The magnificent Potala Palace, once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, is Lhasa's cardinal landmark. Your first sight of its towering, fortress-like walls is a moment you'll remember for years. An architectural wonder even by modern standards, the palace rises 13 storeys from 130m-high Marpo Ri (Red Hill) and contains more than 1000 rooms. Pilgrims and tourists alike shuffle open-mouthed through the three storeys, past the dozens of magnificent chapels, golden stupas and prayer halls.
The first recorded use of the site was in the 7th century AD, when King Songtsen Gampo built a palace here. Construction of the present structure began during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama in 1645 and took divisions of labourers and artisans more than 50 years to complete. It is impressive enough to have caused Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to send his own troops to protect it from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
The layout of the Potala Palace includes the rooftop White Palace (the eastern part of the building), used for the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, and the central Red Palace, used for religious functions. The most stunning chapels of the Red Palace house the jewel-bedecked golden chörten (Tibetan stupa) tombs of several previous Dalai Lamas. The apartments of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas, in the White Palace, offer a more personal insight into palace life.
Tickets for the Potala are limited and your guide will need to book a time slot several days in advance. Arrive at the palace an hour or so before your allotted time. After a security check (no water or lighters allowed), follow the other visitors to the stairs up into the palace. Halfway up you'll pass the ticket booth, where you'll buy your ticket. Note that if you arrive later than the time on your voucher (or if you forget your voucher) you can be refused a ticket. Photography isn't allowed inside the chapels.