We started the fourth and last week of our Funky India trip, with the amazing Uttar Pradesh city of Agra, considered one of the most visited and unique tourist destinations in India. Indeed the city is home to one of the 7 wonders of the world, the famous Taj Mahal as well as other world heritage site including the Agra Fort and the Fatehpur Sikri. Agra which is now part of North India’s golden triangle, along with New Delhi and Jaipur, was once at the heart of the Mughal Empire, today best remembered for their architectural legacy with fascinating forts, tombs and other majestic buildings. This is the story of our four days spent discovering this magnificent city while staying at the excellent value for money Taj Plaza Hotel, with its breathtaking view of the Taj and the city.
- Agra day 1: arrival, Taj Plaza hotel and the roof top restaurant
- Agra day 2: Tajganj area and Fatehpur Sikri
- Agra day 3: Taj Mahal and Agra Fort
- Agra day 4: Jama Masjid, Baby Taj, China Ka Roza, Ram Bagh Gardens, Akbar’s and Mariam’s Tomb
- About the Taj Hotel
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Agra day 1
We woke up before 6 in Rishikesh, had a last glimpse of the Ganges view, before jumping into the pre booked rickshaw which took us to Haridwar junction, the closest major railway station. As we were waiting for the train, I observed a family with numerous luggage-carriers transporting all their belonging. When I started counting, I ended up with more than 20 large suitcases and many smaller ones. As a believer in minimalism, I am always curious about what people carry in those suitcases, and most importantly why so many stuff.
The train soon arrived and pretty much on time, which would take us to one of India’s most visited cities, Agra within the country’s most populated state of Uttar Pradesh. We hoped into it, installed ourselves on the lower side seat (the 2 separates seats facing the window) and observed for a while the country life passing by. We soon had an Indian breakfast, some chai, coffee, followed by a delicious vegetarian thali, always reminding myself how excellent and affordable is the Indian railway food. After a succulent meal, it was time for a small nap, which ended up being a couple of hours. Rested, I caught up on some Funky India articles, before we slowly arrived to Agra Cantt, the city’s largest and most important station, from where we paid for a prepaid AC taxi but got a cab without the AC (and instead of the cheaper rickshaw).
Some 20 minutes later we arrived to our destination, and were delighted to have chosen the Taj Plaza Hotel, as you could clearly see the Taj Mahal, less than one kilometre down the road. When we saw the standard of the normal room we’ve booked (it was indeed relatively cheap paying about 30£ for three nights), we soon opted for the superior 305 offering spectacular views of the Taj Mahal as well as the Oberoi Amarvilas Agra Hotel, one of the most sought after hotels in the world. Indeed from the bed I am currently sitting and writing, I can see the large dome of the grandiose marble structure surrounding by its minarets.
Once installed, we decided to try the roof top restaurant, which as its name suggest offers breathtaking views of Agra and its most famous landmark. We enjoyed a non-vegetarian thali, which was the first time we ate meat in the last couple of days (both Rishikesh and on the train the meals were strictly vegetarian) as well as a refreshing cold kingfisher beer. Only later did we discovered that they charge an enormous 200INR per bottle, but then again it is small price to pay to be in such a unique destination. We went to sleep that night with the view of the shadowed Taj in the background and dreamed about the worlds’ wonders.
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Agra day 2
We spent the second day of our stay in Agra, in a more laidback fashion. We woke up late and went for a walk around the Tajganj area, passing by shopkeepers, the Taj Eastern Gate and numerous rickshaws drivers begging for business. As we passed the end of the Southern gate street, we looked for a cafe recommended by almost every guide book, but when we actually saw it we hesitated to get in, as it really didn’t look anything special. We were wrong, as the Jonny’s restaurant is really an institution, a very popular destination with international travellers. The joint is very small, only 4 tables and a small kitchen (where all the dishes are freshly prepared), but the food is excellent, have a friendly service, the prices are cheap and most importantly it has a laidback student vibe. All the yellow coloured walls are packed with various messages and notes from travellers, and as for the review book, I never saw anything like it with hundreds of positive reviews, from people from all around the world, from Canada to Sweden, Poland to South Korea, expressing themselves about how they enjoyed their Jonny’s experience.
After a lovely breakfast we went back to the hotel for a while, before deciding to visit one of the most important sites around Agra, the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, located some 40kms west of town. We negotiate a rickshaw ride for 600INR (way below what some taxis wanted to charge) and took us about an hour and half, including a good portion of the journey just trying to get out of the traffic packed city.
