This area was at the heart of the Burmese state for more than five centuries, with successive capitals based at Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, and then Mandalay itself. The former capitals are now practically suburbs, and Mandalay itself is a sprawling grid. However, you'll still find ancient pagodas and fascinating craft workshops among the concrete office and apartment blocks.
Top Attractions Near Mandalay
1. Mandalay Hill
Sacred hills have a strong purchase on the consciousness of this country. Even though its 232-metre height is nothing to boast about, Mandalay Hill excels with its views of the city and the Ayeyarwady River.
It's a decent climb up shabby staircases, where cats laze on benches or crowd to local stallholders who give them scraps. Make your way past a giant standing Buddha and up to the summit, where you can look down on the temples and palaces of Mandalay.
You'll need to take your shoes off before you start climbing, since the path passes through the middle of shrines and temples.
2. Mahamuni Pagoda
In the south of the city, Mahamuni Pagoda is Mandalay's most visited temple. Beautifully dressed pilgrims visit, some in tribal costume, to venerate the huge golden Buddha. Anyone can visit, though only men can queue up for the privilege to apply gold leaf to the statue in the inner sanctum.
Visiting families rest in the shady tiled arcades while kids do handstands, dance, and sing, though they can be bribed to stay quiet with an ice cream from one of the ambulant vendors. Bronze figures of lions and elephants that came from Angkor Wat as spoils of war are particularly popular with visitors. Two warrior statues that accompany them are often rubbed for luck or good health.
Outside of the temple, there's a large market where furniture makers have their workshops and little stalls sell monks' clothing, meditation gongs, and flowers for offerings. On the opposite side of the main road, the stone carvers' district hums with angle-grinders carving Buddhas out of big blocks of rough stone.
A bit further north on 78th Street you'll find the gold-pounders' district. This is where gold leaf is beaten tissue-paper-thin for application to Buddha statues.
3. Kuthodaw Pagoda
There are a number of fascinating buildings below Mandalay Hill. Kuthodaw Pagoda was built by King Mindon in 1857, and it has an intriguing dual existence; it's a book as well as a building. The 729 small stupas surrounding the main zedi each house a stone inscribed with part of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. In between the stupas stand aged star-flower trees, whose widely spread branches give locals a shady spot to rest in the heat of the afternoon.
4. Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery
Shwenandaw Kyaung also has a double nature. It started its life as a palace before becoming a monastery. The beautiful teak monastery building originally formed King Mindon's private apartment in the royal palace. However, his successor, King Thibaw, had it dismantled and re-erected here. Legend claims Mindon's ghost haunted the rooms till Thibaw moved the building.
The finely-carved interior is mellow with age, the wood gleaming with the patina of more than a century. Little nat spirits dwell in the carved foliage, dragons wriggle through the flame-like motifs carved above the doors, and dancers smile from every corner.
If you're very lucky, a little ginger kitten will come and play with you, too.
5. Amarapura, the City of Immortality (U Bein Bridge)
Not much survives of the capital at Amarapura, but it has one amazing sight: the great teak bridge that stretches nearly a mile across Taungthaman Lake. The bridge forms a gentle curve, with rest pavilions strung along it like beads on a necklace. It's particularly popular in the evening, when the flaming colours of the setting sun on the lake make the dark wood stand out against the light.
If you'd prefer to do some quality people-watching, go in the afternoon. Drink tea or Coca-Cola in one of the pavilions, and watch the world go by.
At the other end of the bridge, you'll find a serene temple in a wooded compound with lively frescoes painted on every wall and ceiling. On your way back, you may hear the clack and thud of looms in this textile weaving area, or see long rolls of cloth laid out to dry after dyeing.
7. Mingun Pahtodawgyi (The Unfinished Pagoda)
Mingun's pagoda is an immense pile of brick that can be seen from miles away down the River. It's a dark, looming presence that was meant to be a huge stupa, but was never finished.
What remains today is only the bottom third of what would have been the largest stupa in the world. Steep steps lead up to the top, where dangerous cracks open up in the brickwork. The panoramas of Mandalay and the River don't quite take your mind off the perilous scramble back down.
Another giant attraction of Mingun is the massive Mingun Bell, which occupies its own shrine. Crawl into the bell and stand up in the middle, and you can actually feel the sound of its 90 tonnes of bronze sinking right into your bones.
7. Hsinbyume Pagoda (Myatheindan Pagoda)
Mingun also has a more delicate attraction - the dainty, whitewashed Hsinbyume Paya. It's an almost completely circular mandala, with seven concentric terraces surrounding the central spire. It represents the holy Mount Meru that's said to stand at the centre of the world. The wavy outlines and delicate white make it feel delightfully feminine; appropriate since it commemorates a young queen who died in childbirth.
8. Sagaing Hill
This holy hill is bigger, higher, and wilder than Mandalay Hill, which you can see from its summit. The covered stairway makes a beeline for the summit temple, but if you have time to spare, wandering Sagaing's forests and visiting the cliff and cave monasteries that are cut into the rock is a fascinating way to spend a day.
9. Pyin Oo Lwin (65 km North of Mandalay)
In British India and Burma, cold-blooded Brits who couldn't stand the heat of the dry season created hill stations, resorts high in the cool microclimate of the hills. Pyin Oo Lwin is half Myanmar, half Victorian England, with old colonial buildings like the Candacraig Hotel and charming woodland suburbs.
It also houses the national botanical garden. It's a lovely place for a stroll, with a specialised orchid garden as well as a rather strange observation tower. The tower looks as if the nat spirits got hold of an English castle keep and dressed it up in Burmese clothing.