History, culture, sights and smells
Without doubt, a wander through the streets of Penang’s UNESCO heritage zone should be top of any visitors to-do list.
You’ll experience Georgetown’s mixture of cultures and faiths, customs and traditions, smells and sights, and along with the historical architecture, there’s galleries, boutiques, street art and if you get hungry, some excellent eateries along the way.
Somewhat confusingly streets may be marked with the official name, but often referred to by former labels (we’ve used the formal name you will see on the street signs). As you stroll, take note of the blue signage explaining a little of the history of the street and its appellation. This tour could easily fill a day and if you have the time, you may wish to split it over a couple of days, or if on a tight schedule, consider hiring a bicycle or rickshaw to zip around the highlights.
One of the most atmospheric and photogenic parts of Georgetown is the area centred around Lebuh Armenian where the narrow streets still conjure a sense of old Penang. We’ll start our walking tour here at the Cheah Kongsi. Penang’s Kongsi, or Chinese clan houses have played an integral role in shaping the story of city, established as a place to honour ancestral spirits for the members of a particular clan or people who simply share the same surname, as well, they provided support for newcomers and promoted shared business interests.
The money lavished on such Kongsi during the 19th century was not only for the benefit of the ancestral spirits, but also a very public display of wealth and power. The Chinese community at this time was made up of a mixture of different dialect groups and clans, and there was huge competition for business, including shipping and banking, as well as for control of tobacco, alcohol, opium, prostitution and gambling. Gang rivalry between the various clans became commonplace as a means of asserting control over lucrative business contracts. In 1867, when a nine-day riot broke out between the various factions, there was full-scale war on the streets of Georgetown and at this time, the Kongsi became strongholds for their clan members.
The Cheah Kongsi had considerable influence and as one of the dominant clans in Penang, it is no surprise that the Cheahs also built one of the grandest buildings to act as its headquarters. Look for the elaborate gilt and carved archway at the Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) end of Lebuh Armenian, but if the gate is shut, pop around the corner to Lebuh Pantai where you can have a decent view of the very British-style grounds and the Kongsi from afar.
You may have to fight the multitudes at this corner as this is the locale for Penang’s most photographed piece of street art. Commissioned by the Georgetown Festival in 2012, Lithuanian-born artist and Penang resident, Ernest Zacharevic set about painting a series of murals, known as “Mirrors Georgetown”. The realistic depictions of the town’s street life have gained attention far and wide and are one of Penang’s most popular attractions. The artist incorporates three-dimensional objects into some of his work, and the life-size depictions of two children on a real bike is what draws the throngs of selfie sticks here. If you are keen on an art treasure hunt, pick up a “Marking Georgetown” map from Penang Global Tourism with all the city’s “official” street art identified.
Nearby on Lebuh Armenian, look for the small shopfront of one of Georgetown’s traditional tradesman, Nyonya Beaded Shoes. These intricate hand-beaded slippers can take three months to make. Keep your eyes peeled for other traditional trades and you may see joss stick makers, signboard engravers and rattan weavers, among others.
As you walk along the street, look to your left for the narrow and easily missed entrance to Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple, a mixed Hokkien Kongsi. This was once the headquarters of one of Penang’s most notorious secret societies involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, gang wars fought in the surrounding streets—look for the (now bricked up) hidden passages leading to the neighbouring Khoo Kongsi and to shophouses in Lebuh Armenian, discovered during renovations.
Once you reach the corner turn left into Lebuh Cannon, and 50 metres down, a nondescript lane is the gateway to the finest, most lavishly decorated and quite deservedly, the most celebrated of all Georgetown’s clan houses, Khoo Kongsi. It is well worth paying the ten ringgit entrance fee in order to marvel at the astonishing embellishment and decoration, which covers just about every inch of the temple. It is said that Lebuh Cannon earned its name because this is the area the Khoos fired cannons at their enemies, across Georgetown’s rooftops during the 19th century riots. These days, the Khoo Kongsi bears no obvious scars from those violent days, but it is fascinating to think of the role that Georgetown’s clan houses played in the Chinese community at that time, and really helps to bring these buildings to life.
