Impressions of Agra: From the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort

What do you say about the Taj Mahal?

It’s beautiful and mystical and a monument to love.

So I’ll let it speak for itself.

taj-1taj-3taj-6In the meantime, I finally rode an autorickshaw (a couple of them, actually, all around Agra). Did I get ripped off? Probably. But I was mostly able to negotiate. I also rode a cycle rickshaw (which I took to Chimman Lal Puri, this amazing hole-in-the-wall eatery by the Jama Masjid mosque that was recommended in the Rough Guides India guidebook I had).

And, more importantly, I saw the Agra Fort. Registered guides offered their services (for a price), but I was at that point of not saying “yes” to anyone (I turned a couple down at the Taj, too). And while I’d actually recommend local guides in general (my experience has been you get a lot more knowledge of history and culture of a place, and there are people who get licensed to do these jobs around these sites), I was glad to be able to wander the Fort on my own—because it’s just one of those places.

Agra Fort 1.jpg

Around every corner, through every archway, it was like new wonders awaited me. Granted, it wasn’t as pristinely kept us as the Taj. It wasn’t as striking. Or as intricate.

agra-fort-2

But something about it gave me my breath back after I’d been holding it to get through all of Agra. I felt refreshed. It felt fun to explore. And I could find myself in a quiet corner with no one else there but me.

agra-fort-3

My last night in Agra, on the rooftop of my hotel, I watched the sun set on the Taj and night fall. All around me rose the sounds of prayers from mosques echoing across the city. As the lights blinked on in the buildings around me, I heard pans sizzling and laughter rising, and I watched the white lights of motorbikes weave their way through side streets.

And behind it all, the shadow of the Taj kept watch, like the face of Allah—something you know is there but can never fully see.

taj-7

Travel Tips

  • Hotel
    • I stayed in the Taj Ganj, the most popular neighborhood for backpackers, which offers a view of the Taj (which is in walking distance) and numerous cheap eats. The tradeoff is that the streets are lined with touts and auto drivers who might bother you endlessly. On the bright side, from the rooftop of my hotel, I could see the Taj at every moment of the day—and when I was there on a Friday (when the Taj is closed), the neighborhood was pure bliss. Both Shanti Lodge and Hotel Kamal (available on Agoda) came to me as recommendations for budget options with great rooftop views.
  • Food
    • Shankara Vegis, Taj Ganj
      • My favorite while in Agra, this vegetarian restaurant offers a range of Indian (and other) foods for the hungry tourist, and kind and friendly (but not over friendly) staff to make sure you get whatever you might need along the way, even if it’s just a welcome to the place. I got a couple amazing thali meals here (a kind of variety plate with multiple curries, rice, bread, and for the “special” version, tea) for around 150 rupees each. The food was delicious, the owner was awesome, and I admittedly went there more than once.
    • Joney’s Place, Taj Ganj
      • Open since 1978, Joney’s Place is a Taj Ganj institution. Small, but clean and well-kept (and newly renovated, I think), I had the best banana lassi I had in all of India and a great Malai Kofta, one of their specialties. They also serve Western food, breakfast, and an array of other eats for cheap. I think I spent around 200-250 rupees total (for meal, lassi, naan, and tea).
    • Chimman Lal Puri, near Jama Masjid
      • Recommended in my Rough Guides guidebook for India, I found this whole in the wall hidden by the Jama Masjid mosque, and boy, was the cycle rickshaw ride over here from the Agra Fort worth it. Friendly service, amazing food, super local (I was the only foreigner there), and like the realest version of the thalis, free refills on rice and curries—all for under 100 rupees. Try their lassis, too—sweetened to perfection.
  • Transportation
    • Taxis and Autorickshaws
      • I got a taxi ride from Agra Cantt (train station) to Taj Ganj for maybe 250 rupees (I went to the pre-paid taxi stand outside of the station). My autorickshaw rides from Taj Ganj to the Agra Fort cost between 70 and 100 rupees each way (they should’ve been lower, but the drivers would not budge, despite my haggling and walking away). From Jama Masjid back to Taj Ganj, no one would go lower than 100-150 rupees.
    • Train Rides
      • I came in via the overnight train from Bangalore (a couple days on a top bunk). There are multiple train stations in Agra coming from all over the place. I think Agra Cantt might be the busiest (where I came in), and there are multiple trains to/from Delhi every day. To check out train schedules and stops, visit Cleartrip, my favorite site for booking Indian trains.
  • Sites
    • Agra Fort, open daily, sunrise-sunset, 550 rupees for foreigners with a 50 rupee discount if you can show them your ticket for the Taj Mahal from the same day (www.agrafort.gov.in)
    • Taj Mahal, open daily (except for Fridays), sunrise-sunset (with special night admission when it’s the full moon), 1000 rupees for foreigners (tajmahal.gov.in)
      • Gates: You can enter through three gates (West, South, and East). The western gate is usually busiest, but that’s also where you can find a police-guarded locker station (a little down the way from the gate—I honestly had a hard time finding it). The southern gate was practically empty but for a handful of tourists and a couple of harmless touts—but know that there aren’t any lockers nearby.
      • Guides: I had a lot of folks offering guide services to me. I flat out refused everyone, but it might have actually been useful to have someone explain more of the history and culture. Real guides should have a badge for credentials and gather around the gates. Never go with the first offer—they usually started at 700 rupees or something like that but eventually got down to 400 or 500 for a couple-hour tour. The best offer was at the southern gate, where the guide offered a 150-rupee, two-hour guided tour. Use your best judgment and know your budget.
      • Can’t get enough of looking at the Taj? Go to the rooftop restaurant of a hotel or café nearby (including the hotels mentioned above and Shankara Vegis Restaurant). Rooftop views abound and are great for checking out the Taj at sunset or sunrise—or any other time of day—over a meal, coffee, or tea.
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