Situated in the coastal lowland area of Malaysia, the island of Penang is a popular tourist destination because of its beaches, Old World charm and notable food scene. Described as the “Pearl of the Orient,” Penang Island is renowned for authentic temples, lush parks and forest reserves, flea markets and the grand colonial mansions on Penang Hill.
George Town, the capital, is an ethnically diverse city — its population is chiefly of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage — which helps to explain its conspicuous vitality. The city and its larger and better-known sibling, Singapore, were both born at a time when the sun famously never set on the British Empire. Located at the northern entrance to the strategically crucial Strait of Malacca, George Town, unlike Singapore, still evokes an age of travel by steamship among storied ports and their grand hotels, an era that began with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
The growing popularity of George Town has led to a mini-boom in development, with many of the so-called “shophouses” in the old city being converted into boutique hotels. The shophouse is George Town’s most emblematic form of architecture. The term refers to a contiguous row of houses, rarely higher than four stories, with stores on the ground floor. The idiom became common as a result of Chinese immigration in the 19th century, which explains why so many shophouses have a distinctly Chinese appearance, with ceramic tile roofs and elaborate decoration. Because of its distinctive architectural and cultural landscape, George Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.