Agra day 3
We woke up at quarter to five, quickly got dressed and walkout of the hotel, passing by the sleeping receptionist and headed in the direction of our main event in Agra, the one and only Taj Mahal. Our hotel the Taj Palace is strategically located on the East road, just at the entrance of the pedestrian only street where only special electric cars, mounted police and touristic camels are allowed. This normally very busy street with its marble, clothing and souvenir shops, was unusually quiet and deserted, covered in an enigmatic morning fog, giving it a dream like feel. As we passed the Eastern gate, which we believed opened a 6AM (as was suggested in numerous guide), were told by the policeman on duty, that it only opens at sunrise, which in our case was at about 7AM. We walked pass the various checkpoint before we reached now our favourite breakfast spot, the small Jonny’s place, where we had some coffee and toasts. When we came back to the Eastern gate two long queue had already form (one for men and another for women), and moment later we were entering this remarkable landmark.
The Taj Mahal proudly sitting next to the sacred Yamuna river is consider one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. It is a breathtaking mausoleum built over 20 years, between 1631 and 1648, from beautiful and rare white marble. It was constructed by the grandson of Akbar, Shah Jehan, one of the greatest Mughal emperors, as the mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. It is therefore, universally considered the monument to love. The Taj Mahal is today a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is one of the most photographed and easily recognisable Indian attractions. It is considered one of the world’s best preserved and architecturally interesting tombs, putting India at the forefront of the top cultural destinations.
The second part of the day was spent visiting the Agra fort, the second most visited attraction in Agra. This red sandstone palace and defensive structure is a remarkable piece of architecture, often considered a much better preserved version of the Delhi’s Red Fort. It was built by the Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1571 as a testament of his power. The fort was later improved by Shah Jahan, the grand child of Akbar, but ironically ended up as a prisoner.
Agra day 4
During the last day spent in Agra we decided to rent a rickshaw for half a day, so we could explore the rest of the key sights of the city. We started with the Jama Masjid site within the northern part of the city , a large mosque famous for its unusual dome and absence of minarets built in 1648 during the reign of the father Shah Jahan.
We then moved further north and crossed the Yamuna river on to the Eastern side to first explore the Itmad-Ud-Daulah’s Tomb, best known as the Baby Taj. This beautiful white marble mausoleum which indeed is a smaller version of the Taj Mahal was built by the Empress Nur Jehan for her father the Chief Minister of Emperor Jahangir. Not far from the Baby Taj we quickly visited the China Ka Roza memorial famous for its dome of blue glazed tiles. It is dedicated to Allama Afzel Khal Mullah Shukrullah of Shiraz, the Prime Minister of Shah Jahan. Finally our las stop on the eastern side of the river was the Ram Bagh Gardens, best known as the first Mughal gardens. It was built by the Emperor Babar, known as the Mughal founder.
We came back to the other side of the river, where we got stuck in traffic for a while on the main road before heading to the western part of town, a place known as Sikandra and famous for being home to the Akbar’s tomb. The mausoleum complex dedicated to one of the greatest Mughal Emperors is located at the heart of a beautiful garden and surrounded by four red sandstone gates.
Finally our last stop of the day was Mariam’s Tomb, situated only a few meters south-west of the Akbar’s tomb. This beautiful white marble grave, was built by Jahangir for his mother Mariam Zammani. There is also a school and a church near the tomb, built by Akbar in memory of his Christian wife.
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About the Taj Plaza Hotel
The Taj Plaza Hotel is perfectly located near the Taj Mahal, only a few hundred meters south of the Eastern gate. The hotel’s biggest asset is its spectacular views of Agra’s most famous site from both the rooftop restaurant and some of the rooms. We initially booked the standard room which was not up to scratch, but we were really impressed by the upgraded luxury room we got offered, with some of the city’s best views of the Taj. All the staff was pretty friendly, especially the security guard at the front desk. Moreover the rooftop restaurant is quite a nice place to chillout especially at sunset after a day of sightseeing. We recommend the special Veggie thali if you are really hungry. They also serve beer but it is well overpriced compared to the rest of the items on the menu (alternatively there is a beer shop not far from the hotel). Overall we would definitely come back to the Taj Plaza as it offers great value for money and breathtaking views of one of the World’s Seven Wonders.
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