Penang is famous for its food, but not so much as a family-friendly location per se. I think it depends on what you consider ‘family-friendly’ – do you need high chairs? Clean public toilets? Playgrounds? Amusement parks? Stroller friendly pavements? Because we traveled with a 7-year old and a 4-year old and had a really nice time exploring around. We never had any trouble with food except on a day we got caught unaware by a public holiday and most food outlets were closed.
We didn’t do all the typical touristy things or tick all the famous foods off our list, but still had a really good time on a decent budget.
Tip: Don’t buy tickets for the Hop On Hop Off bus, because you can ride on the CAT shuttle bus for free, and it goes to a large number of places as well. It’s so convenient that even locals hop on board. See the routes here. If you don’t have a plan, you could simply hop on the bus and get off whenever you spot something that interests you.
Here’s what we did, spread over 3 days, at a really leisurely pace (meaning that we even had time for afternoon naps at the hotel).
Starting off the day at the clan jetties proved to be an excellent idea. Our intention was to beat the heat, but that also allowed us to get ahead of a bus load of tourists. Following the flow of traffic on Pengkalan Weld, the first clan you’ll see is the Lim clan. It’s gorgeous and peaceful and we loved it. We really got to see how people lived and were mindful about respecting their personal space.
Chew Jetty is supposedly the most ‘tourist friendly’, and we found out that it simply meant that there were souvenir shops available. I was disappointed to find out that most of the shop owners simply rented the space, and were not residents. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience and even our little ones enjoyed the morning. Find out more about Chew Jetty here.
Cost: Free (unless you shop, or eat at the jetties. There are little eateries on the jetties, as well as on land).
FERRY TO BUTTERWORTH
Pretty much right next to the start of the Clan Jetties is the Raja Tun Uda Ferry Terminal. It’s kind of hidden behind the bus terminus where you’ll see lots of Rapid Penang buses.
Taking the ferry from Penang to Butterworth is free, and you only pay on your journey back. Butterworth is known as ‘the mainland’ (since Penang is the island), and it looked pretty much like an industrial town so we didn’t have any plans to hop off for a visit.
The ferry itself has limited seating and if you’re not among the first to get on, then your chances of sitting on a tiny bench are slim. However, the cool thing about this ferry is that it is a double decked one, and while the upper deck is for passengers, the lower deck ferries vehicles. Once the ferry took off, we went down to the cars and hung out there. We counted about 30-odd cars and a further 20 or so motorbikes!
The ride is only about 15-20 minutes, and quite an experience for all, even the little ones. Take note though, that while you’re allowed to be down with the cars on the ride, please be sure to go back up to the upper deck when you disembark, because you can’t simply stay on for the ride back. Everyone disembarks, and if you’re on the lower deck with the cars, you’ll have to go on a half-hour hike (not fun under the blazing sun, I assure you) outside the ferry terminal just to get back in again. If you get off from the passenger level though, it is simply a 5 minute U-turn to get tickets (you’ll exchange your fare for ‘shillings’ to put into a turnstile).
Cost: RM1.20 for adults, RM0.60 for children (though our 4-year old was waved through without having to pay)
TEOCHEW PUPPET AND OPERA HOUSE
122 Lebuh Armenien
This is a real life puppet and opera house where you can try your hand at handling the puppets (for those 10 and above only, because the puppets can get quite heavy!), and try on the opera costumes and props.
Our kids really really enjoyed fighting with the weapons (props! props!) and we learnt so much. Did you know that red beards were only for bad guys in Teochew Opera? And that puppets were divided into 4 groups – men, ladies, bad guys and funny guys?
I took the chance to try on a costume – apparently I was wearing the costume of a queen. If you ever saw a wayang (opera) performance as a kid, you probably would have tried on your dad’s shirts and waved the sleeves around going ‘chiang chiang chiang chiang chiang’. That was fun to do, even as an adult. But I lasted only 10 minutes in the robes – it was really hot and the headgear was really heavy! Imagine, the actors having to dress up with full face make up painted on for performances!
You could do that too, have your face painted and be decked out in full gear. I think they mentioned it costs something like RM250. They hold shows regularly as well. Check out their Facebook page for details.
Not a big place, and to be honest, a tad bit creepy, but an interesting experience. By the way, the signboard doesn’t say Teochew Puppet and Opera House. If not for the standing banner, we would have missed it completely. Look out for this house; it’s facing a big basketball court on the quieter side of Armenian Street (it’s a little lane)
Cost: RM10 for all non local visitors (free for our 4-year old)
PADANG KOTA LAMA
We ended the day by hanging out at the Esplanade Park (Padang Kota Lama) near Fort Cornwallis just to enjoy a little quiet. It’s not a big park but after a long day of walking with lots of crazy traffic everywhere, the big open field was a nice thing to look at. There’s a little playground there with swings and a climbing structure, which is a nice way to escape traffic.
