Travel info for visiting Potala Palace in Tibet China

An invaluable symbol of Tibetan culture


35 Beijing Middle Road, Chengguan, Lhasa, Tibet, China

GPS: 29.655735345623, 91.11910635448

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Visiting Potala Palace, which is located at an altitude of 3,700 metres at the top of the red hill of Marpari (or Hongshan), in Lhasa, capital of the autonomous region of Tibet. It is the oldest Tibetan monument and an architecturally spectacular building with the appearance of a real fortress (the stone walls are 3 metres thick). Together with the neighbouring Jokhang Temple and the palace complexes of Norbulingka, the Potala Palace represents the centre of Tibetan spirituality in a sensitive political and diplomatic context with China.

The first section of the Potala complex was erected in the 7th century overlooking the Lhasa Valley. This construction from stone and wood was initiated by the king of the Yarlung dynasty, Songtsen Gampo, to make a fortress palace (or dzong). After several victorious territorial conquests, Songtsen Gampo founded the monarchical empire of Tibet. In addition to its religious and spiritual function, the Potala Palace embodies the political heart of Tibet as the country’s governmental, military, administrative, monastic and social headquarters. Completely rebuilt in the 17th century by the Fifth Dalai Lama (Lobsang Gyatso) after several wars had damaged it, this winter palace is now being expanded. It served as the main residence of the Dalai Lamas for over 300 years. The Potala is occupied alternately by the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet with the summer palace of Norbulingka, built a little later in Lhasa in the 18th century.

Following the Tibetan uprising against China in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) was forced to flee to India at the age of 24, where he still lives. He fled the palace in the middle of the night in complete secrecy and had no choice but to cross the Himalayas to escape the Chinese forces. The Potala Palace, as the epicentre of Tibetan Buddhism, is one of the most sacred places in the Lhasa region. It is now a holy shrine and Buddhist pilgrimage site under the state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Comprising a total of 1,000 rooms and inner halls, including many prayer spaces, the complex is divided into two distinct parts: a white palace for political functions (where the Dalai Lamas resided), and a red palace dedicated to religious worship (study of ancient texts and place of prayer). The 13 floors of the palace preserve many treasures representative of the richness of Tibetan culture.

