Date of the trip: 1st Dec 2019
Read this post to see how you can plan an exciting long weekend loop road-trip from Delhi to Bharatpur to Agra with a half day trip to Fatehpur sikri.
Since the earliest time of my life, I remember Agra to be a family favorite city, as it is for most around the world. My relatives have been staying there for generations and my parents and grandparents have innumerable stories to tell originating from the oldest part of the city. I have a photo in front of the Taj Mahal at every stage of my life and yet now when I visit it, it’s still new to me and full of surprises.
And this is how you can reach it:
By train: Trains come to Agra station from all major cities in India. The city has three railway stations Agra Cantt, Agra fort, Agra City and caters to different regions.
By flight: Although Agra has an airport, no flights land there as it’s mainly an air-force station. Making New Delhi the nearest airport. There are many options on Delhi airport to hire a taxi. Some hotels in Agra send taxis to the airport to pick up their guests. Lucknow is also an option as the nearest airport.
By road: Driving to Agra from Delhi or Lucknow or hiring a taxi is the easiest way of transport (although might not the cheapest) and gives you the flexibility of visiting multiple places without wasting too much time. There are intercity bus services too which are frequently available. There are a couple of websites for self drive car rentals too. For our trip, we took my father’s Honda city and drove from Bharatpur to Agra via Taj expressway.
Best places to visit in Agra:
Taj Mahal: Wonder of the world, symbol of love and pride of India. The white magnificent marble mausoleum on the banks of Yamuna needs no introduction and is always on top of every traveler’s list, domestic or foreign.
Agra Fort: Accomodation, capital seat and control center of the Mughal kingdom. It was the heart of one of the largest occupations in Indian history.
These being the icons of Agra, the city has been the hub of history specially for the mughal era. It is dotted with tombs and mausoleums of all popular emperors and their families. It is easily comparable to Rome when it comes to the number of sites to see. Each site can serve as subject of history & art. A week can easily be spent here contrary to the popular plans of a day or two. Agra is not only about Taj mahal, this city has a lot to offer to a traveler who is ready to stop, see and admire.
Unfortunately, our trip was just a long weekend getaway from Mumbai this time and we could only spare a morning here. And as Sunny had never visited the Taj, and it was on top of his list we used the time wandering in and around Taj Mahal only. In this blog I will be covering only Taj Mahal and hope I get to wander the rest of the city with Sunny again soon.
I would suggest to avoid this site in summers as Agra tends to heat up and the only shade around is under the trees of the Paradise garden. This by far is the least crowded time of the year.
Rest of the year should be good to visit. Monsoon & winters give a very magical feel to the whole area and can be great for photography. Clouds or fog covers it as it is very close to the river. Winters have highest number of visitors. In early December, the skies were clear and the crowd was not unbearable. I could roam without any jacket but if you are sensitive to the temperature, a light jacket would suffice. Months beyond that can be really cold as the city experiences almost freezing temperatures during winters.
For years India has been symbolized by the Taj Mahal in the world’s books, maps and media. Nothing reminds the world of India like the Taj Mahal (others being bollywood thumkas, chai, crowd, colours & butter chicken – off-course!!!) As you enter the gates and approach the majestic white structure, all words ever used to describe it sound insignificant and meaningless because you feel overwhelmed and tongue tied. All blogs online, all stories from books, relatives and friends can not make you prepared for the tingling you feel looking and touching the marble designs and coloured stone engravings on the Taj. A little spurt of jealousy is justified when you remind yourself that it’s the greatest (and the most expensive for sure!) symbol of love in the whole world. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan deeply saddened on death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal (that’s where the name comes from Mumtaz Mahal) ordered all the best he could find to build this magnificent mausoleum for her. White marble was transported from miles away area of Makrana the laborers and artisans from all over the Persian kingdom were bought in. The location on the banks of Yamuna in the then capital of Mughal kingdom, Agra was finalized and a floating wood foundation was designed specially for tackling the annual flooding of the wild river. The gardens around Taj with the fountains known as the ‘Paradise gardens’ were designed to portray the interpretation of heavens. The science of construction was never seen before and the detailing of each motif was crafted with lot of thought and patience. It was continuously supervised by the emperor himself. By the time of completion (20 something years), the emperor had become obsessed with the mahal and ordered a replica built for himself right across the river in black marble. Bless the stars of the workers on the construction site that Shaha Jahans sixth son, Aurangeb took over the throne and jailed his father at the time culling his plans. Though it would have been a world class site, both mahals facing each other, and Yamuna flowing in the middle reflecting both grand structures, Taj’s uniqueness and lone gigantic structure gives it the class above all wonders of the world.
