Shwedagon Pagoda is, without a doubt, Yangon's main attraction for tourists and locals alike. The 2,500-year-old shrine is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Shwe means "gold" in Burmese, and the 361-foot stupa (a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine, usually containing religious relics) is covered with 11 tons of it, while the top is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds -- the largest of which totals 72 carats. The entire complex contains hundreds of temples, statues and smaller stupas, with untold numbers of Buddhas, large and small. At night, it's a popular and lively place for locals to gather, visit and worship. There are four entrances, oriented to the cardinal directions, each with an impressive staircase. The south side has an elevator, while the east stairway is considered the most interesting with its vendors and views of the main stupa as you climb the steps. (Ar Za Nir Street)

Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known by its British name, Scott Market, houses more than 2,000 stalls and shops, selling a huge selection of handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, art and even antiques. Yes, the main section is mostly devoted to the tourist trade, but venture further, and you'll find locals shopping and grabbing a snack, too. Lacquerware, carved wood and items from the country's various ethnic groups (Shan shoulder bags, for example) are great souvenirs. If you enjoy markets, allow at least two hours there. (Bogyoke Aung San Road; stalls generally open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

It's said that Yangon has the largest number of colonial buildings remaining in Southeast Asia. Most were built around the turn of the last century, and their condition varies widely, from pristine to decayed. The greatest concentration can be found in the old area next to the river. Structures along Strand Road include the Customs House, the Myanmar Port Authority, the Inland Water Transport Building and the beautifully restored Strand Hotel, which keeps up the tradition of afternoon tea. Other noteworthy buildings include City Hall, the High Court, the huge (and currently vacant) Secretariat building and two cathedrals, Saint Mary's and Holy Trinity.

The National Museum exhibits the treasures of the last king of Myanmar, including his 26-foot-high Lion Throne, ceremonial costumes and jewel-encrusted articles from his household. The museum's labeling, displays and lighting aren't the best, though, and no cameras are allowed inside. (26 Pansodan Street; daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 951-282-563 or 951-282-608;)

Plenty of other Buddhist sites provide venues to contemplate, many a bit more peaceful than Shwedagon. By the river, Botataung Pagoda is smaller, but you can go inside the hollow stupa to see relics on display. Sule Pagoda (Maha Bandoola Road 95-1) is located in the center of a busy traffic circle, across from City Hall. (Avoid the disreputable money-changers in the circle of shops surrounding this pagoda.) At Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Taing Street), the draw is a large, Indian-style seated Buddha with armor, while Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Daing Road) features a giant statue of the reclining Buddha.

Architecturally significant places of worship for other religions include Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (85 26th Street) and Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque (across from Sule Pagoda). Both display their own interpretations of colonial architecture.

Those who've followed the country's leading proponent of democracy might want to visit Aung San Suu Kyi's House (54 University Avenue), where the Nobel laureate was imprisoned under house arrest. You can't go beyond the gates, but since security was relaxed in 2010, you can take photos and peer inside at the grounds. However, you can go inside the house where Suu Kyi's father once lived, now the Bogyoke Aung San Museum (15 Bogyoke Aung San Lane; open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Considered to be a hero of the movement for independence from the British, he was assassinated in 1947.

To experience local life, intrepid travelers can take a ride on the Circular Railway, which serves as transport to the city's outer suburbs. You'll rub shoulders with locals as you sit on wooden seats in crowded, non-air-conditioned cars. Vendors toting baskets of produce destined for city markets hop aboard, all sorts of hawkers ply the aisles, and you'll be as much of an attraction to passengers as they are to you. The entire roundtrip takes three hours, leaving from the main train station -- though it's possible to get off along the way and return by taxi.