The city of Agra dates back to the early 16th century when it was founded by Sultan Sikandra Lodi – the Muslim ruler of the Delhi sultanate – in 1504. However, the golden age of Agra was during the days of the Mughals when it was the capital of their empire. With an architectural style heavily influenced by Islam, the Mughals legacy remains well intact for us to marvel at today. In particular, the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri evoke that glorious period in India’s history when Agra was the centre of the Mughal Empire.
Whilst just the one night is generally considered sufficient to do justice to the Taj Mahal for those who are strapped for time, if your schedule will allow we’d recommend two nights to ensure a comfortable pace. Not only does this allow you to explore Agra beyond the Taj Mahal and gain a deeper understanding of the Mughals in India, it also affords the time to unwind at your hotel which, we think, goes a long way in relaxing the pace of an itinerary and breaking up time spent on the road.
For most of our guests at Indian Excursions, they travel into Agra from Delhi. To do this takes four hours by car. A train is available too and takes about two hours, though when taking into consideration the time spent travelling to and from the stations and waiting to board, it takes about the same amount of time overall and so we’re guided by you as to whether you prefer to drive or take the train. Alternately, for our guests who’re also visiting Varanasi, they usually fly in – a direct flight is available to Agra from Varanasi, every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Regardless of how you get there, we’d recommend taking the rest of the afternoon at leisure to relax and enjoy your hotel. Our favourite places to stay in Agra include the Oberoi Amarvilas (the finest hotel in Agra, every room affords a stunning view of the Taj Mahal and some extend out onto their own private balcony from where you can soak up a view of the monument), the Taj Gateway (a four-to-five star property under the ubiquitous Taj Group, with a cluster of rooms offering a view of the Taj Mahal) and the Trident (whilst there’s no Taj view, the Trident excels in warm and personalized service with comfortable, recently renovated rooms).
Optionally, take in the Taj Mahal at sunset this evening from across the Yamuna River at Mehtab Bagh. This little-known garden is located to the rear of the Taj Mahal and offers a spectacular view without the crowds. It pre-dates the Taj Mahal and was originally constructed by Emperor Babur as the last in a series of 11 parks along the Yamuna river. Though it fell into disrepair, to protect the Taj Mahal from the erosive effects of sand blown across the river, Mehtab Bagh was repaired and is now one of the best places from which to soak up a great view of the monument.
If you’d like to dine out this evening, we’d recommend A Pinch of Spice. Massively popular with tourists and locals alike, A Pinch of Spice specializes in Mughlai cuisine though offers a range of dishes to suit all palettes (including more familiar Continental options). We’d recommend their famous butter chicken and Dal Bukhara (slow cooked lentils in a creamy, spicy sauce).
Soak up the highlights of Agra today (including, of course, the Taj Mahal) on a privately guided tour. We’d recommend beginning the day at Agra Fort. Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort, reflects the collective creative brilliance of Emperor Akbar, his son Jahangir, and grandson Shah Jahan (who later built the Taj Mahal). A succession of Mughal Emperors lived here, including Humayun and Aurangzeb as well as Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. It was from here that the country was governed, and the fort contained the huge state treasury. As with similar Mughal complex’s in Delhi, the word ‘fort’ is a bit of a misnomer; the facility is really a fortified palace, containing royal apartments, mosques, assembly halls, and a dungeon – the entire cityscape of an imperial capital. From the ramparts, there’s an excellent view of the Taj Mahal.
We’d then suggest continuing to Itmad-ud-Daulah. The Empress Nur Jahan built this small, beautiful tomb for her father, Mirza Ghayab Beg, a Persian nobleman. Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Shah Jahan. The monument, one of Agra’s loveliest, was supposedly built by workers from Persia. The tomb incorporates a great deal of marble and marks the first use of Persian-style marble inlay in India – both features that would later characterize the style of Shah Jahan. Particularly in its use of marble inlay, this building was a precursor of, and very likely an inspiration for, the Taj Mahal (for this reason it’s earned the somewhat goofy nickname “Baby Taj”). Most travellers to Agra never see this place, but its beauty and tranquillity are extraordinary, and its well-maintained gardens make it a wonderful place to pause and reflect.
