A stop in Agra seems mandatory to all first-time visitors coming to India, who perhaps are not so familiar with the name of this city but very eager to go to its most famous icon: the Taj Mahal. This city located in the indian central state of Uttar Pradesh on the banks of the Yamuna river was the capital of the Mughal empire during the 16th and 17th centuries until it shifted to Delhi. It holds a numerous collection of architectonic jewels, some declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the impressive white marble world wonder. All of these heritage sites boast beauty and art from every corner of their constructions and preserve a part of indian history within their walls. Here are my top 5 points of interest in a first-time visit to Agra.
WHAT CANNOT BE MISSED IN A VISIT TO AGRA?
1) Taj Mahal
So many tales and legends have been written about the Taj Mahal, one does not know whether its beauty has been exaggerated in literature and it is truly as impressive as it has been depicted across the world or not until one crosses the red-sandstone Southern Gate and sets eyes on the picture-perfect front of the Taj Mahal. Then the heart beats faster, a sudden rush of emotions spring and a wide smile is drawn on the face as one contemplates this stunning sight in awe. Yes, it is truly that beautiful and it becomes more than that once one learns the complete history and love story behind it. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in the first half of the 16th century, it shows the wealth and luxury of the Mughal empire, elegant design and exquisite artful skills of the architects and workers.
We visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise, just as it had opened its doors to the public, without the crowds to come later in the morning. It was peaceful, cooler in temperature (considering the sticky heat of the season) and the sunlight was great for photo-taking. There is also a possibility of visiting the Taj at night during full-moon and it is said to be special but I cannot say for myself as I have not experienced it.
2) Agra Fort
Agra Fort, or the Red Fort, is more than a fort; it is a complex of halls, courtyards, palaces, baths, gardens and dungeons dating back to the second half of the 1500s, built by Emperor Akbar and expanded by later successors. It lies on the west bank of the Yamuna river from which you can see the Taj Mahal at a distance. Its red sand-stone architecture is combined with beautiful white-marble halls and painted ceilings and walls. A guided tour to know a bit about the history and lifestyle at the time is very recommended.
3) Itimad-ud-Daulah´s Tomb
This is one of the most beautiful sites in my opinion and somewhat shadowed by the grand Taj Mahal. Barely any visitors were there when I visited during mid-day. It was very enjoyable to contemplate so much beauty in a small construction with fully decorated ceilings, walls and floors from the early 1600s. The white marble reminds you of the Taj Mahal but its architecture is different. Itimad-ud-Daulah´s daughter built the tomb for his father, who was the treasurer of the Mughal empire.
Located on the outskirts of Agra, this is large complex containing the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar within a red-sandstone symmetrical structure and a large beautiful garden. Enter through the south gate and take a stroll towards the main building where the tomb is kept, followed by a walk through its arched galleries (a relief from the strong sunshine).
5) Fatehpur Sikri
This is a large complex of both public and private places such as palaces, courtyards, government structures and waterways representing what was once the Mughal capital for 14 years until it was abandoned for lack of water. It is a walled city on its own with an adjacent sacred complex called Jama Masjid, where a grand open mosque and the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti are located. The architecture, dating to the 1570s, of both complexes is extraordinary with very well-kept structures and different styles of art decorating the walls and pillars. You will need a couple of hours to visit both complexes at a relaxed pace. I recommend getting a tourist guide with you, or hiring the services of accredited guides at the entry of the complex, to get the most out of your visit as tourist information panels inside the premise are lacking.
The main entry point for international foreigners will most likely be the indian capital of Delhi. Agra is conveniently located for a flight arrival in Delhi as within 3-4 hour drive by car or train ride, one can reach the hotel in Agra. If you prefer to take a connecting flight to Agra, this is also a possibility as there is a domestic airport. Either way, I recommend hiring a car and a tour guide (or a tour if you prefer) for your 2-day visit as the distances between tourist places are long and the traffic in the city can be somewhat chaotic. I visited Agra as part of a trip through central and western India, fully customized and planned by me with the help of Four Wheel Drive India. You can read about the other parts of the trip on these posts here: Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur.
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN AGRA?
I recommend 2 complete days in town to visit the 5 top places mentioned above. If you want to do more sightseeing, allow for an extra day. If you have one or few spare days, I would rather dedicate them to experience New and Old Delhi.
In the same first day (if you start early), you can cover the places 1-4 and still have enough time to rest at your pace. Fatehpur Sikri can be covered the following day during a few hours. We visited it on the day we were traveling to Jaipur by car and was perfect-timing.
Like most tourist sites I´ve visited in India so far, one needs to remove the shoes before entry. In very few places, you are given plastic covers for your feet or shoes, so if you mind walking bare-feet around the interiors and exteriors of the sites, bring a pair of socks with you. Also, the sun can be fierce here during the many walks on the gardens and around the buildings, so pack plenty of water, sunblock, a hat or an umbrella to provide some shade.
Now you know what else you can do apart from visiting the Taj Mahal during your visit to Agra. The tourist points are fantastic and make for a good introduction to the Mughal period in India. Hope you enjoy your trip to Agra!!!