If there's a more thrilling cocktail of Asian cultures than in Penang, we've yet to find it. Penang has long served as the link between Asia’s great kingdoms and an important outlet to the markets of Europe and Western Asia. At its heart is diverse, cosmopolitan George Town, Penang Island's main city and an urban centre that delivers old-world Asia in spades, from trishaws pedalling past watermarked Chinese shophouses to blue joss smoke perfuming the air. The freshest aspects of modern culture are present, too, in the exceptional art scene and free-spirited carnivals, all fed by an infectious local enthusiasm for Penang's long history and kaleidoscope of cultures.
If you can tear yourself away, the rest of the island is rich in palm-fringed beaches and fishing villages, mountainous jungle and farms growing nutmeg and durian.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Penang.
The most photographed building in George Town, this magnificent 38-room, 220-window mansion was built in the 1880s and rescued from ruin in the 1990s. Today a lavish, antique-filled hotel, its distinctive blue-hued exterior is the result of an indigo-based limewash. Slightly theatrical hour-long guided tours (included in the admission fee) explain the building's feng shui and unique features, and relate stories about Cheong Fatt Tze, the rags-to-riches Hakka merchant-trader who commissioned the mansion for his seventh (and favourite) wife.
At 23 sq km, this is Malaysia's smallest national park, but it's beach-fringed forests are home to silvered leaf monkeys, flying lemurs, leopard cats and abundant bird, amphibian and reptile species. You can easily fill a day with activities such as jungle walks and boat trips to serene golden-sand beaches. Bus 101 runs here from central George Town. From the park entrance, a return boat trip should cost RM100 to Teluk Duyung (Monkey Beach), RM200 to Pantai Kerachut and RM220 to Teluk Kampi.
Facing a beautiful white-sand beach on the 101 bus route, this beautifully landscaped oasis preserves 500 species of tropical flora, spread across 200 fragrant hectares. Armed with an audio guide (included with admission), you can wander independently among lily ponds and terraced gardens, learning about local spices, medicinal plants and deadly natural poisons. Alternatively, join one of three daily guided tours (9am, 11am and 1.30pm). The garden also offers well-regarded cooking courses and superior Thai restaurant Tree Monkey.
Lovingly restored, this ostentatious, mint-green structure was one of the most stunning private residences in George Town. Every door, wall and archway is carved and gilded, and the grand rooms are furnished with majestic wooden furniture featuring intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. There are displays of antiques, table settings and fascinating B&W photos of the former owners in regal Chinese dress. The house belonged to Chung Keng Quee, a 19th-century merchant, clan leader and community pillar.
Malaysia's largest Buddhist temple is a colourful explosion of statues, pagodas and pavilions, cascading down a hillside in Air Itam, around 8km from the centre of George Town. The original temple was built between 1890 and 1905, but subsequent worshippers have created a virtual city of temples, shrines and gardens. A funicular climbs to the floral, seven-tiered Ban Po Thar pagoda and an awesome 36.5m-high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy.
The most spectacular clanhouse in George Town, Khoo Kongsi is an explosion of colour. Intricate ceramic mosaics of immortals, carp and dragons dance across the roof ridges, while the gilded beams inside crawl with real and mythical beasts, and antique lanterns sway in the space below. The interior walls feature delicate friezes depicting legendary wedding and birthday celebrations and the 36 celestial guardians. On the last Saturday of each month, entrance is free from 6.30pm to 9pm.
Dedicated to Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, this temple is the liveliest place of worship in George Town. The current temple was built in the early 19th century by Hokkien and Cantonese settlers, and it's a hive of activity from early in the morning, as devotees gather to burn paper money for their ancestors, light giant incense sticks adorned with dragons and investigate their future prospects through fortune-telling activities such as throwing numbered sticks known as kau chim.
Bordering one of Penang's two virgin rainforest reserves, the spine of this fantastic addition to the Penang Hill experience is a finely crafted 1.6km nature trail. Along it you can access suspended walkways (thrillingly high up in the canopy) and pocket gardens featuring different species of tropical plants. You can explore on your own, but you'll learn more by joining one of the guided tours; ask ahead about night walks and tours aimed at children.
If you don't know your Lat from your Tezuka Osamu, then this is the place to become more closely acquainted with the dynamic work of comic-book artists from across the region. Kids and not a few adults will love this remarkable collection from nine Asian countries, including Malaysia, China, Japan and South Korea. There's a good gift shop, too.