A comprehensive Lhasa Travel Guide about the major temples and monasteries
Lhasa is a unique place to visit. Would you like to see what you can expect from a trip to the Holy Tibetan City?
In our Lhasa Travel Guide, we show you the best places to see in Lhasa. We cover the most popular ones, such as the Potala Palace but show you also other places like the Drepung Monastery or the Sera Monastery with its monks’ debates.
We will give you a lot of background info.
Did you know for example that the Potala Palace was only used as the Winter residence of the Dalai Lamas or that pilgrims walk three circumambulation pathways?
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Welcome back to the second part of our Lhasa trilogy blog post series.
If you have missed the first part, we talked about the right preparation and some basic things about travelling to Lhasa, read it back here.
Apparently, the tips from our first post about Lhasa convinced you that everybody can have a relaxed travel to Lhasa. No need to be an adventurer. The right preparation is all that it takes.
Are you interested now to read about the best places you can see in Lhasa?
If yes, this second post is right for you. Based on our experience, we’ve tried to put some knowledge together – a comprehensive travel guide about Lhasa’s must-see attractions.
Prepare your Lhasa trip with mundolore
If you find the information in this post interesting and want to use it for your own planning you should also check out our Lhasa mini travel guides on mundolore.
For each place, described here, we created a 2-min read. You can just add these guides to your own planning using our free trip planner on mundolore. Or, you use the plain guide template, that we also provide at mundolore, to organise your own notes.
In our Lhasa mini travel guides, you will also find more background info for each of the places to see in Lhasa, as well as a lot more images!
In this blog post
In the present post, we will explore the amazing history and art of some of the most popular and best places to see in Lhasa – including Jokhang Temple, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Norbulingka, and, finally, the number-one attraction Potala Palace.
But before we jump into the details about temples and monasteries, let’s just have a very short summary of some good-to-know facts about Tibetan Buddhism – really just some basics. They might help to get an even better idea of the places and their backgrounds.
A few basics about Tibetan Buddhism
In the 7th century, Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main forms of Buddhism, was brought to Tibet through the 33rd Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. The Tibetan Buddhism adopted quite some elements from the original Tibetan Bon religion, a shamanistic religion about spiritualism, magic and demons. For example, the colourful Tibetan prayer flags with religious texts and images originate from the Bon religion.
Tibetans believe in reincarnation. The quality of the new life after rebirth depends on the karma that was collected in the life before. They also believe in numerous gods and demons. When visiting Lhasa, you are likely to learn about some of them. Find a short list of some important Tibetan Gods with more explanation in this mini guide.
At the height of Tibetan religious lordship, there were over 6000 monasteries in Tibet. However, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), thousands of them were destroyed. Fortunately, some have been built up again.
There are several Tibetan schools (orders). One of the most important order is the Gelug order, founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). Most important figures of the Gelug school are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the spiritual leaders of the Tibetans. Each Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the former Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second highest spiritual authority after the Dalai Lama.
Today, we talk about Lhasa being the cradle of Tibetan Buddhism. But did you know that a demon initially prevented the construction of the sacred Jokhang Temple and, thus, the propagation of Buddhism in Tibet? No, so let’s find out the story behind it together…
The Best Places to see in Lhasa
Jokhang Temple – the most sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism
Pilgrims from every corner of the country come to the most sacred temple – Jokhang Temple.
The temple, located in the centre of the old town of Lhasa, was built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo to promote the Buddhist religion.
Between 642 and 653, Nepalese builders aimed at constructing the Tsuglagkhang (original name of the Jokhang Temple). However, there was a demon spreading over Tibet, initially, preventing the construction of the temple in the centre of Lhasa. Fortunately, Princess Wencheng, Songtsen Gampo’s second wife, was able to defeat the demon.
You can learn more about this legend here.
Tsuglagkhang originally housed a statue of Jowo Mikyö Dorje (head of the Kagyu school in Tibetan Buddhism) – a gift from Princess Bhrikuti, Songtsen Gampo’s first wife. The statue of Jowo Mikyö Dorje was later brought to the Ramoche Temple (also in Lhasa) and replaced by the golden statue of Jowo Shakyamuni which is still there today. Princess Wencheng, Songtsen Gampo’s second wife, brought the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni from the capital of the Tang Dynasty. That’s why the temple became known as “the house of
Find the mini guide here for more info and images.
The Jokhang Temple is circumambulated by pilgrims on three different circular walkways – Nangkhor, Barkhor and Lingkhor.
Nangkhor, Barkhor and Lingkhor – the three circumambulation pathways
Pilgrims walk in a clockwise direction in the circumambulation streets.
They honour their deities by praying sacred mantras and turning their prayer wheels.
You will probably see some of them prostrating themselves throughout their walk until they reach the Jokhang Temple.
The innermost circumambulation walkway is the Nangkhor – with the Jokhang Temple being its centre. The middle circumambulation pathway is the Barkhor – which actually comprises a square and a one-kilometer-long street around the Jokhang Temple (former Tsuglagkhang). The circumambulation walkway Barkhor is surrounded by the old city of Lhasa followed by the outmost walkway, the Lingkhor.
mini travel guide with more images here.
Driving through Lhasa, it sometimes comes as a surprise how the circumambulation pathways have been integrated into modern infrastructure.
However, today’s modern infrastructure makes it also quite comfortable when moving from A to B.
For example, leaving the old city centre of Lhasa, and heading to the western suburb of Lhasa, you can reach one of the most important monasteries, the Drepung Monastery, within 15-20min. Let’s continue with this impressive monastery in our Lhasa Travel Guide.
