I Was Blown Away By the Taj Mahal


Taj Mahal retro look

There was no question about whether I’d go.

For my travel partner, though, visiting sounded more like a chore than a crossing off a long-held bucket list item. 

Yes, Dave wanted to skip the Taj Mahal. 

I was convinced he’d lost his mind. 

taj mahal in distance
My first view of the Taj Mahal: dominating the horizon from the incredible Agra Fort!

I couldn’t comprehend going to India and not seeing its most famous monument. Having the opportunity to see one of the most iconic buildings in the world and being like, nah, I’ll pass? I could never. 

Dave believed the treasures of the country would lie outside of its most crowded attraction. 

I thought the Taj had the potential to be just as wondrous as Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Great Barrier Reef…

We both stayed firm to our point of view, but I think we also secretly expected the other to be right.

Because while I wondered if seeing the Taj Mahal could be something that would stay with me forever, I also thought the crowds could ruin the experience.

Delhi train station at sunrise
Up with the sun at Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station
breakfast meal on the train to Agra
Train chapati! Our ticket from Delhi to Agra included breakfast.

We set off early from New Delhi, on the Gatimaan Express — the fastest train in India — that left from Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 8:10 a.m. and arrived in Agra by 09:55 a.m., preparing ourselves for an action-packed day of movement. As I sat beside the window and gazed out at the smoggy scenes whipping past us, I smiled. 

I was in India. After so many planned trips and cancelled trips and daydreams and freak outs, I was finally here, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I wondered if I’d warm to my second destination as much as I had to Delhi.

Because, well, everybody seems to hate Agra. 

Despise it. 

I couldn’t find a single positive write-up of the city before we arrived in town. Detractors labelled the city the dirtiest in all of India, claimed it was full of scammers, announced that the best part of Agra was leaving Agra.  

And so I gave us just one day to see everything. 

Twenty-four hours to take the train to Agra, check-in to our guesthouse, visit the main attractions of city, and marvel at the Taj Mahal. The following day, we’d be leaving at 9 a.m. to drive to Jaipur. 

Once we arrived in Agra, we would need to hit the ground running.

View from Agra Fort
More views from Agra Fort. Can you spot the Taj Mahal in the distance?

Now, I have a thing for liking places that people hate, and I kind of warmed to Agra.

It was polluted, noisy, crowded, dirty, and I didn’t hate it. 

I can’t even explain why. 

I think I was still on an India high — so excited to be in the country after eight years of cancelled trips — that I could be wowed by just about anything. 

Dave, like everybody else, hated it.

I thought it was okay. 

Taj Mahal from afar
Mehhtab Bagh Garden was such a peaceful place! We had this spectacular viewpoint for the Taj Mahal all to ourselves

My First Views of the Taj Mahal 

The Taj Mahal is seemingly everywhere in Agra. You’ll spot it from most of the tourist attractions, restaurants, and guesthouses. 

I caught my first glimpse from Agra Fort, which was surprisingly quiet when we visited after lunch. The fort provides a hell of a lot of wonderful viewpoints, often with nobody else around. I was surprised by how peaceful it was to walk around, and was wowed by the structure as much as I was its views. 

Later on in the day, we ventured to Mehhtab Bagh Garden on the Yamuna River’s north bank to see the Taj Mahal from a different angle, and it was one of my favourite spots in the city. There was nobody else around when we visited — just me and Dave snapping a ton of photos. 

Girl in front of the taj mahal

I always thought I’d visit the Taj Mahal for sunrise, because that’s what everyone does. That’s the best way to see it, I’d read. 

But our guesthouse owner had put doubts into my mind.

I was visiting in winter, you see. In December. Full-on smog central. Fog mayhem. At this time of year, the Taj can be blanketed in fog and hard to make out, especially in the morning.

In the afternoons, the haze burns off and the skies are as pristine as they can get in India. The guesthouse owner had strenuously advised us to visit later in the day.

