other we’ve travelled on before.
Known in Malay as Bukit Bendera, Penang Hill is a great option if you need to escape the heat of George Town. Located about 6km from the city centre, the best way to get there is to order an Uber or a Grab. The entrance fee for tourists is RM30 (£5) and children RM5 (£1).
The view alone and the incredibly diverse flora make it worth the trip. There are also lots of activities to choose from once you are up the hill including a bird sanctuary, a suspension bridge hanging over the treetops, an owl museum plus lots of food and beverage options.
3. Step back in time with a visit to the Chew Jetties
Kids will love exploring the clan jetties and catching a glimpse of what it’s like to live life on stilts above the water. They’ve been around since the 19th century and are still home to the descendants of Chinese immigrants.
Surprisingly little has changed since they were first built, apart from the addition of the odd satellite dish here and there. The Chew Jetty is the most famous and is still home to hundreds of people.
4. Discover the incredible street art
The street art is one of the first things you will notice when you arrive in George Town. You can’t miss the queue of people waiting to take their pictures next to the most famous image of children on a bicycle!
The best way to explore the art is to walk or take a trishaw ride around the sites. The street art is mainly focussed around Armenian Street, Penang Street and the streets in-between.
5. Escape to Penang Municipal Park
Penang Municipal Park is a great option for families needing to escape the city for a break. Formerly known as the Youth Park, there is a water park and children’s playground all set within an expansive and beautifully landscaped park.
It takes about 15 minutes to drive from the centre of George Town but is definitely worth the trip. There is a convenience store on site if you need to pick up refreshments. Watch out for the cheeky macaque monkeys – they almost made off with my daughter’s drink!
How we got to and from Penang
By boat: We arrived by fast boat from Langkawi. It took about 2 hours and 45 minutes. The boat itself was pretty tatty but perfectly functional. Our crossing was relatively smooth but I imagine if it was any rougher, then it could have been a really unpleasant ride. A small TV screen at the front of the boat played a particularly loud film so you may want to take your headphones.
There is only one operator between the two islands and the service runs twice daily from Langkawi’s Kompleks Jetty Point. Tickets can be purchased from the jetty on the day of travel. The ticket counter is located behind the KFC. An adult one-way fare is RM70 (£12), a child fare is RM50 (£9).
By car: We decided to drive back to Kuala Lumpur from Penang and hired a car to make the trip. We had planned on going via the Cameron Highlands but made the mistake of travelling on the equivalent of a Bank Holiday Monday. So we sat in a traffic jam for hours on end with two miserable kids. Not fun. If it had been a different date, it would have made for an interesting trip. Note that the one-way car drop fees were a bit steep.
By air: There are frequent and reasonably priced flights in and out of the international airport, located 30 min south of George Town. Air Asia flights can cost as little as RM60 (£10) for a one way ticket.
Where we stayed
Our first night, we stayed in an duplex apartment in the centre of George Town. It was a bit of a disaster as there was zero sound insulation and a stage set up nearby with live music running until late. Plus there were no windows and the air con didn’t really work. And, the final straw was a visit from a rodent friend. Needless to say we cancelled the remainder of our nights and shifted out first thing in the morning.
The next three nights, we stayed in the beautiful Ren I Tang guesthouse, a former Chinese medical hall built in the 1800s. Located in the heart of Little India, this meticulously restored guesthouse was perfectly located for discovering George Town on foot.
The final place we stayed was Rangoon Residence, slightly outside of the centre but it turned out to be a perfect choice for our family. From the moment we stepped through the entrance, we were made to feel very welcome and called this special place home for four nights.
There was plenty of room, the beds were super nice and the kids slept very comfortably upstairs on the mezzanine floor and us downstairs. The room had a private terrace too so we were able to sit out and have a drink in the evenings once the kids were in bed.
How we got about
We mainly walked about as George Town is relative compact and really interesting to explore on foot. Most of the main tourist sites are within easy walking distance and it’s the perfect excuse to pop into one of the many cafés for an iced latte to refuel.
When we needed to go further afield, we usually used apps like Grab or Uber. It cost us around RM7 (£1) to travel most places we wanted to go. We also caught the bus on a few occasions. The services were frequent and cheap.
Top tips for families
Accommodation: Many of the fantastic heritage hotels and guesthouses have poor sound insulation, so take this into consideration when booking. If you look slightly outside of the centre, you are likely to get much more for your money.
Food: The street food is delicious and best enjoyed at the busiest times of the day. This is becase you can be sure that food hasn’t been sitting around and is piping hot, cooked fresh to order. If the family needs a change from curries and noodles (hard to believe), head to Yin’s Sourdough Bakery and Cafe for an amazing brunch.
Time out: If the heat and chaos of the city becomes a bit too much for the children, why not head to Kidland in Prangin Mall for some time out. It’s got a massive soft play area, loads of activities for kids of all ages and is air conditioned throughout.
Have you visited Penang? Do you have any advice on activities for travelling families? I’d love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments below.