The Agra Rundown
Not nearly the biggest city in India, nor the holiest or oldest, Agra is seldom not on the mainstream tourist agenda. When the Taj Mahal is in your backyard, after all, people are going to come. Millions upon millions of people. Agra, a city intertwined with important events in India long before it was a Mughal royal stronghold, is where one emperor Shah Jahan built - or, rather, had his minion hordes build - one of the most instantly recognisable and indelible structures on the face of the Earth from 1632 to 1653.
When you gape at the Taj Mahal in person, finally and with inevitable awe, it is all too easy to forget that at the end of the day, one of the planet’s foremost architectural icons is a tomb. But, then again, so too are the Pyramids of Giza, a fellow wonder of the world. Needless to say, the vast shrine and complex built in memory of the Mughal regent’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is impossible to adequately describe without falling into the usual banal, trite traps of hyperbole. Simply put, there’s a reason why upwards of 4 million people come to Agra year in and year out.
Yet the Uttar Pradesh city of 1.7 million people has other attractions of note. Two other UNESCO World Heritage Sites grace the Agra urbanscape: Fatehpur Sikri, a remarkable Mughal-era city frozen in time, and the magnificent Agra Fort, which pre-dates the Taj Mahal by almost a century. Add a spectacular mix of ancient mausoleums, temples and monuments and Agra starts to emerge as much more than a one-trick pony. Indeed, there is enough here to amuse the average tourist for a few days and make the incessant, desparate deluge of touts well worth the trouble.
Agra’s Top 10
10. Marian’s Tomb is the tomb of the 16th century Mughal Emperor’s wife, Mariam uz-Zamani. Not quite the Taj Mahal but worth a look.
5. Tomb of Akbar the Great graces 48 Persian-style landscaped hectares of the city.
9. Ram Bagh is the oldest paradise garden, or charbagh, in Agra.
4. Itmad-ud-Daula's Tomb is yet another fabulous Mughal mausoleum that dates back to the early 17th century.
8. Chini ka Rauza is one of many funerary monuments in Agra but a vital achievement in Mughal architecture nonetheless.
3. Fatehpur Sikri’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status sits on the shoulders of the old Mughal capital’s arresting ensemble of architectural gems.
7. Jama Masjid is the most important mosque in Agra and one of the largest in India.
2. Agra Fort is the easy #2 destination of choice in the city. The red sandstone fortress complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.
6. Mankameshwar Mandir is a temple dedicated to Shiva and one of the most venerable landmarks in Agra.
1. Taj Mahal is a world wonder par excellence. Did you come to Agra for some other reason?
- Taj Mahal – One of the Wonders of the World, symbolizing Emperor Shah Jehan’s love for his beloved wife Mumtaj Mahal.
- Agra Fort – Also known as Lal Haveli, this fort has stood the test of time.
- Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah – With its spectacular stonework, a marvellous blend of Persian and Mughal architecture.
- Akbar’s Mausoleum – Akbar’s tomb with excellent inlaid stone and marble work.
- Panch Mahal – Represents the Mughal architecture in five floors at its glorious best.
Agra Art & Culture
- Spiritual Museum – Your trip to Agra is incomplete without a visit to this museum that displays a variety of colours, forms and shapes.
- Taj Mahotsava – Beginning in the mid-February, this 10-day carnival highlights India’s extensive arts, crafts and culture.
- Taj Mahal Museum – Showcases art, artefacts and antiques of the Mughal period.
- Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charities – Open to visitors between 2 to 6 pm, a visit to this place can prove to be your most moving and humbling experience.
- Marble Handicrafts Emporium – Visit the place showcasing artisans and their products, but resist the pressure to purchase if you don’t want to.
- Kalakriti – A marble inlay workshop that sells marble arts, crafts, clothes and jewellery, with a dance and drama show in the evening.
- Outside East Gate of Taj – A long row of shops selling gifts and marble knickknacks.
- Sadar Bazar – Fascinating varieties of shoes sold for a great bargain.
- India Leather House – A diverse variety of quality leather products available in various price ranges.
- Hari Parwat – Sweets shops here sell the famous petha of Agra, a sweet that doesn’t decay for months.
Gay & Lesbian Agra
- Travel RPS – A global company with a presence in Agra promises to cater to gay organizations and organize travel plans.
- Idgah Bus Stand – There are purportedly opportunities for gay cruising after dark.
- Amar Vilas Bar – This bar offers opulence and a view of the Taj Mahal.
- Mughal Bar – This rooftop bar offers local and international drinks.
- On the Rocks Bar – Drink exotic cocktails whilst poolside at this bar in the Jaypee Palace.
- Ram Bagh – Built by the first Mughal emperor Babar, this is the original Mughal garden
- Keetham Lake – About 23km away from Agra, this place is a picnic and fishing spot.
- Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary – About an hour's drive from Agra, this bird sanctuary attracts migratory birds during winters.
- Taj Nature Walk – Trek through a forest reserve with views of the Taj Mahal.
- Wildlife SOS – Truly an animal utopia that has rescued bears, elephants and other abandoned animals and birds.
- Boat along the Yamuna from Dussehra Ghat.
- Watch gully (street) cricket in fields and courtyards around Agra.
- Golf with the Taj Mahal as the backdrop at the Agra Golf Club.
- Play croquet or badminton on the lawn of the Hilton Agra.
- Cycle to Swami Bagh north of Agra.
Agra’s bellwether tourist attractions are clustered around an easily navigable and completely conspicuous part of town. Still, it’s worth noting the layout of the city.
The Yamuna River marks the eastern edge of Agra and rolls past the Taj Mahal complex. To the south is the precinct known as Taj Ganj, the city’s original labour class enclave. A litany of budget hotels, shops and restaurants congregate here, particularly on and around Taj East Gate Road.
The heart of Old Agra lies on the western shores of the Yamuna River and close to Agra Fort. Both the Agra City Train Station and the Belanganj Train Station reside just north of here. Bazaars and markets in the old city draw a steady stream of locals and curious foreigners alike.
Idgah, southwest of the city centre, is home to Kheria Airport, the busiest bus station in Agra and a railway station.
Loha Mandi is an important commercial and residential area just west of the centre of Agra.
Nand Ram Ka Tila is a small, generally poor, working-class district in the heart of the city.
Sanjay Place is the de facto central business district of Agra. The diminutive hub of office buildings, retail outlets and restaurants is a lively hive of activity by day.
Paliwal Park is a lush link between a couple of middle-class residential precincts and Sanjay Place. The public park measures over 280,000 square metres.
Raja ki Mandi district shares the same name as one of Agra’s railway stations. The bustling commercial and shopping area contains a cricket ground and heavily-frequented market.
Sadar Bazaar is close enough to Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal to make the day trip itinerary. The dynamic marketplace sells a panoply of wares, has many restaurants and chaat shops and is open every day from 11am to 11pm, save Tuesday.
Agra Eat & Drink
From elaborate, multi-course Mughlai royal cuisine to simple chaat, mealtime in Agra is never dull or devoid of choice.
Aashiyaana (Fatehabad Rd) is a pricey but well-executed hotel restaurant.
Only Restaurant (45 the Mall south of Taj Ganj) caters to tour groups but dishes out a high-quality brand of Mughlai and continental food.
Yash Café (Taj Ganj) is a superb little haunt for daytrippers and backpackers alike, with a good range of Indian and Western faves.
Pinch of Spice (23/453, Wazirpura Rd) is a reliable bet for Indian and Chinese classics.
Chokho Jeeman (Raja Ki Rd) serves some of the best thali in Agra.
Lakshmi Vilas (Taj Rd) serves the best budget South Indian fare in Agra.
Shankara Vegis Restaurant
(Taj Ganj) has a cult-like coterie of regular adherents and a terrifically laid-back atmosphere.
Mughal Room (54 Taj Rd) is undeniably swanky but is top-drawer for a gourmet night out on the town.
Joney’s Place (Taj Ganj) is a must-try breakfast and all-day joint that has been around the Agra scene for decades.
Dasaprakash (1 Gwalior Rd) is a comfortable all-you-can-eat thali favourite with locals.
Agra offers a few civic events of note throughout the year and a colourful slew of religious festivals as well.
Sheetla Fair venerates a local deity in July-August with numerous processions in Agra.
Taj Mahotsav is a Mughal carnival that takes place over ten days in mid-February and features a mx of parades, elephant and camel rides, local arts and crafts, traditional costumes and classical poetry and music.
Taj Food Festival celebrates the best of the Agra and Uttar Pradesh food scene in February, with myriad stalls in busy tourist quarters and special events at restaurants in the city.
Kailash Fair takes place not in Agra but a mere 12 km away in the town of Kailash. The mid-August festival is dedicated to Shiva, with many inherent Hindu rituals and celebrations.
Diwali, the national five-day “Festival of Lights” that whips India into an exultant fervour every mid-October to mid-November, is a fun time to be in Agra.
Likewise for Holi, when activity around the Taj Mahal is especially vibrant. The Hindu Spring Festival usually occurs sometime in March.
Ram Barat, a paragon annual event in North India, is part of a dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Lord Ram as told in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, which UNESCO considers a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The multi-day event draws millions of people to Agra in either September or October.
When To Go
The weather in Agra can be volatile and wavers, often wildly, between a humid subtropical and semi-arid climate. As a result, visitors can expect a touch of monsoon rain and searingly hot, dry summers. The former kicks in from July to September, with as much as 500 mm of precipitation over the three month period.