Open time: Sunrise to Sunset (Closed on Fridays)
Without a doubt the best time to visit is during the sunrise. Taj faces the sun when it rises and the marble changes hue with every degree of rising sun. It’s fascinating to sit and watch the colours change during the day. We reached around 8am and it was not that bad. Lines were still short and took us hardly a minute or two to go through security check.
This website also has all the finer details about the rules and regulations, and a downloadable pamphlet.
Tickets can be bought from here beforehand.
Ticket cost for an Indian: Rs50
Ticket cost for a Foreigner: Rs1100
These costs are for the gardens. To enter the mausoleum there is a ticket counter in upper courtyard of the mahal. Ticket cost is Rs200 for all domestic as well as international tourists. Shoes are not allowed beyond this point. There is an option of removing shoes and stack them in any corner, free of cost or buy a shoe cover on spot for Rs10, cover your shoes and walk on. Although there is govt run shoe cover stall near the mausoleum entrance, as soon as you enter the Taj premises small kids and hawkers would try to sell shoe covers for all sorts of prices. Bargain and agree only for Rs10, that is the government authorized cost. After the mausoleum exit there is a bin where people throw the covers. I decided to keep mine. They are of good quality and are reusable while packing shoes in a suitcase. I had paid for them after all.
Even though tickets are booked online, it is mandatory to carry an ID to enter. Passport or a domestic identification card will do.
Security check: As Taj mahal is the most sought after tourist destination domestic as well as international, it’s a high security zone. That does not mean you will see army patrolling the area etc..etc… but yes there are security officers always patrolling the gardens in civil attires checking on unruly visitors, checking corners and empty alleys. Before entering the premises there is a queue for security check much like the airport. Being patient and keeping your wits about will just help make the process smooth. The filtering here is much like the airport except a few more things are prohibited. So no sharp objects no weapons, no tripods, no food (no picnics please!) only water, no cigarettes and lighters, no electronics except phone and camera, no big carry on bags or backpacks.
About the guides: We employed a guide just before we entered the security area. He had an ID card with a blue strap around his neck and was well informed about the site. He charged Rs300 for us (group of 5). We had to pay for his ticket too, so maybe he was not a govt. approved guide but we didn’t mind him as he was good and took us around in a methodical manner and answered all our questions. When we travel we don’t mind employing local guides, it’s our bit of contribution in helping the economy of the place. Yes, google is great. Yes, pamphlets and guide books have all there is to know about the place but our reason to visit a site is not to attend a history class or publishing papers on architecture, it’s much more than that. It’s about the little stories, it’s about the folklore, beliefs and secrets of the place which only a local would know. That is why if I can afford it, I always go for a local guide. My father always employs a photographer too to get good family pictures clicked. Although it might look cheeky, I think it’s a great way to help the hard working locals and in return you get funny family pictures printed. Often they become the best souvenirs of the visit. In this age of digital photography, photos normally end up in a hard-disk ignored and forgotten. At least in this way they get forcefully printed and always remain in front of you reminding of the good times. Be patient and polite but firm, and hire one. Set your terms straight beforehand and enjoy the visit. You won’t regret it.
Walking in the park:
As you approach the premises of Taj Mahal, you would need to choose which entrance to pick for entering. Many rickshaw drivers and forcefull guides would pester to lure you to various gates. There are in total 3 entrances. South was closed when we visited. Eastern gate is suggested to be the least crowded (who knows! ‘Crowded’ is a very subjective term) and is open throughout the day. But we took the western gate. It is open only in the mornings until 9am. This is the gate morning walkers take for their morning walks in the Mumtaz park. Picnicking here in these gardens are allowed. As you walk further on the pathway following the signboards, you will reach the security area where one can enter only with the ticket. There is no official parking area outside the western gate. We just went ahead and paid a guy Rs 80 and parked off the road near a public washroom where other cars were parked. I think eastern gate has parking.
