We had no problem with aggressive touts, rickshaw drivers or seedy characters in the back alleys. We came to Agra prepared to be taken for a ride by those preying on unprepared tourists. We saw hotel reviews that read: “It doesn’t matter about the quality of the rooms, Agra is a dump anyway so don’t stay long!”.
Our great experience makes us wonder why so many people never spend even one night in the city. There is so much to see and do and with so many tourists, you’re never far away from somewhere to chill out with a coffee, some wifi if you need it, and some decent food. The bonus is that in the Taj Ganj you can do all of this with a view of the Taj Mahal!
Things you must do in Agra:
- Stay a few nights!
- Put Fetehpur Sikri in your itinerary
- Eat at Yash restaurant in Taj Ganj
- Visit the Taj Mahal (obviously)
- Watch the sunset over the Taj with dinner at the Saniya Palace rooftop restaurant
- Visit Agra Fort
- Wander the alleys and local markets in Taj Ganj
- Give Kamruddin a call on 9259 363 585 for all your rickshaw needs! (Ask him to see our handwritten review!)
- Take a camel ride or donkey cart ride to the Taj! These animals work so hard in a harsh environment and they don’t deserve to be treated as slaves for tourists. Camels actually shouldn’t be working outside of Rajasthan at all, as they are not made to survive outside of the dessert. But, more on that another time.
- Get caught out at the Taj- read THIS post for more Taj tips!
- Miss the bazaar in Fatehpur Sikri (where the bus drops you)
Read on for a full report of our time in Agra, grab a cuppa, this is a long one! Three days were well spent, and it was a great introduction to India for us!
After leaving Lucknow, we arrived in Agra on our second day in India. We walked out of Agra Fort Train Station into a literal swarm of rickshaw drivers and guides. It was 7am and mum and Sha had just managed 5 hours of broken sleep on our train overnight, armed with all those reviews we read we were feeling pretty vulnerable at this stage. (I had slept a solid 6 hours but I’m just not a morning person, what can I say?!) We successfully haggled the rickshaw middle-man from 250 to 100 from Agra Fort Train station to Taj Ganj.
We felt like this was a win, but as we later found out even this was a rip off! We were then hustled over to our rickshaw, and our driver promptly pulled out a book with handwritten endorsements from happy customers to prove he could make our time in Agra enjoyable. We found this so hilarious in our stupor after the overnight train, and he was so likeable that we arranged to have him shuttle us between our hotel and the bus station after breakfast so we could make a day trip to Fatehpur Sikri by local bus.He mentioned that this would be 150 and as we had no idea we rolled with it. He gave us his business card and we were to call him to pick us up when we returned.
We stayed at the Taj Guesthouse in the Taj Ganj which was 700 rupees for double room and 350 for single occupancy ($14 and $7). Kam, our driver insisted we check the rooms before we committed. He really wanted to take us elsewhere, and as this was our first dirt cheap room for the trip (mind you, we were to go much lower later on!), mum and I went in to double check. The rooms at the Taj were simple, clean, had hot water, and the rooftop had a view of the Taj Mahal (albeit with a big tree in the way, next door is the Saniya Palace with a restaurant which has THE best rooftop view of the Taj, but the prices were also double of those at what would become affectionately known as our local. And I mean…. double means $4 instead of $2 for a main meal, so make up your mind which you prefer!).After a quick shower and breaky at what would be our new local, Yash restaurant, Kam was ready to take us to the bus stop. We caught a local bus to Fatehpur Sikri that took just over one hour and cost around 45 rupees (Sha says 43, I say 47. Who are we kidding- we can’t remember!).
You buy the tickets for these local buses on board so you just take a seat and wait for the bus to fill up. It took about 3 minutes until we were on our way.Fatehpur Sikri is pretty cool, and something that is missed by a lot of tourists who just do a day trip to see the Taj, or spend just one night to fit Agra Fort in too. Fatty Sik (haha) is a fortified city built by a dude named Akbar, but it was abandoned due to a lack of water after his death.
