This is a complete guide to the top things you need to know to visit Lhasa.
In fact, these are the exact lessons we’ve learned from multiple trips to Lhasa over the years, so you don’t need to make the same mistakes we’ve made.
Let’s get started.
TOP 7 QUESTIONS ABOUT LHASA
Some quick answers to common questions about the Place of the Gods
As a traveler, you have questions about Lhasa.
Let’s get you some answers…
1. Where is Lhasa?
To find Lhasa on a map, first locate Tibet in the area roughly between India and mainland China.
As you see on the map below, Lhasa itself, marked with the large red pin, is due north of Bhutan.
While historically the large land mass of Tibet has been a country, in the 1950’s it was occupied by China. “Today, China governs western and central Tibet as the Tibet Autonomous Region while the eastern areas are now mostly ethnic autonomous prefectures within Sichuan, Qinghai and other neighbouring provinces.” (Wikipedia)
2. Is Lhasa safe?
Lhasa city has a reputation for being generally safer for travelers than cities in mainland China.
(This is not the case for Tibetans themselves, who face all kind of risks.)
Personally, we feel much safer in Lhasa than we do in our home city in the San Francisco Bay Area.
That said, we don’t really do night life in Lhasa, outside of visits with family friends, so there is likely more risk if you are out late at the nangma’s which is what Tibetans call the clubs where folks gather to hear singing and to drink.
You would want to take the same precautions you take at home against pickpockets and general theft and personal safety.
To help with that, here’s a great list of lessons learned on safe solo travel by 33 expert women travelers.
The biggest risk you will face everywhere in Tibet is of getting a bad case of altitude sickness.
We have a complete beginner’s guide to preventing altitude sickness to help keep you healthy.
3. Is Lhasa worth visiting?
In a word, yes!!
Lhasa, Tibet is like nowhere you have ever been.
Even though the high-altitude center of the Tibetan world has been systematically restricted and sinicized, it is still vibrantly Tibetan.
And it’s as amazing, mysterious and otherworldly as it ever was.
Lhasa — which means place of the gods — is home to more magnificent cultural treasures than you can count.
Just as a start, three UNESCO world heritage sites are located in Lhasa:
- the Potala Palace, which dominates the Lhasa skyline, and was winter home of many Dalai Lamas
- the ancient Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism
- the Norbulingka Palace, used by Dalai Lamas as a summer residence
No one forgets their first sight of the golden roofs of the Potala Palace rising high above the city, set against a backdrop of high-altitude mountains that line the Lhasa River valley. (The river is known by Tibetans as the Kyichu.)
Or the winding alleys of the Tibetan Old Town surrounding the Jokhang Temple that are filled with vibrant Tibetan life. (See 17 Do’s and Don’ts for a Wonderful First Visit to Lhasa)
Besides, Lhasa is home-base for the fantastic journey to the base camp of Mount Everest.
And to one of the world’s great treks — the breathtaking pilgrimage circuit around the base of holy Mount Kailash.
It’s not surprising that many a world traveler considers Tibet their favorite place on earth.
If you need help traveling to Tibet, ask us for an introduction to a reliable Tibetan agent.
4. Can you visit Lhasa?
Yes, generally speaking, foreign travelers can visit.
Lhasa is located in what the Chinese government calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The TAR has restrictions but is generally open to foreign travelers except a couple of months a year. (In most past years, permits are closed down for much of February and March.)
To visit the TAR, and Lhasa, you need two documents: a Chinese visa and a special Tibet permit.
Importantly, you also need to be on an organized tour. (You can be on a private organized tour, or a group tour.)
If you’re looking for a reliable travel agent to help you travel to Tibet, ask us for an introduction to a local Tibetan agent to help you.
See the How to Get to Lhasa section (coming soon) for more.
5. How to get to Lhasa from Beijing?
Here’s how to do it…
Arrange your Entrance Documents
First, keep in mind that to enter any city in mainland China, like Beijing, you need a Chinese visa. You will get this from a Chinese consulate or embassy in your home country.
