Alexandra David-Néel was born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David in Saint-Mandé, a suburb of Paris. Her father Louis David, a French Huguenot and freemason, was a teacher who had been active during the Revolution of 1848, and her mother Alexandrine Borgmans was a Roman Catholic from Belgium.
The couple had met in Belgium, where Louis, then the editor of a republican journal, had to go into exile when the Emperor Napoleon III seized power in 1852. She had an early encounter with the face of death as a toddler in 1871, when her father took her to Père-Lachaise Cemetery to see where the last Parisian Communards had been executed. Two years later, the family went to live in Ixelles, Belgium. She received a good education at a boarding school and was fascinated by the works of Jules Verne, imaging herself on his voyages. She began traveling on her own at age 15. In 1889, at age 21, she converted to Buddhism, and studied English in London in preparation for a career as an orientaliste (specialist in Eastern culture).
She also studied piano and singing at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and to help support her parents, worked as a singer at the Hanoi Opera House in French Indochina (Vietnam) during the seasons 1895-1896 and 1896-1897. From 1897 to 1900, she lived with pianist Jean Haustont in Paris, writing the libretto for his one-act opera Lidia.
She left to sing at opera houses in Athens and Tunis. There in 1904, she married Philippe Néel de Saint-Sauveur, a wealthy railroad engineer and distant cousin. She continued to travel on her own and eventually left her husband in 1911 when making her third trip to India. After this, she devoted her life to her traveling and Asian studies. Madame David-Néel is best known today for her stay in Lhasa, Tibet, disguised as a pilgrim, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners. The following year, she returned to France and began work on her first major book, Voyage d'une Parisienne à Lhassa (My Journey to Lhasa), published in 1927. She bought a small house in Digne-les-Bains, Provence in 1928, to which she returned in 1946 from further travels in the East. She wrote more than 30 books on her journeys that took her 30,000 around the world on foot and by horse, yak, donkey, sedan chair, boat, plane, and other means of conveyance. She inspired and influenced other travelers and writers worldwide, most notably those of the Beat Generation.