Downtown Yangon is easily navigated on foot and the farther-flung areas can be reached without hassle by taxi or rickshaw. A fast-paced traveler could cover the best of Yangon in two days.
Inya Gallery of Art
Yangon native and self-taught artist Aung Myint opened this gallery in 1989. Aung was the first Burmese artist to win an ASEAN Art Award, and his work is in the permanent collections of the National Art Museum of Singapore and National Art Gallery of Malaysia, among others. Inya Gallery of Art showcases Aung's work as well as that of artists who work with similar themes. Most of the paintings are coloful, though Aung does have a series of black and whites.
New Zero Art Space
This nonprofit works to promote young Myanmar artists and to bring together artists and the community at large. New Zero hosts regular exhibitions, seminars, and workshops on art and film. Friday to Sunday from 4 to 6 pm there are free art classes (donations accepted) for children and adults. The space also has a small library with books and films about Myanmar's art scene. When it has the funds, New Zero also runs an artist-in-residency program to encourage Burmese artists to meet those from abroad.
New Treasure Art Gallery
Halfway between the Shwedagon Pagoda and Inya Lake is this gallery, which is owned in part by Min Wae Aung, Burma's best-selling artist, most well known for his highly detailed paintings of Buddhist monks. New Treasure's goal is to showcase the work of young Burmese artists, but Min Wae Aung also has a collection of 20th-century work from which today's artists draw much inspiration. Walk directly north and you'll reach the southern tip of Inya Lake; walk directly south and you can enter People's Park from the northern gate.
The motto of this gallery, which opened in 1971 and claims to be Myanmar's longest-running gallery, is "Truth, Beauty, Love." The nonprofit NGO is dedicated to promoting local artists, and represents 21 of them. It hosts exhibitions every few months and also works with embassies and other NGOs to put on shows and fairs.
Colorful paintings by local artists pack the walls at this gallery, which opened in 2008 and has frequently rotating exhibitions. The gallery is more than just a place where art hangs and is sold; it's a gathering place for Burmese artists both established and rising, as well as Yangon's expats and tourists. On Tuesday nights from 7:30 pm, Pansodan hosts a weekly gathering, with snacks, drinks, and usually one or two people playing guitar.
There's not a single western chain eatery in Yangon, which has a varied and vibrant restaurant scene.
999 Shan Noodle Shop
This pint-size, cheap-and-cheerful noodle stall is equally popular with locals and tourists. The friendly proprietors speak English well, and the picture menu has English descriptions. The noodles are those of the Shan ethnic group, and servings are available in soup or taken dry (e.g., fried-rice noodles with chicken). Rounding out the menu are sautéed vegetables, fried tofu, and pork skin. The owners can prepare plain and mild noodle dishes if you're not one for spice.
Ease into Burma at this clean, mid-market, Westerner-friendly restaurant popular with the expat and NGO worker set as well as upper-middle-class locals. The Thai food is plenty authentic and leans a bit into Burmese cuisine with excellent green curry. Be sure to order tom yum soup, any satay (the chicken in particular is very tender), and prawns.
The Governor's Residence is idyllic, but if you're staying there and enjoying the included breakfast buffet, it's well worth exploring what else Yangon has to offer for lunch and dinner. If you're not staying here, however, pack a swimsuit and head over. Come for lunch and enjoy an afternoon swim, or take a dip and then stay for dinner. Eschew Mandalay's tempting Continental options and instead try an upscale take on traditional Burmese food, accompanied by locally produced wine. Try the tongue-twisting ah-mel thar pha yone thee—beef and pumpkin curry with sesame cabbage and rice—and the spicy lephet thoke, a salad of pickled green tea leaves, butterbeans, peanuts, dry shrimp, and chili.
Eating at this busy spot that's always packed with locals is a delicious affair. The menu is tiny, with just three types of biryani—chicken, mutton, and vegetable (which sells out the fastest). Be sure to order your meal with pickles. Service is fast and efficient; this is the place to grab a lassi and eat quickly before returning to sightseeing. Nilar Biryani is always crowded. If you can't get a table, head just down the street to the equally good New Delhi (Anawratha Road between Shwe Bontha and 28th Street), where the menu is longer and includes plenty of vegetarian dishes. Don't skip out on the potato chapati, daal, and very spicy curries.
After a sweaty whirl through Bogyoke Market, take a load off at this neighboring restaurant. Zawgyi's back garden looks out onto the redbrick former railway headquarters, now abandoned; its front patio faces busy Bogyoke Aung San Road and is ideal for people watching. Is it cheating to plump for western food? We won't tell. The fare at Zawgyi is decent—sandwiches, crepes (sweet and savory), a few salads—but it's best for kicking back with a cold drink. The durian shake is smooth and creamy; the chocolate is closer to chocolate milk, but still refreshing.