Now for a fun history lesson-
- Akbar is the dude who ordered the building of Fatehpur Sikri (and a lot of other stuff)
- Sha Jahan is Akbar’s grandson.
- Shah Jahan is the dude who ordered the building of the Taj Mahal.
- Aurangzeb is Taj dude’s ungrateful son who overthrew him and locked him in the Agra Fort until he died.
Everyone got sick of me referencing the Taj dude’s granddad and the Taj dude’s son eventually, but hey! Mum and Sha kept asking me questions but no one remembered anyone’s names. It’s hard work being a nerd sometimesSo, definitely go see Fatehpur Sikri, it only costs if you enter the palace (260 rupee), the mosque and outer ruins are free to explore on your own. The bazaar were you get off the bus is really cool, very busy and full of vibrant locals going about their business. This was day two in India for us so a functioning local market was awesome to see.
After wandering down the bazaar for about ten minutes, we started the climb up a big stairway to the entrance to the Mosque of the old city. The Mosque area is damn busy and there’s a fair bit to see, we managed to get stuck with a guy who swore he wasn’t a guide as this is “a holy place, and I can accept no payment”….Shabir and I smelt a rat but he was nice and did give us some cool information- like showing us a doorway that apparently conceals a tunnel that leads all the way to the Taj Mahal. He eventually showed mum where she could buy a flower to offer at Akbar’s favorite wife’s mausoleum. One flower turned into a 500 rupee package of a shawl, some string and an actual BAG of rose petals surprisingly quick. This was the ‘small’ package.
How many times have they sold those shawls, offered them, and then folded them up neatly again for a new ‘donation’ I wonder?!Throughout this excursion we were repeatedly asked for photos from locals, and especially an entire class of giggling school girls who swamped me a few times when I wasn’t prepared… I mean one photo is cool, but then one turns into 50, I kid you not. Selfie queens these kids but I swear all they got in was an ear and my big head sometimes.(I think I got sick of the photos on about day three of the trip, not because of the huge inconvenience, but more because of Sha’s reaction every time we got held up because of it. No body asked for his picture. I think he must be jealous. What do you think?? :p
But in all seriousness a selfie with a school kid is fine, but its creepy when random men ask for the same. Its best just to shrug them all off I think. Unless they’re really cute- the kids that is, not the men!)Before we finally shook our ‘not guide’ he took us to a quiet corner to show us his very unique artwork which was for sale! He had intricately carved elephants that had mini elephants inside all carved form one piece of marble. They were pretty cool, but we have no bag space for trinkets, and we later saw about a million of the same elephants in EVERY GODAMN STALL WE SAW.
Oh well.It was about 2pm by now and we hadn’t explored the rest of the ruins, I really wanted to see the Hiran Minar. This is the elephant tower that’s covered in protruding elephant tusks. Although morbid and sad if this were true, I still wanted to see for myself, so we meandered down a deserted back pathway in the scorching hot sun. Of course, the tusks were raided many moons ago and have now been replaced by cement “tusks” that kiiiiiiind of look like PVC piping. At least I know now! On the way out to the Hiran Minar we passed some semi-gated buildings, which we may or may not have entered to have a look. We had this area completely to ourselves anyway so what harm could it do?! We could see all the other tourists in the palace across the path and we had our balcony all to ourselves. By now we were hot and hungry, so we decided to miss the rest of the city and head back down to the bazaar to Hotel Ajay Palace, we had been given business cards to Ajay’s Restaurant when we got off the bus, and seeing as Hotel Ajay Palace had seemingly been aggressively copied we figured the original must be alright! Food was fast, tasty, and the drinks were cold! Can’t complain there!Hotel Ajay Palace restaurant is closer to the bus stop, so we were able to walk out the door and literally onto our bus home.
