We had pre-booked our train (#12002 / Bhopal Shatabdi Exp 0600-0805) from Delhi to Agra (click here to read our post about train travel in India) so we were up early and at the station in enough time for our 6am train. It was only a couple of hours long, and so we had booked in the standard seating area. We spent the majority of the journey asleep to make up for the 4:30am wake up!
We had also managed to be sneaky and arranged for our hotel to pickup our luggage from the train station to store it at the hotel so that we didn’t have to travel all the way to the hotel to then go to the bus station for our half day trip to Fatehpur Sikri. The bus to Fatehpur runs from Idgah Bus Stand, which is only a 15 minute walk from Agra Cantt train station, so once our luggage was safely collected, we walked to the bus stand and was directed onto a bus to Fatehpur that was the next to leave. We waited only 10 minutes and it cost us ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip.
Once the capital of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, this magnificent fortified city is easy to visit on a day trip from Agra. Once we had arrived at around 10am, we made the most of our time and were only really here for a few hours, but mostly because we were excited to get back to Agra to get a glimpse of the Taj! Depending on how long you are visiting though, you may wish to stay to experience the red-sandstone palace during sunset and stay in one of the decent hotels in the village.
We got off the bus just before the last stop, as the entrance to the site began. The beautiful mosque, Jama Masjid, sits at the top of a huge flight of stone steps and the main entrance is a spectacularly high gate which you will see as you start to ascend the hill up from the main road. Once you make it up the steps and through the daunting gate, you will find courtyards and palaces inside, as well as the tomb of the Mughal saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, where women hoping to have children come to tie strings for fertile luck. This entire area is charming, and usually very quiet, so it’s perfect for contemplation and your first experience of ancient India outside of Delhi.
We ate at Ajay Palace for lunch atop the rootop, which served great homemade curries and chapati (note that it’s not ‘Ajay Restaurant By Near Palace’ – it’s 50m further down the road and also a hotel – walk through and up the stairs.
By spending a little too much time enjoying the views at lunch, we had just missed a bus Agra-bound. Our travel guide advised buses ran every half hour, but it seemed to be more like an hour than half hour. The bus station is on the main road and once we saw the bus arrive from our lunch perch, we rushed down to make sure we got on – they don’t see to wait long! Again, ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip back to Agra.
Rather than heading all the way back to Agra’s bus stand, we got off the bus on the main road towards Agra fort and flagged down a tuktuk to take us to the entrance of Agra Fort. The Amar Singh Gate to the south of the fort is the only entry point and you can buy your entrance ticket here ₹550 (about £6) per person (foreign tourist charge).
Agra Fort is easily forgotten about, considering the countries most famous landmark is just downstream, but travellers that visit here will witness one of the finish forts in India within these walls. Courtyard after courtyard, and the many fairytale palaces and audience halls, it will take some time for the sheer scale of this fort to really sink in. You can also grab your first glimpse of the Taj from here.
The hotel we stayed at in Agra was the Hotel Taj Resort. We have already mentioned the pickup of our luggage which was very helpful, but the main attraction to this hotel was that it was only 500 metres to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. This would really help us out in the morning for our early morning visit to the sight. In fact we were so close, the road the hotel sits on is cycle tuk-tuk only – you aren’t allowed to ride a loud engine through this area!
The hotel also offered free breakfast, and a lovely pool. We ate in the hotel restaurant for dinner that evening, with silhouette views of the palace.
The magnificence of the Taj when you first see it is quite overwhelming. There is something magical about seeing one of the most famous buildings in the world, something that most have only seen in TV shows or films, right in front of you in the hazy morning glow.
I knew to be in with the best chance of seeing the Taj at it’s quietest we would have to leave pretty early. Matt was adamant we would would be fine getting there at 7:30am but as sunrise was around 6:30am, I knew we would have to there by then! We left our hotel at 5:30am, and as we were close it was around a 10 minute walk to the entrance. We entered at the East Gate, and the ticket booths were quite obvious once we reached the gate. You walk through the gate and towards the ‘Great Gate’ and the Taj will be right in front of you.
Entrance into the Taj Mahal is ₹1000 for foreign tourist (note the Taj is closed on Friday’s for prayer, so plan your trip accordingly). Tour groups tend to enter through the east and west gate, and therefore the south gate (where we entered) usually has less queues. This works well for you, as it is closer to the more budget hotels for the budget conscious traveller. Again, the gates have separate entrances for male and female, and then foreign tourists (a perk of your expensive entry price!).
Spend some proper time exploring the site – it really is beautiful. Pace through the ornamental gardens and then make sure you get a picture in front of the reflective pond, and on the Princess Diana bench – everybody that knows the Taj will ask to see this! You can climb up the steps and go inside the Taj (no photos allowed in here), and this is fascinating – look out for the “Pietra Dura” – 35 different precious stones used to create the marble inlay on the building, as well as the calligraphy that surrounds each side of the building (the calligraphy gets larger as it gets higher, giving the impression of uniform size when viewed from the ground!). The Taj Museum opens at 9am, but we were there at 6am so we were unable to go. Free entry so worth a look!
Tips for the Taj
- Leave your bag in your hotel – backpacks are not permitted, and the only storage facility is at the West Gate. Use a bumbag to keep money, phone and passport.
- Small cameras or phones only – use a small camera or camera phone (instead of bag with multiple lenses that you won’t get in). Video is only allowed in certain places, and you can’t take any pictures inside the mausoleum. Tripods and drones are banned.
- No food or drink in the site – but a bottle of water is included in your entry fee.
- Closed on Fridays – important in your itinerary planning! You wouldn’t want to get here and not be able to visit the site!
We then went back to our hotel for breakfast (it was too early when we left to see the Taj!) and then spent some more time around the pool as we were getting a lunchtime train, but if you have more time, it is worth visiting the following places:
- Mehtab Bagh – relaxing gardens that have the perfect view of the Taj – go for sunset for the most awe-inspiring sunset view of the Taj
- Akbar’s Tomb – further out of the city, but worth seeing this huge tomb of the greatest Mughal emporer
- Kinari Bazaar – one of India’s most hectic, but mesmerising markets is worth a visit if you are the shopping mood
Our pre-booked train from Agra Fort to Sawai Madhopur (#12948 / Azimabad Express 1225-1625) (click here to read about travelling by train in India) was running late, so it eventually arrived around 2pm. This meant it was going to run late and we eventually arrived into Sawai Madhopur around 7:30pm.