At first sight, the ancient city of Agra appears like many other traditional Indian towns and cities, with hectic streets, constant noise and a polluted stretch of industrialism. However, as you delve deeper into the mysticism, a fascinating feast of architectural masterpieces, left by the legacy of the Mughal empire, begin to unfold alongside the Ganges and at the banks of the Yamuna River.
The Taj Mahal, with its stunning white marble façade, attracts visitors like bees to a honey pot and lives up to all expectations. Out of the chaos, blossoming like a flower in spring, the breathtaking Taj is the focal point of the city and any visit to Agra. In fact, it is one of 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, around 40km to the west. Built during the Mughal empire, all are fitting tributes and tell stories of former times.
To the north east of the city are the main chowk (marketplace) and Kinari Bazaar, although the majority of tourists head for the Taj Ganj area, closer to the Taj itself, with numerous sleeping options and a variety of restaurants. At times the city can be somewhat frustrating, due to the swarms of rickshaw drivers and aggressive touts and souvenir sellers. These, however, provide little danger and, alike much of India, perseverance and a sense of humor are always necessary.
Excellent transport links in and out of Agra run both locally and long haul. The majority of long haul buses depart from the Idgah terminal, with hourly buses to Delhi and Jaipur. Buses to Dehra Run, Lucknow and Hardiwar depart from the Agra Fort terminal. By far the best way to enter the city is through Agra Cantonment (Catt) train station. From here, numerous trains leave for Delhi, Varanasi and Jaipur and, for the adventurous traveler, several long haul runs to Kolkata (Calcutta) and Amritsar. For short trips around the city then a rickshaw-wallah is never too far away.
With as many as 20 trains connecting Agra - Delhi on a daily basis it is no wonder that many tourists choose to make their visit a whistle stop day tour. However, it is important to plan your trip, and if possible avoid visiting on a Friday, as the Taj Mahal is open only for those going for afternoon prayers in the mosque. Should this be your only available day then be sure to lunch in one of the hotels with their unsurpassed rooftop views (see below).
Agra has far more to offer than just the Taj Mahal and it is worth spending a few extra days to explore all of its beauty. The abundance of sleeping options makes it possible to find a tranquil oasis amongst the craziness of this awe-inspiring city.
Things to do in
Taj Mahal - Some things were designed for sheer beauty and admiration, with the Taj Mahal being one of them. This fascinating monument of love, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, often leaves even the most experienced traveler speechless. Visits to the Taj should be planned carefully as at times it can become unbearably overcrowded. For the early riser, a sunrise visit provides the opportunity to avoid the searing city heat and a perfect time for photography. However, at all times of the day there is a mystical atmosphere to soak up and allow the love story behind the mausoleum to unfold. Opening times are 6am - 7pm, Saturday - Thursday. Entrance Rs750 (although do not let this put you off, as visitors rarely leave disappointed).
Agra Fort - One of India’s grandest forts, although often overshadowed by the Taj. Located on the bank of the Yamuna River, this huge red-sandstone construction was originally designed by Emperor Akbar as a military structure, but later turned into a palace by Shah Jahan. Opening times are dawn - dusk. Entrance Rs300 (Rs50 discount for visiting the fort and Taj on the same day).
Itimad-Ud-Daulah - A short rickshaw journey from Agra Fort will bring you to what is often known as the Baby Taj. Although not possessing the charm of the Taj, this mausoleum has many similarities and was the first Mughal construction of its kind to be built purely from marble. Opening times are 6.30am - 5.30pm. Entrance Rs110.
Akbar’s Mausoleum - Built as a celebration of the Mughal emperors, this is another magnificent piece of architecture not to be missed. Reaching the mausoleum can be tricky, due to its location at Sikandra, around 10km from Agra Fort. Public buses do run (every 30mins/Rs10), however it is worth hiring a rickshaw for a return journey. Opening times are dawn - dusk. Entrance Rs110.
NB All of the above sites charge an extra Rs25 for video cameras.
Taj Nature Trail - To the Eastern side of the Taj you will find the nature trail and a collection of birds and butterflies. Enjoy a relaxed break from the hectic city with the Taj as your backdrop. Taj East Gate Road. Open 9am - 6.30pm. Entrance Rs50.
Fatephur Sikri - Situated around 40km west of Agra, this is a must for those spending a few extra days in the city. Yet another construction of the Emperor Akbar, the fortified ghost city is made up of beautiful palaces and pavilions. Most visit the city on a day tour from Agra, buses run from Idgah bus station every 30 mins/Rs17, however accommodation is available in the town.
Budget Hotels Agra
Hotel Kamal - This well run hotel, with clean rooms provides a great budget option for travelers. Friendly staff, a decent restaurant and a rooftop terrace, with fantastic views of the Taj, all make for an enjoyable stay. Taj South Gate, Taj Ganj. Tel (91) (562) 2330125.
Shanti Lodge - Great priced budget rooms, some even with TV, so ask to see a selection. Rooftop restaurant with great views of the Taj. Taj South Gate, Taj Ganj. Tel (91) (562) 2231973.
Hotel Sheela - No views, but its location at the East Gate, makes for a peaceful, budget option. This hotel is complete with a garden restaurant to escape from the bustle of the city. Taj East Gate Road, Taj Ganj. Tel (91) (562) 2331194.
Midrange Hotels Agra
Hotel Amar - Well kept hotel with some rooms having a maharaja feel. Pleasant garden with swimming pool, gym, restaurant and coffee shop. Fatehabad Road. Tel (91) (592) 2331884.
Hotel Yamuna View - Located in the tranquil area of Sadar Bazar is this hotel complete with swimming pool and its own Chinese restaurant. 6B The Mall, Sadar Bazar. Tel (91) (562) 2361223.
Luxury Hotels Agra
Oberoi Amar Vilas- One of India’s finest and most elegant hotels, built in Mughal style. The majority of rooms have Taj views, as does the restaurant. An ideal place to enjoy a beer even if you cannot afford to stay the night. Taj East gate Road. Tel (91) (562) 2231515.