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Asia travel

Five things to do in Agra – once you’ve visited the Taj Mahal

You’ve braved the crowds, seen the iconic monument and got your selfie. Now it’s time to explore what else Agra has to offer, from markets and street food in the old town to Agra Fort and an abandoned 17th century city

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 12:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 1:26pm

You have risen at the crack of dawn and dragged yourself through the sleepy streets of Agra to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

You have followed in the footsteps of Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey and countless tourists, to get that iconic shot on the stone bench facing the edifice. And you have listened to your guide prattle on about the romantic legends surrounding 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

So, what next?

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To experience Agra beyond the standard Taj tour, take your pick from a wealth of Mughal-era monuments, exploratory food walks and thrilling cycle-rickshaw rides through the old city.

1. An alternative view of the Taj

To enjoy the Taj while avoiding the shoving crowds, head to Mehtab Bagh across the Yamuna River an hour before sunset. This garden complex predating Taj Mahal by more than 100 years is the perfect spot for a panoramic view of the marble monument, with the thin sliver of the drying river in front.

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Even better, pencil in a night viewing of the Taj with a small group of 50 visitors, from 8.30pm until 12.30am, only on five days of the month when the moon is at its fullest. Tickets are limited and in great demand, so book well in advance through a local travel agent or the official website (tajmahal.gov.in).

2. Glimpses of Mughal history

From the Taj, make your way to the Baby Taj, the Itmad-ud-Daula tomb built a few years earlier in honour of Mumtaz Mahal’s grandfather Mirza Ghiyas Beg. The first Mughal monument to be built entirely from marble, its highlight is the delicate jali (marble lattice) work on the windows.

If the Taj Mahal is the undisputed crown jewel, Unesco World Heritage site Agra Fort is not far behind in terms of scale, grandeur or beauty. Built as a military fort by Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1573, it was repurposed into a palace by his grandson Shah Jahan, who spent his last years there as a political prisoner of his own son Aurangzeb, who usurped the throne.

3. Lanes and markets of old Agra

Like any small town in India, the core of old Agra is a warren of lanes, each with a thriving local market. Browse the exquisite zardosi embroidery at Kinari Bazaar and inexpensive leather goods at Sadar Bazaar, to the rich aroma of spices at the Rawatpara spice market and the hustle and bustle of a wholesale vegetable market at Sabji Mandi.

To delve deeper into the city’s multicultural history, go on a walking or rickshaw tour with resident experts Padhaaro (padhaaro.com), and learn about its lesser known non-Islamic and colonial landmarks, including the 16th century Akbar’s Church and a nearly 500-year-old the Roman Catholic cemetery, dotted with miniature Taj Mahal replica tombs and filled with whispers of prosperous lives from long ago.

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4. Street food sojourn

After a busy day of sightseeing, head to the chaat gali (snack street) of Sadar Bazaar market. Home to famous chaat shops Shri Agrawal Chat House and Agra Chat Bhandar, this neighbourhood is a delight for the taste buds; try the kachori or samosa, and the fluffy besan ka cheela (crepes made of chickpea flour). Finish with Agra’s famous petha, a gooey sweet made of pumpkin, at the Panchhi Petha shop (panchhipetha.com).

If street food does not sound appealing, then there is an option to enjoy authentic regional cuisine with a Traveling Spoon host (travelingspoon.com), or sign up for a cooking class with Agra Magic (agramagic.com) that includes a visit to a local home and lunch.

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5. A day out

When you’ve had enough of the crowds and chaos of the town, head out to Fatehpur Sikri , the third Unesco listed monument in this area. With some of India’s best preserved Indo-Islamic architecture, the city served as the capital of Emperor Akbar’s kingdom for a few short years from 1571 to 1585, before acute water shortage forced his descendants to move to Agra, 40 kilometres away.

You could also find solace in the sounds of birdsong at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, just over an hour’s drive from Agra. Known popularly by its local name Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, this forest is home to more than 230 species of birds, and comes alive in the winter months with dozens of migratory species visiting from as far away as Australia and Siberia.

Getting there

Fly directly to New Delhi from Hong Kong on Jet Airways or Air India (return fares from HK$3,800/US$487) and hire a taxi for the 200km/four-hour drive to Agra.