Tips for Visiting Auschwitz

When people travel, they don’t often consider visiting the dark places in a country or city. Poland has a great share of historical sites, and Auschwitz is definitely one of the must-visit sites in this eastern European country. Yes, the former concentration camp is an intense visit, but it tells a story that needs to be experience firsthand.

Located about an hour and a half outside of Krakow in the small city of Oświęcim, there are two parts to the largest and deadliest Nazi concentration camp: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, also referred to as Auschwitz-Birkenau or just Birkenau. The second site, which was even deadlier than the original camp, is located about 2 km away. There is a free bus that goes between the two camps.

Personally, after touring the primary site, I didn’t have the heart to go to Birkenau as well.


Getting to Auschwitz

There are many options for traveling to the infamous site, including:

  • Get an organized tour through one of the many agencies in Krakow.
  • Take the public bus or mini bus from Krakow Glowny (the main bus station) which will drop you off inside the parking lot of Auschwitz I.
  • Take the train and walk, take the local bus, or take a taxi. When we visited, the train was actually cheaper than the bus.

If you wish to walk, it takes about 20-25 minutes. As you come out of the train station, go to the sidewalk along the street and turn right. When you get to the roundabout, turn left. Follow that straight down. You really can’t miss it. It will be on your left.

If you take the train and want to go by local bus, the stop is at the train station. There are a number of routes that will take you by the camp. They are listed on a flyer inside the shelter area.

Auschwitz crematorium

To tour or not to tour

I’m not a real fan of tour groups; however, I’m even less of one at this site. If you visit between the months of April and October, you will be forced into a guided group if you arrive after 10 AM or before 3 PM. We visited during the low season, and the presence of the various tour groups was quite annoying, so I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in the groups during peak season.

Granted, you will learn more about the site with a guide, but they seemed to be rushed, and the groups were quite large. Without a guide, there are still plenty of signs and markers, so you can certainly experience a lot while doing it on your own.

If you plan on doing a group tour, check the museum’s website for the schedule. This is especially important during low season as English-speaking tours are offered at fewer frequencies.

Auschwitz blocks

During the visit

If you are doing a self-guided tour, there is no admission fee. English-speaking tours typically cost 40 PLN ($13 USD) per person. The website states visitors should plan on 1-1/2 hours to visit both camps. I would beg to differ. We did a self-guided tour, and we easily spent 2 hours at Auschwitz I alone. If you’re doing a guided tour, you won’t have a choice, but if you’re going on your own, allow a minimum of 3 hours if you want to do both sites. I would be surprised if even the guided tour is that short.

Guided tours are not necessary at Birkenau.

In addition to the buildings, many of the cell block buildings have a special exhibit inside them that occupy more than 1 floor of the structure. They are haunting, intense, and powerful. We limited the number of exhibits we visited simply because it was too emotionally draining.

When taking photos and walking around, remember that many people consider this whole site to essentially be a massive graveyard. Some people who are visiting lost family members who had been imprisoned here. The whole site and its visitors should be treated with respect.

There are some bathrooms (marked as WC) throughout the site. Be prepared to have to pay anywhere from 2 to 2.5 PLN to use them. There are also a few places serving food and drinks at the museum entrance and in the bookstore.

Auschwitz death wall

After the visit

There aren’t a lot of occasions where I would include tips on things to do after visiting a place. However, Tigger and I were greatly affected by our visit. I would say to not plan on doing much afterward, or make sure to plan something that will be a lot of fun and serve as a distraction. This is the kind of place that is really hard to get out of your head.

Why visit Auschwitz? It sounds so awful!

“Lest we forget” is an oft-repeated phrase when it comes to the Holocaust and its atrocities. It is one thing to read about the events in books, see photos, and watch documentaries, and it is quite another to stand in this place and bear witness. As hard and as intense as it was to visit, I’m glad we went. It gave me a perspective I didn’t have before, and it impacted my son much more strongly than if we had simply discussed it.

We need to witness these sites first hand to make sure these events are never allowed to happen again. Genocide and ethnocide are tragedies that are still happening in the modern day. The experiences we have by immersing ourselves in these memorials help solidify our resolve and awareness.

Frankly, I can’t imagine coming to Poland and not visiting this site. It’s just too important.

Visiting with children

Obviously, only you know your children and their maturity level. If you stay away from the exhibits and the film, it’s an appropriate site for any age. The exhibits are quite graphic at times.

I’m not sure I would take a child under 9 through the exhibits, but again that would depend on the individual child.

If you have a chance to visit Auschwitz, I hope you will go and bear witness.

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  1. Thank you for your advice. Just booked flights to Kracow to take miss 11 and was getting heaps of stick for it. She’s quite mature and knows the facts so hoping this will be an enlightening, engaging and impactful learning experience for her.

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    • I think that’s a good age to go, and I’m glad you’re taking her. It’s important we remember these horrible places and times in history.

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  2. I went to both Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was the most intense experience of my life, but I absolutely believe people should go to both camps if possible. If you experienced the heaviness that hits you when you walk through the “Arbeit Macht Frei”, imagine it to be about a hundred fold in Birkenau. I can understand not wanting to take your son there! But if you have the opportunity to go again, I recommend visiting Birkenau. It’s so important.

