All tours to Tibet include several days in the capital city, Lhasa. Because the city is so high (at 3656 metres), it’s necessary to stay there for a little while before travelling around the region to help with acclimatisation. It’s a good thing there are so many things to see and do in Lhasa!
1. Potala Palace
The Potala Palace is a symbol of Lhasa, and the whole of Tibet. It was originally built in the 7th century, and then developed in the 17th century into the grand, sprawling palace complex that it is now. It was home to the Dalai Lamas, the kings of Tibet and heads of Tibetan Buddhism, between the 17th and mid-20th century. Although the view of the outside is iconic, the smaller chapels, meditation rooms and living quarters inside are just as beautiful and interesting, and require quite a lot of time to see. As well as visiting in the daytime, take a walk after dark to appreciate how the palace is lit up at night.
2. Drepung Monastery
Drepung Monastery is the largest monastery in Tibet, and is situated at the foot of a hill on the edge of Lhasa. It is one of the three great university monasteries of Tibet, and was once believed to be the largest monastery in the whole world. It was first established in the early fifteenth century. Now, it is a place to visit for great views over the city of Lhasa and the surrounding hills.
3. Sera Monastery
Sera Monastery is another of Tibet’s great university monasteries. Every day, in the mid-afternoon, the young monks debate Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in an open courtyard, and tourists are welcome to come and watch. The debating is quite a performance–the red-robed monks clap their hands loudly when their adversaries make a mistake.
4. Jokhang Temple
The Jokhang Temple is the holiest temple in Tibet, and is situated in the heart of Old Lhasa. The courtyard out the front is a good place to watch local Tibetans gather to worship, especially early in the morning when they come to prostrate themselves in front of the temple. The views from the flat rooftop are also spectacular, as you can look down on the courtyard and across to the Potala Palace.
5. Old Tibetan town
The most attractive part of Lhasa is the Old Tibetan town, the area around the Jokhang. Here you can find traditional style Tibetan buildings (a sharp contrast to the modern, Chinese structures throughout the rest of the city) and narrow lanes. This is the heart of Tibetan life in Lhasa, so it’s also a great place to people-watch. The nearby Tibetan Summit Fine Art Cafe is a particularly good place to get an excellent cup of coffee afterwards.
6. Summer Palace–Norbulingka
Just outside the central city, the Norbulingka, or Summer Palace, is a relaxed place to spend a morning. You may be the only tourists there. It is the largest horticultural park in Tibet, and it’s nice to wander through the sprawling grounds, with its abundance of trees, as well as visit the various palace buildings spread throughout the park. It’s also fun to collect the hard-shelled walnuts fallen from trees and snack on them along the way–if you can open them!
Shopping in Lhasa is great fun, as there are so many covered markets with colourful stalls. Head to the Old Tibetan Town, around the Jokhang, for the most authentic Tibetan souvenirs. Look for beautiful strands of prayer beads, jewellery, rugs, wall hangings, brass pots and Tibetan-style clothing.