We called Kam to pick us up when we arrived back at Agra and we ended up paying him 400 rupees for his day’s work. We worked this out as 100 from Train to Hotel, and 150 Hotel to Bus and 150 Bus to Hotel (this turned out to be a great deal for him, the bus station is about 100 meters from the train station- so I figure each leg should have cost about 70-80 rupees. So max 240 for the day, with maybe a bit on top for coming to pick us up?).We had dinner at our local, Yash, the most expensive meal here was a meaty pizza which was no more than 250 from memory ($5) and a decent Thali for only 100.
Our second day in Agra was devoted to the Taj Mahal, and then an afternoon of study for me, painting for mum, and photo editing for Sha. We made good use of the WI-FI at our local, Yash restaurant. Yash isn’t a roofop restaurant like so many in the Taj Ganj, but it has a big set of windows that overlook the street below. It was really nice sitting up there watching the world go by.You can read my tips to surviving your trip to the Taj HERE.
The third day we had Kam take us to the Agra Fort. Entry was 300 rupees and there was some lovely architecture here, but many of the winding staircases I wanted to follow were either gated or patrolled by guards who yelled whenever I tried to disappear up one to see where it lead, stomping on my dreams of being a pretend Indian princess. Ugh.We had much more luck exploring in the Amber Fort Palace- I will write about it and link the post soon!There are great views of the Taj from Agra Fort, Akbar (the Fatehpur Sikri guy) started building it and then his grandson, Taj Mahal dude (Shah Jahan for those playing along), improved the design with lots of white marble before making it his official residence for some years. The marble tower he built is where he was later imprisoned by his ungrateful son (Aurangzeb).
So Taj Mahal man wasted away for eight years staring longingly at his dead wife’s amazing grave until he himself died and was buried next to her. At least his son did that for him. And hey, he was ‘imprisoned’ in the palace he built himself so it wasn’t all bad for the Taj dude, right? There is a lot of symbolism within the carvings through out the fort (and many other Indian buildings). I think that’s a post all for itself another time!Kam gave us and hour and a half to explore, then he picked us up and took us to a ‘cheap’ shop so we could buy white kurta’s for Holi that could get ruined. We had fun browsing in the shop but really we got ripped off again. We paid 500 each for our Kurta (Indian Shirts) and in Delhi they sold the same for 250, and lesser quality at 150. That’s before haggling. Oh well!Mum and I chickened out of the white as we were worried about them going see through in the water (we needn’t have worried as there was so much powder you wouldn’t have seen anything anyway). I got green, and mum purple, and they both survived after a good soak, Sha’s white one didn’t go so well haha
After this we got Kam to take us to Metabh Bagh that is the park on the opposite side of the riverbank to the Taj. You pay 100 rupees for the honour of standing with hundreds of other people on some grass across from the Taj. We are not ashamed to say it; we wanted to go right down to the riverbank in the hopes of snapping a photo like the LP India front cover! Just the river, the riverbank and a few beautifully saree’d ladies between us and the majestic Taj…. But it wasn’t to be. There is no place were we could get to the riverbank! There is actually a barb wire fence, and guards who patrol the bushy banks on either side of Metabh Bagh with machine guns. I’m not kidding. There’s even guard-dogs.
We know, because they chased us through a seemingly innocent looking clump of bougainvillea’s yelling and barking!
We retired back to the Taj Ganj a little deflated, and Sha and I decided to take a wander around the market streets. Not the tourist markets which lead from the main road towards the Taj, but the local markets on the opposite side of the main road. There were so many interesting characters around here, some really old buildings with big, intricately carved, wooden door ways, ornate balconies, and many food stalls. It was great to explore on foot, I think India really comes alive when you can do some independent adventuring.
We all agree that its not much fun being chauffeured to and from sites and temples in a rickshaw all day.We tried the Saniya Palace Hotel for dinner tonight, but they had a group function and told us we would have to wait an hour for food. The view really is the best in town of the Taj, and their menu is much the same as others in the Taj Ganj, albeit a bit more expensive.
So there you have it, our three days in Agra in one very long trip report!
Why is it so easy for me to write 3000 words about adventures, and so difficult to do a University assignment?! Oh well!
Have you spent time in Agra? What did you think about it?