Penang or Malacca? Which one should you visit? Both Malacca (or Melaka) and Georgetown (in Penang) are UNESCO World Heritage cities since 2008 and are some of the most exciting cities in Malaysia. They were nominated as the “historic cities of the Straits of Malacca.”
According to UNESCO, ” Malacca and Georgetown have developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca. The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed the towns with a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible.“
These two cities, however, are 500 km away from each other and in different directions from Kuala Lumpur. The location makes most travelers struggle to decide if they should visit Malacca or Georgetown!
Malacca vs Penang
The historical importance of Malacca and Georgetown
Although both cities carry a substantial cultural heritage earned through the centuries, in our opinion, Malacca was much more important for a more extended period of time. It was relevant for many centuries and lived through Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, and English rule!
While Georgetown only became relevant during the 18th century during the British rule and after Malacca lost much of its trade importance after centuries of wars between the three colonial powers and the Malays.
Again, according to UNESCO, “With its government buildings, churches, squares, and fortifications, Melaka demonstrates the early stages of this history originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century. Featuring residential and commercial buildings, George Town represents the British era from the end of the 18th century. The two towns constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia“.
The food scene
Malaysian food has been influenced by Indian, Chinese, Thai, Arabian, European, and many others. The multi-cultural side of Malaysia made its food scene unique and something every traveler should try.
Penang (and consequently Georgetown) is usually considered the food capital of Malaysia. In our experience, the food we ate in Malacca was on par with the one in Georgetown, although it’s obvious that Penang has a much wider variety.
Overall, in terms of the food scene, you should visit Georgetown, Penang.
Beauty and charm
When visiting a city, one of the most important aspects is the city center, its attractions, and the charisma of the town. We are hikers and love a good walk around an old town.
In Malacca center, we see that the Portuguese, Dutch, and British Rule imprinted on the architecture, urban form, and monumental art. Very close to each other, you will see:
- The Famosa Fort, St. Paul’s Hill, and St. John’s Fort (Portuguese Ruling);
- The Stadthuys, the Christ Church Melaka, and the Dutch Square (Dutch ruling);
- St. Francis Xavier Church and Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain (British Ruling);
Although some of the buildings mentioned above have clearly suffered from the wars, Malacca is in a good state of conservation, making it very entertaining to tour around. Remember that there were tens of wars in Malacca, and it’s amazing how a building like the Famosa (or its ruins) or the Stadthuys still survive today.
Both Malacca and Penang have some of the most famous landmarks in Malaysia.
Georgetown, on the other hand, has a much more peaceful and somehow recent history. The buildings are primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries, but they look less taken care of. Maybe because they aren’t as striking as the ones in Malacca.
Georgetown’s old center clearly shows its colonial history and architecture, though it also appears to have deteriorated over time and is worse preserved/recuperated than Malacca. On the upside, Georgetown is famous for its 3D street art, which makes wandering around town very amusing because there’s always a surprise art installation around the corner.
Surroundings of Malacca and Georgetown
Georgetown is the main city of the island of Penang, while Malacca is a coastal city between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Penang is one of the major attractions of Malaysia and probably the biggest holiday/beach resort in the country. Some of the most famous attractions in Penang are:
- Penang Hill – Although the view from the top is amazing, it felt like a tourist trap with thousands of people trying to get there. It took us 2h+ to buy the tickets and enter the funicular.
- Batu Ferringhi beach – The most famous of Penang’s beaches, but they didn’t meet our expectations. It’s a bit dirty and with too many water sports activities for our taste. There are better beaches in Malaysia.
3. Penang National Park – This is a beautiful park with excellent hiking trails and good beaches. It’s also our favorite thing to do in Penang!
We didn’t really explore the surrounding area of Malacca, but there isn’t anything similar to Penang. In this regard, Georgetown and Penang are better choices. For more info, check this list of things to do in Penang.
Costs of traveling in Georgetown and Malacca
As we explained before, Malaysia is a very affordable country, mainly if you aren’t a big drinker! Therefore both options are budget-friendly. However, Malacca is cheaper than Georgetown.
This is even more obvious during peak season and school holidays when Penang’s accommodation becomes much more expensive. The difference shouldn’t be more than 5-10 USD per person daily.
How easy is it to travel to Malacca or Georgetown?
Well, this depends on where you are coming from, right…? If you come from Singapore, Malacca is the obvious choice as it’s much closer. Likewise, Penang is much easier and cheaper to reach if you are coming from Thailand or Langkawi (there’s a direct ferry between the islands). If you are coming from Kuala Lumpur, Malacca is closer, faster, and more affordable.
In Conclusion, which is better Malacca or Penang
It really depends on your tastes, what you are looking for, and the time you have for traveling in Malaysia.
- If you have two weeks or less, we say: choose one and go; If you have more than two weeks, you can do both and enjoy them easily. Malacca and Georgetown complement each other historically and culturally.
- If you are really into history (or are Portuguese or Dutch), then visit Malacca;
- Do you want to feel and wander around an old town with many historic buildings/ruins, visit Malacca;
- If the food scene is very important to you, visit Georgetown. However, when it comes to food, you are never wrong in Malaysia;
- If you want to add other things (beach, nature walks, etc.), and not only the town, visit Georgetown.
Considering everything and having visited Malacca and Georgetown, we preferred Malacca over Georgetown, but that’s very much a personal taste, and we can easily understand why many people would prefer Penang, as it has many other things to explore that Malacca doesn’t.
We studied the spices route, Malacca’s history, its importance during the 15th and 16th centuries, and how it helped to shape the world through trade and cultural exchange. We wanted to visit Malacca and see it with our own eyes, and we weren’t disappointed. Although much of it disappeared, we still “felt it”!
Pop quiz time
What was the first thing the Portuguese did when they first conquered the city of Malacca?
Drastically raised taxes! Obviously… that’s what Portuguese governments do…