Georgetown is such a vibrant city, full of culture and beautiful architecture. I promise, I did more there than hunt for street art and eat food in cafes! For example...
I walked around the historic district for hours each day, taking in the sights and sounds of the streets. The old shophouses, mostly restored, retain their gorgeous and distinct colors.
Trishaw drivers pedal tourists around town, though this has become more of a novelty than a practical way to get to destinations. They are almost as expensive as cabs, a far cry from the cheap fares in Cambodia. The drivers are mostly old uncles rather than the sprightly young men we encountered in Phnom Penh - it's impressive that they have so much energy!
Whenever I travel to a new place I always look for secondhand bookshops. Usually the shops have a unique and cheap collection of interesting books. Georgetown's Chowrasta Market has many of these shops located on the second floor. Look at these massive piles of books, all bound together with string to keep them from tumbling down in a cascade. It takes a lot of patience to go through all the outdated textbooks and mass-produced romance novels, but I managed to find some good reads!
One of the highlights of the trip was touring the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, a beautiful and historically significant restored house that now functions as a landmark and upscale hotel.
The house was built by Cheong Fatt Sze, a successful Chinese immigrant and businessman. It was used as the filming site for the award-winning film Indochine.
Tours are conducted three times a day in Mandarin and English, and the guides are quite knowledgeable about the history and the architecture of the house. I highly recommend it if you have the time, and it's a nice way to spend a hot afternoon indoors.
Fort Cornwallis was also on my list of things I wanted to do in Penang. It's a star-shaped fort located near the water, and makes for a nice walk when combined with the other old colonial buildings in the area. By itself though, it was a bit underwhelming. Not many of the original structures remain, so it's mostly a flat grassy area with some plaques describing the history of the place.
One thing I noticed on my walks throughout the town is that there are so many religious sites. One street is called the street of "religious harmony," because along that short way there is a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, and two Christian churches of different sects. It's so nice to see this diversity in such a dense and small place.
Lastly, Penang Hill makes for a nice half-day outing. It's a bit far from the Georgetown area, so you definitely want to catch a cab or a public bus if you are on a budget. One bus, which I took, drives from the jetty area all the way to the hill in about 40 minutes, and it takes a nice winding route around different neighborhoods of Penang.
The hill is a very tall hill indeed! There is a funicular train which goes up the hill; roundtrip is 30 MYR for visitors. The ride takes about 10 minutes, during which you are going up the side of the hill at about a 60 degrees angle to the ground. It's quite steep and your ears might pop like mine did!
The view at the top is gorgeous, about a kilometer above sea level. Another bonus is that the temperature is much cooler at the top of the hill.
Besides the nice views, there isn't too much to do on top of the hill. There is a nice food court, a quirky-looking Owl Museum, a playground for kids, and you can also take a buggy ride around some of the paths. Still, it's a nice way to spend a few hours in a semi-natural setting.
I'm really glad I got to visit Penang - it was one of the last places I haven't visited that was on my list. It's not a major tourist destination in Southeast Asia (it has neither exciting nightlife nor beautiful beaches), but it has a lot of understated charm which I think would appeal to many types of visitors. It's not as big or chaotic as Kuala Lumpur; it's larger and has more diverse activities than Malacca. Additionally, Georgetown itself is only one part of the larger island of Penang, which does have beaches, water sports, and fishing villages.
If you are ever in the region, you should go have a look for yourself!