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The comprehensive guide to travelling in Agra, India
What's there to see in Agra?
Home to the Taj Mahal, Agra is much more than just the famed mausoleum. Just a short distance away, the Agra Fort is a stark reminder that the Mughal kings had equally brutal-looking palaces and forts meant to stave off invasion, even as they embarked on grand architecture projects.
Agra has a long history dating as far back as the epic poem Mahabharata, and history is steeped in its city walls and in the culture of the people. You find out the best places to dine, and stay in regal palaces without burning a hole through your coffers.
The first glimpse of the Taj Mahal
The auto rickshaws of India
Also known as tuktuks across Asia, the auto rickshaw is a convenient and cheap means of public transportation, although road safety is sometimes suspect. At the expense of comfort, air-conditioning and seating space, the auto-rickshaw is more than half the price of hiring a taxi, and it might get you around faster in Agra's gridlocked roads. For a full day tour of Agra, bargain hard and you might get a driver to shuttle you around for as low as 600 Rupees.
Getting into Agra
There are many ways to reach Agra, with huge price differencs and comfort level.
Trains pulls into Agra Cantt station, which is located right in the city. Indian trains are mostly punctual, give or take 30 minutes, and second class sleepers and seats are comfortable even by western standards.
To reserve tickets, you'll need to register for an IRCTC account. Visit their website to register for an account, and you'll be asked for an Indian mobile number to receive a PIN code by SMS. Just write in to their customer care email address and explain that you're a tourist, and they'll activate your account within 48 hours.
By Private Transport (Car/Bus)
From Delhi, many travel agencies run tours to Agra and back as day trips. For group tours, the government run Delhi Tourism charges 1,525 Rupees per person to visit the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, and includes transportation and a guide.
By Public Bus
Buses ply the long distance routes between Agra and other nearby cities, and you can get arrange bus trips from a tour agency. Alternatively, do it yourself on Redbus by finding buses and making the bookings yourself.
Definitely more expensive than other options, but you'll get to reach Agra fastest. Bear in mind that the distance of the airport is further from the city center, so you might end up stuck in traffic on the way to your hotel, which might negate any time saved.
Riding in an auto rickshaw may get very interesting
Getting around town
For travellers wary of auto rickshaw and taxi touts, the prepaid kiosk offers a fair price. Nevertheless, be prepared to be surrounded by a crowd of drivers clamouring for your business, as you squeeze your way to the counter. Do not be intimidated by them, and always stand your ground. As a benchmark, any quote offered by a driver should be halved.
Here's another tip for the tech savvy - use Uber. The price is reasonable, the cars are comfortable and you don't have to deal with touts!
What to see in Agra
The Taj Mahal
The grandest building in all of Agra is also, unfortunately, the most crowded. Conventional advice is to beat the crowds by heading in the early morning, since the Taj Mahal opens at sunrise. Do not expect empty streets though, since there'll probably be a hundred other like-minded visitors. But at least you can be assured that you're missing the main bulk of tourists who'll come in after breakfast.
The Agra Fort
Once the main residence of the Mughal emperors, the 380,000 sqm Agra Fort is an impressive fortified structure that boasts of a large moat, layered defences and has an amazing view of the Taj Mahal from across the river.
Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah, or the Baby Taj Mahal
Also a mausoleum and purportedly a draft for the Taj Mahal, this beautifully designed tomb is located across the river from the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. It's worth spending an hour here, listening to the distant honking on busy streets while taking a respite from the hot Indian weather.
Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah
The Taj Mahal
The view of the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort
Travellers routinely complain about getting Delhi Belly or food poisoning. This is preventable as long as you maintain a strict discipline about what goes into your mouth. Drinking water should come from mineral water, and avoid iced drinks from stalls or restaurants. Make sure food comes hot, especially for soupy dishes like noodles.
Even if you're brushing teeth, it is advisable to use mineral water. Despite the hassles, these precautions will keep you in the pink of health.
Restaurants to visit in Agra
Agra has a wide range of restaurants and cafes to cater to every type of traveller. Here are a few recommended ones sorted by budget.
Peshawri - Expensive, classy dining
This restaurant serves a mean Dal Bukhara, and their meats are also cooked to perfection. In a town where good meat dishes is sometimes hard to find, Peshawri is a jewel.
Pinch of Spice - Good hearty local Indian cuisine
If you ask a local for a recommendation, Pinch of Spice might be one of their top few choices. Well known for their Northern Indian dishes, this is one place that has an amazing ambiance, and yet doesn't break the bank.
Good Vibes Cafe - Cheap backpacker grub that offers great value
Along the street are many hostels and cafes, but the Good Vibes cafe stand out as a great place to hang out and chill to good music, cheap food and a can of beer. Travellers might even meet each other here and embark on adventures together!
Safety Tip: Look out for vehicles, even if they don't look out for you!
Agra is not just about the Taj Mahal and nothing else. In an ancient city with so much history, it pays to dive deeper into the culture and find out how the people have lived and changed over the past centuries.
Of course, everyone comes for the Taj Mahal. The main must-take photo is the classic straight up symmetrical shot, so jostle for that shot. Apart from that, try different angles of capturing the building, and you might even manage one with no one in the frame. Now that's a shot that no one will ever believe you took during visiting hours!
As always, keep an eye on your belongings, especially since pickpockets and touts are preying on unsuspecting tourists everywhere. Don't let the actions of a single person spoil your entire trip!