An island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia, Penang is blessed with a multicultural history that's led to a fascinating fusion of East and West. Claimed by the British East India Company in 1786, the island's city center of Georgetown—listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is filled with colonial architecture, temples, and museums. The island has also attracted many Chinese immigrants, who now make up the majority of the population. On Penang you'll find an exciting mix of jungle, coast, farmland, and fishing villages, along with the country's largest Buddhist temple.
Gurney Drive Hawker Center
Along with being a prime spot to catch the sunset along the coast, Gurney Drive is key for those hunting down hawker fare and classic Penang dishes. Stalls are set up one after the other, each specializing in a unique dish. Try the char kway teo (stir-fry flat rice noodles with whole prawns), popiah (fresh spring roll), and Penang rojak (a tart fruit-and-vegetable salad mixed with crushed peanut and shrimp-paste sauce). All stalls are self-service, and plastic tables and stools are set up in the center for diners to claim as they wish.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel's colonial charm is displayed in top form in its much revered restaurant, 1885, named for the year in which the hotel was established. Quintessential afternoon tea is served with scones, cucumber sandwiches, and cakes presented on an elegant three-tier plate, along with clotted cream. The dinner menu is always changing but offers top cuts of meat and fresh seafood served in a contemporary Western style. The real draw is the classic fine-dining setting, which includes glowing candles, white linen, and fresh flowers. Try and score a table by the windows for a view of the surrounding architecture and manicured lawns.
Nyonya Baba Cuisine
Formerly called the Dragon King, which opened in 1976, this family-run restaurant is one of the few in Penang that continues to serve traditional Nyonya cuisine. It's situated in a row of restored shophouses, and the Peranakan theme can be seen in the colorful floral tiling and in all of the dishes featured in the picture menu. The owners are friendly and around to offer dining advice for those new to the cuisine, however the hong bak (stewed pork in thick gravy), fried chicken, and prawn curry are all top picks.
Nan Guang Coffee Shop
Loyal eaters of laksa, a spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, will travel near and far in search of the best bowl. One place you will find many of these pilgrims returning to and raving about is Kim Laksa at the Nan Guang Coffee Shop. The stall outside the scruffy, open-air dining area prepares two types of laksa: the Asam uses tamarind to make a more sour soup; and the Siam is rich with coconut milk and lemongrass. Tropical fruit and nutmeg juices are prepared fresh, along with durian—the Malaysian "King of Fruits"—and mangosteen to enjoy for dessert.
That Little Wine Bar
Tucked away on a side street, this European-style boutique wine bar is run by owner Chef Tommes, who was inspired to open the restaurant after witnessing a shortage of authentic wine options in Penang. Oenophiles are offered a wide selection of labels from around the world, along with modern European fare. Light bites to accompany a few glasses include the traditional chicken pâté served with a fresh baguette, and the black-and-white sesame-seared tuna with ginger marinade and herb mayonnaise. Main courses cover typical French fare, including duck breast à l'orange and Croque Monsieur.
Of the many historic landmarks left behind after British settlement, Fort Cornwallis is one of the most prominent—it's the largest fort still standing in Malaysia. This is where Captain Francis Light, the founder of Penang, first set foot on the island in 1786. After claiming the land for the British East India Company, Light went on to build the fort as defense against neighboring Kedah. A bronze statue of the captain stands at the front, and inside the outer walls the compound has been transformed into a park. Today the landmark serves as a good starting ground for a tour of the Colonial District. Wander past the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, Town Hall, and Supreme Court to gain a sense of the island's past.
Kek Lok Si Temple
Southeast Asia's largest Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si ("Temple of Supreme Bliss") was founded in 1890 by an immigrant Chinese Buddhist. A maze of souvenir stalls leads to Ban Po Thar, a seven-tier tower that displays a Chinese base, a middle tier with Thai architecture, and a Burmese crown on top. On the hillside, above the pagoda, a huge bronze figure of Kuan Yin ("Goddess of Mercy") was completed in 2002. The temple continues to grow, with several projects still in the making.
Penang State Museum & Art Gallery
Visit the museum to learn about the history of Penang through photographs of old transportation, artifacts that include weapons and betel boxes, and paintings that capture the past. The art gallery houses a collection of modern and contemporary art—a combination of sculpture, prints and videos—from 1965 to the present. The pieces cover themes including urbanization, globalization, and the environment.
Tropical Spice Garden
You can discover some 500 species of tropical flora and fauna during a wander around Tropical Spice Garden's three winding trails. The shaded Jungle Trail overlooks a stream and displays ferns and wild orchids, exotic flora is tucked away in the heart of the valley on the Ornamental Trail, and the Spice Trail is where you will find more than 100 spices and herbs used for cooking, as well as for medicines, dyes, and perfumes. Stop by the visitor center to learn about cooking courses on offer; sip on a cool lime soda in the Tree Monkey Restaurant, which offers a panoramic view of the bay; and make sure to swing by the gift shop for spice-inspired souvenirs.
Penang Botanic Gardens
A nearby cascade of water has given Penang Botanic Gardens the widely known nickname the "Waterfall Gardens." Originally established by the British back in 1884 out of an old granite quarry site, the gardens lie in a deep valley and feature 30 hectares (75 acres) of tropical forests. Keep an eye out for long-tailed macaques, dusky leaf monkeys, and black giant squirrels. Do not feed the monkeys! There are plenty of signs to remind you and a steep fine for anyone who breaks the law.