Lhasa is one of the most isolated cities on Earth, perched at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet above sea level in the unwelcoming terrain of the Tibetan Plateau. Very little can thrive in such an environment. The hearty yak, who grazes on stunted vegetation that couldn't possibly sustain their large bodies; the devout Tibetan Buddhists who circle the Jokhang Temple with prayer wheels or battle the cold and distance to prostrate themselves at the foot of holy mountains like Kailash; practical food staples like the ever-present tsampa, a simple roasted flour that is known to fuel the persevering Tibetan spirit and is also thrown to mark funerals and celebrations. And yet, despite the odds, Lhasa has not only survived, but developed an otherworldly mystique that is part its starkly beautiful natural setting and part the incredible resilience of a people against the odds of not only the elements, but the intrusion of invading cultures.
The capital of the autonomous region of Tibet, contemporary Lhasa is divided between the cultural customs of the traditionally Buddhist Tibetans and the more modern Han Chinese. For a long time it was home to the Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, until he was driven from the country by Chinese revolutionaries in the mid-20th century. Today, the slow resurgence of this region, both in its efforts to regain its cultural equilibrium and its struggle toward modernity, is most apparent here, the largest city in a rugged and largely unlivable Tibet.
Lhasa is that city provided as evidence of off-the-beaten-path in the dictionary, sitting on the back porch of the Himalayas amidst a surprisingly temperate climate (once summer rolls around) and at the center of a barren plateau whose greatest sustenance is spiritual; the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism has produced quite the display of grand palaces, broad public squares, ancient monasteries. The Potala Palace and Norbulingka Summer Palace are a testament to Buddhist wealth and influence and are essential to your visit, while the Ganden Monastery also stands as a place of beauty and solitude in the barren landscape. Barkhor Street is where you'll encounter the most traditional sense of Lhasa, with its monks circumambulating Jokhang Temple and unique street bazaars, while anywhere west begins to look suspiciously like any other small Chinese city. Trek out to Lake Namtso or Mount Kailash if you really want to tap into sites of eminent religious value, while the epic canyons of Yarlung Zangbo, the crashing waters of Drigung Chu, and the unmatched heights and vistas of Mount Everest (even if you only make the Tibetan base camp) are bowed to by the truly adventurous.
One thing to take note of prior to coming to Tibet is the need of special permits upon entrance (beyond the visa needed to enter China) and that you'll need to slowly acclimate yourself to the altitude to avoid getting quite sick. Be sure to plan/medicate accordingly.
To be honest, Lhasa is not the same as it was even a decade ago. In a world forced to modernize in even its most remote corners, you'll still get your wifi hot spots and Western-style fast food when you're in Lhasa, but there is still plenty of that Tibetan mystique and the basic costs are far below the standard of say... Shanghai. So drink at a local tea house, ride in a rickshaw or visit one of the many monasteries and other places of religious significance... and set out for a few adventures along the way. We almost forgot to mention that. Not that you'll need the reminder once you've planted your feet on Tibetan soil.