The Taj Mahal has become the universal symbol of India. The iconic view looking down the promenade towards the white marble mausoleum is breathtaking to even the most seasoned of travelers. If you do one thing in India, this should be at the top of your list.
I had an opportunity to travel to India for ten days in April 2017. Obviously with such a short amount of time in this massive country, I wanted to pack as much in as possible leaving no time wasted. My flight arrived into Delhi late in the evening and I knew I wanted to get out of the city as soon as possible so I booked bus tickets north to the Himalayas for the following evening. This meant that I had just one day in Delhi and I wasn’t going to let any of it go to waste.
The Taj Mahal is located in Agra – a two to three hour train ride from Delhi. Agra can easily be visited on a day trip from Delhi, but if you have more time certainly spend a night there. Many tour companies will offer Agra day tours from Delhi, but if you’re like me and enjoy the challenge of independent travel as well as the savings, then this guide will help you safely get to Agra and back with the proud feeling of doing it yourself.
India is often considered a scammers paradise and New Delhi is without a doubt its capital. Touts will try everything on you here. Absolutely everything. The best way to avoid all this is to come with a plan and know where you’re going. Never accept unsolicited help in Delhi. And be careful even looking for help – treat everyone with extreme skepticism. I knew Delhi was going to be like this so I planned out everything ahead. Now I am writing this guide to help others along their journey.
I arrived into New Delhi airport at 9:30 pm on a Tuesday. The “e-visa” immigration line was absolutely atrocious. I waited an hour and a half to pass through immigration. While this might not always be the case, know that it could take this long.
I made a hotel reservation online the night before for Backpacker Panda in Paharganj, Delhi. I chose this place because it was cheap, close to the Delhi train station and easy to get to from the airport. I strongly recommend you book a place before arriving in Delhi. Many of the hotels in Paharganj are shady, overpriced, and poor quality. There are good ones, but if you don’t know where to go, you’ll be shuffled into a low quality hotel by the numerous touts.
The best way to get into downtown Delhi from the airport is to take the airport express train. The entrance is located exactly across the street from the arrivals hall exit and cannot be missed. Note the last train leaves ~11:20 or ~11:30pm. After the long line at immigration, I had to rush to catch the final train. A tout tried to run after me saying the last train has already left. I knew he was full of $#!* and told him to get lost. No official staff will ever chase after you to “help” you in Delhi. The guy was just trying to fool me into taking his overpriced taxi to stay at a sketchy hotel where he gets a commission.
The train will take 20-30 minutes before arriving to the final station near New Delhi Train Station (NLDS). Follow the exit signs and make your way out of the station. Once you leave that station, the experience is quite something. This is now full-on India right in your face. Ignore the numerous rickshaw drivers approaching you and make your way to the train station. Once at the station, to get to Paharganj, you will need to cross the platforms to the other side. To do this, you need to enter through one of the security check points where they will scan your bag and wand you down. You do not need a ticket to enter the train station. The staff will not ask you for a ticket. If someone asks you for a ticket, they are a scammer. If they won’t let you through, go to another check point. Some guy asked me for a ticket and I said I just want to go to the other side. He said “ohhh other side muslim area. very dangerous.” Obviously this guy is another con-artist. I’m surprised the security let him hang around the check point acting all official. Ignoring him, I walked away to find another way around the station. At this point, I just walked around on the main road because I didn’t know you could go in without a ticket. While you can walk around the station, walking through is way shorter.
I used Google Maps the rest of the way to navigate the alleyways of Paharganj to reach Backpacker Panda. Even though I didn’t have an Indian SIM, I downloaded Delhi for offline use before and my phone could locate my location with the wifi turned on. As a side note, Indian SIM cards are difficult to get due to high security around telecommunications in this country, but the “e-visa” program offers them for free to tourists at the Delhi airport. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to get one due to the long lines.
I slept a few hours and woke up at 5 am the next morning to make my way back to the train station for my trip to Agra. If you have only a short time in India, booking train tickets online before visiting can be a huge time saver. Additionally, train stations are full of scammers and if you’re not 100% sure where the ticket office is, you may be brought to numerous “fake” ticket offices charging huge markups or claiming the trains are booked and forcing you to hire expensive private transportation. Seat61.com/India is a great source of information for how to book train tickets online in India. It’s cheaper, saves time, and you can even cancel them for a minimal loss up to four hours before your departure. It can be difficult to create an account to buy the tickets as you need an Indian cell phone number, but seat61.com explains how to get around this. I had to email the support desk for India Rail four times to get my account verified so make sure you start creating your account at least a week before arriving in India.
To get to Agra, I bought a ticket in regular class (CC) on the 6:00 am Bhopal Shatabdi Express train. I was easily able to find my train platform by looking at the massive departures board at the station entrance. I arrived in Agra Cantt station around 8:00 am and was served tea and breakfast on the train ride included with my ticket. While there are later trains to get to Agra, the 6:00 am is the first every morning so you can usually beat the crowds which really build up later in the morning at the Taj Mahal.
Once I arrived in Agra, I exited the station and went to the prepaid rickshaw/taxi booth just across the road slightly to the right immediately after you exit the station. Here all the prices were set and listed on the wall for journeys to the Taj Mahal at much better rates than you would be quoted as a tourist on the street.
I asked for the driver to take me to the South Gate as I heard the lines were lower here, but I think he ended up taking me to the West Gate anyways. It didn’t end up mattering in the end because there were no lines whatsoever. Perhaps this was because it was a weekday, I was early, or just because April is hot and the beginning of low season. If the lines at the West Gate are long, the South Gate is a mere five minute walk anyways.
