When people say they are going to be visiting Auschwitz from Krakow, it’s hard to know how to respond. You can’t really say “have fun” or “enjoy your trip”. In the end I tend to go with “have a great time in beautiful Krakow and I’m pleased you’ve chosen to experience Auschwitz”. Even that sounds a little awkward.
I’m not going to try to explain the history or the various facts and figures that you will learn when you visit these significant sites, there are guides and experts that will take you through all of this in truly horrifying detail. All I can tell you is that Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau are absolutely worth visiting, whatever your nationality and whether you have been directly affected by these events or not. It’s a deeply interesting place but at the same time, deeply disturbing.
Be prepared to be shocked and saddened – probably even for a few days after your visit. It might be worth organising your tour for the first full day after you arrive in Krakow. That way you can spend the rest of your time enjoying the castles and gardens of the rejuvenated Krakow itself, which might go some way to restoring your faith in humanity.
Planning a Trip to Auschwitz from Krakow
We stayed in a nice AirBnB in a tower block just to the north of the historic Krakow city centre. We chose to base ourselves here, as so many do, as it’s the closest city to Auschwitz. There are a few tour operators situated in Krakow itself that organised day-trips to Auschwitz but we decided to book online. There are a number of websites but two of the best include escape2poland and the Krakow shuttle. Make sure that you pick a tour that takes you to both the Auschwitz museum and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. We booked via Viator, and it cost roughly £30 each for a half-day trip, expect to pay anywhere from £50-80 for a full-day Auschwitz tour.
As we were staying outside the centre we had to walk roughly 20 minutes all the way to the Sheraton Grand Hotel (which seemed like a nice hotel but was a little out of our budget!) which is where our tour started. It’s nice to walk through the town centre in the morning while the shops are shut and the streets are quiet.
We were picked up in a mini-bus at around 8am and driven the 60/70km to Auschwitz which takes around an hour and ten minutes.
There were a number of large buses and smaller mini-vans all going to the same place – so be sure to check with the driver that your name is on the list.
What To Expect When Visiting Auschwitz – Our Experience
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Museum)
When visiting Auschwitz from Krakow the first stop will typically be the Auschwitz museum. You will disembark and be able to grab a coffee and visit the toilets (for a small fee). It gets very busy here and it’s really easy to lose your tour group if you’re not careful. I think all tours start in the car park at around 9/10am and then you work your way around the side of the building. They’re slightly staggered so you don’t feel too closed-in but your tour group will consist of around 30 visitors.
You will be given headphones, a radio transmitter and an English-speaking guide (though I guess other languages are available for other tours). Your tour will start from the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” entrance gates and from there into the main camp. You’ll see the old Army barracks that were converted into prisons and sleeping quarters for the thousands of detainees.
You’ll work your way through building after building, each serving a different horrific purpose. After your visit you might have time for a picnic lunch (weather permitting) before moving on to the next significant site.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp is iconic in the fact that you’ve probably seen the images of the endless procession of train carriages and striped-pyjamas in a number of films and documentaries. The mini-van will drop you off a short 10minute walk away from the main gates, and you essentially have free time to spend here and walk wherever you like.
There are a number of tour guides who you can pay separately to take you through the massive complex and it might be worth stopping to listen to a few talks given at various key sites such as the entrance gates, the splitting of the road and of course the furnace. Please remember that although the area is large and you are free to walk around as you wish, this site is in fact a memorial site and as such there are rules and regulations.
It’s possible to walk up the stairs to the top of the gate tower, where you will have a sweeping view over the whole complex. After this I suggest walking straight down the main road following the train tracks toward the carriages. Here you will want to listen to the stories of how one group of detainees were sent in one direction, and another set taken in another.
Toward the end of the train tracks lies a memorial and the remains of what used to be the infamous furnace. I would suggest walking all the way through to the top of the tracks and then making your way past the furnace and through the barracks areas. Take your time and read the notices which are truly informative.
In total you will probably spend between 1 and 2 hours here before making your way back to Krakow. There is a small book shop where you can buy any number of books on the holocaust and the Auschwitz camps in particular.
Things to do in Krakow
After you’ve visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau you will probably be feeling a little low, so it makes sense that you should now make the most of your time in Krakow, which is in fact a stunning city. There’s a fantastic main square with an indoor market which is definitely worth a visit. If you’re feeling plush you can take a carriage ride around the historic centre but above all you should take time out to visit the Wawel Royal Castle which is approximately 15 minutes walk from the centre of town.
Another way to spend a few hours would be to walk south towards Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory which is about 35 minutes walk from the town centre. On the way you can stop by the Jewish Synagogues that have stood in defiance of the atrocities committed during the 1940s and then across the river towards the old Krakow Ghetto. If you’ve ever watched “The Pianist” or “The Zookeeper’s Wife” you’ll understand what these ghetto’s would have been like (although granted, these examples were based in Warsaw).
Across the road from the Ghetto is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory which I would definitely recommend. Although be warned that it gets extremely busy and we had to wait over 45 minutes to purchase tickets so I would definitely recommend booking online. There’s also a small art gallery literally around the corner called the MOCAK which is worth a visit if you have the time, it also has a nice cafe where you can rest your feet for a while.
Where to eat in Krakow
If you’re looking for some tasty authentic Polish food then I would recommend Chata (a 10-minute walk North of town) – Sarah and I ordered too much food here and more than enough cherry vodka! We had some sort of goulash, but if you’re feeling hungry they do some enormous platters.
All-in-all, it’s possible to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau from Krakow as well as enjoy a good few days in Krakow itself. Perfect for a cultural, if somewhat depressing weekend away from the UK. Our Auschwitz tour was advertised as a half-day but we spent a good 2 hours in each camp and we felt this was enough time to walk around with the guided tour and also spend a fair amount of time walking around ourselves. If you’re looking to spend more time in both places however it would be worth considering a full-day tour or even a private tour.