Agra: Visiting India’s City of Love (My Experience and Tips)

Most people where I come from have never heard of Agra. However, I would be hard-pressed to find a person who has never heard of the Taj Mahal, the landmark for which the city of Agra is famous.

Agra is known as India’s City of Love because the entire city is practically a symbol of love that the Mughal emperor Shan Jahan had for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. I’ve had the opportunity to visit this city twice, once in autumn and again during the spring.

Unlike many other famous cities, you can actually see most of what Agra has to offer in one day. There is the great tomb itself, but there is also Agra Fort and the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah or “Baby Taj.” Like most landmarks in India, the price of admission for each of these will be considerably higher for a foreigner than for an Indian citizen. Nonetheless, these are the sights you’ll want to see if you find yourself in Agra.

You have options when it comes to how you want to get around. I preferred taking a “taxi-tricycle” instead of a car because it’s considerably cheaper, and I enjoyed the open-air feeling of riding a tricycle. You will likely get offers from drivers of all sorts to give you a tour of the entire city for a single agreed upon fee, but you could just as easily wave down one of the many tricycles that linger around the entrances of the different monuments rather than employ a single driver for the entire day.

I prefer to use multiple drivers, especially when I’m traveling alone, because it’s nearly impossible to find a female taxi or tricycle driver. If you’re a solo female traveler and you spend the whole day with a male driver, he might get a bit too friendly, if only with his words.

If you do decide to pay a single tricycle driver to give you a full day tour, be careful about getting roped into seeing the “bazaars” unless you really intend to purchase something. When a shopkeeper in Agra tells you it is okay if you do not buy anything, they do not truly mean it.

If you’re interested in seeing the shops but have zero intention of buying Persian rugs or expensive jewelry, it is best to keep your mouth shut when browsing. If a shopkeeper tries to engage with you and persuade you to buy anything, simply smile and continue to browse, do not even give them a “no, thank you.” It may seem terribly rude, but it will actually spare both parties considerable aggravation.

Once transportation was secured, I set off on my tour of the city. For my first visit, my initial stop was Agra Fort. The word “fort” might suggest something sterile and aesthetically bland that emphasizes function over form, but the forts of the Mughal Empire are quite striking. Agra Fort was the residence of the Mughal emperors for generations so it contains beautiful gardens, ornate rooms and peaceful places of worship that make it seem more like a palace than a military structure.

When I went to Agra Fort for the second time, there were two things I was particularly eager to see. One was the view of the Taj Mahal from the fort, which is a surreal, enticing image of a heavenly palace calling to its beholders from across a wide sea of worldly existence. Legend has it when Shan Jahan was overthrown and imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son, he requested to be kept in a room where he could see the Taj Mahal, and this was his view when he died.

The second thing I wanted to see was a more whimsical attraction at Agra Fort. The first time I visited, a thin older Indian man was in the courtyard feeding the squirrels that call the fort home. When I approached him, he took my hand without saying a word and pulled it down toward the ground. He sprinkled cracker crumbs in my hand, then he coaxed the squirrels to climb into my hand and eat out of it. The creatures were so comfortable with the situation that some of them even climbed me like a tree in order to get to my hand.

The second time around, I was delighted to find the same man (I think) again squatting down and trying to encourage the squirrels to come out from behind the flowers. However, this time Agra was much busier because it was during the Holi festival, which attracts huge crowds of tourists. In addition, many Indians take time off from work to attend the festival. All this made the furry and friendly residents of the fort more skittish, so the man was unable to persuade them to jump into my hand.

My next stop was the “Baby Taj,” and it really does look like a tiny Taj Mahal. During my visit, one of the security guards offered to take my picture and afterward asked for a tip. Whether he actually had any business asking visitors for tips is debatable, but I gave him one nonetheless.

Getting solicited for tips is a common experience in Agra. While it’s certainly expected from someone like a waiter, other times you may be caught off guard. For instance, the squirrel whisperer asked for a tip after he successfully coaxed the animals into my hand. More than once, I was asked to remove my shoes before entering a certain room or building; in return, I handed a small tip to the “shoe guard” who kept watch while their owners went inside.

A slightly more out-of-the-way attraction in Agra is the view of the Taj Mahal from across the river. To get there, you must travel through a rustic part of town. The end destination is a pleasant and peaceful garden that is far less crowded than the rest of Agra and offers respite from the noise and dirt that is characteristic of so much of India.