At the end of the street, the butter yellow minaret of Acheen Street Mosque towers above the shophouses. This historical mosque is the centre of the local Malay community and in the 19th century served as a meeting point for Haji pilgrims from across the archipelago. See if you can spot the alleged cannonball damage from the Penang Riots (we couldn’t).
Cross the road and backtrack along Lebuh Cannon, you’ll meet more of the selfie stick crowd snapping away at the “boy on a chair”, another of Ernest Zacharevic’s street artworks.
At the junction of Lebuh Armenian, Yap Kongsi is reminiscent of some of Penang’s later shophouses and its neighbouring temple, Choo Chay Keong a blaze of swirling dragons are chalk and cheese when it comes to architectural styles.
Here you can continue straight along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling to the Kapitan Keling Mosque or detour left at Lebuh Armenian to the Sun Yet Sen Museum, this beautifully renovated shophouse was once the Penang headquarters of Dr Sun Yet Sen, leader of the Chinese republican revolution. Although historically important in changing China’s political structure, the museum itself is small with not much to see. If this period of Asian history is of interest, The Sun Yat Sen Heritage Trail begins here and links several sites associated with the man and his supporters—pick up a map from Penang Heritage Trust.
A few doors down opposite the pretty green square of Armenia Park, the Syed Al-Attas Mansion is a fine example of Muslim civic architecture, although under renovation at the time of research. Syed Al-Attas was a wealthy Achenese merchant, and leader of the “Red Flag” secret society at the time of the Penang riots.
You may wish to drop in to The Penang Heritage Centre at Georgetown World Heritage Inc around the corner at the junction of Lebuh Acheh and Lebuh Carnarvon to pick up a brochure or two or register for one of their free monthly tours.
Loop around Lebuh Carnarvon to Jalan Kampung Kloam, and in the forecourt of the Ar Raudhah Suites and Hotel you will pass the family mausoleum of Caudeer Mohudeen who was the Kapitan Keling—literally, Captain of the South Indians and the founder of the Tamil Muslim community’s Kapitan Keling Mosque which you will visit shortly. At the junction turn left into Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling otherwise known as the “Street of Harmony”, as this stretch of road draws together the town’s four main religions. Continue straight for a quick, easy tour of Penang’s different communities or follow our route for a more in-depth jaunt around the sites.
Ahead on the corner of Lebuh Buckingham the minaret and domes of the imposing Kapitan Keling Mosque appear above the rooftops. The building is a curious mix of styles, combining colonial architecture with traditional Moorish arches, and its interior features a fantastic crystal chandelier and calligraphy panels. Informal tours are available, but remember to remove your shoes and dress appropriately (robes are provided).
Continue to the next junction and turn right into Lebuh Chulia, on your right is the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, Penang’s Teochew Kongsi. Impressive gold-helmeted door gods and simple, but expertly crafted, decorations and carvings make this one of the most understated yet most beautiful of Georgetown’s clan houses.
Almost directly ahead on Lebuh Queen you will see the flamboyant and colourful Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple on the island. We will now venture into the heart of Little India, but before we continue, take a glance down Lebuh Chulia to the next corner and behold the striking green and white shrine, Nagore Dargha Sheriff, built to honour the 13th century Tamil Muslim Saint, Syed Shahul Hamid.
Take a wander down Lebuh Queen, and if Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is open (mornings and evenings only), remove your footwear for a perambulation. Back on the street, as the intoxicating sandalwood scents drift out of the shops and mingle with delicate spices from the roadside snack stalls, Bollywood music blares, and bright saris and bling catch the eye, you are whisked over half a continent away to the streets of South Asia—Little India is a feast for the senses. It goes without saying that if you are craving Indian food, this is the place to come. Try a piping hot and fragrantly spiced samosa from the stall just down from the temple on the corner of Lebuh Pasar or sample a calorific overload of sugar and e-numbers from one of Indian sweet shops. Take your time to meander around the area, and then head to Lebuh King (turn right from Lebuh Queen into Lebuh Pasar, then left into Lebuh King). Near the corner of Lebuh Gereja (Church Street), look to the rooftops where an impressive row of Cantonese Kongsi spits flames towards the heavens.
