Lhasa, the remote abode of the Dalai Lamas, object of devout pilgrimage and heart and soul of Tibet, is still a city of wonders, despite the large-scale encroachments of modern Chinese influence. Your first hint that Lhasa is close is the Potala, a vast white-and-ochre fortress soaring over one of the world’s highest cities. It’s a sight that has heralded the marvels of the Holy City to travellers for close to four centuries and it still raises goose bumps.
While the Potala dominates the skyline, the Jokhang, some 2km to the east, is the real spiritual heart of the city. An otherworldly mix of flickering butter lamps, wafting incense and prostrating pilgrims, the Jokhang is the most sacred and alive of Tibet’s temples. It is here and the encircling Barkhor pilgrim circuit that most visitors first fall in love with Tibet.
The old Tibetan quarter makes up a small area of Lhasa these days. The modern city is a Chinese boom town, where a new train line has fuelled massive growth in tourism, alongside new hotels, shops and supermarkets. The face of Lhasa is changing daily, with buildings rising and falling like the Shanghai stock market.
For all its modernisation Lhasa remains a fantastic cultural hybrid, its streets bustling with a diverse mix of people. As the gateway to the ‘real’ Tibet, out in the countryside, Lhasa deserves at least a week to see all the sights, soak up the backstreets and organise the adventures that beckon at the city limits.
What an eyeful: the world's most beautiful buildings
Straight away we'll say that this isn't a top 10 list. There are just far too many styles of buildings, each worthy of a top 50: sacred buildings, homes, skyscrapers, theatres...
Lhasa destination guides
Tibet: travel books to read before you go
This excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Tibet guide provides a selection of travel literature to get you in the mood for your trip. Literature on Tibet is abundant. Quite a bit of it is of the woolly ‘how to find enlightenment in the mysterious Land of Snows’ variety, but there is still a lot of very good stuff about.
Silk Road to Samarkand via Kashgar
Follow the legend of the Silk Road from China to Uzbekistan
High Road to Lhasa
A stunning overland Tibetan journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu with a visit to Everest Base Camp