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How to Make the Most of Your Time in Lhasa (plus the Sky Train)

Many of the travelers who contact us for trips in Tibet have wanted to go to Lhasa for a long time. But most folks don’t have much time for their Lhasa tour.

Tips for Planning Your Tibet Trip
The World Heritage Site Potala Palace in Lhasa.

2024 Travel Advisory: 

China is piloting visa-free programs for certain countries for entry to China, but all international travelers to Tibet also require a special Tibet permit.

US travelers must have both a Chinese visa (which you get on your own in the US) and a special Tibet travel permit, which you must get from an official Tibet travel agency. Starting January 1, 2024, China is simplifying the visa process for Americans, removing required proof of round-trip flights, hotel reservations and itinerary.

If you need help traveling to Tibet, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan travel agency here, at no cost to you.

The good news?

Lhasa holds many of the cultural and spiritual treasures of Tibet, and you can have an amazing adventure in one short week that includes travel to Lhasa on the Tibet “sky” train.

In this post we show you a one-week tour that offers you:

  • the key highlights of Lhasa
  • a journey on the sky train
  • a taste of the Amdo region of Tibet
  • a local Tibetan guide and agency
  • authentic local atmosphere with real Tibetans
  • an itinerary that takes altitude sickness prevention seriously. 
Three-story statue of the Buddha Maitreya (Jampa Tongdroel) at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.
Three-story statue of the Buddha Maitreya (Jampa Tongdroel) at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.

More on that in a minute…

First, you should know that since no independent travel is allowed to Tibet and you must work with a travel agency, you want to be sure to choose a Tibetan-owned agency, which hires Tibetan guides only.

The simplest way to do this is ask us to connect you to a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agent to plan a great trip for you that also supports the local Tibetan economy and culture.

The Sky Train and Lhasa Highlights Tour

Here’s a brief outline of a tour that allows you to make the most of a very short time in the country.

What are the highlights in Lhasa?

The great city of Lhasa holds a concentration of magnificent Buddhist treasures, both spiritual and artistic. Here are the ones you do not want to miss:

  • The Jokhang Temple, housing the Jowo Rinpoche, most sacred statue in Tibet, which portrays the Buddha at age 12. 
  • The bustling Barkhor devotional circuit around the Jokhang Temple which is also Lhasa’s central market area.
  • Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lamas since the 7th century, an architectural and Buddhist masterpiece.
  • Drepung Monastery, foremost among the great three Gelukpa monasteries of Tibet. Narrow lanes weave among the ancient chapels full of great Buddhist art and statuary.
  • Sera Monastery, the great 15th century Buddhist institution, where you can see young monks debate every day except Sunday.

How can I experience the “real Tibet”?

Most travelers want to experience the “real” Tibet and not some Disneyland version of it. The single most critical thing you can do to have an authentic experience is to hire a Tibetan-owned agency to handle your trip. You have to go through an agency anyway, so it makes the best sense to hire a reliable, Tibetan-owned and staffed travel agency.  In that way, you will ensure that your guide is a local Tibetan who can take you to hotels owned by Tibetans and to tea houses and restaurants where Tibetans spend time. (If you need help finding a reliable Tibetan-owned travel agency, contact us here.) You get the most authentic experience possible and you serve the local Tibetan economy at the same time.  Also, check out our post on 17 Dos and Don’ts for a first visit to Lhasa and How to Make the Most of Your Time in Lhasa.

How can I stay safe in terms of altitude sickness?

This trip was specially designed to help you adjust to Lhasa’s high altitude in a reasonable way. (See this post on Itineraries for Preventing Altitude Sickness.) However, due to the logistics of getting to Lhasa, there is no straightforward way to get perfectly acclimatized before you arrive.

Even with an itinerary that is designed to prevent altitude sickness, it is a good idea to consult a travel doctor to see if you might benefit from taking Diamox, altitude sickness medication.

A major factor to staying healthy at altitude is taking time ascending. Flying from sea level to Lhasa is not the way to do it! The train journey is not in itself a good way to acclimatize. (See this post on The Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train.)

You will need some days at intermediate altitudes, such as in Xining, and you’ll need to go easy your first days at high altitude. For this reason, we recommend that you get as much time as you can for your trip to Tibet. Traveling to Tibet is expensive, it takes a while to get there, it takes time to acclimate, and it is well worth spending the extra time if you possibly can.