On the outskirts of Agra, the Mughal Emperor Akbar is buried in a small village called Sikandra. We’d recommend visiting this very impressive tomb, which is believed to have been designed by Akbar himself (later to have been constructed by his son, Jahangir). Or, you may like to hit the bazaars and emporiums instead for souvenirs crafted in marble and embellished with semi-precious stones, in much the same way and technique as the Taj Mahal. A wide range of marble products are crafted here, from table-tops to jewellery boxes and decorative plates.
To end the day, continue to the magnificent Taj Mahal at sunset. Described as an ‘elegy in marble’, the Taj Mahal is an epic monument to Emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved wife. Seeing the magnificent structure in person reveals the minute details of its decoration and its construction and the incredible symmetry of the elements. The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable, most reproduced images in the world, and the tale of love and loss that sparked its creation is almost as incredible as the monument’s beauty. It was built by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his third but favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. As the legend goes, she asked him to build her a monument so beautiful that the world would never forget their love. She died after giving birth to their thirteenth child, and six months after her death Shah Jahan began the process of honouring her request with the Taj Mahal.
Construction of the monument began in 1632, and it took 20,000 labourers a period of about 17 years to complete the vast, bejewelled, white marble tomb on the banks of the Yamuna River. The buildings perfect proportions, scale and exquisite detail make it a vision unlike anything else. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Up close the intricately crafted and colourful detail of the building is apparent, but from far away, the magnificent structure appears all white – though depending on the sun and the time of day it takes on different hues. At sunrise it takes on a pearlescent pinkish hue; at sunset, it’s a lemon yellow, then orange. Once the sun goes down, the marble is pure white against a black sky.
The Taj Mahal is closed to the public every Friday. If your full day in Agra falls on a Friday, we’d recommend visiting at sunset the previous evening instead and enjoy your time at leisure this afternoon.
Many of our guests appreciate visiting the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise, to take its beautiful changing colours. With that in mind, we’d recommend waking early today to revisit the monument at dawn.
After having returned to the hotel for breakfast, there’ll be an hour or two at leisure to rest.
You’d then be reunited with your guide to visit Fatehpur Sikri. The capital of the Mughal Empire for only 14 years, the majestic red sandstone buildings of the now uninhabited fortified city of Fatehpur Sikri are remarkably well preserved, and show-case elegant architecture and an inspired sense of planning. In a sense, Fatehpur Sikri was built on faith: in 1569, so the story goes, the Mughal emperor Akbar was driven to despair because he didn’t have a male heir. He made a pilgrimage to visit the mystic Salim Chishti, who blessed him. The blessing evidently worked, as Akbar had a son within the next year, naming him Salim in honour of the saint. Two years later, Akbar began building a new capital in Chishti’s village of Sikri, later renaming it Fatehpur Sikri. When the British came to Fatehpur Sikri in 1583 to meet Akbar, they were amazed to see a city that exceeded contemporary London in both population and grandeur – with more rubies, diamonds and silks than they could count. What remains today is a cluster of empty royal dwellings. Because it was abandoned and never resettled, the city was not modified by later rulers and thus is the best reflection of Akbar’s aesthetic and design philosophies. Fatehpur Sikri now stands as an intriguing ghost town, reflecting a high point in India’s cultural history.
From Fatehpur Sikri, continue to your onward destination, which for most of our guests is the Pink City of Jaipur (four hrs by car), or Ranthambhore National Park (five hrs by car, or three by train).
If you’d like to visit Agra and the Taj Mahal on your upcoming trip to India please do get in touch. Agra is just one of many wonderful places we can include on your tailor-made tour and we’d be delighted to get stuck into the planning. For inspiration, we’d recommend taking a look at our sample itineraries, most of which include a stop in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.
To best connect the dots, Agra is within driving distance of Delhi, Ranthambhore and Jaipur. From Varanasi, a direct flight is available. For other highlights in the region such as Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, a couple of nights in Jaipur along the way makes for the best launching point.0