“Should we do it?” I asked Dave, as we sat beside the river looking up at the Taj. “Shall we just go now?”

“I think we should.”

“If we hate it, we can always return at sunrise, right?”

Taj Mahal gate
Can you catch a glimpse of the Taj through the doorway?

We returned to our rickshaw and asked our driver to take us to the East Gate. There are three entrances to the Taj Mahal — each with their pros and cons (more on that below) — and I’d decided the East Gate was the best for us.

Everybody says that Taj Mahal gets busier and busier throughout the day, but there were few foreigners opting to visit at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. In fact, there was nobody at all in the foreigner queue for tickets. We paid our entrance fee, separated to head through the male- and female-designated lines, then met back up at the gate.

I was buzzing, eager to catch my very first glimpse of the Taj Mahal. 

Taj Mahal gate crowds

Nothing prepares you for seeing something you’ve seen a thousand times over in magazines and on screens. To see it with your own eyes feels unreal. It’s almost as though your brain just assumes you’ve entered a TV screen and are walking around inside. That feels more plausible, in a way, than actually being there in person. 

It was pretty bizarre. 

I kept blinking, as though there was a mirage in front of me, as though I was dreaming, unable to accept the fact that I was here. 

I grinned as I took that iconic photo at the gate’s entrance, at the archway, with everybody crowding to see the Taj for the very first time. 

Taj Mahal and fountains

Lauren Juliff at Taj Mahal

At first, I was overcome with energy, and began buzzing my way around the complex, taking photos of everything: the fountains, the pools, the benches, the lawn. 

I wanted to capture it all: every angle; every detail; zoomed in and zoomed out. I was desperate to find a unique angle to capture something that has been photographed from every possible perspective over the past hundred years.

Taj Mahal at sunset

Gate at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal new angle

Despite looking a bit like a mosque, the Taj Mahal isn’t a religious structure.

It’s a mausoleum, built in the 1600s by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 20 years to build, with more than 20,000 workers, and 1,000 elephants, coming together to build the complex. 

You can head inside the mausoleum to see the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, as well as Shah Jahan, as he was later buried there, too. 

First, though, you’ll need to put on your shoe covers. The marble floors have begun to wear down after many millions of footsteps have been taken across these floors, so you’ll need to shield your shoes in order to protect the ground from further deterioration. 

Taj Mahal tower

You aren’t allowed to take photos inside, but that was okay. I didn’t need to. 

It was kind of chaotic once you entered, as there were security guards everywhere, yelling at you to walk faster; you’re not allowed to stop moving once you’re inside. 

And so, the tombs were fine. But I was glad when I got to escape back outside again. 

I was so happy to be here. 

When I travel, I always try to find the time to put my camera down. It can be all too tempting to live out the most magical moments of your life behind a lens, attempting to capture it all to ensure you don’t forget. It’s especially the case when you’re a travel blogger and want to record everything as much for your readers as for yourself. 

But it’s important to forget about the photos every now and then to just focus on the moment. 

I found a quiet area of the complex — basically where that photo above was taken — and sat down. From my spot, I could pause and people-watch, observing the schoolchildren and tour groups, watching the expressions on everybody’s faces as they got up-close to the Taj for the very first time. Watching the sun move across the sky and alter the colours on the building. Watching the birds soar overhead.

I sat there for half an hour with Dave, silently, absorbing as much as possible, thinking about how lucky I was to be here right now. 

View from the Taj Mahal

I turned to Dave once I felt ready to move on. 

“Are you glad I dragged you here?”

He didn’t have to think about his answer before nodding. “Yep.”

“Isn’t it amazing?”

“It’s so impressive.”

And it was. 

Taj Mahal side

Altogether, I spent two hours at the Taj Mahal. 

I thought I’d stay until sunset, but in the end, I didn’t feel the need to. I’d taken all the photos I’d dreamed of; I’d captured the complex from every possible angle in every variation of light. 

