Why George Town?
The Malaysian island of Penang is known as the Pearl of the Orient, and the jewel in its crown today is its enchanting capital, George Town, which has just celebrated 10 years as a Unesco World Heritage Site. I have never seen a destination so radically transformed, with opulent Chinese mansions and grand colonial buildings beautifully preserved and converted into boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, art galleries and hip bars. Throughout the year, visitors to what has become one of South-East Asia's most vibrant destinations can choose to attend the arty George Town Festival, street food carnivals, dragon boat races and even an award-winning literary festival.
A comfortable bed
The historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel is George Town's ultimate five-star address, but be aware that the famed Heritage wing, where playwright Somerset Maugham once stayed, will be closed for most of the year for renovation. That said, the spacious suites in the modern wing are luxurious, with a breathtaking infinity pool and the best buffet breakfast in town. Alternatively, many lavish Chinese mansions have been lovingly preserved and transformed into elegant boutique hotels. Just outside the busy town centre, the palatial Macalister Mansion is an exclusive eight-room oasis of calm, while the reasonably priced Art Deco Edison is now a sleek designer hideaway.
Find your feet
The wonderful Unesco heritage buildings of George Town are perfect to discover on foot, but start early to avoid 30°C daytime temperatures. Either use the tourism office's excellent walking tour map, or join the crowds following "Marking George Town", an itinerary charting the striking 3D street murals created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, a paradise for Instagrammers taking selfies. If the heat and humidity gets too much, just hail a wobbly bicycle trishaw or use the excellent Grab car hire by downloading the app on your smartphone. For a snapshot of George Town's unique ethnic melting pot population, wander along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, where a 200- year-old mosque sits alongside colourful Indian and Chinese temples, and then head to the Bayview Hotel's panoramic Skybar for romantic sundowners.
Meet the locals
The barista coffee bar culture is deeply embedded here, so to hang out with locals over a flat white and irresistible Black Forest gateau, check out Kopi Loewak and My Armenian Cafe on Armenian Street, or over on Beach Street, the hipster Black Kettle or Kopi C in Chinahouse. Despite competition from Kindle, there is always an arty crowd browsing at the brilliant Gerakbudaya bookshop, located in Hikayat, a dynamic new multimedia hub. And everyone's favourite Sunday meeting place is the old Hin Bus Depot, now a cool art space, hosting a Sunday pop-up craft market with tempting food stalls and live music.
Book a table
Fine dining is quite popular right now, so reserve in advance for the latest hotspot, Restaurant au Jardin, where chef-owner Kim Hock effortlessly blends French technique and Asian produce in creative dishes like locally fished barramundi with a petit pois veloute and potato remoulade. Penang's unique Peranakan cuisine, a spicy blend of Chinese and Malay flavours, is best savoured at the sumptuous Kebaya, a favourite address of Penang's famed haute-couture shoe designer, Jimmy Choo. The four-course menu features otak otak, red snapper cooked with garlic and turmeric then baked in crispy pastry, or lor ark, succulent duck confit with spiced plums, oranges in cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. George Town also boasts Asia's top street food scene for foodies happy to sit outside at simple pavement tables. Each humble foodcart specialises in a single dish, so take the plunge in seething New Lane or Kimberley Street for a plate of char kway teow wok-fried noodles, tasty prawn wonton dumpling soup or satay sticks smothered with crunchy peanut sauce.
While George Town has a distinct lack of famous-name designer boutiques and fashionable department stores, there are a host of chic artisan stores to track down; Jonathan Yun's intimate boutique displays his distinctive sculptural jewellery, as well as fragrant Malaysia-inspired perfumes created by Josh Lee, while Studio Howard displays George Town photographs by Howard Tan alongside avant-garde fused-glass creations by Wong King Fuan. At the shop-in-cafe Mug Shot, sip a mango smoothie while trying on funky local designer eyewear brands at Spark Optics.
What to avoid
One negative result of World Heritage recognition has been an invasion of small oddball museums, for the most part a waste of time and money. Culprits to steer clear of include The Upside Down, Owl and Ghost museums.
What not to miss
Escape the heat in The Ice Cafe, a new "chillout" igloo, where temperatures drop to 10°C, serving delicious Snowflake desserts of shaved ice topped with exotic fruits and luscious syrups.