After crossing security, we entered the red sandstone gate, which marks the entry to the Taj premises. Walking from here to the courtyard, we crossed the cabins assigned to the laborers who worked on the monument. Our guide, who was leading the way enlightened us with many informative stories about the laborers and their living lifestyle. The courtyard is where all the gates, southern, eastern and western meet. Eastern gate is from where normally the mughal king Shah Jahan would enter so he could see the beautiful monument straight ahead. From western gate we turned left to face the magnificent red entryway. It made us just stand in awe, the marble work on it with intricate arabic calligraphy almost made us forget that this was just the entryway to the real site we had come to visit. Looking through the gate at the white dreamy structure it looked so far and perfectly framed into the archway. Reminded me of the photo framed at my parents house taken by my father many many years ago. It is the most popular spot to click a photograph.
As we walked in, the perspective changed and the gigantic marble structure looked magnificent reflecting perfectly into the fountain stream dividing the structure in half. The persian gardens are the best examples of symmetry. As we walked through the gardens following our guide, listening to his bits of information, every angle of this royal structure was beckoning us to click its picture like a self centered celebrity. No number of photographs were enough. No amount of photographs could justify it’s grandness.
The Interior of the mausoleum was a stark reminder that this magnificent white structure is actually made in remembrance of a loved wife. Seeing the graves of ShahJahan and Mumtaz Mahal side by side of each other enforced the feeling of undying love. Photography was not allowed in here but the beautiful intricate arabic calligraphy all around hardly needs to be photographed – it gets imprinted in the memory itself. The crowds of tourists, who were so agreeably spaced-out in the gardens, were now bottle-necked into a shuffle through the central mausoleum. The caretakers were asking everyone to move a bit faster to avoid suffocation and clogging.
Outside on the platform Yamuna was the center of our attention. The availability of water source as well as food waste from city, multiple bird spotting can be done here. Egyptian vultures, hornbills, wagtails etc.. were flying around everywhere. Unfortunately Sunny had not carried his zoom lens.
Special note about washrooms: there are clean bathrooms next to the main entry gate to the gardens. Can be visited while coming in as well as exiting.
Accommodation in Agra is not a problem at all. It’s a large metro city with lots of tourist attractions as well as industries and offices. The hotels around Taj mahal can be a bit pricey but a room with a view of the Taj is I think worth every penny. We ourselves had stayed in Bharatpur as visit to Agra for us was en route to Delhi from Bharatpur.
Food and shopping in and around:
There are multiple restaurants all around this area, all serving good food. Traditional as well as international cuisines. This is a city with historical cuisines. We asked our guide for the best breakfast and he recommended Shriji. One more benefit of hiring a guide I must say. It was the best breakfast I had in a long time and cheaper than I could have imagined. Don’t feel off by the dodgy look of the place. The food is excellent and the menu is traditional.
For shopping, our guide took us to a souvenir store just next to the security check area. This is where the shop keeper showed us how the artesians at the construction site engraved precious stones into the the marble. There was no one pushing us to buy anything. However we did pickup some small knick-knacks to get back home. On top of our list to buy from here was petha, a sweet specialty of the city made from pulp of the petha fruit and sugar syrup, best had chilled. There was a Panchi petha store (most famous producers of this sweet) just outside this souvenir shop and picked up a couple of sealed boxes.
Money matters: Cash is welcome everywhere. Bigger souvenir shops won’t mind card payments. Confirm if their card machines are working before the purchase.
If time allows try visiting Agra fort after this tour. That is where Shah Jahan was jailed by his son. On his request, he was put in a cell from where Taj mahal was visible so he could look at his wife and and beautiful mausoleum all the time from his window.
Also try to visit the site where black Taj Mahal was planned to be built across the river Yamuna opposite the white Taj Mahal. It has now been made into Mehtab park and gives stunning views of Taj mahal from a different vantage point with Yamuna in front of it reflecting it perfectly.
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