If you decide to walk from Inya Lake back downtown, make a pitstop at gelato bar Scoop. There are half a dozen flavors to choose from, and the owner uses a combination of local fruits and imported ingredients. The mint and green tea are particularly delicious, but purists will be just as happy with good old standbys vanilla and chocolate.
Just around the corner from the Governor's Residence and some of the embassies is this bustling Burmese restaurant with a sizeable buffet. There's not much English spoken, but the drill is a simple one: stand by the buffet, point to what you want, and they'll bring it out for you. Everything is served with heaps of white rice and a plate of mixed greens that changes depending on what's available but will include something like baby eggplants, bitter greens, and bean sprouts. Stand-out dishes include giant curried prawns and the ubiquitous and delicious tea-leaf salad (ask for garlic and chilis or this one will feel a bit tame). It's always crowded here, the tables packed with a mix of tourists, local Burmese, and embassy staff.
Min Lane Seafood
Pull up a chair near one of the fans here and order an avocado shake to suck down while you peruse the menu. Once you're finished, order another; you'll need something to cool your mouth down after a bite of the rice noodles in a fiery broth. Once your sinuses have been cleared, move on to the delectable grilled seafood; there's crab, oysters, prawns, squid, and shellfish to choose from and all come to the table expertly charred. The restaurant is at the northern tip of Inya Lake, just north of the American Club.
Yangon has Myanmar's best western-style nightlife; late-night boozing just isn't the focus in this country (yet). There are still a handful of places to get a tipple, though, often with a side of excellent conversation.
Sapphire Bar & Lounge
The Shwedagon Pagoda is at its most gorgeous at night and, from Alfa Hotel's rooftop bar, you can see it clearly in the distance, a gilded piece of history shining bright. It's a simple bar where people gather for a drink or two and quiet conversation. A local harpist places plays nightly from 7 to 9. Because the rooftop is open, the bar is closed during Myanmar's rainy season, roughly June to September.
When the Strand Hotel opened in 1901, its swanky bar was the place to see and be seen. Today, Rangoon is a very different place and the bar is still pretty, if pretty staid, except on Friday nights, when it comes alive with expats who giddily pack in for two-for-one happy hour, which runs 5 to 11pm. Waiters glide around with trays of snacks like pizza and kebabs, which are ravenously gobbled up by NGO workers.
That steak and Guinness pie at the next table over is not an apparition. 50th Street is a proper pub, one that's been honing its craft since it opened in 1997, a lone island of burgers adrift in a sea of noodles. Today, the bi-level bar remains enormously popular with expats, foreign tourists, and a few wealthy Burmese. In addition to colonial favorites, the extensive menu includes a selection of pizzas. Portions are hearty, the better to be washed down with smoothies, cocktails, and draft beer. Beyond the food, 50th Street is somewhat of a clubhouse for the cities expats, so you'll find them here nightly, vying for pub quiz prizes or playing billiards.
19th Street, Chinatown
For a whole barbecued fish, a cup of draft beer, and a scene straight out of Mainland China, 19th street in Yangon's Chinatown is unbeatable. There are restaurants along both sides of the block, with little outdoor grills and plastic tables and chairs set up, the stools often occupied by locals in their undershirts and pajama bottoms. Chicken, pork, and fish are the three main dishes, but you'll find mushrooms, assorted sauteed greens, and of course, rice, too. BYOB is perfectly acceptable so if draft beer's not your thing, you can pop open that bottle of whiskey you carried over from Thailand.
The first Friday of every month sees foreigners flocking to the British Club for drinks and networking. The evening starts out calm enough but quickly becomes raucous, accented voices fighting to be heard over each other. Every expat in town will be here, along with foreign visitors who want to do a little mingling. The event kicks off at 7:30, but most people come around 9:30. Be sure to bring your passport for admission.
Hotel rooms are in high demand across Myanmar and prices reflect that. Yangon has some of the country's best and most expensive hotels, but there are still a few midrange options to be had.
Yangon doesn't have tons in the way of traditional souvenir shopping, but you will definitely not leave empty handed. Because this is most visitors' last stop, it makes sense to shop here on your last day rather than carry everything all over the country.
Pomelo supports nonprofits in Myanmar that work with disadvantaged groups, including families in poverty, those with HIV, the mentally and physically disabled, and the homeless. The goods at this cute fair-trade boutique are made by those with whom the NGOs work, and the result are fantastic. Sein Na Garr Glass Factory, for example, makes its beautiful vases with recycled glass bought from Yangon's garbage collectors. Lovely beaded jewelry comes from the children at Hlaing Thar Yar Disability Centre. Action for Public works with women and children with HIV, and the sweet stuffed animals and chic wallets and ornaments that dot Pomelo were expertly sewn by them. This is one of Yangon's loveliest little shops and a great place to pick up meaningful souvenirs.
