After a trip full of great natural wonders we were craving for some heritage, thus we chose George Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site in northern Malaysia. What a surprise: George Town is probably the nicest city in Southeast Asia with several layers of Portuguese, British, Chinese, Malay and Indian heritage plus pretty cool modern street art, shops, and bars. What’s more, lush hills and beautiful beaches surround the city. We stayed at a fancy heritage hotel, located in the centre of vibrant Little India. The only problem we had was choosing the food, Indian, Malay, Chinese and European. Malaysia is truly Asia!
We completely agree with UNESCO! Georgetown’s historic quarter is a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia. Take note that the UNESCO listed part covers some 2.6 square kilometers and includes the Fort Cornwalls, the City Hall, the Penang State Museum, the St. George’s Church, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Goddess of Mercy Temple, and the Cheong Fatt Tze, amongst other impressive buildings. What’s more, George Town is an open-air museum, full of fantastic restaurants, shops, cafés, and street art. The place rocks!
George Town Heritage Houses
The grand mansions of Georgetown are heritage buildings in a league of their own. Merchants and tycoons built their houses at the end of the 19th Century combining European design and Chinese imperial architecture. Though several dot downtown, you shouldn’t miss two: the Pinang Peranakan Mansion and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. The first one is on Church Street and is now a museum. Do not forget to check the adjacent temple dedicated to the mansion’s former owner, Mr. Chung. You will recognize the Cheong Mansion from its indigo blue exterior. Go inside and prepare to be dazzled by the 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases, and 220 vernacular timber windows.
The area around Fort Cornwallis is the epicenter of George Town heritage. Begin your walk at the Malayan Railways Building. Continue along Beach Street past the OCBC Bank Building until you reach the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower. Turn left and walk to the Penang City Hall. Do not miss the Penang High Sessions and High Courts buildings. In front of the courts is the Penang State Museum, currently closed. However, you can visit part of the collection at the former King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, built in 1912 on Macalister Road. The area is off the usual tourist route in George Town but has street art and incredible heritage buildings such as the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Centre.
Fort Cornwallis is the grandest and best-preserved fort in Malaysia. Not only that, but it offers fantastic views of the city and the sea. The original fort was made of wood supposedly on the spot where Francis Light landed. He is the one that colonized Penang, rename it New Wales Island and established George Town as the capital. Of course, he exploited loads of people, including the Indian convicts that rebuilt the fort in 1810. The fort was named after Charles Marquis Cornwallis, the guy in charge of colonizing Bengal. No one ever attacked the fort, which was basically an administrative center. Don’t forget to look for The Chapel, the first-ever built on the island in 1799.
Kapitan Keling Mosque
We strongly recommend visiting the Kapitan Keling Mosque at sunset when the sun lights up the gorgeous domes. Captain Keling, the Tamil Muslim head of the local Indian community, built the mosque in 1801. The one we see today is the result of extensive renovations that took place in 1930. Notice the gorgeous geometric designs that cover the façade and the single Indian minaret. Take note that the biggest mosque in George Town is not only a heritage building, but is pretty much alive. Therefore, you can go inside when people are not praying and if you cover yourself. White marble covers the interior up to the high horseshoe arches. Though we are not religious, we loved the grounds and felt at peace here. Thanks!
Kek Lok Si Temple
One of the things that impressed us about George Town is that its heritage is still in use. That’s why Kek Lok Si Temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhist from all Southeast Asia. The temple is actually a group of different structures built from 1890 to 1925 for the Mahayana, Theravada, and Chinese Buddhist communities. In fact, the impressive Ban Po Thar pagoda with its 10000 Buddhas has a Chinese base, a Thai middle tier, and a Burmese spiral dome. Do not rush through the temple and go all the way to the 30-meter statue of Guanyin on the hill over the pagoda. Be sure to go inside the adjacent pavilion and the nearby columbarium.
Clan Jetties of Penang
There are 6 Clan Jetties in George Town, and all are part of its Chinese heritage. These are basically houses on stilts where different Chinese clans have been living for over 100 years. If you visit in the morning, you can see locals performing their religious rituals. This is a real neighborhood, so please ask people before taking pictures. People are super nice in Malaysia, but this is their home! You can have lunch or dinner at any of the restaurants overlooking the sea. Though you can go all day long, sunsets are spectacular, especially around the Kuan Yin Floating Temple (Hean Boo Thean).
George Town Street Art
In 2012 the Penang Municipal Council commissioned Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to create an art project called Mirrors George Town. In his large murals, he depicts children in everyday scenes using objects like chairs, swings, bikes, and motorbikes. Today there are two types of street art: a mural (just like those of Zacharevic), or a cartoon with a message made of metal rods. Apart from the children, cats are another favorite motif displayed in George Town. That adds charm to the already charming Malaysian city.
Food and Coffee
When it comes to food, George Town has it all. As you can imagine, the different communities that live in the city brought with them their cuisine. That’s why you can taste top-quality Indian, Malay, Chinese, Burmese, and international food. Obviously, the best Indian food is served in Little India and Chinese in China Town. Though you can find Malay food everywhere, Kebaya in the 7 Terraces Hotel is superb. For coffee, go to Wheelers Café on Love Lane. George Town is fantastic for those of us who love to eat on the go, since you eat while searching for street art! You don’t even need to plan: delicious food will surround you everywhere.
Where to Stay in George Town
In George Town, we had to stay at a heritage building. We chose the Royale Chulan Penang and had a great time. They’ve updated a beautiful colonial building from 1892 with state of the art facilities, including a pool. Ask for a top floor room for sea views. Another top choice within the UNESCO listed center is the Blue Mansion. The historic building has 5 gorgeous courtyards and one of the best restaurants in town. Finally, splurge a bit and stay at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel George Town in the heritage wing. Even if you don’t stay there, go for dinner or breakfast at any of its 4 opulent restaurants.
How to Get to George Town
There are direct flights to George Town from Doha, Singapore, Bangkok, Ha-Noi, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, Phuket, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Kunming. Within Malaysia, there are flights from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Johor Bahru, Kuching, Langkawi, Medan, and Melaka. The airport is just 16 km from the city. Hence, you can take an inexpensive taxi or public bus 401. You can also go by land from Kuala Lumpur combining train and buses. The journey can take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours. Please take note that George Town’s Butterworth Train Station is across the sea so you have to take a ferry to get to and from the city. If you do go by land, we strongly recommend stopping in Ipoh. We did and discovered a fantastic place still under the radar!