Make sure you have enough cash with you when visiting the Taj. The entrance fee is 1,000 rupees and since I was in such a rush, I didn’t have time to get to an ATM. Also many ATMS are broken or out of cash in India so it can be a pain to find if you’re in a pinch. I asked my rickshaw driver to take me to an ATM and I think he might have purposely taken me to a broken one so he could offer a money changer next where he got a good commission. I realized what was happening when I got to the changer, but it was only about a 200 rupee difference and I really wanted to get to the Taj ASAP to beat the crowds so I wasn’t too upset. Just another example of how even though this rickshaw driver was very nice and friendly, everyone in Delhi and major tourist areas have some trick up their sleeves.
Entering the Taj was quite easy as there was almost no line. There is a separate line for foreigners that is shorter than the Indian line because foreigners pay 20x more for their ticket. As a warning, you cannot bring food, cigarettes, lighters or even tripods into the Taj. The security saw my mini tripod in my bag and said I had to put it in a locker. Luckily one of the guards agreed to watch it for me instead. The tripod was so cheap that it was hardly worth it to pay for a locker, but thank you to the very nice guards at the Taj Mahal.
As you enter the Taj Mahal, you will be offered numerous guide services. This is really up to you, but beware of deals that are too good to be true. None of these people are official guides even if they say they are so do not pay official rates. I think an official guide is around 1,000 rupees. You can bargain with these guys but make sure a price for everything is agreed on beforehand.
Once you turn that corner and enter through the main main gate… enjoy yourself…
I spent about two hours exploring all the sights. If you’re traveling solo, look for other foreigners alone and ask if they’ll take your picture in exchange for helping them take theirs. You can also pay some Indian guys that are “official” photographers for photos on your camera. I paid 50 rupees for about 10 photos. Arriving early was an excellent idea because as I left, it would have been much more difficult to get an unobstructed picture.
Around 11:30, I left the grounds through the South Gate and ate lunch at Shankara Vegis. There are numerous restaurants all with rooftop patios in this area right outside the South Gate that you could choose. I read about this specific restaurant on Wikitravel and was glad it had free wifi. The owner was quite nice and wanted to chat American politics.
At this point, there are numerous options to do in Agra. You could easily walk to Agra Fort which is the second most popular sight in town, but I needed to get back to Delhi so I had to return to the train station.
To get back to Agra Cantt, I simply flagged down a rickshaw and asked him to take me to the train station for 100 rupees. If they want more, just flag down another. This is a pretty standard price and the supply of rickshaws far exceeds the demand.
To return to Delhi, I had booked a ticket on the Samta Express leaving at 1:45pm for Delhi NZM station. Note this is not the station I initially left from. Due to congestion at the NDLS station, many trains service the NZM station instead. It is about 7km south of the NDLS station and unfortunately there isn’t a metro stop nearby. Knowing that this might be a difficulty for my trip, I looked up bus options from NZM station to get back to my hotel before leaving for Agra. Riding the bus in Delhi is surprisingly easy and often nicer than riding in a rickshaw.
Once you leave the NZM station immediately turn left and start walking south along the road. You will pass a prepaid rickshaw booth which could be an option if you don’t want to take the bus. A little past this prepaid booth, there are numerous parked buses waiting to leave as this station is often the final/first stop along their route. To get back to Backpacker Panda, I took the 966 bus for 25 rupees and followed along with Google Maps on my phone so I knew where to get off. You can do a quick google search for directions to see the full bus route. The google maps public transport directions in Delhi are quite reliable.
After getting back to Delhi, I knew I needed to get out as fast as possible. I had a ticket already booked for an overnight bus to Manali, a popular tourist destination in the Himalayas. Buying a bus ticket in India online is very difficult for foreigners. India has great websites like redbus.in which allow you to book just about any bus online, but they do not accept foreign credit cards. I used Travel Yaari which allows PayPal payments, but you will pay heavy fees. While in Manali, I learned about http://www.hrtchp.com/hrtctickets/ which is the website for the Himalchai Road Transport Corporation. This organization has the best and most reliable bus services for Northern India which can usually be booked through redbus.in; however, the bus company website allows you to book tickets directly through them. Best thing is they accept foreign credit cards so you can avoid the hefty fees and agent charges booking elsewhere.
At Backpacker Panda, I took a quick shower and got on the metro headed for Kashmere Gate – the metro stop at the main bus terminal for northern routes. Riding the metro during rush hour in Delhi was INSANE. I’ve never seen anywhere so crowded. I had to transfer at one station, and when I got to the platform there were hundreds of people waiting to get on the next train. When it arrived, police held off the crowd from entering allowing people to get off. But the patience of the crowd didn’t last long. Within a few seconds people on the platform started to rush into the train before everyone had a chance to get off. It felt like swimming through rapids. I had no choice where to go and people just started pushing me into the train. I remember one poor man’s face as he tried to get off the train and the swarm just threw him back in. Funny thing is after the doors closed he was laughing – just another day in India.
At the Kashmere Gate metro stop, it’s quite easy to find the bus terminal, and from there ask the information desk for help finding your platform. Typically companies have a few reserved platforms and their buses pull into those spots at ten minute intervals before their departure.
The bus to Manali was NICE. After a very hot day visiting the Taj Mahal, it was so nice to sit back and relax in the air-conditioning as we made our way north.
Looking back, my first day in India was absolutely insane. I came here because I wanted to go on a big bold adventure and day one had me completely satisfied. I’ve been in India five days now, and I feel like every experience has been like nothing I can find anywhere else in the world. This place is a paradise for adventure seekers and rough travelers like me who want to get the real authentic experience.
Let me know if you have any questions on my trip to Agra in the comments below!