You don't come to Agra for Agra...
But you do come there for the Taj Mahal. Missing this icon would be one of the worst decisions you could make during your time in India.
The ultimate display of love, the ideation of the white marble Taj began in the same year that Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of emperor Shah Jahan, died during childbirth. The building, considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world, is set upon a marble platform that gives it the appearance of floating in the blue sky. You may be skeptical prior to arrival, but once you get a glimpse of the Taj from one of the many viewpoints around Agra, you'd be hard-pressed to say there's not something special about it.
There are in fact a few things that make the Taj particularly interesting. It's symmetrical from all four sides and the four columns, or minarets, surrounding it were built to lean slightly outward, so they'd fall away from the Taj in case of an earthquake.
The text from the Quran that surrounds each of the four entrances appears uniform in size when seen from the ground, which means the artists and architects increased it in size perfectly as it went up.
The filigree screen surrounding both (fake) tombs inside the Taj was carved from a single piece of marble and is inlaid with thousands of piece of semiprecious stones, including one called the "fire" stone that lights up when you shine a flashlight on it.
See and Do
All in all, the Taj truly is a stunning building, and there's no better time to see it than at sunrise, or right after 6am when the compound opens. Purchase your ticket at one of the offices, take the free shuttle to the gate, and prepare to have a spellbinding morning. The hefty 750INR charge includes a free bottle of water and shoe covers, but it's a one time entry, meaning you'll be stuck there until 9am if you want to go inside the Taj Museum, which houses plates that supposedly split into pieces if the food on them has been laced with poison.
Morning time not only has fewer crowds and lower temperatures, but a general feeling of calmness that reverberates through the space. It was one of the first peaceful hours we had during our time in India.
Most tourists only come to Agra for the Taj, but we were happy to have some extra time to check out Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. (The latter is about an hour away by car.)
The Fort, located in the middle of town, is actually where Shah Jahan spent the last eight years of his life, after his son overthrew him in 1658, only five years after the Taj was completed. From there, Shah Jahan had only a view of his great monument, although there are definitely worse places to be on house arrest.
There are several palaces inside the Fort and it's quite interesting to see the change from sandstone, the original material used in 1565, to Shah Jahan's favorite material: white marble.
The Fort's design and entry points were meant to confuse intruders, so allow yourself to get lost in the old rooms, take in the viewpoints of the Taj, and be dragged into photos with curious locals.
We really lucked out with our hotel in Agra, and scored a great deal at the Hotel Taj Resorts, which is located right across from the ticket area for the East Gate. After some negotiating, we paid 2000INR for the three of us and had a large suite room with a sitting area and modern bathroom. The hotel has a swimming pool that (sort of) overlooks the Taj and makes for a nice escape at the end of the day.
Eat and Drink
The food at Hotel Taj Resorts was delicious, but it was overpriced compared to restaurants in the Taj Ganj area. Still, if you're looking for a place to enjoy a moonlit meal with music and a Taj view, you could do worse than eating here.
We also had a chance to try the restaurant at Saniya Palace Hotel, which boasts what is perhaps the best view of the Taj in Agra. The food was nothing special, but it was cheap and if you asked nicely, you could even get beer (a.k.a. "big juice).
Staying by the East Gate was convenient for the Taj, but made it slightly more expensive for transport. Expect to pay around 70-80INR for the train station and Agra Fort.
For Mehtabd Bagh, you should try for 150INR round trip, although that may include a stop at a shop. We chose a marble workshop, and although we didn't purchase anything, it was interesting to learn about the pietra dura method of marble inlay and allowed us to better appreciate the work at the Taj the following morning.
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