In fact, I didn’t even feel the need to return the following morning at sunrise. I’d had the most perfect blue skies and the most wondrous light while I’d been at the Taj, and I wasn’t sure that sunrise could top that. 

And I also didn’t want to set my alarm for 4:30 in the morning.

Taj Mahal blue sky

Taj Mahal golden light

We made one final circuit around the Taj Mahal, took our final dozen selfies with the locals, and I marvelled at how every angle brought a different look to the mausoleum. 

The two photos above showcase it perfectly: from one side of the complex, the Taj glistens bright white, and from the other, it’s bathed in a golden glow. It almost looked like a different building as I walked my final circuit. 

Taj Mahal at sunset from rooftop restaurant

And then, sunset. 

Agra is full of rooftop restaurants for obvious reasons: who wouldn’t want to eat a meal overlooking the entire reason why they came to the city?

As you can imagine, the area close to the Taj is pretty touristy and overpriced. The further away you get, the less touristy the restaurants are, but you also don’t want to get too far away, because you still want to have an excellent view. 

We stumbled into a random restaurant and while the food wasn’t anything mind-blowing, the view more than made up for it. 

It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

sunset over agra

Overall, my entire experience in Agra was amazing. I’d had high expectations for the Taj Mahal, and I was surprised to find them exceeded. The Taj is magnificent and seeing it ranks up there as one of the coolest travel experiences of my life. 

I’d even go back. 

If, on a future trip to India, I find myself taking a route that will see me passing near Agra, I’d most likely make the effort to spend another day in town. 

Maybe next time, I could go at sunrise. 

You can visit the Taj during the full moon, too, which sounds particularly epic. 

And so, if you’re heading to India and pondering whether it’s worth seeing the Taj Mahal or not, I would obviously say it so is.

It’s one of the most famous buildings in the world for a reason.

Taj Mahal retro look

My Top Tips for Visiting the Taj Mahal

It costs ₹1250/$16 for foreigners to visit and250/$3 for Indians. For that price, you’ll gain entrance to everything, as well as a bottle of water, map of Agra, and shoe covers. 

The Taj is closed on Fridays: Take note! The Taj Mahal is closed every Friday, so make sure you don’t plan your trip to Agra to coincide with this. There’s a mosque on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, so they close the complex for people who want to attend the religious services that are held there. 

The Taj Mahal opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m. on all other days of the week. It’s also open at night for five nights around every full moon, from 8:30 pm until 12:30 a.m. — I really want to do this next time!

You can buy your ticket the day before. If you’re planning on visiting for sunrise and don’t want to have to wait in line with everybody else to buy your ticket, you can grab one in advance the day before. 

There are three different entrances: The East Gate, the South Gate, and the West Gate. There are advantages and disadvantages to all three, but I eventually settled on the East Gate. Here’s a quick rundown: 

  • The East Gate is most popular with foreign tourists, as it tends to have shorter queues at every time except sunrise. It’s close to a lot of the hotels in the city, so is likely to be within walking distance of where you’re staying. If you’ve grabbed a ticket the day before, you’ll be able to skip the lines. 
  • The West Gate is most popular with Indian tourists, and has long, long lines throughout the day. At sunrise, though, it’s less crowded than the East Gate, so could be a good option for beating the hordes of people.
  • The South Gate is the least popular gate, as it’s next to a chaotic market that’s full of pushy touts, and tends to attract the backpackers, as it’s right next to a ton of hostels. Keep in mind that it doesn’t open until 8 a.m., so this isn’t one to go for if you want to get there for sunrise.

There’s a whole bunch of things you can’t bring in with you: Security is tight at the Taj Mahal, so check your bags the night before to make sure you won’t end up taking anything in that isn’t allowed. You can’t bring in drones, tripods, food and drinks, headphones, as well as electronic equipment and chargers (excluding phones and cameras). During the night viewings, you aren’t allowed to bring phones in with you. 

You’ll probably spend two hours in the complex: That’s how long I spent there and I had a solid half an hour where I just sat and stared up at the structure. 

