Penang is a state in Malaysia that includes the island of Penang and the strip of adjacent land on the peninsula. For most visitors when they say they are going to Penang they mean they are going to Georgetown, on the northeast tip of Penang island (Pulau Pinang).
[Georgetown in relation to Pulau Pinang and the state of Penang.]
The island of Penang is quite diverse in terms of activities for visitors, but if you’re a first-timer you should stay in the historic area of Georgetown itself. This former British Straits Settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the highlights of a trip to Southeast Asia. This guide for where to stay in the Georgetown area.
The traditional way to arrive in Penang is by the car and pedestrian ferry from Butterworth. The train from KL terminates here, and minivans from southern Thailand often take the ferry at this point. The Butterworth ferry takes you to Georgetown, and you can walk from the ferry terminal to the historic area.
UNESCO George Town is broken up into two zones; the core zone, which is the very northeast tip of the island, and the buffer zone, which is the area immediately surrounding that.
I have personally spent a few months in Georgetown and I always prefer to stay within this area. Georgetown also extends beyond this UNESCO designated zone, and if you end up staying outside this section it isn’t too big a deal as long as you can walk to the old area.
For now Georgetown remains good value for budget backpackers, and prices haven’t exploded like, for example, the UNESCO listed Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Accommodation inside the fort area has grown out of line with normal prices in the rest of Sri Lanka.
So if you’re ready to start your search, book in the Georgetown area.
To get an idea of what sort of accommodation is available and the areas within Georgetown, read on.
Backpackers – Hostels and cheap guesthouses
For backpackers the place to go is Chulia Street, which is the main thoroughfare of the historic area. While it’s nowhere near as lively as Khao San Rd in Bangkok, there are a number of bars along here and travel agencies catering for backpackers. Back in the day before the internet was a thing loads of minivans from Southern Thailand would disgorge their daily load of backpackers on Chulia St, and you would then walk door-to-door looking for a cheap place to stay.
The backpacker ground-zero is the corner of Chulia Street and Love Lane (look for the 7-11 on the corner). There are guesthouses on Love Lane and Lebuh Muntri, which runs parallel to Chulia Street. At night Love Lane turns into a bar street and is quite lively by Penang standards.
There are still a few of the old-school flophouses on the street where you can walk in and get a basic box room, but these days it is better to book something in advance to save the hassle of walking around.
Some of the guesthouses that don’t have online booking are Star Lodge and 75 Traveller’s Lodge on Lebuh Muntri. You will have better luck getting a room in these walk-in places if you are arriving in the morning.
If you are just looking for a cheap private room then places like Just Inn are ideal. Usually the rooms are thin partitioned walls with no window, and a shared bathroom. It’s basic, but for a backpacker the private space is a welcome relief from dorm rooms.
If you prefer to make you Georgetown stay more memorable there a number of budget hostels and guesthouses in beautiful heritage buildings.
Campbell Antique Hotel features fittings and decorations that are distinctly Georgetown.
ST Hostel Georgetown is a guesthouse with private rooms and looks more like a boutique hotel than a guesthouse.
Old Penang Guest House is in a restored building and has dorms and private rooms.
As most of Georgetown is restricted by what can be built you won’t see big box hotels in this part of town. In the 3-4 Star category there are lots of interesting boutique hotels set in restored heritage buildings.
Some of the highly rated 3-Star hotels include:
The Southern Boutique Hotel occupies a row of shophouses that has been restored and made into one beautiful property.
If you prefer bigger hotels they are on the perimeter of the old town protected area.
On of the bigger hotels is Loop On Leith. This trendy and stylish boutique hotel opened in 2019 in a freshly refurbished building on Lebuh Leith.
One of the best examples of a shophouse restoration project is the Areca Hotel Penang. The entire row of shophouses on Jalan Khoo Sian Ewe have been saved from ruin and converted into this 4-Star boutique hotel.
The best big hotel 4-Star option is Hotel Jen Penang By Shangri-La (formerly Traders Hotel Penang). This is next to the KOMTAR Tower (the tallest building in Penang).
Some of the best rated 4-Star hotels include:
Luxury 5-Star Hotels
For a luxury hotel experience in Georgetown the Eastern And Oriental Hotel is the most iconic. The E & O was established in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers, a family that established luxury hotels across Southeast Asia, including Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel. In the 1920s the hotel was known as ‘The Premier Hotel East of Suez’. Famous guests who have visited over the years include Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, Sir Noël Coward, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Michael Jackson.
For visitors to Penang most of the places of interest lie on the north coast. The area in the middle of the island is mostly residential and industrial and is of little interest for tourists. The points of interest can be visited on day trips.
Just outside the historic area is Gurney Drive, which is popular with expats living in Penang. The drive is on the coast facing a muddy bay that is being reclaimed and tuned into a park and new urban area. Depending on how the development turns out, this may become a new tourism hotspot.
Gurney Drive used to be lined with mansions, though today only a few of those remain and it’s now home to luxury towers. At the end of Gurney Drive is the excellent Gurney Night Market, which as a good variety of the food that makes Penang famous. There are some big malls along here as well.
[Gurney Night Market.]
The other hotel hotspot of Penang is at Batu Ferringhi, on the northern tip of the island. Most of the hotels are around Batu Ferringhi beach. The beach here is not comparable to, say, Langkawi or Southern Thailand, but it will suffice if you are in need of a beach fix.
[Batu Ferringhi Beach.]
Budget accommodation isn’t good value here compared to Georgetown. Batu Ferringhi is more popular for visitors staying at the resorts, which are bigger than anything on offer in Georgetown.
For a luxury hotel experience Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa Penang is the highlight of the area. It’s set on a large property at the end of the beach with colonial-era trees among the swimming pools. Here is my review of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa
[Pool at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa Penang.]
Batu Ferringhi is good if you’ve already spent time in old Georgetown, otherwise it’s too far away to be useful. Another option would be to stay in Georgetown first, and then add a beach break at the end of the trip. This is especially appealing if you are about to head back to somewhere cold.