Agra (population: approx 1.4 million) is in Uttar Pradesh state also known as ‘the Northern State’ and is the Hinduism and Hindi heartland. I traveled with the train from Delhi to Agra. The Shatabdi Express leaves the New Delhi Station at 06:15, returning at 20:30. It is a 2 hour express trip in both directions which is much better than the other options that leave later and takes approximately 3 hours.

I was prepared for the worst, expecting crowds and people hanging out the train; I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a train journey similar to anywhere else in the world, the coach was clean, air-conditioned, train was on time, breakfast as well as dinner was served and due to the departure and return times, I enjoyed the maximum time in Agra. All of this for a mere INR 790. Please note that there is also cheaper coaches without meals, aircon and much more crowded

I met Audrey (from Paris, France); she sat next to me on the train and was also travelling on her own. We started chatting and decided to spend the day together. In retrospect that was a great idea because we could share the thrill of the Taj Mahal, share the cost and somehow just feel more comfortable being two women in strange country

Arrival at Agra Cantonment (Agra Cantt) station was easy and we managed to secure an auto rickshaw for the day. We made a good choice because Sameer went out of his way to entertain us and show us the most important sights in Agra. He also took us to a local restaurant, some shopping options for fabric, and a marble demonstration. With Sameer’s assistance we managed to see a lot of what Agra has to offer. INR 600 for the day

Taj Ganj is an area adjacent to the Taj Mahal with shops and mostly inexpensive restaurants and accommodation options. Audrey pre-booked at the Sheela hotel, very basic but quite OK for a night or two and only a few meters from the East Gate entrance to the Taj

Taj Mahal, truly a very impressive structure, overlooking the Yamuna River, built over more than 20 years and completed in 1653, and the romantic tale behind it makes it even more special. I also learnt that the white & red marble used to build the Taj Mahal, brought from Makrana, near Amjer in Rajasthan (a state bordering Uttar Pradesh on the Southern side) is translucent. Entry to Taj Mahal is INR 750 for foreign visitors and you also receive a bottle of water and shoe covers in an attempt to preserve the Taj Mahal for many more generations. (entry for locals only INR 10 per person)

Agra Fort is situated 2km North West of the Taj Mahal, built of red sandstone, completed in 1573. The sheer size of this Mughul stronghold, with a perimeter of approximately 2.5 km, makes it a very impressive structure. (Admission fee INR 300. If you can show your Taj Mahal entrance ticket you get INR 50 discount)

After arriving in Agra I realized that the different sites are quite spread out and was pleasantly surprised when I almost literally bumped into my French friends from Delhi; Stefan and Olivia at Agra Fort.

Also visited two other tombs; Itimad-ud-daulah, also known as the Baby Taj, it was built before the Taj Mahal and was the 1st building in the Mughul era to be faced entirely in marble. The 2nd tomb is Chini-ka-rauza, built between 1628 – 1639, belonging to a Persian poet and is of Persian design, the only such building in the area.

Mehtab Bagh & Mehtab Gardens, on the opposite side of the Yamuna River, directly opposite the Taj Mahal for a uninterrupted view of the mausoleum & the tapered minarets on each corner.

At Green Park, a local restaurant with a small garden I enjoyed Dal Masala, Cheese Naan and a cold drink for a mere INR 180 (approximately R28). Shanti Lodge, in Taj Ganj area next to the Taj Mahal, is the perfect place for a drink, on the roof, watching the Taj as night descends on Agra.

We had a busy day and achieved quite a lot but unfortunately did not experience the local specialities of: petha (crystallized pumpkin), ghazak (rock hard candy) and dalmoth (crunchy mix made with black lentils)

Seeing that I only spent 1 day in Agra, I did not have the time to visit the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri (city built between 1569 – 1585), 40 km southwest of Agra. Should one stay in Agra for longer than a day, visiting this former imperial capital is recommended.