Taj Mahal fog
When I talk about wanting to avoid the fog at sunrise in December, this is why! It can get pretty bad.

The best time of year to visit is over winter: For the majority of my India posts, you’re going to notice that I recommend visiting in winter, but for the Taj Mahal, I think early-or-late-winter would be the best time to visit. 

At this time of year, you’re going to avoid the dense fog that rolls in every morning, there won’t be as much smog and pollution in the air, and the temperatures will still be manageable. I’d aim for October or March. While I loved visiting in December, sunrise would have been a bit crap, as air visibility was low in the early mornings. 

I’d also recommend avoiding visiting over the weekends and during public holidays, as it’s a lot busier then. 

Where to stay in Agra: I stayed in a private room in a lovely homestay in Agra for $23 a night. It was within walking distance to the Taj Mahal and the staff had so much helpful advice for making the most of our short stay in the city. The staff also helped us arrange a driver from Agra to Jaipur via Fatehpur Sikri and Abhaneri to ensure we wouldn’t get ripped off.

How to Get to Agra: Most people are going to be hitting up the Taj Mahal while they’re traversing the Golden Triangle, so will typically be coming from either Delhi or Jaipur. 

Taking the train from New Delhi to Agra is incredibly easy if you book in advance with 12Go Asia. Tickets for trains are released four months in advance, and it’s a simple process to buy them online. I took the Gatimaan Express — the fastest train in India — that left from Hazrat Nizamuddin station in New Delhi at 8:10 a.m. and arrived at Agra Cantt by 09:55 a.m. Tickets for A/C chair car carriages were just under $16 each and included a breakfast and bottle of water. 

Alternatively, the best train from Jaipur to Agra is the speedy Shatabdi Express, which leaves Jaipur at 7:05 a.m. and arrives in Agra at 10:35 a.m. 

 

Now I want to hear from you guys! If you haven’t visited the Taj Mahal, is it on your list? And if you have been before, how did your experience compare to mine?

 

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24 Comments

  1. Alison
    April 13, 2020
    Reply

    Sounds amazing! I haven’t been yet but I would love to go one day. Your photos are beautiful!

    • Lauren
      April 15, 2020
      Reply

      Thank you so much, Alison! I hope you make it there one day, as it’s so worth seeing in person :-)

  2. Anne
    April 13, 2020
    Reply

    I haven’t been to the Taj Mahal but there’s no way I’d miss it whenever I eventually get to India (what on earth was Dave thinking?!) I didn’t know about the morning fog in winter but now I think this is when I’d quite like to see it. I love wandering round places in fog and seeing bits slowly appearing as the mist starts to lift.

    • Lauren
      April 15, 2020
      Reply

      It definitely would give you a more unique perspective of the Taj to see it in all of the fog. As long as it lifted after a while, that is!

  3. Michelle
    April 14, 2020
    Reply

    I’m so pleased Dave changed his mind. I pretty much drag my boyfriend everywhere, he’s happy to stay at home and not go away at all! The Taj Mahal, is just beautiful I can’t wait to see it in real life one day!

    • Lauren
      April 15, 2020
      Reply

      Yeah, Dave is a bit like that. He’s never super enthusiastic about any of the trips I convince him to come on, but then nearly always claims they’re some of the best experiences he’s had by the end of it! I couldn’t get my head around him even considering that the Taj Mahal would be something to skip out on!

  4. Ashley
    April 14, 2020
    Reply

    This is just unreal! I’m glad you decided to go. I appreciate the information about the gates and the trains. Is that smog (pollution) or fog?

    • Lauren
      April 15, 2020
      Reply

      A mix of both. There’s obviously pollution, because India, caused by nearby farmers burning off their crops, the huge number of vehicles in cities, the dust emanating from construction sites, locals building fires to keep warm… But also, because the Golden Triangle resides in a land-locked valley, fog tends to settle over the cities during cooler months and can result in a dense haze, especially in Agra.

