Free things to do on Penang

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What we say: 3.5 stars

Let’s face it: budgeting while you’re travelling can become really tedious. There are times when you just want to let loose, forget about that dwindling current account or mounting credit card bill, and splurge. But what happens if an expensive diving course or a few-too-many all-night benders have left your wallet a bit light when you turn up in Penang? Well, don’t despair, because if you are willing to walk a bit, there are plenty of things to do on the island that needn’t cost you a penny. Here’s our list of some of the best.

Georgetown's famous Goddess of Mercy Temple.

Georgetown’s famous Goddess of Mercy Temple is at the centre of the Street of Harmony.

Street of Harmony
Experience Penang’s varied cultures on a walk along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling or, as locals call it, the Street of Harmony, where the town’s four main religions converge. Start at St George’s Church, in the old British enclave at the northern end of the street, work your way down past the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple and the Hindu Sri Maha Mariamman Kovil, and finish up at the Masjid Kapitan Keling, the town’s most iconic mosque. Don’t forget to make small detours along the way to take in the colourful Chinese temple stalls and to soak up the atmosphere of Little India.

The white edifice of St. George's Church, in the old British quarter, stands at one end of the Street of Harmony.

The white edifice of St. George’s Church, in the old British quarter, stands at one end of the Street of Harmony.

Penang Street Art Trail
A legacy of the 2012 George Town Festival, the life-size — and sometimes larger than life — wall frescoes of Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevich, which make up Penang’s Street Art Trail, have become one of Georgetown’s most popular attractions. Painted on walls around the core heritage zone, the frescoes are based on real-life people and capture snapshots of life amongst Georgetown’s narrow streets. Penang Global Tourism has produced a useful walking tour map, which takes you through some of the old town’s most interesting streets, and this can be picked up from their offices at 10 Whiteways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai.

Penang's street art trail evokes a sense of old Georgetown.

Penang’s street art trail evokes a sense of old Georgetown.

Clan houses
Penang is home to some of the best preserved traditional Chinese architecture in the world, and its famous clan house temples are a must-see while you are in Georgetown. Resting places for ancestral spirits, many are built in the old Chinese temple style and showcase amazing artisanship, including intricate wooden and stone carvings, priceless gilding and flamboyant ceramic roof decorations. Unfortunately, the famous Khoo Kongsi charges entry so can’t be included on a free tour, but don’t despair because many other impressive examples are conveniently clustered together in the area around Lebuh Armenian. so take them in on a leisurely stroll and stop en route to browse the area’s galleries and craft shops.

The Teochew clan house on Lebuh Chulia represents some of the finest temple craftsmanship in Penang.

The Teochew clan house on Lebuh Chulia represents some of the finest temple craftsmanship in Penang.

Botanic Gardens
You don’t have to go far out of Georgetown before the island’s tropical vegetation takes over, and the Botanic Gardens, a few kilometres to the northwest, provides open space, fresh air and lots of beautiful plants by the spade-load. Enjoy walking down broad boulevards and across manicured lawns, or simply take in the gardens’ very varied flora, including countless orchids and palms, as well as its famed cannonball trees and black lilies. There is even an informative mini jungle trail, if you don’t have time to go to the national park.

Escape the stuffy Georgetown streets in the wide open spaces at the Botanic Gardens.

Escape the stuffy Georgetown streets in the wide open spaces at the Botanic Gardens.

Do-it-yourself bus tour
Penang has not yet cottoned on to the idea of the City Sightseeing bus, but conveniently enough, there is a free regular hop-on, hop-off service, called the CAT (Central Area Transit) bus, which takes you along Georgetown’s main streets. It passes many of the town’s iconic buildings, including Fort Cornwallis, the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Blue Mansion, City Hall, St George’s Church and the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, and is a great way to find your bearings and get a taste of Georgetown’s varied and celebrated architecture.

The free CAT bus takes you past many of Georgetown's major buildings.

The free CAT bus takes you past many of Georgetown’s major buildings.

Clan jetties
The clan jetties are like nothing else in Malaysia and will transport you to another time and place. A total contrast to the shophouse-lined streets of Georgetown, they conjure a real sense of old Asia, where the descendants of Penang’s dock workers still live in stilted wooden houses over the sea. There are several wooden boardwalk jetties to explore, each of which belongs to a different clan, but the most atmospheric is the Chew Jetty. Just after the beginning of the main walkway, take the first right to avoid the touristy shops and stalls, and get a real sense of everyday life in these fascinating settlements.

The clan jetties showcase a completely different side to life in Georgetown.

The clan jetties showcase a completely different side to life in Georgetown.

Penang Hill
Many people opt to take the funicular railway to the top of Penang’s jungle-clad hill station, but if you are on a budget and don’t want to pay the 30 ringgit return fare, you can always take to your own two feet and walk up instead. The five-kilometre road starts just to the left of the Botanic Gardens entrance, and the steep 833-metre ascent should take you between two to three hours, with plenty of bird, butterfly and monkey-spotting opportunities en route. You will be rewarded at the top by fine views, cool(er) air and the chance to experience the rather incongruous colonial English ‘village’.

Your climb to the top of Penang Hill will be rewarded with some stunning views of Georgetown and the mainland beyond.

Your climb to the top of Penang Hill will be rewarded with some stunning views.

Batu Ferringhi beaches
No one is going to pretend that Penang has the best beaches in Southeast Asia, but if all you need of is a sniff of salt air, sand beneath your feet and the chance to catch a few rays of sun, then you could do a lot worse than head down to Batu Ferringhi. The quieter part of the beach is at the northern end, in front of the upmarket Rasa Sayang resort, but most people head further south, just past the Holiday Inn and Park Royal resort, where you can also pick up cheap eats and drinks at the beach bars and cafes.

Penang's beaches may not be the best in the region, but Turtle Beach in the National Park ain't half bad.

Turtle Beach in the national park ain’t half bad.

Little India
The area centred around the Lebuh Pasar and Lebuh King is known as Little India, and when exploring these streets it is quite possible to imagine that you have left Penang far behind and landed up in South Asia. The sights, sounds and smells immediately conjure up India, from colourful saris shops, sandalwood incense and delicious-smelling curries, to bright Tamil shop signs, roadside samosas and banging Bollywood music. If you take your time and stop, take things in and explore the shops and stalls, you could quite easily spend a couple of hours here.

Little India is alive with sights and smells, and banging Bollywood music.

Little India is alive with sights and smells, and banging Bollywood music.

National park
If you fancy a spot of jungle trekking, there is no need to head over to Borneo or even to leave the island. Penang’s National Park, small but perfectly formed, provides a good mix of secondary rainforest, bird and butterfly spotting and the island’s most unspoilt, picturesque beaches. Entry to the park is free and there are two main trails, leading to Monkey Beach and Turtle Beach respectively. The latter is the more difficult and demanding of the two, featuring some steep climbs, but you can cool off in the sea at the other end. Pack a picnic and make a day of it.

Penang's National Park is small but perfectly formed.

Penang’s National Park is small but perfectly formed.

Last updated: 29th August, 2014


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