Lhasa Train Station
Tibet Train: Arrival in Lhasa

How do I book this tour?

Click here to request an introduction to a reliable Tibetan agent who can help you book the trip . (In the comments section on the form, note that you would like to book a custom trip that combines the Lhasa highlights journey with 1 to 2 nights in Xining, sightseeing of Tibetan sites in Xining, plus the Tibet train.)

What is the best time to visit Lhasa? 

Lhasa has a surprisingly mild climate. April to November is the usual recommended time to travel, and many prefer August and September. Summer tends to be sunny and warm, even hot, during the day, with cool nights that can be rainy. (It can at times rain during the day in the summers, too.) The wettest month is July. The advantage of summer is the warmth and green landscapes. The downside is the hordes of tourists from mainland China and some possibility of rain.

October and most of November are clear and cold, but generally not freezing, so can be great for some. Some hardy types prefer the drier, very cold, winter months for fewer tourists and mostly clear skies, and for the crowds of nomads who come into town as pilgrims during their winter down time. You will want to avoid the Chinese national holidays in early October, when Lhasa is packed. 

Late winter can bring strong cold winds, which become especially strong in February and March. Lhasa folk call this the Spring Wind — chilha. It’s important to note that the entire TAR, Tibetan Autonomous Region, is typically closed to non-Chinese travelers for the later half of February and all of March due to political reasons. April will begin to warm again and can be a good time to travel. To be on the safe side, you may want to avoid the first week of April to be sure you miss the end of the annual March travel restrictions.

Lhasa Climate Averages

Warmest month: June, 75 F/ 24 C.
Coldest month: January,  14 °F / -10 °C
Driest months:  January and December, 0% average rainfall.
Wettest month: July,  4.8 inches/122 mm of rain, sleet, hail or snow falling across 13 days.
(Temperature information from climatemps.com.)

Learn more about Tibet weather >>

Do I really need a guide if I’m only traveling in Lhasa?

Yes, unfortunately, you do. Since 2008, foreign travelers have been required to have a guide every day even in Lhasa. As our friend Ellen Ebens (see her post A Dutch Travel Junkie Addicted to Tibet) notes: “Although foreign travelers need to have a guide for every day even in Lhasa, it’s no problem at all to wander around Lhasa on your own. But the guide needs to accompany you to sites like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and monasteries like Drepung and Sera. Don’t go there without your guide!”  That is the case right now (as we write in February 2016) but the restrictions situation in Tibet changes constantly. Before striking out on your own, talk privately to your guide to see if it is possible for you to have a little time to yourself to wander around, but be mindful that it may not possible on any given day due to political considerations. Please don’t put your Tibetan guide at risk by doing what he or she recommends against!

How can I start planning my Lhasa Tour?

If you need help finding a reliable Tibetan-owned agency, fill out the short form here and we will forward the information to one of our highly recommended locally owned Tibetan travel agents, who will contact you directly and give you all the help you need. Truly, one of the great advantages of Tibet travel is that your travel agents handle so many things for you, including getting your Tibet travel permit and helping book trains or flights from mainland China. 

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7 responses to “How to Make the Most of Your Time in Lhasa (plus the Sky Train)”

  1. Juliet GUTIERREZ Deseo Avatar
    Juliet GUTIERREZ Deseo

    I found your website very informative. Love to travel to Tibet someday! Thank you.

  2. basanta Avatar

    As my mother tongue is Tibetian and i had spent most of my childhood in Tibet. I had visited most of the place in Tibet but its been long since i haven’t been Tibet.

    But after looking above pic it reminded me of Tibet.

    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful pic.

    1. We are so happy to help you see Tibet again, Basanta, even if from afar.

      Best wishes to you!

  3. Although foreign travelers need to have a guide for every day even in Lhasa, it’s no problem at all to wander around Lhasa on your own. But the guide needs to accompany you to sites like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and monasteries like Drepung and Sera. Don’t go there without your guide!

    1. Thanks Ellen! Always good to check with your guide, and not to pass checkpoints in Lhasa without him or her.

      1. There are some checkpoints in Lhasa where your bag is checked like on airports. For instance when you are going to the Barkhor or to the area around the Potala Palace. It’s no problem at all to pass these checkpoints on your own. Only don’t go to the places I mentioned before without your guide.

        1. Right, thanks, Ellen! We will update the language above.

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