Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, can be found on the northern bank of the Lhasa River in the Himalayas. Nicknamed the ‘Forbidden City’ because of its many sacred religious sites, Lhasa translates to mean ‘Place of the Gods.’
Also dubbed the ‘City of Sunshine’ because of its average of eight hours of sunshine a day, Lhasa is one of the world’s highest capital cities. Having served as the center of the Tibetan Empire for hundreds of years, tourists flock here year-round to discover its imposing hilltop fortresses and ancient Buddhist shrines, temples, monasteries, and pilgrimage paths.
9. Norbulingka Summer Palace
Norbulingka, translated to ‘Treasure Park,’ was once the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas and boasts several lakes and palaces – as well as the highest, largest, and most picturesque gardens in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Originally built with just one palace in the 1740s after the 7th Dalai Lama discovered the beauty of this wild and remote region, nearly 300 years and several generations of Dalai Lamas later, the complex includes five sections – Tsokyil Palace, Kelsang Palace, Takten Migyur Palace, Golden Linka, and the Lake Heart Palace.
There are over 370 rooms and 30,000 cultural relics to discover. Highlights include the Dragon King Temple, the New Palace murals, Han-style pavilion, Tibet Museum, and Norbulingka Zoo – one of the highest on Earth. Don’t miss the Tibetan opera shows held daily during the July Shoton Festival.
Nestled on the slopes of Dagze County, Yerpa is a series of ancient caves, temples, and chapels carved into the limestone cliffs of the Yerpa Valley.
These caves were important in pre-Buddhist times and later became a sought-after spot for meditation for Buddhist figures like Songtsen Gampo, Padmasambhava, and Atisha. Today, the slopes are covered in multi-colored prayer flags and prayer wheels.
Due to its clifftop location, the monastery is not at all touristy; instead, it’s mostly visited by Tibetan pilgrims. The fresh air and countryside views from the top are well worth the climb! Don’t miss a visit to the nearby sky burial site on the holy mountain of Yerpa Lhari.
7. Tibet Museum
The Tibet Museum is the country’s official museum and its first modern museum. Tucked within Norbulingka Summer Palace, it’s home to over 520,000 relics and artifacts, from Chinese pottery to ancient Buddhist statues.
Built in 1994 using typical Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles, the museum opened in late 1999 to mark the 40th year of the country’s Democratic Reform and the 50th year of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Don’t miss the decorated beams and wall hangings in the Prelude Hall, and the Tibetan folk art ranging from handicrafts and costumes to jewelry.
6. Ganden Monastery
Overlooking the Kyi-chu Valley on the slopes of Wangbur Mountain and made up of over 50 buildings, Ganden Monastery is one of the oldest and largest Gelugpa Buddhist monasteries ever built.
It was founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, the master of the Yellow Hat Order of Tibetan Buddhism. When he died a decade later, his mummified body was buried in a silver and gold-coated tomb. When the monastery was attacked during the rebellion of 1959 and later shelled by the Red Guard artillery in 1966, Tsongkhapa’s remains were destroyed and the monks rebuilt.
Today, hundreds of monks call Ganden home, and it’s one of the Great Three Monasteries of Lhasa. Don’t miss the annual Buddha Painting Unfolding Festival in June and the Ganden Kora – a 45-minute pilgrimage that circles the sanctuary with incredible views over the Lhasa River.
5. Drepung Monastery
Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the Drepung Monastery’s white, red, and gold pagodas and chapels cascade down the slopes of the Gambo Utse Mountain. With an impressive 600-year history as the religious and political seat before Potala Palace was built, Drepung Monastery was once the largest and most powerful monastery in Tibet.
Drepung, which means “collecting rice,” is the Dalai Lama’s mother monastery. Home to more than 10,000 monks in its prime, it’s now home to just 300, yet it remains one of the Great Three Monasteries of Lhasa.
Now, Drepung contains seven colleges – Deyang, Gomang, Shagkor, Loseling, Gyelwa, Dulwa, Ngagpa, and Tosamling – each teaching different Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Visitors can discover 500-year-old Buddha statues as well as spectacular antique murals, china, and paintings here.
4. Barkhor Street
Located in the old district of Lhasa, Barkhor Street is an ancient circular street that loops around the Jokhang Temple. Built in 647 by the first Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, the path was formed by the feet of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims.
Paved by hand-polished slab stones and lined by traditional stores selling Tibetan knives, prayer wheels, and Tibetan scrolls, Barkhor Street is one of Lhasa’s most famous tourist attractions.
Visitors should hold the prayer wheels and walk Barkhor Street in a clockwise direction, following one of Tibet’s holiest rituals and pilgrimage routes.
3. Sera Monastery
At the foot of Pubuchok Mountain, the Sera Monastery is one of the Great Three Monasteries of Lhasa. It was named Sera, which means ‘wild rose,’ after the rose-covered hillside it was built on. Today, with its tree-lined, cobblestone walkways, it’s still one of the most beautiful monasteries in Tibet.
Founded in 1419, the Sera Monastery is dedicated to the Yellow Hat Order of Tibetan Buddhism. During its prime, it had five colleges and 5,000 monks. Today it’s much smaller; one of the few monasteries to escape complete destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it has three surviving colleges.
Highlights include the Coqen Hall (the largest hall), Sera Je College (the largest Buddhist college), and the ancient statue of Sakya Yeshe. Take your time discovering 500-year-old historic relics, from Buddhist texts and gold-and-brass statues to colorful stone paintings and silverware. Don’t miss the lively debates held here by hundreds of red-robed monks!
2. Jokhang Temple
Jokhang Temple, also known as Jokhang Monastery, is Tibet’s spiritual center. Set in the heart of the old district, it’s encircled by Barkhor Street – the holiest pilgrimage route for Tibetan pilgrims.
First built in the Tubo Period, Jokhang Temple is home to the oldest and holiest architecture in Lhasa, as well as 3,000 images of Buddha and other deities. It’s been rebuilt and enlarged many times and features a pleasing mixture of architectural styles influenced by China, India, and Nepal.
According to legend, the site was selected by Tang Princess Wen Cheng, King Songtsan Gampo’s wife, who had the temple built on top of a lake to deter evil spirits. Another of the king’s wives brought Jowo Sakyamuni, the statue that gives the temple its name: Jokhang means ‘Shrine of the Jowo’ or ‘House of Buddha.’
Don’t miss the jewel-adorned, life-sized Sakyamuni statue, the most sacred Tibetan statue, and a climb to the rooftop for captivating views of the pilgrim’s circuit and Potala Palace.
1. Potala Palace
Perched dramatically on the slopes of the Red Mountain, the Potala Palace is the highest ancient palace in the world. Having served as the winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th-century, Potala (which means ‘High Heavenly Realm’) was also the seat of the Tibetan government and a major military fortress.
First built as the original palace of Srong-brtsan-sgam-po on Mount Potala, it was destroyed and rebuilt on its current site in 1645 – chosen for its proximity to the Great Three Monasteries of Lhasa.
Today, the imposing red and white palace boasts over 1,000 rooms, including the Dalai Lama’s living space, the ceremonial hall and throne, and the gilded burial stupas of past Dalai Lamas. The Chogyal Drubphuk and the Phakpa Lhakhang, with the sacred Arya Lokeshvara statue, are the holiest rooms and remnants from the original palace.
Take your time exploring the palace – there’s so much to discover – with 698 murals, nearly 10,000 painted scrolls, and a bounty of Buddhist statues, chapels, and tombs.