Some places, you wait a lifetime to see. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Sometimes, those places don’t quite live up to expectations.
The Taj Mahal exceeded every expectation I could have dreamed of.
Magnificent would be an understatement. Heartbreakingly beautiful doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Planning my visit, every single person I knew who had been to the Taj Mahal recommended visiting at sunrise.
A few recounted tale of trying to go mid-morning or afternoon and being horrified by the sheer size of crowds.
My friends were right.
Sunrise was absolutely worth it.
Make no mistake, there are still loads of people milling about. But, when I entered at 6:45 am compared to when I left around 8:30 am, was night and day when it came to volume of visitors.
Early in the morning, there were ~100 people waiting to get in alongside me.
But, when I left (still early morning), there were easily hundreds, if not already a thousand, people milling about.
For me, it wasn’t just about getting photos without people in them- although that was a nice perk.
Being at the Taj at sunrise meant I was able to find some parts of the mausoleum where there were few, if any, other people. This kind of solitude, combined with the rising sun, and a sky changing from grey to shades of misty pink and purple was pure magic.
And so, I have to recommend making the sunrise trek as well.
A trip to the Taj Mahal is often a once in a lifetime, bucket list venture for people. Why not make the visit as enjoyable as possible?
10 Facts About the Taj Mahal to Know Before Visiting
I didn’t hire a guide at the Taj Mahal, because I’d done loads of research beforehand, and felt pretty well informed about its background, and some cool construction facts.
That said, if you’re the type of person who prefers a guide, I’d recommend hiring one before you visit. There are guides at the gate, but you can never be certain of quality.
Instead, I’d recommend looking for guides in online forums or asking your hotel for recommendations.
Not hiring a guide?
Here are a couple of the tidbits I learned from my research that I found most interesting when visiting:
- The mausoleum is a monument to lost love, built by Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal
- In Arabic, the Taj Mahal is known as “crown of palaces”. It is said to be the jewel of Islamic art in a nation that is predominantly Hindu
- More than one million people visit the Taj each year
- The intricate detail of the marble and precious stones, the scale and symmetry of it is incredible
- The Taj Mahal took 17 years to complete, and was built by a whopping 22,000 labourers, painters, stonecutters, and embroidery artists. Materials that were used to build Taj Mahal were transported to the construction site by an estimated 1,000 elephants
- Legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan intended to build another Taj Mahal in black marble across the river but a war with his sons interrupted these plans
- The changing moods of the Emperors wife are well captured by the changing hues of the Mausoleum at different times of the day. It takes a pinkish hue in the morning, milky white in the evening, and golden at night when illuminated by moonlight
- Many of the precious stones on the mausoleum were ripped off from the walls of the mausoleum by the British army during the Indian rebellion of 185
- The cenotaphs inside of the mausoleum are replicas- the actual ones for the emperor and his wife are located below the main floor
- People think there are two mosques (red buildings) flanking the mausoleum, but in actuality, there’s only one. One is a mosque and the other is a guest pavilion. They are meant to be identical, for symmetry, but in reality are slightly different. As such, you’ll notice you only have to take off shoes at one- the actual mosque
8 Tips for Visiting the Taj Mahal at Sunrise
Buy tickets beforehand
You can buy tickets online beforehand or at the gate on the day you visit. I’d 100% recommend buying online ahead of time- the site is easy to use, and then you’re guaranteed entry for your visit time. When you purchase your ticket, you’ll have to choose a three hour slot for your visit.
Another bonus to buying online, you can skip a step in the morning, saving you time. If you don’t have an online ticket, you have to first visit the ticket office, which will have a queue, and then get in line at the entry gates.
Print out a copy of your ticket, and make sure you can pull it up on your phone as well. My printed copy wouldn’t work with their scanners, but the QR code in the email confirmation via mobile worked just fine.
And, note you’ll need to scan the code both to enter and exit, so don’t throw the ticket away or delete it off your phone until you leave.
Get in line before doors open
Opening time for the Taj varies, in accordance with sunrise times. Gates are supposed to open 30 minutes before sunrise.
When I visited, sunrise was slated for ~7:05 am, so opening was estimated to be between 6:30-6:45. I arrived at 6 am because I wanted to be near the front of the line, and didn’t mind waiting outside for a bit.
