From Meager to Mighty: Touring Monument-Rich Agra, India

The city of Agra at night (Source: iStock / Pasu Lo-utai)

Adventure-seekers the world over lust for views of the Taj Mahal. Its towering minarets and pristine marble speak of surrounding Agra’s opulence and regal renown. Few, however, know the story of the city — a destination at once quaint and bruised by centuries of conflict.

The early history of Agra is fuzzy; most records refer to it as nothing more than a settlement or village. Things came into focus in the 1500s, however, when the Delhi sultanate gained control of the region and settled on Agra as the sultan’s “second capital.” Shortly thereafter, conquering Mughals brought the city into a golden age, providing widespread peace and stability. More notably, they gifted the city with the Taj Mahal and the adjacent town of Fatehpur Sikri — both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Following the takeover by the British in the early 1800s, the city saw modernization of its infrastructure and government. This Western incursion was greeted with hostility by the locals, however. At the pinnacle of British-Indian tension during the 1857 Indian rebellion, Agra was sacked by Indian mobs. While initially a formidable force, the mobs quickly fell into chaos; with little effort, the British leveraged this disorder to regain control in less than a week. The Brits retained control of the city until India’s independence in 1947.

Today, Agra plays host to thousands of international tourists, owing to its colorful history and magnificent architecture. While many visitors to the subcontinent prioritize a stay in Delhi, Darjeeling, or Pataudi (thank you, “Eat. Pray. Love.”), be sure to spend a day — or several — at Agra.

Getting to Agra and getting around

You can fly into Agra airport, but not from international cities. Instead, Air India and Zoom Air will fly you in from New Delhi, Jaisalmer, and other major Indian cities. You can also opt to take the train; several stops in the city serve the North Central Railways. It’s best to get train tickets through an established area travel agency or tourism company like IRCTC, however; otherwise, you risk getting the wrong tickets. You likely won’t be renting a car in Agra as you’ll fly into a major city like Delhi and find a ride there, but if you do need a car in the city, there are several car rental agencies in the city center.

If you fly or train in, you’ll likely need to hop around the city by cab. A three-mile cab fare will only set you back $3, so it’s recommended you cab it instead of trying to figure out the local bus system.

A concierge greets guests at an Agra hotel. (Source: iStock / Mlenny)
A concierge greets guests at an Agra hotel. (Source: iStock / Mlenny)

Where to stay

As with most large foreign cities, Agra offers visitors a mix of Western chains (like Radisson) for easy-peasy accommodation and one-off resorts/hotels that take advantage of Agra’s character and culture. The good news is: Both are quite a bit cheaper than what you’d find in the West. For example, most double-bed rooms can be booked for around $100/night. If you want to splurge, consider a property like ITC Mughal, a luxury hotel literally draped in vines and dotted with twinkling chandeliers that offers rooms in the $150-200/night range. Avoid AirBnB properties as these have a mixed reputation and can be unreliable.

The majestic minarets of Taj Mahal anchor the city. (Source: iStock / somchaisom)
The majestic minarets of Taj Mahal anchor the city. (Source: iStock / somchaisom)

What to do

Despite its relatively modest size of 1.5 million people, you’ll never be without something to do in Agra. You can easily fill two or three days with visits to historic sites, dining, shopping, and sightseeing. Here are our top activity picks:

Visit the Taj Mahal

This one is a no-brainer. Tickets cost about $15 and give you entrance to the entire site. There is an extra cost for visiting the mausoleum, but if you’re anything like us, touring the palace is its own sufficiently breathtaking experience. Take some time to learn about the Taj Mahal’s builder, Moghul Shah Jahan I, before going so you have adequate historical context for the experience. Yes, the stories are true: He built the structure to honor his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a queen of widespread appeal and legendary beauty. Learn more by visiting the Taj Mahal website.

Visit the abandoned town of Fatehpur Sikri

Another creation of the Moghul dynasty, Fatehpur Sikri was built by Emperor Akbar in 1571 who used it as the seat of his government for almost 15 years. Inside the city, you’ll find a mosque, tombs, countless halls and venues for public gatherings, pools, a palace, and games. The entry fee is about $8; learn more at the Fatehpur Sikri website.

Towering walls loom over entrants to the Agra Fort. (Source: iStock / Roop_Dey)
Towering walls loom over entrants to the Agra Fort. (Source: iStock / Roop_Dey)

Tour the Agra Fort

A 16th century build, the Agra Fort was used to clearly separate the mighty from the weak. Walls some 70 feet high dwarf visitors who gawk at the sheer strength and size of the fort; hundreds of structures once dotted its interior, while mammoth gates still mark the glorious entrances into Agra’s most impressive military site. The entry fee is about $8; learn more at the Agra Fort website.

Take a tour

If you’d rather have someone else lead the way, consider a guided tour of Agra. Half-day and full-day tours are available and provide a nice overview of the city’s most important historical features. Alternatively, you can pick tours of specific sites, like the Taj Mahal, to get an in-depth education. Welcome Rajasthan is a well-known tour company worth looking into, though private tours are often a better way to go; you’ll have the chance to ask questions and get to know your guide. We recommend Private Tour Guide Agra.

Shop at a local bazaar

Agra is certainly not without shopping, though don’t just head for Western outlets. Take the opportunity to experience traditional local bazaars, where everything from spices to clothes is available. Here are a few worth checking out:

  • Subhash Bazaar — Not an upscale shopping opportunity, but certainly one representative of Agra industry, Subhash Bazaar in the north features unique offerings like calfskins, belts, coats, and silk saris. (Traveler’s note: Be sure you’re allowed to bring your animal skins back to the U.S. with you; check S. Customs for restrictions.)
  • Sadar Bazaar — Leather is the focus of the vendors at Sadar, so keep an eye out for impressive bags and garments that suit your fancy. You can also find plenty of sweets and handcrafted goods to take home.
  • Kinary Bazaar — If you don’t like crowds, stay away from this always-bustling bazaar. That said, Kinari is great for people-watching and seeing how the local wholesalers do business. Keep an eye out for affordable, handcrafted clothes — and consider lingering for lunch at the enormous food court.
Did somebody say curry kebabs? (Source: iStock / PamelaJoeMcFarlane)
Did somebody say curry kebabs? (Source: iStock / PamelaJoeMcFarlane)

Where to eat in Agra

Admittedly, Agra isn’t widely known for its food scene. However, the city is large enough to offer some high-caliber meals. First up on our list is always Esphahan, which cooks up clay oven-fired meals in traditional tandoors. If you go (and you should), order the Kebab & Curry Tasting Menu. If you’re one to go where the locals go, then Pinch of Spice is a must; its peculiar-but-enticing international menu features everything from Fettuccine Cacciatore to Crispy Honey Chicken stir-fry. For a family-friendly joint, consider El Clasico, where multicolored plastic chairs furnish the dining room and everything from Chicken Burgers to Paneer Wraps sail out of the kitchen.

Grab a souvenir

If there’s one thing you should take away from a stay in Agra (besides memories and photos, of course), it’s an authentic Indian souvenir. Before you head out of town, drop by The Warehouse of Gifts & Souvenirs where a sea of knickknacks await. You can get everything from polished marbles to elephant carvings and keychains here, so be sure to pick something that really speaks to you. Alternatively, head back to one of the bazaars mentioned above and get something from a local; these really do make phenomenal gifts and keepsakes.

To learn more about the city of Agra and to plan your trip, visit the city of Agra website. Or, consider making a trek to Goa where Indian beaches await.