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  • An architectural treasure, symbol of Tibetan culture and imbued with a special atmosphere; a unique cultural experience at an altitude of 3,700 metres; the ancestral home of Tibet’s spiritual leaders
  • The characteristic white and red walls of the main façade of the palace topped with golden roofs (these were restored in 2018)
  • The former living quarters of the Dalai Lama, the offices and printing press of the monks of the White Palace (political and administrative centre); the relics, ceramics, liturgical objects, ancient documents, chapels, mausoleums, libraries, pagodas and glittering roofs of the Red Palace (religious centre)
  • The frescoes dedicated to the life of the 5th Dalai Lama and the large 15-metre high wooden stupa (the largest in the red palace); the sepulchres (tombs) of other Dalai Lamas adorned with gold, diamonds, amber, agates, pearls and other precious stones: sapphires, rubies, jade…
  • The hundreds of Buddhist statues and sculptures; the profusion of wall paintings and tapestries
  • The series of stairs and horizontal terraces; the maze of sprawling galleries, halls and corridors; the sacred chapel of Phakpa Lhakang (in the oldest part of the palace); the Chogyel Drupuk meditation cave (favoured by the former monarch Songtsen Gampo)
  • The visit of the golden roofs (extra charge); the surrounding walls, parks, gardens and water features around the palace
  • The panoramic view of the holy city of Lhasa and the snow-capped Himalayas rising to over 5,000 metres; the Tibetan prayer flags flying from the roofs of the houses
  • The monasteries scattered around Lhasa (Sera in the north, Ganden in the east and Drepung in the west); the complex of gardens, pavilions and palaces of Norbulingka (former summer residence of the Dalai Lamas); the discovery of the markets and alleys of the old city of Lhasa
  • According to legend, the foundations of the Potala Palace were built by the King of Tibet of the Yarlung Dynasty, Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century as a gift to his wife, Princess Wencheng. This monument was completely rebuilt at the beginning of the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama (Lobsang Gyatso) in the mid-17th century, and then underwent numerous alterations in the 19th-and early 20th centuries. The external structure of the white palace was completed in 1648, only three years after work had begun. Its whitewashed walls served as a residence for Tibet’s highest spiritual and political leader and included assembly halls, ceremonial rooms, government administrative offices and the Dalai Lama’s throne. Winding paths and terraces lead to the inner quarters of the red palace, which was built in the late 17th century. For the Tibetologist Amy Heller, this place of veneration was originally intended to house the funeral monument (stupa) of Lobsang Gyatso, nicknamed “the Great Fifth”. Its function was later extended to the religious study of the monks and the worship of Buddhism through the presence of several libraries and chapels. The tombs of 8 of the 14 Dalai Lamas lie in the red palace. They are richly decorated with gold leaf and precious stones.
  • The name of the palace is derived from a sacred mountain (Potalaka) among Buddhists, located in southern India. Potala can be translated as “mythical mountain” or “abode” in reference to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Buddhist sage of compassion in his divine form). Each Dalai Lama is considered a god-king. Furthermore, he is seen as an emanation and reincarnation of the great bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara to embody compassion.
  • In total, the Potala palace-fortress is said to house nearly 200,000 statues. This collection is complemented by objects, paintings and sculptures representing the Buddha in the Jokhang Temple (or monastery). This religious monument, erected by King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, is also considered to be the oldest Buddhist site in Tibet.
  • According to the Tibetologist Amy Heller, the foundations of the Potala are designed to withstand earthquakes in a region where the seismic risk is very high. The walls are much thicker at their base (5 metres) while the two palaces built on the hillside follow a typical Tibetan palatial architecture shape and pattern. To date, the Potala Palace is the largest building in Tibetan history.
  • Since the 13th century, the Dalai Lama has had a close relationship with the Mongol rulers (called “cho-yon”). The Mongolian Khan and his court were provided with Buddhist teachings. In exchange, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan territory were given political and military protection.
  • More than 80,000 persons and devotees would have followed the 14th Dalai Lama into forced exile in India in March 1959. This event happened after the annexation of the country by Mao Zedong’s army in 1951. The Tibetan spiritual leader now resides in the Indian city of Dharamsala and has never been able to return to Tibet or visit the Potala Palace. Beyond geopolitical considerations, it is possible that this autonomous region, which is still under close surveillance by the Chinese government, is coveted for its mineral and water reserves.
  • The Potala Palace was transformed into a museum in 1960 by the Chinese authorities. A few dozen monks continue their education to Buddhism on site. They also take on the role of guardians for the maintenance of the places of worship and the supervision of tourist visits.
  • Upon arriving at the palace, pilgrims proceed to the kora (or Tsekhor), a ritual walk around the Potala building. Other circumambulation routes (such as Lingkhor and Barkhor) exist in the city of Lhasa.
  • The 13th century exterior of the palace is repainted every year in preparation for the Buddhist event Lhabab Duchen in November (a festival commemorating the return of Buddha to earth from heaven). This is done by workers and volunteers.
  • April to September is the best time to travel to Tibet in terms of climate and temperature.
  • Lhasa railway station is the terminus of the Qingzang railway line linking the Tibetan city to the Chinese province of Qinghai (Golmud).
  • The number of visitors to the interior of the Potala Palace is limited to 2,300 people per day, so it may be necessary to purchase a ticket one day in advance or go through a specialised agency beforehand.
  • A moderate and slow walk is recommended to reach the entrance of the site because of the high altitude and the large number of steps to climb. Therefore, it is safer to go to Lhasa once you are acclimatised to the high altitude of the place (3,700 metres).
  • The local tradition invites the people to visit the palace in a clockwise direction (hats and photos are not allowed inside).
  • The park of the Jokhang Temple is a good place to enjoy a picnic or have a rest after visiting the palace. Located just behind the Potala, it has a pond that can be explored on a boat in high season.

Where to eat

  • Summit Café
    (full breakfast)
  • Tibetan Family Kitchen
    (authentic local cuisine)
  • Dunya Restaurant
    (refreshing stop)

Where to go

  • Drepung Monastery
    (large monastic community)
  • Jokhang Temple
    (1st Buddhist temple in Tibet)
  • Tibet Museum
    (traditional Tibetan arts)

Where to stay

  • Rama Kharpo Hotel
    (simple and practical)
  • Heritage Hotel
    (typical and warm)
  • Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa
    (modern and smart)