  5. Katie
    April 15, 2020
    Reply

    We arrived in Agra on a Saturday afternoon and had a guide booked for Sunday. But we decided to walk over to the Taj anyway and then decided to go in to see it at sunset. The next morning, we decided not to tell our guide we’d already been! In late January, we got some really cool fog rolling in as the sun rose, which made for some eerie photos. It felt way more crowded in the morning, though, and I think I enjoyed myself more when we went in the afternoon (but that also may have been because I found our guide crazy annoying and seeing your pics from Agra Fort, he totally shortchanged us on viewpoints there!).

    • Lauren
      April 15, 2020
      Reply

      Oh, that’s interesting about you finding it more crowded in the morning! Everybody always says it’s least crowded at sunrise and gets busier throughout the day, but I didn’t think it seemed all that choatic in the afternoon. We didn’t even have to queue to get in!

      Bummer about the Agra Fort viewpoints and annoying guide, though!

  6. Dennis Chamberlin
    April 16, 2020
    Reply

    Love the blog and your adventures inspire me to travel more and I have even gone to London alone. Your pictures are amazing. Please stay safe so you can continue to wow and inspire.

  7. Allie
    April 17, 2020
    Reply

    The Taj Mahal is definitely on my list. I haven’t been to India, but I’m hoping to make it there sometime in the next few years. I totally understand your point of view about how seeing it in person is so different from seeing it on a screen. I marvel about it all the time when I am traveling.

  8. Eleanor
    April 17, 2020
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing!

    I did the Taj for sunrise in summer and while lovely I do think your blue skies were amazing, I wish I had gone back later in the day. I will say it was not crowded for the first 20 min or so and I did get some pictures with only 2-4 other people in the background which was cool. One place I found in Agra that was interesting and a good stop to give back & for a chai for next time: https://www.sheroeshangout.com/

  9. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    April 19, 2020
    Reply

    You’ve almost convinced me!! I’ve never been too bothered about visiting India but I’ve enjoyed following your trip there, I’m so glad you loved it after all that time! And your photos here are incredible!

    • Lauren
      April 19, 2020
      Reply

      Ah, thank you! I’m totally obsessed with India now. I want to go back so badly!

  10. Atanas
    April 20, 2020
    Reply

    Great photos, Lauren! And you look like a movie star.

  11. Amit
    April 26, 2020
    Reply

    So happy to hear about the shoe covers, both for the protection of the building and because when I visited as a kid I had to take off my shoes, was walking around in my socks and stepped on some bird poop. Still a great experience visiting.

  12. Benny
    April 27, 2020
    Reply

    This looks absolutely incredible. And thank you for the guide at the end of the post — it’s useful to have all of that information. I hope to visit myself one day!

  13. Cha
    May 11, 2020
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing! I love the photos!

  14. Mylene
    May 13, 2020
    Reply

    This was such a helpful post, Lauren! I would love to see the Taj Mahal, so it’s good to hear that you enjoyed your time there and felt that it was worth the visit. I’ll be using this guide when I finally travel to India.

  15. Yelena
    May 22, 2020
    Reply

    All of these photos are stunning. The architecture of this historical tomb and the fort are simply divine. Amazed!

    • Lauren
      May 25, 2020
      Reply

      Thanks so much! It was easy to take good photos when the subject was so beautiful :-)

  16. Atul
    June 12, 2020
    Reply

    Taj Mahal is the most stunning monument of the world. Did you know it one of the most expensive projects of the 16th century? Your photos are beautiful.

  17. Rajat Kumar
    November 1, 2020
    Reply

    Hi Lauren

    I hope that the local visitors at Taj didn’t freak you out for photos with them though I can see one has got the chance.

    I have been to Taj thrice from Delhi (Nizamuddin railway station) and if I get to visit there more, I will surely.
    And wonderful that you dragged Dave along, else he would have missed such a beauty.

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