At last, the Taj Mahal itself: I went there for the first time in the afternoon during October, and it was stunning. During my second visit, it was an early March morning and I’d hoped to catch the sunrise over the mausoleum. When I arrived, I was disappointed and shocked by the long line, especially since there was no line at all during my first visit. I was also surprised by the increased security in response to the sizeable crowds.

I stepped through a metal detector as security inspected my bag, and for some reason the inspector told me that I was not allowed to bring a book into the complex. She told me I was going to have to go back to the front counter and get my bag checked in. Before doing so, she asked if I had a professional tour guide with me; there were a few different lines, including an express lane, which is only available to people accompanied by a guide. Since I was alone, I would have had to go all the way to the back of the line again. When the guard realized this, she took pity and instructed me just to keep the book in my bag while I was visiting and let me go through.

Because it is so famous and such a major tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal is given a level of protection enjoyed by few other spots in India. Motor vehicles are prohibited from getting too close to the complex to prevent emissions from tarnishing or eroding the marble, so it’s a little bit of a walk from the ticket counter to the mausoleum. Part of the experience is stepping through the short tunnel in the wall that surrounds the Taj Mahal and out into the light in front of that historic tomb; this feels like escaping from your body and stepping into the next life.

Consequently, the first time I visited, I accidentally left through the wrong gate and endured several minutes of anxiety as I tried to locate my ride. The second time, I mentally marked the gate I entered through by noting a particular tree next to it, successfully avoiding my previous mistake again.

Everything about the Taj Mahal is symmetrical. The complex is famously symmetrical to the point of confusion. Even the trees and flowers planted around it are perfectly parallel to one another. Once you get in and arrive at the staircase leading up to the tomb, you are given disposable slippers to put on over your shoes.

Due to the increased volume of visitors, the gate placed in front of the stairs periodically opened and closed to ensure only a certain number of visitors on top of the structure at a time. You are allowed to enter the tomb where Shan Jahan and his beloved wife are kept, but you are prohibited from taking photos. The first time I visited, however, few people followed this rule.

This tomb is the real heart and soul of Agra. It’s more than just the middle of the Taj Mahal, it’s the center and origin of the love that inspired much of the city’s beauty. Here is where the great emperor and his beloved wife are laid side by side for eternity, displayed in front of the world for all to see. This, to me, symbolizes Agra, India’s city of love.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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Agra: Visiting India’s City of Love (My Experience and Tips)

Most people where I come from have never heard of Agra. However, I would be hard-pressed to find a person who has never heard of the Taj Mahal, the landmark for which the city of Agra is famous.

Agra is known as India’s City of Love because the entire city is practically a symbol of love that the Mughal emperor Shan Jahan had for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. I’ve had the opportunity to visit this city twice, once in autumn and again during the spring.

Unlike many other famous cities, you can actually see most of what Agra has to offer in one day. There is the great tomb itself, but there is also Agra Fort and the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah or “Baby Taj.” Like most landmarks in India, the price of admission for each of these will be considerably higher for a foreigner than for an Indian citizen. Nonetheless, these are the sights you’ll want to see if you find yourself in Agra.

You have options when it comes to how you want to get around. I preferred taking a “taxi-tricycle” instead of a car because it’s considerably cheaper, and I enjoyed the open-air feeling of riding a tricycle. You will likely get offers from drivers of all sorts to give you a tour of the entire city for a single agreed upon fee, but you could just as easily wave down one of the many tricycles that linger around the entrances of the different monuments rather than employ a single driver for the entire day.

I prefer to use multiple drivers, especially when I’m traveling alone, because it’s nearly impossible to find a female taxi or tricycle driver. If you’re a solo female traveler and you spend the whole day with a male driver, he might get a bit too friendly, if only with his words.

If you do decide to pay a single tricycle driver to give you a full day tour, be careful about getting roped into seeing the “bazaars” unless you really intend to purchase something. When a shopkeeper in Agra tells you it is okay if you do not buy anything, they do not truly mean it.

If you’re interested in seeing the shops but have zero intention of buying Persian rugs or expensive jewelry, it is best to keep your mouth shut when browsing. If a shopkeeper tries to engage with you and persuade you to buy anything, simply smile and continue to browse, do not even give them a “no, thank you.” It may seem terribly rude, but it will actually spare both parties considerable aggravation.

Once transportation was secured, I set off on my tour of the city. For my first visit, my initial stop was Agra Fort. The word “fort” might suggest something sterile and aesthetically bland that emphasizes function over form, but the forts of the Mughal Empire are quite striking. Agra Fort was the residence of the Mughal emperors for generations so it contains beautiful gardens, ornate rooms and peaceful places of worship that make it seem more like a palace than a military structure.

