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How to Visit Awe Inspiring Agra – Agra Fort & the Taj Mahal

We arrived in Agra on a train from the glorious Gwalior Fort, where we’d not seen a single Western Tourist.  In Agra that would change considerably.    Agra is India’s most visited city when it comes to foreign tourists.  Seven million of us come to stand and look at the Taj Mahal.  A high percentage of those also head to Agra Fort.  We were expecting a tourist zoo and, after all the hype, also a letdown.  But let me put you out of your misery and I’ll tell you now, despite the number of tourists, I can say it is more than fair to describe the city as Awe Inspiring Agra.

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Agra Fort

We headed to Agra Fort first of all.   It is seriously stunning and very well maintained.

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It is such shame that the military still use the vast majority of this fort, as it would have been wonderful to see more of it.   Entrance fees follow the usual theme – foreigners pay 300 INR and Indians just 20 INR.

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We headed to the fort in the mid- afternoon, when the brightness has disappeared from the sun, as we wanted to see the glow reflecting in the sandstone walls.   We spent two hours wandering around with information downloaded from the Indian Archaeology Association and the Lonely Planett.  Human Guides are available at the gate (be sure to pick one that has an official badge).  There were signs for audio guides (118 INR plus 59 INR for a second set of headphones), but each place we inquired said that they were not available- it wasn’t clear if they were saying they were never going to be available or if they just didn’t have any left!

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Getting to Agra Fort

We were staying close to the West Gate of the Taj Mahal (more on that shortly), and it’s an easy 2.3km walk from the West Gate of the Taj.  Most of the way has reasonable pavements, or you can catch a cycle or auto rickshaw.  The pavements are pretty clean and there’s shade for most of the way in the mid-afternoon.  Once you’ve run the gauntlet of the auto drivers by the West Gate no one really bothers you.  There are also options to pick up a camel or horse drawn cart too as these also ply this reasonably quiet road between the Fort and the Taj. < Read about how we ride camels into the Thar desert on our Jaisalmer Camel Safari.

Navigating Agra Fort

In a similar fashion to Gwalior Fort, there are a series of palaces and other buildings inside Agra Fort.  The difference here in Agra is that the entrance to all of them is included in your initial fee.

The entrance to the fort is through the Lahore Gate and the best way to start your navigation of the fort is to take a right immediately after going up the slope from the gate.  You’ll pass the huge stone bathing object with steps on the right and make your way through this first palace.  This leads you on a route through palaces, to the river and views of the Taj, past where Shahjahan was imprisoned and the ladies bazaar, to the small mosque that you’re able to enter and brings you out in the square where you can see the small tomb of John Colvill.

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The Indian Archaeology Website has a great overview of Agra Fort here.

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The gardens are well kept and despite the weekend crowds, it was a pleasant place to visit for several hours, tourists were generally polite and accommodating to each other.  There’s regular signage describing the palaces and areas that you’re in.

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This is a beautiful fort, in a completely different way from the glorious crumbling isolation of Gwalior Fort.  It knocks spots off Delhi’s Red Fort, which is badly maintained and rubbish-strewn.

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It’s also where we find our first view of the Taj Mahal.  Sadly, my first thoughts are “Is that is?”.  It doesn’t bode well, as we plan to rise at dawn tomorrow for our view of her.

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awe inspiring Agra - view of the Taj from Agra fort

Where we stayed in Agra

As we plan to visit the Taj Mahal at dawn, we found a hotel that was within a few hundred metres of the West Entrance gate, where the foreigner ticket office is.  Location wise, the Sidhartha is fabulous.  It’s on a street that has no motorised traffic, which makes it somewhat quieter than other parts of Agra.  It’s at the budget end of the scale, and the room was small and still noisy, but the location made up for a lot!

The Taj Mahal

I’ll start by saying, no matter how good the photos are that you see of the Taj Mahal, the reality is better.

Don’t let the scrum for tickets or the line to get in, or the “security” checks put you off.

The first sight that you get of the Taj as you walk through the Great Gate will render you (and hopefully the rest of the visitors) speechless.  It truly is sublime and so much better than even the best photos that you’ve ever seen. If you’re also traveling to Delhi, then you should try and see Humayun’s Tomb, which is an early example of the architecture that culminated in the magnificence that is the Taj Mahal.

