Colonial Georgetown is a topsy-turvy collection of shophouses, trishaws, laneway shops and grand buildings. Portuguese traders from Goa in India first visited here in the 16th century, when Penang was part of the Malay sultanate of Kedah.
The British East India Company took control in 1786, when the island was handed over to colonial Penang’s founder, Captain Francis Light, as the first British possession in Southeast Asia. Georgetown was named for the British King George III. Declared a free port, Penang attracted Chinese traders and joined Britain’s Straits Settlements administered from India.
Inner-city Georgetown is so special, it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its colonial-era warehouses and go-downs, wharfs and jetties, commercial center and banking precinct are considered unique, comparable only to Malacca. The focus of business was Beach Street, still lined with shophouses and the impressive straits architecture of buildings constructed for long-gone emporiums and trading firms.
One of the most visible remnants of the colonial period is Fort Cornwallis and its rusty cannons pointing out to sea to defend the island. Streets like Light Street and Pitt Street were first mapped in the early colonial days and they still remain today, along with street names with multicultural flavor like Burma Road and Armenian Street.
A cluster of ornate colonial-era municipal buildings lie near the fort, on the other side of the padang playing fields. Look for the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, and visit the cemetery where the movers and shakers of colonial Penang lie buried, including Captain Light who died of malaria in 1794.
For panoramic views of Georgetown, do as the colonial settlers did and visit the hill station atop Penang Hill, reached by funicular railway.