Then, to be allowed to go from Beijing to Lhasa (or anywhere in the Tibet Autonomous Region), you will need a special permit, in addition to your visa. And, you have to be on an organized tour.
Luckily, you arrange both the organized tour and the special permit from authorized Tibet travel agencies.
The sooner you begin working with an agency to arrange your Tibet travel, the better. Even a year or more in advance is no problem, though 2-3 months can work in a pinch. (If you need a recommendation for a good agency, ask us here.)
A good agent can advise you on flight or train tickets for getting from Beijing to Lhasa.
You have a few choices…
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
From Beijing, you have a choice of flying, taking a train, or possibly even going overland if you have more time.
You can combine these options as well.
We like to fly into Beijing or Chengdu, spend a day or two, then fly to Xining and spend a few nights, then take the train from Xining to Lhasa. (This method helps with acclimatization. See more in the 5 Biggest Lhasa Mistakes section below.)
We have not taken the overland route yet, but in 2019, the Sichuan Tibet highway ostensibly opened to foreigners. (Chinese tourists had already been using it.)
If you have a lot of time, you may want to check into this. Note that you will still need a Tibet permit and to be on an organized tour to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Contact us here to be connected with a Tibet travel agent who can arrange this for you.
6. What is Lhasa weather like?
The weather is more mild than you might think. You can travel there year-round, though most folks find it most comfortable somewhere from April to November.
Current Weather in LhasaLHASA WEATHER
Summer tends to be warm and sunny (even hot) during the day. Summer nights are cool and can be rainy. Rain can make roads muddy as you venture out of town and obscure mountain views.
The fall months of October and most of November are clear and cold, but not freezing, so can be great.
Winter is definitely quite cold, though it can be an ideal time to travel. Winter months bring far fewer tourists and mostly clear skies.
Late winter and early spring can bring strong cold winds, which become especially strong in February and March. Local folk call this the Spring Wind — chilha. Tibet is normally closed anyway at this time of year.
Spring really kicks around mid April this can be a good time to visit.
Lhasa, Tibet Weather Averages
7. What is the altitude of Lhasa, Tibet?
Lhasa elevation: 12,001 feet/ 3,658 meters
To anyone who has felt breathless in Lhasa, it may come as a surprise that it is not the highest large city in the world, though it easily makes it into the top ten.
And yet, at a “mere” 12,000 feet, the high altitude is the single most important thing that every traveler needs to be prepared for.
We are passionate about helping travelers avoid altitude sickness by following simple acclimatization rules. You can learn all about how to do that in our comprehensive Avoiding Altitude Sickness Guide.
If you need help with a recommendation for a reliable Tibet travel agency to plan a trip to Tibet, contact us here.
5 BIGGEST LHASA MISTAKES
Avoid these 5 mistakes so that you can have a better experience on your once-in-a-lifetime journey.
1. Not taking steps to be healthy at Lhasa’s altitude
The single biggest mistake that first-time visitors to Lhasa make is to not prepare for the high elevation.
And then feel sick on their trip due to altitude sickness.
We can’t overstate what a bummer it is to feel horrible on your dream trip — splitting headache, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty sleeping.
Here’s us, sick and exhausted on Yolanda’s first trip to Tibet:
What’s worse is that you can actually have to cut your trip short, or even put your life in danger.
The good news is that there’s no need to experience any of that.
You can take steps to be safe and feel good, even from your first day at high altitude.
In a nutshell, you need to…
- Don’t assume your travel agency will take care of this for you. Even great travel agencies that offer altitude sickness advice with great confidence get it wrong ALL THE TIME. It’s far better to inform yourself about how to avoid altitude sickness.
- Ascend as slowly as possible. For example, take a flight to Xining, which is a good starter point for acclimatizing. Spend 2 nights there, taking day trips to local Tibetan monasteries. Take the Tibet train to get a tiny more acclimatization. (But don’t expect the train in itself to be enough. See The Biggest Mistake People Make about the Tibet Train to learn why.
- Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for Diamox if you can’t ascend slowly. This applies to most travelers, especially if you are flying to Lhasa, but even if you are stopping in Xining and taking the train.
- Note that no natural remedies have been proven effective in peer-reviewed clinical trials.
You can avoid the common mistakes that travelers make by checking out our extensive info for preventing altitude sickness in Tibet, and our up-to-date and complete beginner’s guide to avoiding altitude sickness.
2. Not spending enough time in Lhasa
This mistake is actually related to mistake #1.
The problem with this…
… is that you quite quickly ascend to even higher heights:
- Everest Base Camp: 17,060 ft/ 5,200 m
- Lake Namtso: 15,400 ft/ 4,700 m
- Darchen, at the foot of Mount Kailash: 15,313 ft/ 4,667
Basically, you don’t have time to really acclimate before you zoom out to places that stress your body even more.
Three nights is a bare minimum to begin to acclimatize to the high elevation in Lhasa, especially if you fly in.
What to do instead?
Plan to spend more time in Lhasa, so you can take it really easy your first couple of days, and then feel good for your whole trip.
Trust us, we’ve learned the hard way that it’s a huge mistake to cut it all short and feel wretched while you’re rushing from place to place.
And there’s plenty to see in amazing Lhasa if you extend your visit so you can acclimatize more.
But I’m on a fixed group tour…
A great way to do this if you’re taking a group tour is simply plan to arrive a few days early.
You still need to be on an official tour for all the days you’re in Lhasa, so you can add a few days of private tour.
Note you want the extra days at the beginning of the tour, not the end!
If you need to connect to a good agency able to help with this kind of plan, ask us for an introduction here.
3. Not choosing a Tibetan-owned agency
If you’re here on YoWangdu Tibet, then likely you are the kind of person who already knows something about Tibetan history.
You probably already want to support the Tibetan people.
If you do, then the single most important thing you can do when you travel to Tibet is to support Tibetans by choosing a genuine Tibetan-owned agency.
Chinese agencies faking as Tibetan-owned
We say “genuine” because there are a lot of Chinese-owned agencies that pretend to be “local.”
Some of them just straight up lie on their websites and say they are “Tibetan-owned” and “based in Lhasa.”
One of these is one of the most well-known Tibet travel agencies, and even has a 2020 Travelers’ Choice award on TripAdvisor!
You have to wonder how many travelers would be happy to travel with them if they knew that the lion’s share of their trip dollars were going to the Chinese owners.
And that the Tibetans who work for them have little choice because there are so few spots on Tibetan-owned agency teams.
How to avoid making this mistake?
We’ve spent years working with travel agencies in Tibet — and checking search results in Google and travel sites like Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet — and we believe that there’s no way to identify a true Tibetan-owned agency just by searching online.
You need to know which ones are truly Tibetan owned by knowing the people.
If you want to support Tibetans, you can ask us to refer you to a genuine Tibetan agency here.
4. Visiting the Tibet Museum
The Tibet Museum reputedly houses a decent collection of Tibetan prehistory artefacts, as well as a range of cultural exhibits, from Tibetan medicine and astronomy to thangka scrolls and jewelry.
We don’t know, because we would never set foot in it.
But why not?
Because it includes a political history section that is blatant propaganda, and because of the tragic sourcing of the priceless Buddhist items.
5. Planning to see Mount Everest from Lhasa
You can’t actually see Mt. Everest from Lhasa…it’s too far.
The first point that you can see Everest on a trip out of Lhasa is on the road between Lhatse and Shelkar, at the Gyawu La Pass.
So if you want to view the highest mountain on earth, know that you will need to take an Everest Base Camp tour.
Don’t make the mistake of traveling from Kathmandu to Lhasa overland, with a plan to stop at Everest Base Camp along the way.
This route presents extreme altitude sickness risk, because of the elevations that you sleep along the way.
It’s far better to go the opposite direction — from Lhasa to Kathmandu, stopping at EBC.
As we mention above in mistake #1 in this section, there are steps you can take to lessen your risk of altitude sickness when you travel to Lhasa.
One of those steps is NOT traveling overland from Nepal to Tibet.
WHAT TO SEE IN LHASA
We’ve never met anyone who didn’t come away from Lhasa, the City of the Gods, with memories of a lifetime.
There’s just no place like it on earth.
First up, a pro tip…
You will be on an official tour in Lhasa and they will take you to the main sites, but if you can, add 2-3 extra days to the beginning of your tour.
That way, you can have much-needed extra time to acclimatize to the altitude, and get a much more local feel for the city.
(Ask your travel agent to add some private tour days to the beginning of your trip if you are on a group tour. Ask us here if you need help connecting with a good agent who can do that.)
What to do in Lhasa when you first arrive
Your body is freaking out inside at Lhasa’s high altitude, and you need to give it some love (and hydration).
That said, most travelers, including us, are way too excited to just lay around their hotel rooms. What we do as a compromise is to take very easy strolls in the Old Town area around the Jokhang Temple.
Jokhang and Barkhor in the Old Town
You’ll need to be with your tour guide to visit the fantastic Jokhang Temple, but you can wander the fascinating streets around it on your own. (You don’t need a guide to go through the police checkpoints. Just queue up with everyone else and show your passport.)
There is a main prayer loop around the Jokhang called the Barkhor, and that’s a perfect place to start. It’s easy to find on a map, or just ask your guide or the hotel staff.
You’ll want to walk, with everyone else, in a clockwise direction, since that’s the way to walk a prayer circuit in Tibet.
We love to walk the Barkhor multiple times a day and never get tired of the feeling of being part of the Tibetan crowd.
And you can venture off in any direction from the main Barkhor, and explore the market streets and old alley ways that radiate out from the Jokhang.
For ideas on exploring some hidden treasures in the Barkhor area, check out:
Potala Palace Area
The Potala Palace is another major tourist site that will be included on your official tour, but there are excellent spots nearby that you can check out on your own.
The Potang Shakhor is the prayer circuit (kora) that Tibetans walk around the holy Potala. (It is also called the Tsekor.)
Like the Barkhor is chock a block with Tibetans from all walks of life and a great thing to do multiple times on your visit. It’s also flat, so a decent thing to do if you can’t force yourself to rest on your first day.
To get on the Potang Shakhor, just approach the Potala from any direction and follow the crowd clockwise in a circle around the base of it. You will need to enter a police checkpoint with your passport. Don’t confuse the prayer circuit entrance with the main tourist entrance at the front of the Potala. The checkpoints are more to the side.
There’s an excellent vista point to photograph the Potala Palace, across the street from the southwest corner of the Palace. To get there, cross the street from the Potala at the crosswalk by the big white stupha near the west side of the front of the Potala. (This stupha is the Western Gate of Old Lhasa, called the Pargo Kaling by Tibetans.)
To the southwest rises Chakpori Hill, and the vista point is built into it.
Just at the corner when you cross there is an iron door, open during the day, and a narrow set of stairs that will take you up to the vista point.
If you have some spare time, there’s a very seldom visited near the Potala vista point that is worth a visit. It’s called the Palubuk (also called the Phalu Lubu, Traklha Lughuk, and the Phala Lubu!)
It’s a sweet little local place, just a few chapels built into a cave from the time of Songstan Gampo with a caretaker monk.
A Buddha statue inside is “self arising” from the rock and then carved further by Nepali craftsmen.
The Palu Lubu is a wee bit southwest of the Potala, along the bottom of the same Chakpori Hill that the vista point is part of. Just walk south, following the curve of the hill until you see steps leading up to the entrance of the red and white chapel buildings.
Pro Tip: There’s a sweet perspective of the Potala from the front of the Palu Lubu, for a nice image.
Drepung and Sera Monastery Koras
Two of Lhasa’ great monasteries — Drepung and Sera — are on every tour. And you don’t want to miss them.
But the tours often leave off the scenic kora paths (prayer circumambulations) around the monasteries.
The monasteries are wonderful, but they are often packed with tourists, while the prayer paths give you a whole different perspective, and put you among Tibetans.
You need to be decently acclimated, since the kora paths at Drepung and Sera are basically hikes circling the huge monasteries.
You will usually find the kora by following local Tibetan old men and ladies along rows of prayer wheels and mani stones. As always, walk clockwise.
After walking a monastery kora or two, you will easily recognize where you need to go at pretty much any monastery.
If you’re going to Drepung on a private tour, don’t miss Nechung Monastery as well. It’s just next door and creepily associated with a lot of the older, darker aspects of Buddhism. It’s also the seat of the Tibetan state oracle, consulted by Dalai Lama’s for centuries.
From Sera Monastery you can also trek up to Sera Utse retreat and the Dode Valley, both of which are on our list for a future trip to Lhasa.
Ramoche Temple and the Tsepak Lhakhang
Ramoche is one of our favorite spots in Lhasa. It’s far less visited by tourists than the famous but historically important, and always full of local Tibetans.
Plus, it has a main image that represents Buddha Shakyamuni at eight years old.
You find the Jokhang about a kilometer north of the Jokhang, in the middle of a bustling market street.
The Ramoche is roughly as old as the Jokhang and once housed the famous Jowo Rinpoche statue that is now in the Jokhang.
Right next door to the Ramoche is another sweet local spot, the Tsepak Lhakhang (Long-Life Shrine).
Look for the sign to the entrance to the left of the main gate of the Ramoche. It’s to your left if you are facing the temple outside the ticket office.
If you have more time…
You could spend years in Lhasa and not see all of her cultural treasures or visit all of her significant landmarks.
As the political and spiritual heart of Tibet since the 7th century, Lhasa holds more fascinating hidden corners than you can count.
If you do have more time, try some of the suggestions in our 17 Dos and Don’ts for a First Time Visit to Lhasa, especially the Ling Temples and the Lingkhor.
And there’s a lot of interesting stuff near Lhasa as well, some of which are on our own bucket list…
- Ganden Monastery — one of the great 3 Gelukpa monasteries and very well worth a visit. It’s just far enough out of town to be excluded from the most popular tours. Wait until you’re well acclimatized as it’s higher up than Lhasa, and it’s great to do the Ganden kora, and to venture up to the Wangpo Ri ridge above it as well.
- Small, ancient Pabongka Monastery, near Sera Monastery.
- Drolma Lhakhang: A small but historically important monastery near Lhasa, and near also a cool rock carving location.
- Drak Yerpa: a quick day trip from Lhasa, Drak Yerpa is an important series of cave retreats. Be well acclimated before you do this, too, as you need to hike a bit to get up to the caves.
- Hiking the Bumpa Ri peak near Lhasa
- Shugsep Nunnery: Tibet’s largest with hikes above it that have reportedly great views.
PROS AND CONS OF THE MOST POPULAR TIBET TOURS THAT START IN LHASA
Here’s a list of the top four most popular tours that include Lhasa, and the benefits and disadvantages of each…
Sky Train to Lhasa
This itinerary is short. It begins in Xining, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, where you spend a night or more to begin to acclimatize to the high altitude. You can then take the famous “sky train” to Lhasa, and spend 4 days checking out the highlights of Lhasa.
- You can do it in a week or even less, if you don’t have much time
- From the train, you can see stunning views of the grasslands and mountains of the Tibetan Plateau.
- If you start your train journey in Xining, you can spend a couple of day and night beginning to acclimatize to Tibet’s high altitude, as we highly recommend you do! (In fact, if you can spend 2-3 nights in Xining, it’s even better.)
- From Xining you can take day trips to cool Tibetan sites in the Amdo region. (Personally we prefer the monasteries to the very touristic Qinghai Lake trips.)
- You see the key highlights of Lhasa
- Few or no travel agencies offer this tour as a pre-packaged tour. You can ask your travel agent to put it together for you, and you’ll need to request to see non-touristic sights for your Xining day trips. We can help introduce you to a reliable Tibetan-owned agent here.