Buying Taj Mahal Tickets – the West Gate

We bought tickets at the West Gate.  The ticket booths open 30 minutes before the gates open and gates are open sunrise to sunset.  There’s a sign suggesting you need to take your passport, but we were never asked for ours.

There are two ticket windows for Indians and one for Foreign Tourists.  Tickets will cost 750 INR for Foreign Tourists and 20 INR for Indians. The good news is that not only is the ticket 37.5 times the price, but the line is about that many times as long for Foreign tourists lining up before sunrise.

We arrived at 0630 for a 0648 sunrise and didn’t get tickets until gone 7am!  If you have a tour guide, he will likely push you to the front of the Foreigners line and buy tickets for you and increase the irritation of everyone else waiting.

As a Foreign tourist or “high value” ticket holder you’re also entitled to shoe covers.  You will need these for entering the Taj, although you can also take your shoes off. You also get a 500ml bottle of water.  The stall to collect your water is inconveniently placed on the other side of railings, on the other side of the Indian tourist line.

Audio Guides at the Taj Mahal

Audio guides are available at 120 INR.  It’s actually priced at 118 INR, but of course, there’s never any change.  We took a single audio guide.  The window to buy audio guides is just to the right of the Foreigner ticket window.  Audio Guides are collected inside, once you have passed the security line.  You also get a useful map of the complex.

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Security Lines at the Taj Mahal

After you’ve acquired your tickets, you now get to join the line for security.  There are actually four lines.  Two of these are for Indian ticket holders, one each for men and women.  And then two for the “high value ticket holders”, again one for men and one for women.    There’s no other way to describe this than a “scrum”. The Indian men’s line moved rapidly, the high value lines gave you much more value as you stay in them much longer, about 20 minutes longer!

Security was a usual cursory and useless pat down security check, then if you have a bag, you need to go into another line to get the bag searched.  There might be multiple stations for bag check, but there was a single line.  Heaven help you if you go at a busy time, this was an organizational tragedy, even at 730 in the morning. You forget all of that when you get inside and see your first view of the Taj.

A First View of the Taj Mahal

Walking to the centre of the parkland like area, you step up to a magnificent gateway and as you walk through your view of the Taj Mahal crystallizes.

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It is magnificent.  Breath Taking.  This is Awe Inspiring Agra.

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Coming here early in the morning gives the light a sublime quality.  It’s softer, almost gentle.  There are a lot of people here, but considerably less than later in the day.  It is well worth setting your alarm and getting up.

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The Taj Mahal Grounds

As you’d expect, the grounds are extremely well maintained, and while the marble shows signs of centuries of hands rubbing it, it truly is beautiful.

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There are separate lines to enter the Taj itself, again separating into high value and general tickets, but the signage is relatively clear and someone will blow a whistle at you if you’re going the wrong way.  Shoe covers have to go on before you walk up to the marble platform to enter the Taj itself.

Awe Inspiring Agra - dawn at the taj mahal
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The audio tour is a great tour.  The signage in the complex is well done.  The Taj Museum within the grounds is free.  It almost makes you forget the shockingly bad organization to get into this incredible place.  Almost.

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Watch the Sun Set in Agra

We found the Saniya Palace restaurant as a great place to watch the sun go down and the evening light change over the Taj Mahal.    It’s a great view of the Taj.  The sun goes down behind you.  The beer is cold, but expensive at 220 INR for a 500 ml can of Kingfisher.  If you can find a member of staff to serve you.  You’d think it would be hard to screw up a peanut masala, but they managed to.  Although, it was equally as bad as the masala papad.  Still, we came for the view, not the food.

awe inspiring Agre - sunset view of the taj mahal

Reasonable Budget Food in Agra

If you want cheaper beer but no view, and somewhat better food head to Shankara Vegis, where the beer is 180 INR for a 650ml bottle of Kingfisher.  Thalis are priced from 120 INR up to 200 INR.  Shankara was the best place we ate in Agra, but you don’t come to Agra for the food by any stretch of the imagination.

Visit Awe Inspiring Agra

I can’t imagine visiting India and not visiting the Taj Mahal.  It is a truly awe inspiring sight and that it’s built in memory of love makes it so much better.  Agra Fort is also most definitely worth a visit.  If I were to return to Agra, I’d also head to some of the smaller sites such as Fatepuhr Sikri and the Tomb of Akhbar the Great.  Now, though, we’re off to find Tigers in the wild at Ranthambore.

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