This city-wide chain of small hypermarkets offers the best selection of edible souvenirs. Among the many options in the grocery section of the store are the makings for pickled tea-leaf salad, which is served across the country (leaves and fried beans) and all manner of candy ranging from ginger chews to chocolates. There's also a shelf of tea with interesting packaging and, toward the back, several shelves full of local beer and liquor.
This market, which opened in 1926, is enormous but clean, well-organized, and—despite sweltering temperatures outside—not an oven. Come here on your first day in Yangon to peruse the offerings, pick up a longyi (sarong) for temple visits, and exchange money. You'll get the best rate here, and it's not so much dedicated exchange counters that you'll find but vendors with bags of cash. Shops here sell stone and wood carvings; jade, silver, and gold jewelry; lacquerware; paintings by local artists; and a smattering of cosmetics and toiletries. If you're buying jewelry, do your research beforehand. On the whole, sellers here are not pushy, but no matter what you purchase, be sure to haggle.
This 325-foot-tall gilded pagoda is Yangon's top tourist attraction and, at 2,500 years old, the world's oldest pagoda. It is simply stunning. Admission is free for locals, and you'll see families, kids, groups of teenagers, and solo visitors milling around the pagoda all day, every day—praying, meditating, and just hanging out. The space is massive and never feels crowded. Women need a longyi (traditional sarong) or knee-length skirt to enter the pagoda, and all visitors are required to remove their shoes in the parking lot. During Yangon's hot days the pagoda glistens in the sun—it can be truly sweltering, and the floor can burn your bare feet. A better option is to come after the sun's gone down, when the Shwedagon is beautifully illuminated. There is an elevator for those who do not wish to climb up.
Yangon Circular Railway
There's no better bang for your buck in Yangon than a ride on the city's circle line. The three-hour tour covers 46 km (29 miles) and 39 stations on a railway loop that connects tiny towns and the suburbs with downtown Yangon. You'll see urban Yangon followed by shantytowns, grazing cows, ponds, barefoot giggling kids, and lots of greenery. The journey starts from the grand Yangon Central Station, whose style combines Colonial and traditional Burmese architectural elements and is itself a site. The train is the great unifier, with vegetable sellers, monks, kids, and commuters all hanging tight. Trains leave from Yangon Central platforms 4 and 7, one going clockwise and the other counterclockwise; the kindly ticket seller will personally guide you to the proper platform. Tickets are available at the station master's office at platform 7. You may be asked to show your passport to purchase tickets.
Strand Road and Southern Yangon
This meandering walk through southern Yangon gives a good overview of the city's streets, leading you to the Strand Hotel on Yangon's southernmost boulevard, adjacent to the river. Your first stop is Saint Mary's Cathedral (Bogyoke Aung San Rd. and Bo Aung Kyaw St.), a Dutch-designed Gothic Revival structure dating back to 1899. The cathedral survived a 1930 earthquake and the World War II bombings, although its original stained-glass windows were shattered and have been replaced. There's a small swing set in the cathedral's yard. Backtracking a bit, walk south and west toward Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (85 26th St., near Maha Bandoola Rd.), Burma's only remaining synagogue. Constructed in 1896, it's small but well maintained, with beautiful, simple stained-glass windows. Today its congregation contains just eight families; there remain in Yangon only 20 Jews. The street on which the synagogue sits is lined with Indian-run paint shops, and the shop houses are painted in gorgeous, eye-popping colors such as robin's egg blue, violet, and dark orange. From the synagogue, walk east and south to the Strand Hotel (92 Strand Rd. at 38th St.), which opened in 1901 and was frequented by Rudyard Kipling. Steep yourself in the hotel's rich history by enjoying traditional afternoon tea; both the classic English and a Burmese version are available.
The British created this artificial lake in 1883, and it's said to look much the same today as it did then. About 10 km (6 miles) north of downtown, the area surrounding the lake is home to the Yangon Sailing Club (established in 1924) and expensive homes belonging to Aung San Suu Kyi and the U.S. ambassador. You can circle the lake on foot in about two hours, and many of the paths are well shaded. Adjacent to the lake and next to Yangon University is the 37-acre Inya Park, enormously popular with young couples who come to canoodle, watch movies on their laptops, and gaze at the lake. There are small snack and drink shops near the parking lot and benches dotted all over. On the western side of the lake is Mya Kyuan Thar, a peninsula with a kids' playground and an amusement park.
Dallah and Twante
Just across the river from Yangon is the small village of Dallah, reached by ferry from the city's jetty. It's a 10-minute ride where you'll stand among vendors selling fruit, fried snacks, knickknacks, and fresh-rolled cheroots and cigarettes. Make a quick stop at the pagoda in Dallah before moving on to Twante (40-minute drive, go via cab, moto, or pick-up truck). Once there, hop a trishaw or a horse and buggy for a visit to the Shwesandaw Pagoda, a miniaturized version of the Shwedagon, and to the local pottery sheds. From Yangon, you can also go to Twante directly on the two-hour ferry.