- The views from the Tibet train are lovely, but the train itself is pretty old, cramped and shabby, with bathrooms that will make you more and more sad as the journey progresses and they get grosser. (We’ve only traveled first class sleeper, so what we’re describing is as good as it currently gets.)
- You have very little time to acclimatize once you get to Lhasa.
- You barely have enough time to experience the amazing sights of Lhasa.
Everest Base Camp (EBC)
This is by far the most iconic and popular Tibet tour to take. Few can resist laying eyes on the highest place on the planet from up close.
- You get the unparalleled view of Mount Everest from the Tibet side.
- You get a bunch of the highlights of Tibet in one fell swoop — Lhasa and all its cultural treasures, the Kamba La and Yamdrok Lake, the Karo La glacier, Gyantse, Shigatse, and mighty Everest herself.
- If you have 10 days you can add in a tiny bit of extra time for safer acclimatizing. (See the Safer Acclimatizing Tour tour link below.)
- If you have 13 days, you can add in Xining and the Sky Train, and even better acclimatizing.
- You can extend your tour to continue on to Nepal if you wish. (See Overland to Kathmandu below.)
- The most popular 8-day tours don’t give you enough time to acclimate safely.
- You spend a lot of time driving from one city and spot to another.
- The risks of altitude sickness are quite high unless you take steps to avoid altitude sickness.
A trip to Mount Kailash is pretty much the greatest hits of Tibet tours, and a trip that changes you.
- The Mount Kailash tour includes all the major highlights of central Tibet, including, Lhasa, the Kamba la and Yamdrok Tso, the Karo La Pass and Glacier, Gyantse, Shigatse, and Everest Base Camp.
- All of that’s before you even get to Mount Kailash, the holiest mountain on earth.
- Once you’re there you can take the extraordinary 3-day Mt. Kailash trek around the mountain.
- Trekkers walk over the 18,451 ft/ 5630 m Dolma Pass, and can then boast of reaching “extreme high altitude” by the commonly accepted definitions of high altitude.
- This is one of the great journeys of the world, and many travelers consider going to Kailash the highlight of their trip to Tibet.
- This trip takes a fair amount of time. The very quickest version is just over two weeks, and much better in terms of acclimatizing, to take 3 weeks to a month.
- Because it takes more time, it’s expensive.
- Lots of driving. Mt. Kailash is in far, far western Tibet.
Overland to Kathmandu
You can travel to both Tibet and Nepal in one extravaganza of a trip.
- Traveling from Lhasa to Nepal, you pass through the Everest region, so can go also to Everest Base Camp and get the same highlights as we mentioned in the Everest Base Camp section above.
- You see amazing Tibet and amazing Nepal in one trip
- The roads to the Nepal border are good on the Tibet side, but once you cross into Nepal it’s quite bad, as we understand it.
- Unless you know of a good Nepal agent, you need to work with your Tibet travel agent to get connected with an agent for the Nepal side, if you need an agent. Most people at least want a driver to meet them on the Nepali side.
- You need separate Tibet and Nepal visas.
- You need a fair amount of time. At least 8 days for the Tibet part alone.
We strong recommend that you do not travel to Tibet overland from Nepal. This presents a large risk of altitude sickness, due to the very high elevations at which you have to sleep after you cross into Tibet. It’s better to go the other direction, from Tibet to Nepal.
COMING SOON — THE BEST LHASA HOTELS
So that’s it for our fourth installment of What You Need to Know to Visit Lhasa .
Because this post covers A LOT of content, we are releasing it in sections.
We will release the subsequent sections roughly two per month.
Next up are the “The Best Lhasa Hotels.”
If you want to get notification for the next releases, sign up for our Tibet travel newsletter (and get a free step-by-step planning guide).
And if you’re keen to travel to Tibet, check out our How to Visit Tibet Safely, Easily and Ethically: The Complete Guide (2021)
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Now we’d love to hear what you have to say:
Which tour do you plan to take: the Everest Base Camp Adventure or maybe the Sky Train plus Lhasa?
Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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