The last Lodi Sultan moved his capital to Agra in 1504, and although he was defeated in 1526 by Babur, the founder of the Mogul empire, it remained India's premier city for almost two centuries. The city's greatest days were during the reign of Babur's grandson, Akbar the Great (1556-1605), who built Agra Fort, and although Shah Jahan created a new capital in Delhi, his heart remained in Agra. In 1631 he chose Agra as the spot to construct what is undisputedly the world's greatest monument to love - the Taj Mahal.
For many, Agra represents the best and worst of India. The city is a daunting sensory experience for even the most hardened traveller: many of the streets are foul, the air polluted and, particularly in the alleyways around the Taj Mahal, visitors are plagued by notoriously persistent touts and rip-off merchants. Despite all this, Agra's magnificent sights make the adventure more than worthwhile.
Agra, along with Delhi and Jaipur, forms the 'Golden Triangle' - India's most popular tourist route. Situated just 125 miles (200km) south of Delhi, it makes an easy day-trip by train. However, it is worth spending at least a night in the city just to truly appreciate the wondrous Taj Mahal and its many moods: to stand in awe and watch it change from rose-pink in the morning, to brilliant-white at noon, to eggshell-blue at dusk.
The Taj Mahal is one of the world's most recognisable and evocative sights, and despite the incredible hype, a visit here cannot disappoint. Set overlooking the River Yamuna, visible from Agra Fort in the West, the Taj was built by Shah Jahan to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child, in 1631. The story of this great monument to love is given an added poignancy by the fate of Shah Jahan himself. When his devout and austere son Aurangzeb seized power, Shah Jahan was interned in Agra Fort, where he lived out his final years gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal in the distance. When he died there, in January 1666, with his daughter Jahanara Begum at his side, his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife in the peerless mausoleum.
Completed in 1653, the Taj Mahal is set in a large walled garden, between two mini-Taj's (one of which is a mosque), and in front of a long reflecting pond. Close up, the craftsmanship of the building is as spectacular as from a distance - the inside of the vast double-dome is inlaid with delicately-filigreed verses from the Quran and semi-precious stones. Visitors should aim to visit it at dawn and at dusk, as the building truly does change colour through the day, from rosy pink, to gleaming ivory, to twilight-blue. Note that there can often be smog and fog in the mornings. Two days before and after the full moon, the Taj Mahal is open for moonlight viewing, but tickets must be booked at least 24 hours in advance, through the Archaeological Survey of India's offices in Agra.
Not far from the gardens of the Taj Mahal stands the important 16th-century Mughal monument known as the Red Fort of Agra. This powerful fortress of red sandstone encompasses, within its 1.5 mile-long (2.5km) enclosure walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It comprises many fairytale palaces, such as the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal, built by Shah Jahan; audience halls such as the Diwan-i-Khas; and the Sheesh Mahal (The Glass Palace), which is inlaid with thousands of mirrors and was once the harem dressing-room. There are also two beautiful mosques, including Shah Jahan's Pearl Mosque. The Octagonal Tower is exquisitely carved, and is the very place where Shah Jahan spent the last seven years of his life. The tower used to be known for providing one of the best views of the Taj Mahal - which is significant as Shah Jahan famously built the Taj as a memorial to his wife and no doubt enjoyed this view - but these days, regrettably, air pollution has reduced visibility.
Not all of the areas and buildings in the Red Fort are open to visitors but there is plenty to see. Local guides are available at the entrance and hiring one is recommended because the fort has accumulated many great stories in its long history. Try to arrive early to avoid crowds and queues.
The deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire between 1570 and 1585. It was built under the personal supervision of the Emperor Akbar. The story goes that the emperor was childless and, having tried all sorts of solutions to his plight, visited a Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti, for help. Soon a son was born, and - impressed and overjoyed - Akbar started building on the site where he had met the saint. However, due to a severe shortage of water the city was abandoned after only fifteen years, and the capital was relocated back to Agra. As a result, Fatehpur Sikri stands untouched and perfectly preserved: a complete medieval fortress built of red sandstone, with vast central squares, exquisitely carved multi-tiered pavilions, cool terraces and formal gardens. It is best to hire a guide, or do some research before visiting, because the site is hugely enriched by some knowledge of its fascinating history and the many stories that have accumulated about the place. Visitors can walk freely around the vast complex admiring the intricate architecture and carvings and imagining how the royal family once lived. The gardens are also lovely and well-maintained.
Agra is located on the Ganga plain and has a continental climate, with very hot summer weather and cool winters. The city has a very similar climate to the nearby capital of Delhi. In summer (April to September) temperatures can reach as high as 119°F (48°C), and hot, dry winds prevail. Agra is reputed to be one of the hottest cities in India and for those unaccustomed to hot weather and extreme humidity it is uncomfortable in summer. The annual monsoon season is between July and September. Although Agra does experience the monsoon season, it is not as badly affected as many other areas of India. Winter temperatures (November to February) are comfortable, at about 57°F (14°C) during the day, but may fall below freezing at night. Agra experiences dense fog during the winter months of December and January. The most pleasant time to visit Agra is between October and March, possibly avoiding the peak winter months of December and January when it can be a bit chilly and the fog is at its worst, reducing visibility and disrupting air, road and rail travel. Therefore, October and November, or February and March are the best times to travel to Agra.
Situated in an overwhelmingly noisy and dirty city, the attractions in Agra are nevertheless some of the most famous and beautiful in the world.
Most people visit Agra primarily to see the Taj Mahal, and this glowing white monument more than justifies the trip all by itself. No matter how jaded or disenchanted a traveller is, the Taj conjures deep emotions; it is almost impossible not to be moved by the love story that birthed this splendid mausoleum, and even for those who don't like the soppy stuff the beauty of the building is mesmerising. It is India's most popular and iconic attraction, and one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. Expect it to be busy no matter when you visit! To admire the Taj Mahal from a distance, and escape some of the crowds at the site, pay a visit to the Mehtah Bagh gardens where you can relax on the lawns and take photographs - the gardens are not exceptional, but the views are.
Another world-class attraction in the city, very near the Taj Mahal, is the Agra Fort, a 16th-century Mughal monument containing a veritable treasure trove of impressive buildings. Things to see in the fort include the Jahangir Palace, the Khas Mahal, the Glass Palace (Sheesh Mahal) inlaid with thousands of mirrors, and two stunning mosques. Sha Jahan spent the last seven years of his life incarcerated in the ornately carved Octagonal Tower, which once had an enviable view of his beloved Taj Mahal.
A less famous but very worthwhile site, the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is one of the best things to see in Agra. It is often called the mini-Taj and although it is small it is exquisitely carved and consistently ranks with visitors as one of Agra's great treasures. The attraction is usually quiet and seldom crowded, and its peaceful atmosphere is refreshing compared to the bustle of other attractions in Agra.
Those who have time to adventure out of the city should consider an excursion to Fatehpur Sikri, a medieval fortress which was briefly the capital of the Mughal Empire, but was deserted in 1585 due to water shortages. This proud fortress now stands, perfectly preserved and a little spooky, in the arid landscape 25 miles (40km) west of Agra.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination