Part of the Golden Triangle along with New Delhi and Jaipur, Agra might be one of the most famous places to visit in India. Birds chirp in the sky and the hazy, sticky heat of the city dusts its lush, green landscape, making the atmosphere feel more like a fairytale than a city of 1.5 million.
Each year, millions of tourists from all over the world pile into this historic city to visit the Taj Mahal, the 17th century building Mughal rule Shah Jahan constructed in honor of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. While the majestic domes of this sparkling white building warrant a visit, the Mughal Empire also scattered other powerful historical markers throughout the city, which shouldn’t be missed.
For students spending some or all of their gap year in Agra, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the culture of this ancient city, while volunteering in a meaningful endeavor that truly makes an impact on the city.
Fun Activities to Do in Agra
If you’re going to spend a gap year in Agra, the first thing you should do is be a tourist. Besides the Taj Mahal, no stay would be complete without also exploring the intricately carved Agra Fort, where a son once imprisoned his father. Mehtab Bagh, The Moon Garden, isn’t a frequently visited site for its beautiful flora, but rather for its sunning views of the Taj Mahal. Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, and Itimad-ud-Daulah, the ‘baby Taj,’ are also worth a visit, as is Akbar’s Mausoleum, a marble tomb.
Stroll through the hectic stalls of Kinari Bazaar and pick up souvenirs like scarves, shoes, jewelry and sample delicious treats. The hanging fabrics and goods obstruct the customer’s view like fog on a mountain road.
Like the rest of India, Agra is rich in culture and tradition. There are festivals throughout the year celebrating the arts and culture of the region, such as the Bateshwar Fair, celebrating Lord Shiva, Ram Barat, honoring the marriage procession of Lord Ram, and Taj Mahotsav, showcasing the best arts and crafts. There even more contemporary festivals such as the Taj Literature Festival.
And, of course, one of the best pasttimes of this area is the delicious cuisine. A must-try are the spicy Indian omlettes, chaat, a savory snack sold from street vendors, samosas, dumplings with savory fillings, and kachori, a bite-sized spicy snack with filling.
Work/Intern Opportunities to Do During Your Gap Year
With so many foundations and nonprofits in India, there are many unpaid opportunities to gain experience in this sector. NGOs rely on dedicated interns to fundraise, recruit other volunteers and oversee general program management. Interning with one of them in Agra is a perfect way to gain real-world experience in the humanitarian sector.
Besides NGOs, the hospitality sector also has opportunity for paid work in a city with such emphasis on tourism. Hostels often employ ‘backpackers,’ or budget travelers. These employees often work at the hostel at the front desk or in cleaning in exchange for free housing. Once in Agra, stop by hostels to inquire about such setups.
Teaching English, especially without experience or a TEFL degree is often done as a volunteer, but with enough networking there may be an opportunity to work as an English teacher.
Volunteer Opportunities in Agra During Your Gap Year
There are fewer volunteer programs in Agra than in nearby New Delhi, but because of the negative impacts of the high volume of tourism, there are many worthy causes to dedicate your time to on a gap year in India. Some program range from a few weeks to a few months, depending on your preference. You could work animal welfare or engage in humanitarian efforts. Some volunteer programs also include a cultural and language education component.
In Agra, you have the unique opportunity to volunteer to rehabilitate rescued elephants. Often without realizing it, tourists who ride elephants are engaging in a form of animal torture. Elephants used for tourism purposes are often beaten into submission and kept from their natural habitats.
Native English speakers can utilize their skills by teaching English to children or disadvantaged adults, which is a great way to make a positive impact on the local community and help locals get higher-paying jobs in tourism.
Tips on Living & Traveling in Agra During Your Gap Year
For the people of Agra, it's very important to preserve their Mughal history. As one local says, “Agra is filled with stories. Every wall, every inscription, every family has a story behind it… There are various other beautiful stories that make every Indian very proud.” Visit the sites, study their cultural and historical significance, and treat them with respect. Listen to the lore and legacy of their history, and show locals you care.
When it comes to transiting this city, tongas (electric buses) and tuk-tuks are cheap and easy ways to get around, but for longer distances (especially when visiting various historical sites) take an official government-sponsored, prepaid taxi to avoid scams.
The key to sticking to a budget in Agra is to bargain everything, as best as you can. Because Agra is such a popular tourist destination, foreigners can be seen as easy targets for overpricing and cheating.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Agra is significantly cheaper than its more populated neighbors, and for Westerners it will feel very cheap. The average cost of renting an apartment in the city is around US$100 per month and a dish at a sit down restaurant averages between $3-5. Groceries are general cheap, with eggs being around $1 a dozen, fruits and vegetables $0.50-$2.00 per pound, and daily bread less than $0.50. Toiletries, including shampoo and toothpaste, will only run you a few dollars.
Housing in Agra
Finding housing will be easier once already in Agra, but a hostel or Airbnb are great options for when you first arrive in the city. From there, it’s a great idea to see which areas of the city you’d prefer to live in, and get recommendations from locals and other expats via word of mouth.
Tourist visas to India are valid for up to six months, and there must be a two-month gap between tourist visas. One important tip is to request a multiple entry visa upon application, which will allow you come and go from India during your gap year on the same visa. You can apply for your visa online or in person upon arrival.
Carry your belonging in a backpack for an easier time traveling through the country (make sure to buy a lock!) and don’t leave home without a well-prepared first aid kit, including your most trusted over-the-counter medications, band aids, anti-allergy tablets and anti-diarrhea medication. Women should also pack enough feminine products to sustain them in the case tampons and pads are a challenge to find throughout INdia.
Agra is hot, sticky, and if you’re there during monsoon season (June to September), wet. Make sure to pack closed toed shoes for treading around the chaotic city, and lot of loose clothing made from light fabrics. Women are encouraged to dress conservatively and wear traditional Indian garb, such as salwaar kameez, to blend in and respect local culture. Scarves are perfect for covering shoulders and head when visiting a mosque, and waterproof clothing and jackets are highly recommended.
It’s recommended travelers to India get typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and influenza vaccines before visiting the country. Always be sure to carry insect repellent to avoid getting a mosquito-borne illness.
Luckily, Agra is known for having world-class medical centers and hospitals, so it’s a great place to get sick in if you do. There are a number of government-run and private hospitals throughout the city.
Potable water is an issue in Agra, and heat and dust sometimes make transiting unbearable. Make sure to drink plenty of bottled water and stay out of the sun when possible. Street food is one of the best parts of traveling in India, but you should be careful to avoid stalls that look especially unclean or if the food has been sitting out for several hours.
India is a country of warm people and fascinating rituals and traditions, but it is also a hotspot for scams against foreigners. Even though it feels unnatural, be sure to bargain your fee down significantly, and walk away if the merchant isn’t compromising. Beware of fake currency when exchanging money.
Pickpocketing and petty robbery are common. Be especially careful on night buses and in small villages after dark. If beggars tug on you or your clothing, the best thing to do is to silently walk away. It’s not recommended you give beggars money, as this will warrant unwanted attention from many others.
In any country there are people who take advantage, and India is no exception. Women travelers to India have reported harassment and instances of sexual assault. A good rule of thumb is to never travel unaccompanied, and if you do travel alone, be sure to hire a trusted guide or driver to reduce risk. Women should avoid traveling or walking in the streets at night and take extreme caution hailing cabs and sitting in isolated areas alone.