Turn right into Lebuh Gereja and make a detour to minty green Pinang Peranakan Mansion. You’ll really want to spend a bit of time here, so make sure you’re not hungry (you might want to head back to Little India). This fascinating museum dedicated to Baba-Nyonya culture unique to the Straits settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, showcases a mind-boggling collection of artefacts in a huge and impeccably restored mansion, the former residence of one of Penang’s secret society leaders. You could easily spend a couple of hours here, and make sure you take a guided tour to bring the museum to life.
Backtrack along Lebuh Gereja and turn left into Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, tucked away near the corner or the next block on the right side of the road is the spiritual centre of the Chinese community and another of Penang’s best-known landmarks, the Goddess of Mercy Temple. You will smell it before you see it, thanks to an array of giant pink smoking joss sticks in the forecourt. Across from the temple is a small Hindu shrine and it is testament to Penang’s multicultural diversity that you will see both Indians and Chinese standing in front to make prayers.
A stroll down the side of the temple, along Lorong Stewart and its narrow side streets, reveals a real taste of Chinese Penang. The atmosphere around the area’s bustling stalls and shops, full to the brim with oils, joss sticks, flowers and other temple offerings, seems to have changed little since the settlement’s earliest days.
If the sun is over the yard arm make another small detour here, turning left into Lorong Muda and right into Lorong Pasar where you’ll find one of Penang’s original speakeasies—Kedai Tuak (or toddy shop) with fresh tangy palm wine daily, naturally fermented from the sap of coconut flowers. Note the metal rod sculpture on the wall outside—“the wrong tree” by local cartoonist Tang Mun Kian depicting the collector climbing an areca palm (betelnut), known locally as “pinang”, for which Penang itself is named—not a coconut, hence “the wrong tree”.
Continue along Lorong Stewart, and look for the Indian boatman mural before the street changes name to Lebuh Muntri after it crosses Lorong Love (Love Lane). This neighbourhood is graced with dozens of charming examples of 19th century shophouse, many converted into stylish cafes, bars and guesthouses, a pleasant quarter to while away an hour or two. For photography aficionados, The Camera Museum on Lebuh Muntri may be of interest, although it doesn’t have much to do with the history of Penang, it’s one of Georgetown’s better private museums. Towards the end of Lebuh Muntri is the Hainanese Temple with an extensively carved stonework entrance and facade, a beautiful and often overlooked Kongsi worth a quick visit.
Turn right into Lebuh Leith, formerly the millionaire’s row of the Hakka Chinese with mansions lining the street, the most famous, the Blue Mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze. Join one of the three daily tours at this UNESCO award winning mansion, or if you’re cashed up, book yourself a room! On the other side of the road, some contemporary restorations worth noting are the erstwhile stables, now Georgetown Wines and the sensitive facelift of The Edison boutique hotel.
At the next junction, turn left into Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. We are now heading to Georgetown’s British colonial district, but before, stretch you neck down Jalan Penang to see the chartreuse-coloured Segara Ninda, a late 19th century bungalow once owned by the King of Satun, Thailand.
Along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, the frangipani filled Protestant Cemetery is a poignant monument to many of Penang’s early residents including Francis Light, the first British Governor. Depending on the hour, a spot of (very British) afternoon tea may be in order, so hotfoot it to the very grand Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Lebuh Fraquhar, the quickest route via the pedestrian thoroughfare, Upper Penang Road where you’ll pass the wonderful Art Deco garage on the corner. The E&O was built by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, later famous for Singapore’s Raffles and The Strand in Burma, and has hosted the glitterati of literary and entertainment worlds.
Once you’ve had your fill of cucumber sandwiches and scones, return to Lebuh Farquhar and walk east passing the Church of Assumption, Penang’s first Catholic Church and Penang Museum, originally built as a school—both under renovation at the time of research, the Supreme Court will be on your left, and opposite on the corner of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, picturesque St George’s Church, the oldest purpose-built Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, surrounded by green lawn and shaded by an ancient mahogany tree.