Conditions get particularly harsh from April to June, with highs in the 104°F (40°C) to 115°F (46°C) range. This is obviously not the most comfortable, let alone safe, season for touring. Thankfully, Agra’s mild winter comes through with ideal weather for walking around and checking out all the sights, from the Taj Mahal to Sadar Bazaar.
As such, prospective tourists to Uttar Pradesh should endeavour to plan their visit in either December, January or February, when temperatures run from a very manageable 46°F (8°C) to 77°F (25°C). The upsides are manifest: cooler days to explore the city and less harmful air pollution as a result of the diminished humidity and lower temperatures.
What To Miss
As the home of the most iconic, world famous and popular attraction in India, Agra teems with hawkers, touts and freelance guides eager to claim a piece of the tourism pie (as famously depicted in Slumdog Millionaire). The opportunists make sport out of picking off visitors with a weaker radar and resolve. A good rule of thumb, then, in Agra: be vigilant, stick to the plan and walk through the swarms with unyielding purpose.
Needless to say, in the same vein, tourist traps run rife in the Taj Mahal city. From marble and jewellery shops to third-rate touristy restaurants, faux museums to inferior tour operators, a bevy of carpetbaggers abound. Again, remember why you’re in Agra and move on to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Last but certainly not least, don’t feed or take pictures of the monkeys.
Agra is easy to reach from Delhi, which is the de facto route for the vast majority of tourists. The city is 200 km southeast of India’s capital and accessible via rail, bus or private car. Agra can be a comfortable day trip from Delhi, with one-way trip times as short as two hours. As always, the higher the train or bus class, the faster and more plush the journey.
Kheria Airport is 12.5 km from Agra proper and offers seasonal service to the city from the other two destinations in India’s famous Golden Triangle tourist circuit: Delhi and Jaipur. In the end however, it is way more efficient to hire a car to take you directly to the Taj Mahal than to fly in to Agra directly.
With traffic the way it is in Agra, car or bicycle rental is not necessarily the most prudent way to get around. A variety of options abound within the Taj Mahal complex, where motor vehicles are prohibited. Outside of the area and within the city itself, taxis offer the most sensible way to get from one point to another, especially for small groups. Be sure to negotiate rates and routes with drivers prior to departure.
The city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh is for better or worse, the most popular day trip destination in India. When your most notable claim to fame eclipses every other city attraction, overnight stays are a rarity. So while the Taj Mahal did put Agra on the map, the vast majority of Agra's 1.4 million inhabitants would love for visitors to delay their return departures to New Delhi and hang out for a few days.
The city is much more than just a one-trick pony. A central industrial hub in India's hyper-development plans, Agra has copious places of interest beyond the New World Wonder.
You do however, have to start with the Taj Mahal. The symmetrical UNESCO World Heritage Site is simply spectacular and without architectural parallel. The story behind the famous monument is the stuff of legend. Between 1630 and 1652, 20,000 workers and craftsmen built the masterpiece on the order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, as a mausoleum for his late bride Mumtaz Mahal.
For the last 8 years of his life, the Emperor had to face the majestic Taj Mahal from a lonely cell in Agra Fort. A prisoner of his son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan was himself to rest for eternity next to his wife upon his death in 1666. The Red Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1565. The paragon of Mughal architecture, with iconic crescent shape, contains several vital interior monuments.
Agra has a third and final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Fatehpur Sikri. The fort and historical site was for a time, the pulse point of the Mughal Empire.
Itimad-ud-Daula's Tomb is another Agra mausoleum worthy of your tourist time. The “Jewel Box” or “Baby Taj” is a fabulous edifice of white marble, inlaid with intricate decorative features.
MankaMeswar Temple is a beautiful and ancient tribute to Lord Shiva, with a convenient old city location near historic Mughal markets.
Every February in Agra heralds the arrival of a ten-day Mughal carnival near the Taj Mahal. Taj Mahotsav features traditional parades, camel and elephant rides, classical music, poetry and dance, and much more.
The Taj Food Festival, also in February, offers the best in local cuisine to curious and hungry visitors.
The start of spring in March means Holi, the paramount Hindu festival with much revelry and traditional events in the old town.
The Teej Festival in July and August celebrates the arrival of monsoon rains, with many monuments in and around Agra laden with colourful decorations.
The traditional holiday of Diwali in late November and early December fills the night sky with lanterns and permeates Agra with a festive atmosphere.
The climate in Uttar Pradesh and Agra in particular, is quite dissimilar from one season to the next. There are periods of unbearable heat and humidity, torrential tropical rains from June to August and even chilly spells in “winter”.
- Winter (December to January) 7-23°C
- Spring (February to March) 10-29°C
- Summer (April to September) 21-39°C
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