Drepung Monastery – where leaders of Tibetan Buddhism studied
The Drepung Monastery is one of the great three Gelugpa University Monasteries (Sera, Drepung, Ganden). It is located at the foot of Gambo Utse Mountain, about 8km from the centre of Lhasa.
Drepung was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Chojey (1379-1449), a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Tibetan Gelug Buddhism. Important leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, including Dalai Lamas themselves, and, at its height, 10000 monks studied in Drepung. Up to the present day, it is a monastery and a Buddhism school.
With its 250000 square meters and numerous white buildings spread across the hill, it is also the largest Gelugpa Monastery in Tibet. One of the most important buildings on-site is the Ganden Potrang. The Ganden Potrang was built by the 2nd Dalai Lama in 1530. It was once the residence for Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama built the Potala Palace.
The monastery is also known for the famous Shoton festival. Learn here (look up ‘Activities’ on the guide) more about the festival and why it is also called Yoghurt Festival.
The Drepung Monastery definitely is on the list of the best places to see in Lhasa.
Another Gelugpa University Monastery, that is also not far away from Lhasa city centre, is the Sera Monastery. You probably don’t want to miss the famous monks’ debates there.
Sera Monastery – don’t miss the monks’ debates
Like the Deprung Monastery, the Sera Monastery is one of the Gelugpa University Monasteries. It is located in the northern suburb of Lhasa, in the southern slope of the Serawoze Mountain (about 5 km from Lhasa). It was founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe (1354-1435), who was also a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Tibetan Gelug Buddhism.
Sera has become a very popular place for tourists because of the famous monks’ debates on Buddhist scriptures in the afternoon. These debates are a possibility for the monks to discuss Buddhism doctrines and to learn within the group.
You are allowed to follow the debates very closely in the debate yard. It is a spectacular and impressive scenery when the monks emphasise their words with expressive gestures and loud voices while debating. In fact, the strong gestures do have special meanings – see this mini guide for more information (go to ‘Activities’ in the guide).
The guide also gives more details about the buildings of Sera Monastery and beautiful images.
Let’s head back to the centre of Lhasa. In our Lhasa Travel Guide, we still miss two important must-see attractions – the Summer and Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas.
Norbulingka – The Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas
Norbulingka, about 2km west of the Potala Palace, used to be the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas. The first buildings were constructed in 1755 under the 7th Dalai Lama. Subsequent Dalai Lamas ordered the construction of further buildings.
The Dalai Lamas stayed there during summer to meet guests and handle politics.
Norbulingka comprises several palace buildings, Buddhist halls, pavilions, and the largest garden in Tibet.
Buildings, that you should pay attention to during your visit, are the Tyokyil Potrang, the Kelsan Potrang, and the Takten Migyur Potrang.
Please, read here for more details.
Now, let’s come to our final stop of our Lhasa Travel Guide. We head over to Red Hill (Ri Marpo) in the centre of Lhasa Valley and the number one of the best places to see in Lhasa – the Potala Palace.
Potala Palace – The Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas
The Potala Palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama until 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) had to flee during uprisings.
The 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) began with the construction in 1645. The buildings were actually built over the remains of a former palace built in 637. At that time, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo ordered the construction of a palace for himself and his two wives – Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty. However, this former palace was destroyed during wars.
A one-of-a-kind building
The Potala Palace is huge. It comprises 13 stories of buildings including houses, towers and chapels. Already from afar, due to its prominent white and red colours, you can easily distinguish between the two main parts – the White Palace and the Red Palace.
The White Palace was actually completed earlier than the Red Palace. The 5th Dalai Lama moved from the Drepung Monastery into the White Palace in 1649. Subsequently, the Potala Palace became the political and religious centre of Tibet. The construction of the Potala Palace was entirely completed in 1694 – including the Red Palace (1690-1694).
Inside 1000 rooms (!), numerous sculptures, murals, handicrafts, painted scrolls, curtains, porcelain and other historical objects are placed. Highlights are innumerable murals showing important historical events.
Today, the Potala Palace is listed as UNESCO World Heritage site and parts of it are open to visitors. However, the number of daily visitors is restricted. Your tour operator will arrange the tickets for you. (for all info regarding tour operators see our first blog post)
The Potala Palace is obviously a great place to learn about Tibetan culture and history. However, this is true for so many places in Lhasa
Some valuable Tips
The diversity in history, religion and art can become overwhelming. Be aware, that some places can be quite crowded at certain day times – not giving you enough quiet to explore everything in detail. At other places, like e.g. the Potala Palace, your visit duration is actually limited to a certain visiting duration (1h is allowed for the Potala Palace).
And if you haven’t had a chance yet to read our first blog post of this trilogy, make sure to do so.
Lhasa – Practical Tips to Prepare your Trip
We give you all practical
From our own experience, it is very helpful if you’ve heard one or the other thing about Lhasa’s places before you arrive.
That’s why we also provide the information of this post in individual mini travel guides on mundolore. You can re-read these guides whenever you like and wherever you are. Practical tips are added as well.
Ease your trip and sightseeing planning with mundolore.
Let all impressions sink in before traveling further – The Tibet Train
Another good advice, after a few days of sightseeing in Lhasa, is to take your time before heading to your next “adventure“.
One possibility to lean back for a while and let all your impressions sink in is taking a long train ride to your next destination.
How about the Tibet Train along the Qinghai railway – the highest railway in the world?
That’s what we did. Within 2 days / 2 nights, we travelled back from Lhasa to Shanghai.
Excited to learn more?
In our final blog post of the present series, we let you know about what to expect from the 4373km on the Tibet Train between Lhasa and Shanghai.
For us, it was the perfect ending of a great trip to Lhasa.