Cross the (busy) road and follow Lebuh Light, a stroll down Jalan Padang Kota Lama will take you past the Town Hall and the City Hall or continue along Lebuh Light with Fort Cornwallis on your left. Stop for a coffee break at Constant Gardener, and if you can’t get enough of the mansions of early Chinese tycoons, pop around the corner at Lebuh Penang to visit the House of Yeap Chor Ee, more museum-like than evocative of a residence.
Imposing Fort Cornwallis marks the beginnings of Penang as a British colony—history buffs may want to take a tour of this historic fort, and others may be content to circumnavigate its perimeter. At the crossroad admire the Queen Vitoria Clocktower presented on the monarch’s 60th jubilee, before turning right into Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) with a whole host of colonial architecture to behold, predominated by financial institutions at the northern end, but note the Whiteways Arcade on your right, originally a British department store, and now housing Penang Global Tourism, the place for maps and local info.
On the opposite side, noteworthy buildings include India House, The Georgetown Dispensary and the striking red and white central fire station, still rescuing kittens and dousing flames since 1906. If the number two most popular piece of street art is on your agenda, turn right into Lebuh Ah Queen to see the Old Motorcycle, in much the same vein as the Kids on a Bike with a tangible motorcycle and painted rider.
If we haven’t tired you out yet, turn down Gat Lebuh Chulia (with the fire station on the corner), and peer over the fence at Yeoh Kongsi (under renovation, but the friendly caretaker may let you in—at your own risk). The Yeoh’s are one of Penang’s “big five” powerful Hokkien clans and we’re sure their Kongsi will be as impressive as the other big five once the renovations are complete.
Turn right into Lebuh Victoria for a little retail therapy—check out Timura for quirky Penang themed gifts or head into a branch of Bon Ton for Asian inspired gifts and fashion on the second floor of the China House labyrinth, but be warned the cornucopia of cakes at Kopi C and the fabulous V & S bar may distract.
Cat lovers will want to turn right into Gat Lebuh Armenian to fill their Instagram feed with the three cat themed street art projects here. You may wish to end your tour here, almost a full circle around Penang’s UNESCO heritage zone, but just when you though you had explored every last corner of Georgetown and walked all of its historical streets, you might be pleased to learn that there is, quite literally, a whole new side of town waiting to be discovered. Beyond the shoreline that runs along Pengkalan Weld, just a block down from Lebuh Victoria, Penang’s other-worldly clan jetties jut out over the tidal mud flats and seem to exist in a completely different time and dimension.
The approach to the jetties is not all that inviting and involves crossing one of Georgetown’s busiest roads—look for the one pedestrian crossing and cross your fingers that the drivers take note. Each of the eight jetties has quite a different personality, some tourist traps to be avoided and others a little more interesting offering a real taste of everyday life on what is, in effect, a mini village on stilts.
Remember that the jetties are living communities and not just a tourist attraction. If you wield your camera too obviously or too freely, you may risk offending the locals. Occasional free night tours of the jetties are run as part of LFSS (Last Friday Saturday Sunday of the Month) or contact Penang Heritage Trust for private tours.