This turned out to be a good decision, because as we got closer to opening, the queue got longer and longer.
Being one of the first ~30 people inside the Taj meant I was able to grab some great shots without tons of people in them, and still had time to enjoy the views.
Go to the East gate for entry
This gate opens earliest, and allows you entrance sooner. Generally, West is known for being popular with Indians, and the South gate doesn’t open until later in the morning.
Bring very little with you
Security is tight- no cables, chargers, tripods, selfie sticks, etc. I brought some cash, my passport (which I didn’t need, but I’d heard was recommended to take), my phone and lenses and that’s it.
Hire a guide if you’re visiting solo and want great photos of yourself
No selfie sticks or tripods are allowed in the Taj Mahal, so hire a guide (there are ones who offer both tours and photography) if you want photos of yourself exploring.
Bypass the two key photo spots to head to the mausoleum
Even early morning, you’ll notice most people stop in a few key places in the garden leading up to the mausoleum for photos. This creates blocks in traffic, and a sense of chaos.
The first one is right as you enter the garden. Don’t bother here- you’re too far back, and if you keep it moving, you can get a much better landscape shot closer to the mausoleum.
The second and third shots are near Lady Di’s bench. I stopped here quickly because there were only a few people in the queue for photos.
This was a great decision because I got shots of the Taj in all its glory without any of the crowds.
Because, I didn’t spend a ton of time posing and getting different angles, I was able to move on quickly to the mosque, guest house and mausoleum.
Once at the mausoleum, I headed straight to the mosque for some more landscape shots.
Then, I sat in front of the mausoleum and just watched the pastel colored sky. There was hardly anyone in this area for 15-20 minutes, which made for a few beautiful moments of serenity with the rising sun.
Spend some time admiring the mosque and guest house
Overlooked in favour of the grandeur the Taj Mahal’s mausoleum offers, the red mosque and guest house flanking either side are gorgeous.
The details are exquisite, and the views of the Taj from the mosque archways are beautiful, to say the least.
Note, the Taj is closed on Fridays, as the mosque is still a functioning one and holds religious ceremonies.
And, you should avoid visiting the Taj on weekends at all costs. Even at sunrise, I’ve heard there are absolutely crazy crowds of foreign and Indian tourists.
What Else is There to See and Do in Agra?
I didn’t spend much time in Agra- only 2 days, so I didn’t explore much per se. But, from what I saw, it’s uber touristy, which you have to expect with the Taj.
You’ll have people offering you things all the time across India because you’re a Westerner, but in Agra, it was 10x.
I was so focused on seeing the Taj, that I stayed at Joey’s Hostel, which is a bit scuzzy but only a 3 minute walk from the East gate.
My private room was fine- questionably clean, but okay for one night. And, for its proximity to the Taj, I thought it was reasonably priced as well at $26 USD for one night.
Other perks to the hostel: A beautiful rooftop view of the Taj Mahal, decent wifi (great for working or Netflix), and a chai tea happy hour daily.
After visiting the Taj, call an Ola (cab hailing service) or Uber to Sheroes Cafe. Sheroes is run by acid attack survivors. The cafe is a non-profit, run off donates for food and drink. Order a chai, make a generous donation, and listen to the women’s heartbreaking stories. It’s a powerful place.
Nearby Sheroes, I really enjoyed the paneer tikka masala and naan at Chapter 1 Cafe.
A few other points of interest in Agra-
- Agra Fort: I skipped this because I needed to work and I was a bit ‘fort-ed out’ at this point, but I’ve heard it’s nothing short of beautiful. Built around 1565, Agra fort was constructed by the great Mughal ruler Akbar. It’s been occupied by many Indian rulers as well as the British before becoming a tourist attraction open to the public
Itimad-Ud-Daulah: Known as the Baby Taj, Being built entirely by marble makes the finely carved lattice even more impressive, another gorgeous tomb
Mehtab Bagh: This park across the river from the Taj Mahal was built to stop the sands blowing across and slowly eroding the marble. The views are incredible and it gives you a great panorama of the Taj in all its glory. They say it changes colors multiple times during the day, and if you time it right you can watch it glowing red in the setting sun. Do note, there’s an entrance fee of 200 rupees
Have you ever been to Agra or seen the Taj Mahal? What tips would you give to a first time visitor?
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