Penang or Kuala Lumpur?: Where should you travel in Malaysia?

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Malaysia has a lot to offer travellers. From bustling cities to beautiful beaches, there is something for everyone in this Southeast Asian hot spot. If you are heading there on holiday, it can be hard to choose only one. Two of the most popular Malaysian destinations for first-time visitors and returning travellers alike are Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

So how do you choose between the two if you only have a couple days to spare? We break down the essentials of both cities to make it easier to figure out which city is better suited to your travel style.

Kuala Lumpur

Location: The capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is located somewhat in the middle of the island, making it rather central and easy to get to, no matter what part of Malaysia you are coming from or heading to next. It is also home to Malaysia’s largest international airport, making it very accessible for travellers.

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Rodney Topor, The twin towers, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Attractions: As a bustling city and the country’s main financial hub, the city is expectedly dotted with tall, modern and futuristic buildings. While the whole cityscape is lovely, no building is more impressive as the Petronas Towers. Head up to the skybridge and observation deck for a bird’s-eye view of the city.

There are also many museums here, including the National Museum, Islamic Arts Museum and Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery. As Malaysia used to be a British colony, there are also many well-preserved colonial buildings.

Shopping: Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, Starhill Plaza, Sungei Wang, Berjaya Times Square and Bukit Bintang Plaza are just some of the many shopping malls that line the streets of Kuala Lumpur, many located along the major shopping road Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. You will find everything you can think of in these cluster of malls, from luxury brands and high-end street labels to electronics and locally made handicrafts. If you prefer shopping locally, there are many night markets where knick knacks, trinkets and well-made knock-offs are sold, alongside rows of delicious street snacks.

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Ben Metcalfe, Kuala Lumpur 3 036, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Eat: From fine dining to delicious affordable hawker food, you can find it all in Kuala Lumpur. Though both options are available, we’ll advise you to stick to local street food – there are so many different must-try items that even is you ate something different at every meal, you wouldn’t cover them all within a week (and you won’t find them done the same way anywhere else in the world). Bak kut teh (pork rib soup), nasi lemak (coconut rice) and roasted meats are just some of the dishes you have to try while spending time in Kuala Lumpur.

So, who is Kuala Lumpur best suited for?: If you’re a city person at heart who enjoys shopping, museum hopping and trying new eats, Kuala Lumpur is for you.

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Location: An island in the northern part of Malaysia, Penang is closer to the Thailand border than it is to the country’s capital. Thanks to the country’s extensive bus network, there are buses to Penang from every part of the island. Penang International Airport is well connected to other cities in the region as well.

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Phalinn Ooi, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Georgetown, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Attractions: The city is rich in history and culture (it was named as a UNESCO heritage site in 2008), and throughout Penang, you can view the many well-preserved heritage buildings. A huge part of the city’s heritage is its rich Peranankan culture, and you can get a more thorough understanding of the area’s diverse culture at Penang Peranakan Mansion.

Other interesting heritage buildings worth a visit are the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Khoo Kongsi. Penang is also known for its George Town Festival, a month-long celebration of the arts, with dance and theatre performance, film screening, exhibitions and workshops held in the city.

As Penang is an island, there are also many beaches throughout the city, and they are some of the most beautiful in the country. Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Bungah are the most famous, with plenty of hotel resorts having set up shop here. For those who prefer to avoid larger crowds, the area also boasts many remote beaches for your picking.

Shopping: There are many malls in Penang carrying a huge array of goods and brands. However, unlike Kuala Lumpur where a fair number of them are located within walking distance of one another, in Penang they’re rather far apart. There are also many small shops and street markets for you to pick up trinkets to bring home.

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Pandora Voon, Penang’s Assam Laksa, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Eat: Street food reigns supreme in Penang, where the city has its own versions of popular Malaysian dishes, such as Penang Char Kuay Teow (stir-fried rice noodles), Assam Laksa (a sweet and sour concoction) and Cendol (a sweet icy cool dessert).

Who is Penang best suited for?: If you’re an art lover who enjoys a slower pace of life and long days at the beach (and, of course, feasting on delicious local food) Penang may be the place for you.

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Which Malaysian city is your favourite? Share with us in the comments.

Feature image: iStockphoto/neoellis

Penang or Kuala Lumpur?: Where should you travel in Malaysia? was last modified: November 10th, 2016 by Kai Lun
Author: Kai Lun (20 posts)

With a penchant for the path less trodden and chasing anything that's out of the ordinary, Seow Kai Lun (call her Kai Lun) is a keen observer and documenter of the world, working to share her experiences as a travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @skailun.