Acheen Street Mosque: Jalan Lebuh Acheh, Georgetown
Bon Ton @ China House: 153 & 155 Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), 183B Lebuh Victoria, Georgetown; T: (0426) 37 299; http://www.chinahouse.com.my
Camera Museum: 49 Jalan Muntri, Georgetown; T: (0426) 13 649; https://www.facebook.com/PenangCameraMuseum/; Mo–Su: 09:00–18:45
Cheah Kongsi: Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), Georgetown; T: (0426) 13 837; http://cheahkongsi.com; Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion: 14 Lebuh Leith, Georgetown; T: (0426) 20 006; Tours daily: 11:00, 14:00 and 15:30; http://www.cheongfatttzemansion.com
Church of Assumption: 3 Lebuh Farquhar, Georgetown; http://assumptionchurchpenang.org
Clan Jetties: Pengkalan Weld, Georgetown
Constant Gardener: 9-11 Lebuh Light (Chinese Chamber of Commerce Building), Georgetown; T: (0425) 19 070; http://constantgardener.coffee; Tu–Su: 09:00–24:00
Eastern and Oriental Hotel: 10 Lebuh Farquhar, Georgetown; T: (0422) 22 000; http://www.eohotels.com/
Fire Staton: Cnr Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and Gat Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown
Fort Cornwallis: Lebuh Light, Georgetown; Mo–Su: 09:00 to 22:00
Georgetown Dispensary: Cnr Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and Gat Lebuh China, Georgetown
Georgetown Wines: 19-19A Lebuh Leith, Georgetown; T: (0426) 21 011; https://www.facebook.com/penangwines/; We–Mo: 18:00-01:00
George Town World Heritage Incorporated: 116-118 Lebuh Acheh, Georgetown; T: (0426) 16 606; http://gtwhi.com.my; Mo–Th: 08:00–13:00, 14:00–17:00; Fr: 08:00–12:15, 14:45–17:00
Goddess of Mercy Temple: Cnr Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and Lorong Stewart, Georgetown
Han Jiang Ancestral Temple: Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown (in front of Lebuh Queen)
Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple: 57 Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown; http://www.hokkienkongsipenang.com/
House of Yeap Chor Ee: 4, Lebuh Penang, Georgetown; T: (0426) 10 190; http://houseyce.com
India House: Cnr Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and Gat Lebuh Gereja, Georgetown
Kapitan Keling’s (Caudeer Mohudeen’s) Mausoleum (Makam Ma’Amah): Jalan Kampung Kolam, Georgetown
Kapitan Keling Mosque: Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, Georgetown
Kedai Tuak (traditional toddy shop): Lorong Pasar, Georgetown; Mo–Su: 09:00–21:00
Khoo Kongsi: 18 Medan Cannon, Georgetown; T: (0426) 14 609; http://www.khookongsi.com.my
King Street Temples: 30–40 Lebuh King, Georgetown
LFSS (Last Friday Saturday Sunday): https://www.facebook.com/LFSSPenang/
Nagore Dargha Sheriff: Cnr Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh King, Georgetown
Nyonya Beaded Shoes: 4 Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown; T: (0164) 543 075; Mo–Sa: 08:00–18:00
Penang Global Tourism: 8B The Whiteaways Arcade, Lebuh Pantai, Georgetown; T: (0426) 31 166; (0426) 043 456; http://www.mypenang.gov.my; Mo–Fr: 09:00–17:00, Sa: 09:00–15:00, Su: 09:00–13:00
Penang Heritage Trust: 26 Lebuh Gereja, Georgetown; T: (0426) 42 631; http://www.pht.org.my; Mo–Fr: 08:30–17:30
Penang Museum: Lebuh Farquhar, Georgetown
Pinang Peranakan Mansion: 29 Lebuh Gereja (Church Street), Georgetown; T: (0426) 42 929; http://www.pinangperanakanmansion.com.my/; Mo–Su: 09:30–17:00
Protestant Cemetery: Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Georgetown
St George’s Church: 1 Lebuh Farquhar, Georgetown; T: (0426) 12 739; http://stgeopg.org/wp/
Samosa stall: 45 Lebuh Queen, Mo–Su: 09:00–18:00
Segara Ninda: 20 Jalan Penang, Georgetown; T: (0426) 28 748; http://www.segaraninda.com
Sri Maha Mariamman Temple: Lebuh Queen, Georgetown (Little India)
Sun Yet Sen Museum: 120 Armenian Street, Georgetown; T: (0164) 428 785, (0426) 20 123; http://sunyatsenpenang.com; Tu–Sa: 09:00–17:00, Su: 13:00–17:00
Syed Alatas Mansion: 128 Armenian Street, Georgetown
The Edison: 15 Lebuh Leith, Georgetown; T: (0426) 22 990; http://theedisonhotels.com
Timura: 174, Lebuh Victoria, Georgetown; 0 12-470 3815; http://www.timura.co; Mo–Th 10:00–19:00, Fr–Sa: 10:00–22:00
Yap Kongsi: Corner of Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Cannon, Georgetown
Yeoh Kongsi: 3 Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Penang