A bicycle leaning against a post in Penang.

Penang vs Kuala Lumpur: 9 Key Differences

Have you decided to visit Malaysia but are trying to understand the differences between Penang vs Kuala Lumpur?

I was in your boat.

There’s no denying it: Penang and Kuala Lumpur are very different destinations. Kuala Lumpur is a modern metropolis with activities to do day and night. In contrast, Penang has a more laid-back atmosphere with beaches, art, and a historical feel.

I ended up spending two weeks in Penang and six days in Kuala Lumpur. By the time I left Malaysia, I wished I had allotted my days differently.

So, I’ll shed light on the differences between Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Penang to help you make a more informed decision than I did on where you want to spend your time.

Penang vs George Town

Before you decide whether Kuala Lumpur or Penang is better for you, let’s set this straight: Penang is a state and an island, and George Town is the capital of Penang state.

But here’s the thing: Most tourists refer to Penang Island when they say “Penang.”

Furthermore, many tourists use the word “Penang” when referring to George Town. I’ve caught myself following the crowd on this one. Perhaps the saying should be “Tourist see, tourist do.”

In the name of presenting accurate information, I won’t mislabel destinations in this blog post.

So, when you hear me talk about Penang, I’m referring to the island; I’ll specify if I’m talking about George Town or Penang state.

Kuala Lumpur or Penang? An Overview

Need to nail down your Southeast Asia itinerary ASAP?

I put together the chart below to help you pick whether Penang or Kuala Lumpur is a better destination for your interests.

CharacteristicPenang IslandKuala Lumpur
GeographyIsland, beaches, mountainsInland, city, flatter
WeatherHot and humidHot and humid
VibeLow-key, historical, artsyModern, bustling
Things to doBeach hopping, street art, national parkSkyscraper views, shopping, city parks
Day tripsFewer optionsMany options
English levelExcellentExcellent
SafetyVery safeVery safe

Ready for details on these points and more?

Read on.

9 Differences: Penang vs Kuala Lumpur

If someone tells you that Kuala Lumpur and Penang are more similar than they are different, I encourage you to (kindly) ignore their advice.

Below are some of the most notable differences between these destinations.

1. Kuala Lumpur is Bigger

A view of Kuala Lumpur's skyline from the Petronas Towers.
A view of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline from the Petronas Towers.

Kuala Lumpur has a population of over eight million people. That number includes residents living in KL city and Greater Kuala Lumpur (AKA Klang Valley).

In contrast, over 650,000 people live on Penang Island.

Interestingly, both KL and Penang have noteworthy statistics with their populations: Kuala Lumpur is the most populous Malaysian city, and Penang is Malaysia’s most populous island.

However, the vibe, entertainment options, and pace of life vary significantly between Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Whereas people choose to visit Penang Island to lounge at a beachside resort, learn about history in George Town, and enjoy a street art scene, tourists flock to Kuala Lumpur for upscale shopping experiences, fine dining, and to see iconic buildings like the Petronas Towers.

2. Penang Is Artsy

The famous Children on a Bicycle mural, something you won't see when comparing Penang vs Kuala Lumpur.
The famous Children on a Bicycle mural.

Art buffs should make a beeline to Penang. That said, not all of Penang is artsy; George Town is the hub for the island’s most famous street art.

I recommend dedicating at least one day to George Town if you’re interested in street art. You’ll find creative murals on main and side streets, the most famous being the Children on a Bicycle mural.

You’ll encounter several 3D-like murals in George Town as well. Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic is responsible for many of them, incorporating objects already on the wall into his artwork.

Take, for instance, this 3D mural of a tiger:

A tiger mural incorporating a hose protruding from a wall.
A tiger mural incorporating a hose protruding from a wall.

Although Kuala Lumpur isn’t as famous for its street art, some pockets of artwork exist.

Visit Jalan Alor by day before it turns into a booming night market and discover some nature-inspired street art along it and its side streets.

Lorong Panggung is also an excellent place in KL to see beautiful murals and heritage buildings. As a bonus, you’ll get to photograph a beautiful wooden bridge and hanging lanterns.

The bottom line is if you’re an art lover wavering between visiting Kuala Lumpur or Penang, you’ll be able to enjoy a street art scene in KL. It’ll just take more intentional planning than wandering around George Town.

3. Kuala Lumpur Is Inland

If you only have time to visit one destination in Malaysia and have your heart set on a beach vacation, Kuala Lumpur will have to wait for another day.

Penang has many beaches, ranging from upscale resort areas to Penang National Park, which overlooks the Straits of Malacca.

