Think India and the Taj Mahal’s silhouette inevitably comes to mind. With its ivory-coloured edifice, onion dome and sky-poking minarets, the marble tomb is among the greatest odes to love ever. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s creation left an indelible imprint on the city’s skyline and India’s tourism.
Clubbed with a tour of Delhi and Jaipur, Agra is one point of the famed “Golden Triangle” circuit, but travellers should linger longer in this city. The legacy of the Mughals extends far beyond the Taj: fantastic Mughlai cuisine, including biriyanis and lamb curries; the grand abandoned capital of Fatehpur Sikri; and the imposing relics of the Agra Fort.
Now, with a visa on arrival for UAE citizens, travel to India is a lot easier. Even if you don’t have time to explore beyond the Taj, this grimy city on the Yamuna River’s banks is worth a once-in-a-lifetime visit for its stunning Unesco World Heritage Site.
A comfortable bed
The Oberoi Amarvilas (www.oberoihotels.com; 0091 562 223 1515) is a sprawling expanse of marble-floored rooms and reflective pools, located just 600 metres from the Taj Mahal. All the rooms look out onto the monument. Doubles from 56,000 rupees (Dh3,293).
The Radisson Blu (www.radissonblu.com; 0091 562 405 5555) is less than five minutes' walk from the Taj Mahal. The five-star rooms and suites feature chic wood panelling and rich carpets. Doubles from 8,500 rupees (Dh500).
For a heritage feel, try the 100-year-old Grand Imperial (www.hotelgrandimperial.com; 0091 562 225 1190). With 30 rooms and suites, it's charming and homey. Four-poster beds, open verandas and walls full of old photographs lend a vintage air. Doubles from 5,000 rupees (Dh294).
Find your feet
Most travellers are in Agra solely to see the Taj Mahal (www.tajmahal.gov.in), which is reason enough to make it your first port of call. Persuasive guides will hound you; it's worth hiring a government-approved guide to point out design intricacies and give you historical perspective.
Shah Jahan built the tomb in 1632 in memory of his most-loved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 20,000 workers 17 years to construct the behemoth, intricately detailed with precious stones and fine inscriptions. In the inner mausoleum, delicately latticed marble screens surround the coffins that mark the couple’s final resting place.
Meet the locals
The locals love their street food and sweetmeats. The best way to mingle is to lose yourself in Sadar Bazaar’s chaotic lanes. Handicraft stores dispensing marble products and shops swathed in bright Indian fabric vie for attention, but aim for the sweet shops and chaat vendors. Petha – a gelatinous translucent sweet made with white pumpkin and sugar – is among Agra’s most popular exports. Locals swear by Panchhi Petha, where you can try a range of flavours. Locals cluster around chaat vendors doling out spicy, tamarind-chutney-and-yogurt-drenched street snacks such as aloo tikki (potato cutlets).
Book a table
Dawat-e-Nawab (www.radissonblu.com; 0091 562 405 5555) showcases lavish traditional Nawab cuisine. The Mughal nobility dined in style, with multiple-course meals featuring kebabs, biriyanis and meat-heavy gravies. Book the restaurant's six-course meal. The menu rotates, but watch out for galoutis – clove-flavoured mutton kebabs. A meal for two costs about 3,000 rupees (Dh176).
The Delhi export Pind Balluchi (www.pindballuchi.com; 0091 562 653 6777) is a local favourite for its North Indian dishes in a rustic setting. Punjabi staples such as dal makhni (black lentils cooked with butter, best accompanied with hot naans) and kadhai paneer (cottage cheese cubes tossed in a tomato gravy) are great vegetarian options. Cool off with chaas – cold, spiced buttermilk with coriander. A meal for two costs about 2,000 rupees (Dh118).
Inlaid marble, designer jewellery and Indian fabrics are crammed across three storeys at Kalakriti (www.kalakritionline.com; 0091 892 341 2345), a handicrafts emporium that caters to all souvenir needs. Agra specialities include marble tabletops inlaid with semi-precious stones – much like the Taj. Finely latticed filigree-work boxes, bowls and marble elephants make great presents.
At the Taj Mahal’s Western Gate, the simply named Handicraft Store (0091 562 645 1920) is a conveniently placed stop to quickly browse through replica Taj Mahals, inlaid products, jewellery and more.
What to avoid
Midday Taj Mahal tours. The sun can be punishing, reflecting off all that marble. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon, especially in summer.
About an hour’s drive from Agra is the abandoned 16th-century Mughal capital Fatehpur Sikri – all red-sandstone, Persian-influenced architecture and massive fortifications.
Return flights with Etihad from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi cost from Dh1,515. From there, take the Yamuna Expressway to reach Agra in less than 2.5 hours by road.