Mandalay is a surprisingly young city, founded in 1857 by King Mindon partly to show the British, who were ruling Lower Burma from Rangoon, that his kingdom was still mighty. After being taken by the British in 1885, the city prospered until the Japanese invasion of 1942, which saw many of the old buildings levelled by Allied bombing. Today Mandalay is the commercial hub of Upper Burma, particularly important for trade with China and with a large Chinese community. It's also considered to be Myanmar’s cultural capital, and a handful of regular shows offer foreigners a glimpse into traditional performing arts.
Much of the downtown area, particularly south and southwest of the old royal palace, where many budget guesthouses are located, is constantly traffic-choked and first impressions are rarely positive. Yet even here the backstreets can hold surprises, such as the huddle of mosques and Hindu temples on 82nd and 83rd streets, between 26th and 29th streets (which are particularly atmospheric in the early evening). The streets further west, towards the river, are significantly quieter and a popular area for exploring by bicycle.