The Potala Palace is the most popular tourist destination in all of Tibet, one of the most renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites in all of China, and one of the “New Seven Wonders” of the world according to USA Today. The Great Fifth Dalai Lama constructed the palace in 1645 as a residence for the Dalai Lamas, and it remained the seat of the kingdom for three centuries until 1959.
The Palace was built at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 ft) on the face of the Red Mountain in the Lhasa Valley. The former palace of the great Dalai Lamas has now been converted into a museum and houses various halls, galleries, exhibits, tombs and chapels.
Before climbing up the countless steps, your journey starts at Zhol Village, a replica of an authentic Tibetan village set at the base of Potala Palace. There are numerous shops, teahouses and restaurants lining the alleys of Zhol, making it not only a great destination to experience Tibetan life, but also a better place for souvenir shopping since the items sold inside the Potala Palace are more expensive.
After reaching the top of the staircase, you may first want to catch your breath for several minutes, especially if the altitude is taking a toll on those lungs. One of Potala’s top sites is The White Palace: the original living quarters for the Fifth Dalai Lama, who moved here in 1649. Over the years it has been drastically enlarged to its current size, with it’s most recent renovations coming only a few decades ago. Next to the White Palace is a beautiful garden pavilion that separated the Dalai Lama from his monks, as well as a yellow house used to hang celebratory New Year banners. Other buildings include:
The Red Palace was the educational center of the compound and where most of the monks lived and studied. Along with the halls and libraries, there are many must see attractions.
The South Chapel is centered around
Padmasambhava, the esoteric 8th century Indian saint.
The North Chapel is focused around the Sakyamuni Buddha and there’s a scholarly library.
The West Chapel has five gigantic solid golden stupas. The tallest is 15 m (50 ft) high, weighs 3,727 kg (8,200 lb), and holds the mummified corpse of the Fifth Dalai Lama.
The East Chapel is dedicated to Je Tsongkhapa – the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect of Buddhism.
On the north side of the Red Palace lays the Saint’s Chapel, one of the most important shrines of this spectacular heritage site, particularily because of the Dharma Cave below. The cave is where Songsten Gampo – the first ruler of Tibet – studied Buddhism, and there are images of him, his family and other important figures of his cabinet.
The Tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama is a 14 m (46 ft) high, pure-gold stupa built in 1933 that’s embellished with priceless gems, jewels and precious stones. It’s one of Potala’s most opulent and stunning attractions.
The First, Second and Third Galleries are also housed in the Red Palace. At these sites, there are various statues and monuments dedicated to Buddhism and the great leaders of Tibet, along with observation decks for a glorious view of Lhasa. The Second Gallery has drinks, snacks and souvenirs.