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Guide to natural and cultural heritage in Penang

Discover the best things to do in Penang, featuring the arts, culture and heritage attractions, plus natural sites including secluded beaches

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Penang is a city buzzing with arts, culture and tradition, thanks to the inheritance and stories of Penangites who built this city. Spend a day wandering around George Town visiting markets, exploring places of worship and admiring heritage architecture – you’re bound to see why locals love Penang so much.

Ernest Zacharevic Lebuh Muntri
Photo: Ernest Zacharevic

11. Walk the old streets

George Town’s heritage centre is best experienced on foot. Grab a map and explore the myriad streets each with their own character and nuances. There’s something to be said about wandering the streets of George Town discovering street art on every corner, architectural gems from several eras, charming cafés and street food. Streets to explore include Lebuh Chulia, Jalan Pasar, Lebuh Armenian, Lorong Stewart, Lebuh Muntri and Lebuh Pantai.

Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling
Photo: Su Aziz

12. Street of Harmony

Originally known as Pitt Street, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling is a stretch of road that celebrates religious diversity. There are four important places of worship here – Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng), St George’s Church and the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, representing Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism and showcasing different religious architecture from various eras.

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13. Clan houses

Attractions Historic buildings and sites George Town

The clan or ‘kongsi’ system was brought to Penang during the 19th century by early Chinese immigrants and was a brotherhood of sorts, helping newcomers as well as creating a community and a place to worship. The clan houses, dotted around George Town, were organized according to surname – Khoo, Cheah, Tan, Lim and Yeoh – and where they were originally from in China. The most famous of these is the opulent Khoo Kongsi in Cannon Square with its ornate carvings of the dragon and phoenix, and the red and gold colour scheme.

Street of Harmony
Photo: Penang Global Tourism

14. Mosques

The most famous mosque in Penang is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, founded by Cauder Mohideen Merican who was appointed the leader or ‘Kapitan Keling’of the South Indian community by Sir George Leith, the Lieutenant Governor of Penang at the time. Land was allotted, funds collected, builders and building material brought in from India, and renowned architect Henry Alfred Neubronner appointed to design. The mosque became the focal point of the local community with its Moghul and Moorish details. The Acheen Street Mosque on Lebuh Acheh with its Egyptian-influenced minaret has also stood the test of time and was founded by an Achenese clan leader who settled in Penang.

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rattan weaver

16. Traditional artisans

As the original purveyors of artisanal crafts like rattan weaving, Nyonya shoe beading, traditional wood carving and jewellery making get older and their skills forgotten, make it a point to visit their shops or even take part in the PAPA (Penang Apprenticeship Programmes for Artisans), a project initiated by the Penang Heritage Trust which aims to raise awareness and create a new generation of artisans.

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17. Old Protestant Cemetery

Attractions Cemeteries George Town

On an island with as much history and cultural diversity as Penang, its cemeteries tell many stories of the loves, the lives and the deaths of generations of pioneers, explorers, soldiers and those just passing through,  with many dying young, proving that the exotic dream wasn’t all that. The Old  Protestant Cemetery on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah was consecrated in 1786 and is the final resting place of historical figures including Sir Francis Light, several colonial governors and members of prominent families.

18. The Esplanade

Things to do Event spaces George Town

The Esplanade (Padang Kota Lama) is like a time capsule for Penang’s history and was originally a British parade ground, playing field and where the Sepoy regiments would have firing practice. Sir Francis Light constructed Fort Cornwallis as a defensive measure next to the Esplanade and the grand municipal buildings housing the Town and City Hall were built here, as was a cenotaph honouring Commonwealth soldiers who died in WWI.

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19. Clan jetties

Attractions Ships and boats George Town

The clan jetties are another unique feature of George Town and are a collection of wooden houses on stilts located at Weld Quay. There are six jetties organised according to Chinese surname – Chew, Tan, Lee, Lim, Yeoh and Chap Seh Keo (Mixed Surname Jetty) – and were built during the mid-19th century by early immigrants who were fishermen and port coolies. The jetties are still occupied by their descendants and visiting during big Chinese festivals like the Jade Emperor’s birthday, which falls on ninth day of Chinese New Year, is always an eye-opener. 

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

20. The mansions

Penang is home to a diverse selection of grand houses which were built throughout the different eras, from Straits Eclectic and Moghul to British colonial and Art Deco. These have now been converted into chic accommodations, shops and restaurants; while some are still private residences and museums. The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was built at the end of the 19th century and was the home of the Kapitan Cina of the time, Chung Keng Kwee. It has been meticulously restored and is open to visitors offering a chance to see how the wealthy once lived. With its iconic indigo colour palette and attention to historical detail, The Blue Mansion is the poster-child for Penang’s heritage renaissance and has been awarded a Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage Conservation. Stay in one of their charming rooms or follow their house tours to get a rare insight into one of the most interesting grand houses in the world.

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