Penang has one of the most well-preserved collection of historical and cultural buildings in Malaysia– and these architectural gems hold stories of the island’s colorful and eventful past. The heritage sites of Penang are mainly centered around Georgetown, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The area is made up of a collection of old colonial British buildings, clan temples of the various Chinese clan associations, lavish mansions left by the rich settlers of the city, fort ruins, and religious structures like mosques, churches and temples.
On my visit to Penang, I spent a day exploring Georgetown and getting to know some of the buildings in this historical area. In every corner, I found hidden gems– from lovingly restored pre-war shophouses to rows of dilapidated ones with their colorful paint peeling off the walls. Each and every building carries its own tale, and visiting some of them brought me closer to understanding the people who built them, who lived in them and who used them.
This is my list of the top 10 buildings to visit in Georgetown– either because they hold so much history and significance, or because they are just so so beautiful.
1) Kapitan Keling Mosque
The Kapitan Keling Mosque is located along Jalan Kapitan Keling, locally known as Harmony Street, where 3 other religious structures are found as well. It was built in the beginning of the 19th century by the Indian-Muslim community in the city– the name of the mosque is derived from the local slang word, “Indian Leader”.
The mosque is a significant historical landmark of Penang, and is open to the public during the afternoons. Entrance is free, but visitors are required to wear the robes provided. I didn’t get to enter the mosque as I visited in the morning; and again at night, when its lights illuminate the dark sky.
2) Goddess of Mercy Temple
The Goddess of Mercy Temple (Kuan Yin Teng), or officially named the Kong Hock Keong Temple is also located along Harmony Street. This Buddhist and Taoist temple is the oldest temple in Georgetown, built in the 1800’s by the early Hokkien and Cantonese Chinese settlers in the city. It has withstood the turbulent history of Georgetown; surviving numerous fires and bomb attacks; and even served as a shelter during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya in WWII.
Visitors are allowed into the temple to pray and ask for blessings; and also to admire the beautiful paintings and intricate carvings that can be found in and around the temple.
3) Sri Mahamariamman Temple
The Arulmigu Sri Mahamariamman Temple has its back facing Harmony Street and is said to be the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. It began as a small shrine in 1801, and was later converted into a temple in 1833. The temple is a significant religious structure with lavish sculptures of gods and goddesses carved at its entrance and interior.
This Hindu temple is opened to the public in the mornings and the evenings, and it is compulsory for visitors to take off shoes when stepping inside the temple compounds. Unfortunately, the temple was under construction when I visited, so I didn’t get to enter and admire its ornate architecture– I’m looking forward to another visit after it is done.
4) St George’s Church
Another religious structure along Harmony Street is the St George’s Church. It was built in 1817 with the help of the British East India Company— and is the oldest Anglican Church in South East Asia. The church sustained serious damage during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya in WWII; but was later repaired and services resumed after the war. The Greek pavilion just outside the church was erected in 1886 as a memorial to Sir Francis Light, the founder of Penang.
The church is open to the public during the day from Mondays to Thursdays. There is a church service on Sundays. It is worth a look-see and a walk around because of its significance during Penang’s British colonial times.
5) Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion for its bright indigo-colored outer walls– was built in the late 19th century by a prominent Chinese merchant, Cheong Fatt Tze. With numerous businesses, 8 wives and many children all over Asia, Mr Cheong built this mansion in Penang as a local administrative center, and to house some of his wives and family members. Constructed with the most elaborate feng shui principles; it was first a residential home, then a slum, and later left in disrepair.
The mansion was rescued from destruction in the 1990’s and is now a luxury boutique hotel. However, certain parts of the mansion are open to public during their 45-minutes guided tour; RM16 (US$4), 3 times a day. The tour is very informative and entertaining (albeit a little too long and draggy)– highlighting the life of Mr Cheong, as well as the feng shui aspects of the mansion. I wish I stayed a night here so I could explore and roam around this historical building by myself!
6) Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi
Khoo Kongsi is a clanhouse of the Leong San Tong, or Dragon Mountain Hall clan in Penang, with a lineage dating back hundreds of years. It was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the members of the Khoo Family from the local Hokkien community. Khoo Kongsi is hidden within the narrow alleyways of Georgetown, and is the most magnificent and elaborate clanhouse in Malaysia.
The Khoo Kongsi courtyard exudes an old world charm; and is surrounded by the main temple building, a traditional theatre and old rowhouses. I was overwhelmed by the temple’s extravagant architecture– it is absolutely gorgeous with its golden plaques, sophisticated murals and detailed carvings. There is also a museum on the ground floor, which takes visitors on a journey through the clan’s history. Admission is RM10 (US$2.5) per person.
7) Pinang Peranakan Mansion
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is a beautifully restored 19th century Peranakan mansion, once belonging to a rich Chinese merchant. The Peranakan, or Baba Nyonya culture is prominent in Penang– they are descendants of Chinese immigrants who adopted the local Malay practices. The mansion showcases the lifestyle and culture of the Peranakans by recreating a typical Baba Nyonya home; complete with wooden furniture, old photographs and artefacts on display. Within the mansion grounds, there is also a museum with stunning collectibles like Peranakan jewelry, clothing and porcelain sets; as well as an old temple. Admission is RM10 (US$2.5) per person.
For me, walking through the mansion was like taking a walk down memory lane. My great-grandmother was Peranakan and I spotted many antiques that I used to see in her house. It brought back lovely memories.
8) Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower
The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, or the Jubilee Clock Tower, is the most recognizable building in Georgetown and a local landmark. It is located at King Edward Place, at the junction of Lebuh Light and Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street). The clock tower was built in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee– and is 60 feet tall, each foot representing a year of the Queen’s reign. It is slightly tilted due to the impact of bombings around the area during WWII.
The traffic around the clock tower can be pretty daunting; so head on over to the corner of Fort Cornwallis that faces the clock tower for a slightly elevated view of it.
9) Penang Town Hall and City Hall
The Penang Town Hall and the Penang City Hall are two beautiful British colonial buildings located in front of the Esplanade Padang in Georgetown. The Town Hall was completed in 1883, and was used for decades as a venue for social functions and performances. The adjacent City Hall was constructed in the beginning of the 20th century as a municipal building. It now houses the Penang Island City Council (Dewan Bandaraya Pulau Pinang).
The two buildings dominate the area around the seafront and are a sight to behold. They are worth visiting just to admire the magnificent Victorian architecture with its white-washed columns and grand windows– one of the only few such buildings that still exist in Malaysia.
10) Fort Cornwallis
Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia and was built by the British East India Company in the late 1700’s. The fort is laid out in a star-shaped formation; with its 10-feet walls surrounded by old cannons. Inside the fort are several prison cells, a chapel, an ammunition storage area and a lighthouse. Fort Cornwallis was initially built as a military defense structure– but it served as an administrative center and never engaged in any battles.
When I visited the fort, there was a performance going on at the central open-aired amphitheater. Unfortunately, the fort has been left in disrepair, with broken-down walls and rusty cannons. For the high entrance fee of RM20 (US$5), I expected more. Visit Fort Cornwallis for the significant role it played in Penang’s history, but don’t bother heading in– you can admire the walls from the outside, as it is almost similar to what you see on the inside.