Sitting on the banks of the Yamuna River, Agra forms part of India’s infamous Golden Triangle, also consisting of Delhi and Jaipur. Agra is arguably one of India’s most well-known cities, because it is home to the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is on the bucket list of every tourist that comes to India; I mean, why would you travel all that way and not get round to seeing one of the seven wonders of the world for yourself?
The Taj Mahal isn’t the only thing attraction worth visiting in Agra, though. If, like me, you don’t have much time available to really explore the area by yourself, and you want to stay safe, consider hiring a private driver and licensed guide to show you around for the day. I paid for a three-day Golden Triangle guided tour with Crystal India Tours through Viator, and although my schedule was jam-packed, including several 5am starts (some holiday, right?!), I managed to pack much more into my time in India than I would’ve done if I was on my own, I felt safer, and the guides were very knowledgeable about all the places we visited.
I only got to spend a day in Agra, but I found time to see and do some great things while I was there. Here’s what I recommend seeing and doing when in Agra:
1. Visit the Taj Mahal
One of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1643 by Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
An ivory-white palace constructed from marble, the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical. The mausoleum took around 11 years to build and was effectively finished by 1643, but work continued on other areas for a further 10 years, with the finishing touches made in 1653 at an estimated total cost of 32 million rupees. The tomb lies at the heart of a 42-acre complex featuring a mosque, a guest house and well-kept gardens.
Today, this popular UNESCO World Heritage Site receives 7-8 million visitors per year. The best time to visit is at sunrise, when you can get some stunning photos of the Taj Mahal at a time when there will be less tourists around (less, but still enough people to get in the way of your perfect photos). Remember to bring cash to cover the 750 rupee tourist entrance fee (reportedly the highest of all India’s monuments) and any photos you may wish to purchase from a professional photographer on-site (always haggle to get the best price for photos). You can of course bring your own camera with you as well, although an additional fee is payable for video cameras.
Cars are not permitted to drive past the ticket booth, so once you’ve purchased your ticket, jump on a free shuttle bus to the entrance of the Taj Mahal – known as the West Gate, where you will pass through another security checkpoint before gaining entry into the grounds surrounding the Taj Mahal. If you bring a bag, you will be held up in the queue because it will have to be searched. Carry the bare minimum – passport (you need to show this on the way in), ticket, camera, phone, and cash. You’ll be given some lovely elasticated white paper covers to place over your shoes when you enter the Taj Mahal.
As you walk in to the grounds of the Taj Mahal, through the West Gate, you are immediately faced with the palace itself. Despite it being a foggy morning, the sheer beauty of the building really took me aback; no photos in the world truly do it justice.
It takes a fair amount of time to walk down to the mausoleum from here, but stopping for photos on the way certainly helps to pass the time. You can even see the white marble bench made famous by Princess Diana.
Either side of the Taj Mahal, there is a mosque and a guest house. Both buildings are fashioned from red sandstone and appear as mirror images of each other from the outside.
Visiting the Taj Mahal has always been one of my lifelong dreams, and I felt so overwhelmed with gratitude that I was lucky enough to see its magnificence with my own two eyes.
2. Go marble shopping
As the Taj Mahal is made from marble, it’s no surprise that marble is what Agra is known best for.
So, after you’ve visited the Taj Mahal, pop along to UP Marble Crafts Palace on Fatehabad Road, just a 5-10 minute drive from the famous monument itself. Here, you’ll be able to see for yourself how this family-run business cuts, finishes and polishes marble, using precious gems and stones to add colour and detail. You can also purchase eye-catching furniture, crockery, home accessories, ornaments and jewellery.
I had my eye on a marble photo frame for the photo I’d had taken of myself at the Taj Mahal, but I couldn’t justify spending £85 on it. The prices here are pretty steep, but you get what you pay for – real, authentic marble. You see hand-crafted ‘marble’ gifts on sale in many of India’s souvenir shops, but they are often fake.
A good way of finding out whether a piece of marble is genuine, is to try to scratch it with a sharp instrument; fake marble will be easy to mark, but genuine marble can withstand even the strongest of scratches or knocks.
3. Agra Fort
Agra Fort is just a short drive away from the Taj Mahal, so it makes sense to tie in the two visits. In fact, you can even catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the balcony of Agra Fort.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Agra Fort is also known as the Red Fort because it was built using red sandstone in the 16th century by Mughal Emperor, Akbar. It was used as both a military fort, and a home for the royal family. The entrance fee for foreigners is 520 rupees.
Akbar’s son, Aurangzeb, imprisoned Shah Jahan in the fort and it is alleged that he died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal.
The fort houses many different monuments and attractions, including temples, mosques, palaces and gardens.
4. Explore Fatehpur Sikri
Often regarded as the world’s most perfectly preserved ghost town, Fatepur Sikri is a small city just to the west of Agra. Many people visit the city as a day trip from Agra, or on the way to/from Jaipur, as it is conveniently situated between these two cities.
Like Agra Fort, Fatephur Sikri was built by Emperor Akbar. Akbar visited Sikri and met a saint who predicted that he would have a son. When his suggestion became true, Akbar chose to build his new capital in Sikri, including a beautiful mosque and three palaces; one for each of his three favourite wives. This was the Mughal’s first organised city and it was an Indo-Islamic masterpiece, packed with mosques, temples, palaces and homes, but it was abandoned soon after Akbar’s death due to water shortages.
Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is deserted and in ruins, but the mosques and temples are still operating as normal. There didn’t appear to be anyone living there, although there were lots of child beggars and hawkers (like most places in India). It was fascinating, and a little eerie at times, to walk around this abandoned, ancient city, especially as my driver had to wait in the car park – so there I was, on my own in a deserted little city somewhere in Northern India.
If you decide to visit Fatepah Sikri without an official tour guide, be prepared for the stampede of guides that’ll come hurtling towards you as soon as she step through the city gates. Some of them are licensed, some are not. My driver told me a horror story about some tourists he picked up who agreed $15 US to show them around the city, and then later told them that he’d said $50 and made them pay up before leaving. So, just be careful which guide you go with, or arrange a tour in advance online/through a local travel agent.
Where to stay when you visit Agra
I stayed in Jaypee Palace, a slick 5-star hotel based near to the Taj Mahal. Keep an eye out for my next blog post to hear all about it.
Do you enjoy exploring local attractions when you travel? Leave a message below to let me know what you got up to throughout last year, and what you’ve got planned for 2017!
Viator gave me a discount on the tour I purchased in return for writing about my experience on my blog; however, I was not obliged to publish positive feedback.