Visiting GEORGETOWN in 1879, stalwart Victorian traveller Isabella Bird called it “a brilliant place under a brilliant sky”, a simple statement on which it’s hard to improve – though the confusion of buses, lorries and scooters make Georgetown’s modern downtown unnervingly frenetic and polluted. Filling a triangular projection at Pulau Pinang’s northeastern corner, Georgetown’s heart lies between the decaying remains of Fort Cornwallis, which guarded the city in its earliest years, and the towering modern bulk of the KOMTAR centre, overlooking everything 1.5km to the south. In between is Chinatown, a maze of lanes liberally sprinkled with grand clan association halls and two-storey shophouses in various stages of decay and restoration, which itself encloses the smaller ethnic enclave of Little India and a vaguely identifiable Muslim quarter.

Certainly no sleepy backwater (most of the island’s one-million-strong population lives here), Georgetown’s historic lanes and street life make it an appealing place to explore, and a hangout for budget travellers seeking to renew Thai visas. The city’s main arteries are traffic-clogged Lebuh Chulia (named after the Tamil word for “merchant”), which cuts east–west through central Georgetown, and slightly less busy Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling (or Lebuh Pitt), which crosses it at right angles. Almost everything of interest – shops, museums, temples, restaurants and accommodation – lies within a short walk of these roads, while the rest of the island can be reached on buses from KOMTAR or Terminal Weld, on the seafront where ferries from Butterworth dock.