While Penang has its fair share of wildlife, people who are more interested in nature than art and history will likely prefer visiting Langkawi over Penang. But that’s an article for another day.

If you’ve looked at a map, you might think, “But wait, Laura, Kuala Lumpur isn’t far from the coast.”

And that’s true.

You can drive from Kuala Lumpur to the ocean in just over a half hour.

But here’s the thing: Port Kelang is the nearest coastal destination to KL, and it’s a place where cargo ships operate from. Instead, you’d need to drive about 1.5 hours to reach semi-decent beaches from Kuala Lumpur in the city of Port Dickson.

Needless to say, comparing Kuala Lumpur vs Penang is easy when it comes to beaching it: Penang is 100% the better option.

Note: While Penang Island is an excellent destination for a beach vacation, downtown George Town isn’t. So, consider taking a day trip to George Town from your beachside accommodation.

4. There’s Less to Do in Penang

Naturally, a small island like Penang offers fewer activities than a bustling capital like Kuala Lumpur. That said, some tourists may feel like Penang has more to do than KL, if beaches, nature, and art are up their alley.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that Kuala Lumpur offers a range of activities. Equally as wonderful for budget-seeking travelers is the fact that KL’s public transportation system is outstanding.

Some of the top sites to see in Kuala Lumpur include:

  • Petronas Towers’ SkyBridge
  • Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower
  • Jamek Mosque
  • Sri Mahamariamman Temple
  • KLCC Mall
  • Central Market
  • Lake Gardens (Perdana) Park

I recommend a minimum of two full days to see these sites, though three days would allow you to explore them at a more relaxed pace.

As for Penang, the top attractions there include:

  • George Town
  • Beaches
  • Kek Lok Si (Chinese Buddhist temple)
  • Penang National Park

Should you choose to visit Penang’s national park, allow a full day. The park is about one hour from George Town and significantly farther from southern beach destinations on the island. Hiking is a popular activity to do once you’re there.

The bottom line?

When comparing Penang vs Kuala Lumpur in terms of tourist attractions, the activities in Penang are more outdoor and nature-based than in Kuala Lumpur.

5. Day Trips Are Easier from Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is centrally located in Malaysia. So, it offers more options for half-day and full-day trips from the city.

The most popular half-day trip from downtown Kuala Lumpur is to the Batu Caves. These caves are home to one of the most visited Hindu shrines outside of India, and tourists recognize this site for its 272-step colorful staircase.

Colorful staircase in the mountains with a gold statue.
Famous staircase at the Batu Caves.

Non-Hindus are welcome to enter the caves and ascend the staircase. Just be sure to cover your shoulders and knees before entering any cave temples.

Since the Batu Caves are within the Greater KL region, you can arrive by taking the KLM Komuter train.

Other popular day trips from Kuala Lumpur include:

  • Malacca
  • Cameron Highlands
  • Genting Highlands
  • Kuala Selangor (the world’s largest firefly colony)

I was raised in Upstate New York, seeing my fair share of fireflies during childhood. So, I’d only recommend a trip to Kuala Selangor if you’ve never seen fireflies before.

As for Penang, the day trip options are mostly on the island, including a tropical fruit farm in Teluk Bahang and the national park.

However, you can take a bus or taxi from Penang Island to Butterworth in mainland Penang if you’re itching to get off the island.

The bottom line is that if you’re deciding between Penang or Kuala Lumpur for a good place to base yourself, Kuala Lumpur is a better base for day trips.

6. Penang Can Be More Walkable

I specifically named this title “can be” instead of “is” because where you base yourself in Penang matters—George Town is an excellent city for walking.

The rest of Penang Island?

Not so much.

By basing yourself in George Town, you can walk from your hotel to most of the city’s main attractions, including the seafront jetties, Fort Cornwallis, Kapitan Keling Mosque, and the famous street art.

Shops along a street in Penang.
A main tourist street in Penang.

Don’t miss the opportunity to meander around Little India. And go with an empty stomach so that you can load up on delicious Indian food.

In contrast, it’s harder to walk far in Kuala Lumpur. Even if you enjoy a long walk, downtown KL has many main roads that run through it without walkways and sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians.

Luckily, taking public transportation in Kuala Lumpur is fast and efficient. It has three light rapid transit (LRT) lines, two commuter rails, two mass rapid transit (MRT) lines, and one monorail line, among others.

If public transportation isn’t your thing, you can use Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia) whether you visit Kuala Lumpur or Penang.

7. Kuala Lumpur Has Better Viewpoints

With over 200 high-rise buildings, it likely comes as little surprise that Kuala Lumpur offers more opportunities for better views than Penang.

