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Lhasa (Lāsà, 拉萨) is, quite simply, the heart and soul of the Tibetan Autonomous Region— its cultural capital and political and administrative center.

Situated in a valley at around 3,700 m (11,100 ft) above sea level, Lhasa is surrounded by high mountains, with the scenic Kyichu River flowing right through town and the unmistakable Potala Palace— the former chief residence of the Dalai Lama—dominating the skyline.

While the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has made the region more accessible in recent years, it's also sparked rapid modernization and a massive growth in tourism. A major consequence of this is an increase in the high-rises, karaoke bars and other expressions of Chinese economic growth springing up in increasing numbers, especially in the western part of town, which now dwarfs the Tibetan quarter.

Nevertheless, the Tibetan influence is fortunately still strong and evident in the eastern end and older parts of Lhasa, particularly in the main areas of interest around the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Circuit where traditionally-clad Tibetans can be found spinning prayer wheels, prostrating on the ground and going about their Buddhist business.

Other major attractions include the Sera and Drepung Monasteries located on Lhasa's outskirts, where scarlet-robed monks can be seen chanting prayers amidst the intoxicating scent of flickering yak-butter lamps.

Dynamic and vibrant, mysterious and exotic, Lhasa's unexpected and otherworldly sights still make a visit to this soulful capital very much worth the journey.

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Lhasa's official history began in the 7th century with its establishment as capital by King Songtsen Gampo, the first ruler of a united Tibet and the region's first prominent convert to Buddhism. 

Over the next several hundred years, Lhasa became a major Buddhist pilgrimage site but its political importance dwindled until 1645 when Lobsang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama, began rebuilding the massive Potala Palace and re-established Lhasa as a political center.

After experiencing a high degree of autonomy during the chaos of two World Wars and civil unrest in China, Tibet finally fell under direct Chinese control in 1950 with the invasion of the Communist People's Liberation Army.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) then caused mass upheaval with the destruction of many Buddhist temples, monasteries and shrines. Numerous Tibetans perished from violence and famine and others chose to leave, including the Dalai Lama who has remained in exile ever since.

While Lhasa remains the vital heart of Tibetan culture, rapid development and the influx of Chinese settlers have dramatically altered the face of the city in recent years.


Lhasa has a semi-arid monsoon climate with cold winters, mild summers and an average temperature of around 8°C (46°F). Spring and winter are dry and windy, and winter temperatures, while usually not severe, frequently drop below freezing.

Autumn and summer (March- October) are generally considered the best months to visit, with more comfortable temperatures and less dry conditions. While the rainy season (May- September) also falls during this time, precipitation usually occurs during the night.

No matter what the season, Lhasa frequently experiences sudden temperature fluctuations within a single day. There is also often a significant difference between day and night time temperatures. It's therefore wise to come prepared with warm clothing, even during the summer months.

Also note that the sun's rays are intensified due to the high elevation and thin air. Sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and good sunglasses are advisable.

It's important to keep in mind that Lhasa's high altitude and low oxygen levels may cause potentially fatal mountain sickness and serious discomfort in some people. Travelers should avoid strenuous activity and keep well hydrated until properly acclimatized.

Tibet travel guide | Lhasa attractions
Lhasa flights | Lhasa hotels | Lhasa tours & activities
Lhasa on the China Travel Blog