When I went to Agra Fort for the second time, there were two things I was particularly eager to see. One was the view of the Taj Mahal from the fort, which is a surreal, enticing image of a heavenly palace calling to its beholders from across a wide sea of worldly existence. Legend has it when Shan Jahan was overthrown and imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son, he requested to be kept in a room where he could see the Taj Mahal, and this was his view when he died.

The second thing I wanted to see was a more whimsical attraction at Agra Fort. The first time I visited, a thin older Indian man was in the courtyard feeding the squirrels that call the fort home. When I approached him, he took my hand without saying a word and pulled it down toward the ground. He sprinkled cracker crumbs in my hand, then he coaxed the squirrels to climb into my hand and eat out of it. The creatures were so comfortable with the situation that some of them even climbed me like a tree in order to get to my hand.

The second time around, I was delighted to find the same man (I think) again squatting down and trying to encourage the squirrels to come out from behind the flowers. However, this time Agra was much busier because it was during the Holi festival, which attracts huge crowds of tourists. In addition, many Indians take time off from work to attend the festival. All this made the furry and friendly residents of the fort more skittish, so the man was unable to persuade them to jump into my hand.

My next stop was the “Baby Taj,” and it really does look like a tiny Taj Mahal. During my visit, one of the security guards offered to take my picture and afterward asked for a tip. Whether he actually had any business asking visitors for tips is debatable, but I gave him one nonetheless.

Getting solicited for tips is a common experience in Agra. While it’s certainly expected from someone like a waiter, other times you may be caught off guard. For instance, the squirrel whisperer asked for a tip after he successfully coaxed the animals into my hand. More than once, I was asked to remove my shoes before entering a certain room or building; in return, I handed a small tip to the “shoe guard” who kept watch while their owners went inside.

A slightly more out-of-the-way attraction in Agra is the view of the Taj Mahal from across the river. To get there, you must travel through a rustic part of town. The end destination is a pleasant and peaceful garden that is far less crowded than the rest of Agra and offers respite from the noise and dirt that is characteristic of so much of India.

At last, the Taj Mahal itself: I went there for the first time in the afternoon during October, and it was stunning. During my second visit, it was an early March morning and I’d hoped to catch the sunrise over the mausoleum. When I arrived, I was disappointed and shocked by the long line, especially since there was no line at all during my first visit. I was also surprised by the increased security in response to the sizeable crowds.

I stepped through a metal detector as security inspected my bag, and for some reason the inspector told me that I was not allowed to bring a book into the complex. She told me I was going to have to go back to the front counter and get my bag checked in. Before doing so, she asked if I had a professional tour guide with me; there were a few different lines, including an express lane, which is only available to people accompanied by a guide. Since I was alone, I would have had to go all the way to the back of the line again. When the guard realized this, she took pity and instructed me just to keep the book in my bag while I was visiting and let me go through.

Because it is so famous and such a major tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal is given a level of protection enjoyed by few other spots in India. Motor vehicles are prohibited from getting too close to the complex to prevent emissions from tarnishing or eroding the marble, so it’s a little bit of a walk from the ticket counter to the mausoleum. Part of the experience is stepping through the short tunnel in the wall that surrounds the Taj Mahal and out into the light in front of that historic tomb; this feels like escaping from your body and stepping into the next life.

Consequently, the first time I visited, I accidentally left through the wrong gate and endured several minutes of anxiety as I tried to locate my ride. The second time, I mentally marked the gate I entered through by noting a particular tree next to it, successfully avoiding my previous mistake again.

Everything about the Taj Mahal is symmetrical. The complex is famously symmetrical to the point of confusion. Even the trees and flowers planted around it are perfectly parallel to one another. Once you get in and arrive at the staircase leading up to the tomb, you are given disposable slippers to put on over your shoes.

Due to the increased volume of visitors, the gate placed in front of the stairs periodically opened and closed to ensure only a certain number of visitors on top of the structure at a time. You are allowed to enter the tomb where Shan Jahan and his beloved wife are kept, but you are prohibited from taking photos. The first time I visited, however, few people followed this rule.

This tomb is the real heart and soul of Agra. It’s more than just the middle of the Taj Mahal, it’s the center and origin of the love that inspired much of the city’s beauty. Here is where the great emperor and his beloved wife are laid side by side for eternity, displayed in front of the world for all to see. This, to me, symbolizes Agra, India’s city of love.

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