The most famous places to enjoy KL’s city views are the Petronas Towers and the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower (AKA the KL Tower).

Personally, I found the KL Tower’s views to be better, given that they include the Petronas Twin Towers in its skyline.

Kuala Lumpur skyline including the Petronas Towers.
A view of the Petronas Towers from the KL Tower.

But if you’re short on change, I recommend skipping paid views; many hotels, Airbnbs, and restaurants offer excellent KL city vistas.

Penang has its own area famous for good views. Penang Hill is a resort area in the Air Itam suburb. You can hike to Penang Hill to get some heavy-duty exercise or take a taxi or the Penang Hill Railway if you’d rather not break a sweat.

8. History Buffs Prefer Penang

Every city has history, but Penang’s goes back further than Kuala Lumpur’s; the “modern” George Town we know today was founded in 1786, and KL wasn’t founded until 1857.

So, when comparing Penang vs Kuala Lumpur, you’ll encounter more heritage buildings in Penang.

Penang also has a more historical feel because many of its old buildings are still there. Some have been restored and maintained; dozens of others need TLC.

istoric buildings covered by foliage in Penang.
Historic buildings covered by foliage in Penang.

Penang’s most famous museum is the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery in George Town. It’s also home to unique museums like the Ghost Museum and the Wonder Food Museum.

On the other hand, downtown Kuala Lumpur feels like a brand-spanking new city in most respects.

And it makes sense, given that tin miners began settling there in only 1857. However, you can find pockets of KL’s history throughout the city, with Merdeka Square being the central part of Kuala Lumpur’s historic area.

9. Shopaholics Are Better Off in Kuala Lumpur

If you’re weighing whether to visit Penang or Kuala Lumpur and upscale shopping malls are your thing, your travel companions may have to drag you out of KL when your vacation ends.

Multi-story malls boasting the world’s most well-known designers and boutiques are abundant in Kuala Lumpur, placing KL alongside Bangkok and Singapore for excellent shopping.

And here’s the good news if you’re traveling with people who don’t love shopping: Many shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur have markets on their ground floor.

The markets are more upscale and expensive than what you’ll encounter on the street, but it’s still an excellent pastime for non-shoppers.

Those with limited shopping time in KL should make a beeline to the Bukit Bintang. This is Kuala Lumpur’s shopping and entertainment district. Shopaholics could easily spend days exploring that district.

Penang has its own set of shopping malls.

You’ll find some on the outskirts of George Town and others to the south near the airport.

5 Penang vs Kuala Lumpur Similarities

Despite Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s differences, they’re in the same country. And a small country, at that.

So, below are the areas they have in common.

1. Weather

Malaysia has a tropical climate. You can expect the weather to be hot and humid year-round, regardless of whether you visit Kuala Lumpur or Penang.

The hottest time of the year in Penang and Kuala Lumpur are April, May, and June; the coolest months are December, January, and February.

That said, we’re talking about a difference of a few degrees at most; Penang and Kuala Lumpur have highs in the upper 80s to low 90s year-round.

Avoiding the rainy season is best, as it comes with even more humidity and mosquitoes.

The rainy season is also where Kuala Lumpur and Penang differ on the weather front.

Penang has one rainy (monsoon) season that typically starts in August and is in full force during the months of September, October, and November.

In contrast, Kuala Lumpur has two monsoon seasons. KL’s eastern monsoon runs from October to January, and its western monsoon season occurs in March and April.

2. Safety

When comparing Penang vs Kuala Lumpur, you can feel comfortable safety-wise traveling to both destinations.

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) lists Malaysia as a Level 1, which is the safest ranking.

The only area where the DOS urges travelers to exercise increased caution is in the east part of Sabah because of kidnapping. You won’t be in this state if you only visit Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Of course, bad things can happen anywhere.

So, be aware of your surroundings and don’t flash expensive items that could make you a target. Also, be mindful that pickpocketing can happen in crowded spaces.

3. Food

Malaysia’s food scene is thriving, and making your way to different markets and street food stalls is a treat to the tastebuds.

If you’ve already traveled to Indonesia, you’ll notice some overlap with certain Malaysian dishes, including that many of them have “nasi” (rice) in their names.

Nasi kandar is a particular Malaysian favorite that Indians brought to the country. It originated in Penang and is a great way to try many different dishes in one go, for you can choose among different curries, vegetables, and meats, all combined on one plate.

Keep an eye out for blue rice, made from the butterfly pea flower. The deep bluish-purple color looks like it came straight from a factory. But instead, it’s naturally made from flower petals!