    I did a guided tour, as well, and I think it was worth it. The tour guides are clearly emotionally invested in their work, and their narration was moving in and of itself. They do allow you to roam around the premises after the tour if you want to visit Birkenau later.

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    • I wanted to go to Birkenau, but after all the time we spent in Auschwitz, neither of us could handle it. Definitely something I don’t think either of us will ever forget.

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  3. Hi Talon,
    I recently went to Poland as well in January, visiting many of the Holocaust sites throughout the country from Warsaw to Krakow to little shtetls in the countryside. I appreciate that you and Tigger visited this site, because I agree that it is wildly important for us to look upon the past and bear witness, and remember these tragedies.

    I was with a group on my trip – not my usual choice of travel, but I felt that being surrounded by fellow Jews gave me a sense of comfort and perspective I couldn’t have had from solo travel there. We went on a group tour, and I have to say it was extremely beneficial in my experience. I learned many more details than what was written in the exhibits, and we also lucked out in that we had a wonderful tour guide. She gave us a lot of insight on not only life in the camps, but life as a Pole both during WWII and the mentality that came afterwards. She was extremely sensitive to our emotions, and gave us as much time as we desired at each exhibit. So I just wanted to point out that the groups can be great there as well, and even though I can be quite a picky tour taker, I really enjoyed/appreciated this tour.

    Also, though mentally really difficult, Auschwitz-Birkenau is quite a different experience from Auschwitz I. It is enormous, and the buildings give a much better sense of what life in most concentration camps was like. It’s also not similarly set up as a museum – there are very few signs and written facts, instead replaced by memorials, photos, and rocks of mourning.There are basic shacks for all the bunks, for the toilet “facilities”, for the gas chambers, and the vast emptiness is daunting. It also still has the infamous train tracks leading inside, which I think stirred up a lot within the people who witnessed them. It made Auschwitz I seem much more pleasant, since it was an army barrack before the war. I personally think Birkenau felt creepier, sadder, and it was harder to stomach, but in that, I also felt more connected to the people’s stories than I did in Auschwitz I. Both sites are valuable, but I think Birkenau has a very different effect on people. If you ever go back, I highly recommend seeing it.

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    • Your comments about Birkenau are exactly why we didn’t go. After I saw how deeply I was affected by Auschwitz, which is far more mellow, there was no way I was going to Birkenau. I’m still glad I made that choice, too, because it took me several days to get past the emotions from Auschwitz I.

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  4. Talon
    When I went, I got a private driver, which made getting through the droves of people a breeze. He picked us up at the hotel in a private car, got us tickets and snaked us through all the lines with no problem. When we arrived there was a load of kids getting off of their bus and we were able to get way ahead of them and while touring, saw very few other tourists. I completely recommend this as an option.

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    • An individual can do the same things if they’re willing to speak up. If you aren’t doing a guided tour, there aren’t any tickets to purchase either. But for people with that kind of budget and who are interested in that, it is certainly an option.

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  5. My son is 7 and I’m not ready to make this kind of visit with him. Not that I’m afraid of what he will see or learn, but I don’t want his presence to affect my experience. I think I’d want to be alone, although I’d want the crowds there. That might sound strange, but I’m not sure I could properly reflect on the tragedy if having to discuss it with loved ones. But it seems like it would be too haunted to be there with a small amount of people. I think it makes perfect sense that I’m struggling to put into words my thoughts about visiting this grave place.

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    • You might be surprised. Sometimes I find having to discuss things with my son and the questions he asks help me explore something more deeply or to consider it in a different light.

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    • While I don’t know your son, I tend to agree with your decision to wait until later, and maybe after your own experience. At 7, he would be able to experience it, but he’ll be able to remember it much better if he goes when he’s older. And remembering is so, so important.

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      • Well, he was 12 when we saw it. We just couldn’t handle the idea of seeing Birkenau after Auschwitz.

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  6. I had a really hard time at Auschwitz. The crowds were horrendous, with people snaking through the exhibits in single-file (I went in August) so there wasn’t enough time to absorb anything before you were being moved on. I also felt really numb… I was expecting to feel emotional, sad, upset, but I just didn’t. It was difficult to connect the place overridden with tourists with the site that had been the location of tragedy not too long ago. I’m glad I went, though, and I think it’s important for people to visit to remind us of what happened and to ensure it never happens again. I wish I had had more time there, but it’s a place where one visit is definitely enough.

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    • I am VERY glad we went during low season. Even the small groups that were there were quite annoying. Especially when they would stop at the entrance to a building for a chat and there are 15 of them in your way. Then some of those areas you mentioned that are single file. Even more frustrating was some of their attitudes. How you walk around laughing in a place like this I just don’t understand.

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  7. Auschwitz was an experience that I will never forget. I think its fantastic you brought your son too. So many people shelter the kids, and the life lesson from this place will make him a stronger person for life.

    Ironic that its so close to Krakow, one of the most beautiful and tranquil cities in the world.

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    • It was surreal seeing how peaceful the environment is, too. The trees and grass and the countryside all make it so beautiful. It could’ve been an idyllic place instead of the horrors they transformed it into.

      It took some preparation, but I felt it was really important for him to see it for himself. You just can’t get that experience from books and movies.

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