UPSIDE DOWN MUSEUM
45 Lebuh Kimberly
We were divided about this one. We weren’t sure if it was going to be fun or a waste of money. In the end we decided that this was a holiday for the kids as well, and while I would have loved to visit all the old Peranakan houses, it wouldn’t be very fun, nor fair, to them.
I’m not sure why it’s called a museum; I’m sure there would be more visitors if it were called Upside Down House instead. Because that’s what it is – all the rooms in there were upside down.
To be honest, we were all tickled when we first went in. There were staff in every room showing us how to pose for pictures which was nice, because they knew the best angles, and even helped us take our pictures. That, we appreciated. But don’t expect to wander around at leisure. Because you’ll probably almost always be in someone else’s shot if you do so. You’re allowed to move around the rooms (so no, you won’t be herded from room to room) but just don’t hog the stuff.
Kids will love it, but adults, you decide. This was the most expensive thing we did in Georgetown and if we were traveling without kids, we would have given this a pass.
Cost: RM27 for adults, RM16 for children (our 4-year old went in for free)
Tip: There’s never any harm in asking. The cendol stall outside Joo Hooi Cafe is supposed to be famous as well, but none of us were in the mood for cendol, weird as it might sound. So there, I said it. We didn’t have the famous cendol of Georgetown. And we still enjoyed Georgetown. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll carry on.
So I asked if they could do ice balls. And oh my gosh, the look on the kids’ faces when they saw the big ball of ice soaked with syrup. Priceless.
Cost: RM 1.50
29 Church Street
There are so many Peranakan homes to visit in Georgetown, each claiming to be the best. We decided on this one just because we happened to be on the same street. It was absolutely beautiful. We were lucky enough to be just in time to join a guided tour. I strongly recommend joining a tour – you can go around on your own but the little tidbits of information shared by the guide are really interesting.
Cost: RM20 for adults and RM10 for children (free for those below 6)
We knew that they were scattered around, so made no plans to seek them out deliberately, knowing that we would somehow or other chance upon them while on our way to other attractions.
For most of them, we exchanged smiles with one or two other families, but at the famous girl and boy on bike on Armenian Street, we probably arrived at the wrong time because our arrival coincided with a large and loud group that paid no heed to the neat little line of people quietly waiting their turn. No blog or travel website mentioned anything about that and we did not expect it at all. Up to that point, we were really enjoying discovering the various art installations. But that incident killed our enthusiasm to continue and that’s where we stopped.
Right next it, was Cheah Kongsi. It was more than a place of interest, it was more of a place of refuge for us. We bought tickets and went in just to escape the throng of tourists.
8, Gat Lebuh Armenian
Don’t forget to get your shoe covers! We hung out and wandered from room to room. It was absolutely beautiful, almost like a living museum because you could pretty much touch and sit on anything in the rooms, but it felt slightly abandoned somehow.
Our favourite room was the mahjong room. No better way to fully experience how the people really lived than to partake in their activities! Cheah Kongsi conducts free Taichi sessions too! Check out their Facebook page to find out more.
Cost: RM10 for adults, not sure about the price for children but ours were waved in with a smile.
Tip: Always ask the locals where to find food. At Cheah Kongsi, I was drawn by the smell of Hokkien Mee. Turns out it was from someone’s home but the folks at Cheah Kongsi directed us to a food court two streets away where we spent RM20 on wantan mee, assam laksa, pohpiah, roast meat.
VISIT LOCAL SHOPS
And I’m not just talking tourist traps. Go somewhere that doesn’t sell “I love Penang” t-shirts and magnets. Go into little shops, chat with the shopkeepers, buy something and support local businesses.
Oh yes, eat!!! By all means, do your research and get some recommendations, but don’t base your entire trip on them. Trust your gut – if you see somewhere that meets your level of hygiene, go for it.
Tip: Having an itinerary (or even just a loose one) is helpful, especially with kids. But it leave room for flexibility. There’s no point rushing around trying to find a particular ‘highly recommended’ restaurant and missing out on “hey this place looks interesting; let’s give it a try” opportunities
Case in point: Kedai Makanan Heng Kee at 60, Lebuh China. This was our hidden find. We stumbled upon it while walking around aimlessly. None of the travel blogs I read mentioned this little gem. It was as local as local got. We were the only non locals and absolutely loved this place so much that we went there for two dinners.
Everything we ordered was delicious. Cost: RM50-60 for 4 dishes and a soup. Over 2 dinners we had the stir fried sweet potato leaves, herbal chicken, egg with onion, sesame chicken, fish with tofu, fish with ginger, pork and lotus root soup and keh ki soup (I’m not sure what it is in English). I repeat, we loved everything.
If you’re planning a trip to Penang, I hope you’ve found this post useful! By the way, a mere 20-minute drive away is Batu Ferringhi – we stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, and you can find a helpful list of things to do around the area here.
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