Regardless of whether you visit Penang or Kuala Lumpur, visit a night market. Batu Ferringhi is a great place to experience a night market in Penang, while Jalan Alor is a can’t-go-wrong option in Kuala Lumpur.

You’ll find a mix of cuisines at markets in Malaysia. Much of the food is influenced by neighboring countries and India, where you can buy snacks and meals with Indian spice bases, including curry.

4. English Speakers

Malay is Malaysia’s national language. But you won’t have to look far to find an English speaker, for most Malaysians speak two or more languages.

English is commonly spoken in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. If you visit central and eastern Malaysia in non-touristy areas, the chances are high that you’ll encounter people who don’t speak English.

But based on my experience, when comparing Kuala Lumpur vs Penang, the level of English is equal.

I spent nearly three weeks in Malaysia and didn’t encounter a single moment when I couldn’t communicate with an English-speaking local—and a local who spoke English at an advanced to fluent level, at that.

5. Prices

Penang used to be more expensive than Kuala Lumpur. And while that can still be the case if you’re staying in a non-touristy area, I personally didn’t notice a difference price-wise between Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

For travelers coming from Western countries, Penang and Kuala Lumpur’s prices will feel like a deal.

From my experience, food is cheap in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while accommodation and tours are a bit pricier than in certain other Southeast Asian countries.

Nevertheless, the cost of living in Malaysia is low for many tourists, and you likely won’t feel a huge price difference between Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Traveling From Kuala Lumpur to Penang

Petronas Towers lit up at night.
The Petronas Towers at night.

Have you decided that instead of visiting Kuala Lumpur or Penang, you want to visit both? If so, you’re in luck—traveling between these destinations is easy and economical.

The fastest way to get to Penang from Kuala Lumpur is by plane. Direct flights depart the Kuala Lumpur Airport (KUL) and Penang International Airport (PEN) frequently throughout the day.

It only takes one hour to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Penang.

On the other hand, if you enjoy sightseeing, taking a train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth on mainland Penang is a great choice. The fastest trains take just under four hours.

Once you arrive at the railway station in Butterworth, you’ll need to hop on a shuttle to arrive at the ferry terminal. There, you can purchase your ferry tickets to Penang Island.

The ferry from mainland Penang to Penang Island only takes about 15 to 20 minutes, as the distance is just three kilometers (km).

Driving or taking the bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang is also possible, and it’ll take about four hours.

FAQs About Penang vs Kuala Lumpur

Below are some common questions floating around the Internet about Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Is Penang cheaper than Kuala Lumpur?

Penang is slightly cheaper than Kuala Lumpur, but not by much. It’s possible to visit both Penang and Kuala Lumpur on a budget.

Like anywhere, the district you choose and the type of restaurants you eat at will impact how much money you spend at these destinations.

Can you do a day trip to Penang from Kuala Lumpur?

It’s possible to take a day trip to Penang from Kuala Lumpur if you fly. The flight time is only one hour between these cities.

If you choose to take a day trip, I recommend a day trip to Penang from Kuala Lumpur rather than the other way around. You can easily see George Town in a day, whereas it’s harder to see Kuala Lumpur’s main sites in a day.

Is Kuala Lumpur worth seeing?

Kuala Lumpur is worth seeing if you enjoy modern, bustling cities with interesting architecture, great shopping, and a good base for day trips. The city is clean and organized.

Is Penang worth seeing?

Penang is worth seeing if you enjoy art, history, beaches, and a small-town atmosphere. It’s a good fit for people interested in a relaxing getaway, as there aren’t a ton of things to do on the island compared to the activities that Kuala Lumpur offers.

Is KL or Penang better?

KL is a better fit than Penang for people who enjoy modern architecture, shopping, nightlife, and using public transportation to get around. In contrast, Penang is better for tourists who want to hang out at the beach, sip a latte at cute coffee shops, and are interested in art and history.

Penang vs Kuala Lumpur: Which Will You Choose?

Mural on a house of a man in a hammock.
A mural at the jetties in Penang.

I hope by now you have a better idea of whether Kuala Lumpur or Penang is the right fit for you.

For me, I wish I had scheduled more time in Kuala Lumpur than Penang; my Kuala Lumpur visit felt rushed, and while I love small towns, two weeks in George Town felt like too much. But Penang is beautiful in its own right, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit both destinations.

If you have questions about visiting Penang or Kuala Lumpur, leave a comment and I’ll be glad to help.

I’d also love to hear from you after your trip. Did you visit Penang, Kuala Lumpur, or both? What were your impressions of them?

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