Real locals — Indians who live in Agra and whose tourism business ensures they see the building a couple of times a week — pay no special attention to the Taj Mahal, so (despite the title of this article) you don’t really want to see it like a local. You want to see it with all the awe and excitement it deserves, but with a few tricks up your sleeve.
Paying the price
All Indian tourism sites quote two prices, one for tourists and one for locals. This may seem unfair in most cases, but it is nowhere as disproportionate as in the Taj, where a videshi pays 750 rupees for an Indian’s 20. If you feel that a foreigners’ ticket is too expensive you can always try to get the local price: have an Indian buy your ticket or make yourself look as Indian as possible (since India is multi-cultural this works for most nationalities, except for blonds), speak only in Hindi or in a heavily accented English claiming to be from Kashmir.
However, this isn’t advised: you’ll almost certainly get caught and will have wasted a lot of time in the longer Indian lines. It’s better to just grumble and pay for a videshi ticket — after all, it is less than what you pay for almost any museum in Europe, and the money goes towards maintaining the monument. If you must save the US$15, plan your trip around the couple of days when you can get in for free: on Eid from 6am to around 11am (Eid refers to two separate Muslim holidays, Eid-ul-juha and Eid-ul-fitr, taking place around August and November respectively. The Taj is free to enter in the morning of both Eids) and during World Heritage Week, where all world heritage sites offer a free entrance. It should be noted that all three dates change year to year, so check ahead of time to see if your visit falls near these celebrations.
Knowing when to visit
Taj Mahal is closed every Friday for Muslim prayers, so don’t be the person who takes a day-trip to Agra only to find the Taj is closed. That said, the month you choose to visit is equally important. From the last weeks of November to the first half of February, Agra goes through winter, which means low temperatures and thick fog. This thick mist settles during the night and slowly decreases during the day. This means if you plan a morning visit to the greatly anticipated monument, you might find its outline is hazy at best.
If your heart is set on seeing the Taj Mahal in the moonlight (for which tickets have to be reserved in advance and only a limited amount of people can go inside at certain intervals), aim for October, when the sky is darker but the fog has not started, making for the best moonlight views.
The Taj Mahal will be one of the most beautiful buildings you ever see. Many people visit India just to see it, and for good reason. You will probably want to take some good pictures, so make sure your camera is charged and you have enough memory space.
The visit consists of entering the grounds and then going through the main gate, after which are the gardens with the monument at the far side on the bank of Yamuna River. There is a small site museum, but really there’s not much else to it. However, you will want to give yourself enough time to see the building. Allot a couple of hours for seeing the monument from as many angles as possible, taking a lot of artistic pictures and some cheesy pictures “holding” the Taj. But don’t miss the Taj for the sake of photography — make sure you actually look at it, as well as capturing the view for posterity. Walk along the gardens, try to hear the birds, imagine what it would have been like to mourn for your beloved wife in such a place. Admire all the symmetric structures, look at the Taj in different lights. There is not much else to see in Agra, so don’t pack a tight schedule which forces you to leave too soon.
Removing your shoes
As the Taj Mahal is a tomb, you must remove your shoes to enter the building itself. With the purchase of your non-Indian ticket you get complimentary shoe bags, meant to be put over your shoes so you can walk along the platform without having to remove your footwear and leave them behind.
If (like me) you consider these shoe bags wasteful, you can walk barefoot and carry your shoes, or pick up a pair of shoe bags left behind by a previous tourist. Another alternative is to bring a pair of the white slippers provided by many hotels.
Dating your ticket
Tickets do not have to be used immediately or specifically on the day of purchase, and holding a Taj Mahal ticket gives you a discount on the entrance fees for all Agra monuments. Depending on your time and level of interest you could see Sikandra, the tomb of the most important Moghul ruler, Akhbar; Agra Fort; Itimad-ud-daula, another tomb which is frequently called “Baby Taj”; or Fatehpur Sikri, Akhbar’s abandoned fortress and palace.
Once you enter the Taj Mahal complex this ticket will be stamped with the date and you will have to either forgo the discount or rush to other monuments to use it, but until you enter the premises the date is left blank. You could use this to your advantage and go sight-seeing before it is stamped.
A lot of people go to see Taj Mahal first thing in the morning, probably to make sure they beat the crowd and the heat and can take some stunning sunrise pictures so that they can get on with their days as soon as possible. Many spend the night, go see the Taj and immediately move on to Jaipur. Others take the express train, leave their bags in a locker and proceed to sight-see before hitting Agra Fort, Sikandra, or Itimad-ud-daula.
The best plan, however, is a little different. Go to the counter as soon as you can, get your ticket, and ask for the closing time, which you’ll want to keep in mind. Then leave. Head to Sikandra, which is the farthest away, and make your way back via Itimad-ud-daula and then the fort. There is not much else to do in Agra besides eating overpriced food and shopping for marble, so don’t go out of your way to allot time for the city.
After your intensive sight-seeing make your way to the South Gate, where you’ll find a number of rooftop restaurants where you can get a cheap meal and enjoy a nice view. Get to the Taj Mahal entrance no later than an hour before closing time, which will give you two hours inside: you are permitted to stay for an hour after the last admittance. The Taj tends to be less crowded in the evening, and the decreasing temperature together with the shade in the gardens will give you some respite from the heat. Most importantly, you will get stunning views of the sunset and can watch the building in all its majesty as the light changes. Plus, if you’re in Agra during the winter, this itinerary allows you to skip the fog as much as possible.