Whether architecture and history are your things or not, one item which needs to be on your bucket list is visiting the Taj Mahal. This national treasure of India seems like a cliche to add to a list of things to do before you die, but there is a good reason it is so well know; the place is truly stunning.
I was lucky enough to visit the Taj Mahal 13 years ago. It was the highlight in a 3 month adventure around northern India. I saw some pretty cool stuff on that trip and on a previous trip in the south. This included amazing palaces, forts, ancient ruins and of course the fascinating culture and scenery. To this day I still maintain that the Taj Mahal is without a doubt the most spectacular sight of them all.
Why is the Taj Mahal an essential bucket list idea?
There is the story of how this place was built, the ultimate romantic gesture by a prince for his dead wife. That can add to the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, but for me it didn’t make a difference. This shrine is quite simply the most elegant and magnificent building imaginable.
After 6 weeks looking at impressive buildings to the west in Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, I had had enough. I didn’t care if I saw another beautiful palace, fort or temple ever again. But I was in India and heading in the direction of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, so I had to stop by.
The weather was awful, one of the coldest winters on record and I wasn’t feeling great thanks to an upset stomach. What made matters even worse was that the Taj Mahal was closed on the day I intended to visit. My only option was to hire a Rickshaw and go around the back to view it from across the Yamuna river. It was early in the morning and misty. As the sun rose the Taj Mahal revealed itself and it was an awesome sight. I was almost alone which gave me a viewpoint most of the crowds miss.
I snapped photos and just sat admiring the view. It is a sight I can still picture in my mind today. I was so impressed that I stayed on in Agra another day to join the tourists who enter the complex. The building and grounds are immaculate. There was beautiful detailing in every nook and cranny. This isn’t a building built for practical means, it was built to be the most stunning piece of architecture. For me it reigns supreme as the most beautiful building in the world.
Getting there and around
Most visitors fly into Delhi, then travel the short distance to Agra. I recommend starting with the same thing I did which is to hire a driver and visit from the other side of the river at dawn. You can skip the hoards and really see the building from a different light. For me this is the best way to see the Taj Mahal. If you are going to continue to travel outside Agra (recommended) you should travel by train which is an Indian institution not to be missed.
Where to stay
When visiting cities in India I highly recommend splurging that little bit extra. You get less for your cash in the cities, so budgeting a little higher will stop you from making my mistake which was to stay in a very run down place. When you get into the countryside (which I highly recommend too), accommodation is cheaper and more spacious.
India is a place people usually love and hate in varying amounts. The poverty in the cities can be overwhelming, but the culture is fascinating. My top tip is to get off the tourist trail and venture into the countryside. Constantly moving from city to city with all the other tourists can become a chore. From Agra why not visit Orcha which is not too far to the south. Orcha is a quieter riverside village which I found very peaceful to explore after the big cities.
The phrase ‘Delhi Belly’ is no joke. Take some Loperamide to stop things getting messy, especially important when taking overnight trains and buses. Use caution when choosing where to eat too. In my visits there was no way to check for restaurant recommendations (like Trip Advisor) other than the few in the guide books. Avoid tourist cafes, especially if they don’t have many customers. Busier places are more likely to be serving fresher, safer food. My favourites dining options were busy local cafes serving masala dosa (potato pancake) and roadside stalls serving delicious chai (sweet, creamy tea)
Other Contenders for Bucket List Additions in India
Hampi in the south is a lovely village which is home to ancient ruins and a unique landscape featuring boulders. The sunrises were awesome here. This can be combined with a visit to the beaches in Goa or Kerala.
The Himalayas in the north are a sight to behold, especially if you have not seen snow capped mountains before. Take warm clothes as many hotels do not have adequate heaters.
The backwaters of Kerala in the south are very popular for those wanting a relaxing boat ride through picturesque countryside. The standard of living seems to be higher in this region too.