The visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp is undoubtedly one of the most interesting visits you will make during your trip. You will learn a part of history from a totally new point of view: what life was like in the labor camps where thousands of Jews lost their lives.
The tour may not be entirely pleasant, but when you get there you will realize that everything is preserved with extreme respect for the victims. If you want nothing to tarnish your tour, here are some tips to follow:
1. Book a guided tour to get the most out of the visit and delve deeper into the history
Unfortunately, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a desolate place, with a lot of historical context and too many stories behind it. Its first camp, Auschwitz I, is very well preserved and there are barracks transformed into very explanatory and well contextualized museum-exhibition rooms, but Auschwitz II is practically a wasteland.
To understand well what you are seeing, to understand how life was in the daily life of the victims who had to pass through here and above all, to delve into a chapter of history that, today, still seems like science fiction, it is essential to be accompanied by an expert guide.
Throughout the tour he will help you to situate yourself, explaining what each area of the place consists of and what daily life was like in these labor-extermination camps. In my opinion, it is 100% worth joining one of the excursions to Auschwitz from Krakow to get the most out of the visit.
2. Wear comfortable shoes and wrap up warm in winter
As always when traveling, it is best to check the weather forecast beforehand, but in Auschwitz this makes special sense. During most of the tour you will be outdoors, with no roofs to protect you if it rains and of course, exposed to low temperatures in winter (the camp may even be snowed in).
If you add to this the fact that the second part of the visit takes place in the second field, which is practically a wasteland, wearing comfortable shoes is essential, as well as keeping warm if the forecast calls for low temperatures. The feeling of cold there in the middle is quite acute.
If you have to eat before or after the visit, take your food with you or wait until you arrive in Krakow
The most normal thing is that during the hours of the visit your stomach closes up. Personally, I do not recommend eating near the camp, but to wait until the return to the city to eat quietly after having processed all the information of the visit.
If you still want to be prepared in case you get the bug, you can always carry some snacks in your backpack to eat on the way there or back. At the entrance to Auschwitz there is a kiosk for visitors where you can get some sandwiches, snacks or refreshments, but I do not recommend it too much.
Near the museum, in the village of Oświęcim, there is a restaurant where you can try your luck if you have decided to make the excursion on your own (don't risk taking the last bus back so as not to miss it).
4. Be respectful with your photographs
You will perceive it as soon as you enter, but in Auschwitz there is respect, regret and a very tense atmosphere. It is not the best place to take artistic photos posing, think that much of what you are going to see there are places where many people were tortured and lost their lives and along the tour you will see their photographs, clothes, belongings...
You can take pictures in almost every place (especially the parts of the visit that take place outdoors) but my advice is that you always do it with respect.
5. Try not to go with very young or extremely sensitive children
Personally, I do not recommend doing this tour with very young children: of course this is part of human history and at some point they will face the reality and study it at school. But if they are still very young or are particularly sensitive, be aware that the tour goes quite deep into the details.
Along the tour you will pass by the gas chambers and they will explain how thousands of people arrived here crammed into train wagons to be exterminated. If it is incomprehensible and painful for adults, it may cause a child unnecessary discomfort that could tarnish his or her memory of the trip.
Even so, if you decide to take the tour, try not to dwell on the most lurid details or rooms, put your child in context before you go and explain what happened in the least dramatic way possible. If you go with a baby stroller, you will be able to access practically the entire field except for smaller rooms of reduced size, where the stroller will have to stay outside for space reasons.
6. Don't miss the documentary at the visitors' center
Even if at first you don't feel like watching a documentary because you prefer to go directly to explore the real places in the field, I assure you that it is worth it. It is very short (it lasts about 15 minutes) and will put you in context of everything you are going to see next.
It is a brief introduction but it contains real images of the camp and its prisoners, their way of life, a summary of the history of the formation of the camp... in short, highly recommended.
7. Don't go too heavy with unnecessary luggage
The visit is done on foot along the several hectares of Auschwitz I and II, so the less weight you carry, the better. At the entrance there are lockers where you can leave your belongings, but if you carry any bulky luggage, you run the risk that it will not fit and therefore, you will not be able to make your visit.
Leave all large luggage at the hotel and arrive here with just enough: a carry-on bag or a small backpack. If you need a place to leave your luggage because you have already checked out of your accommodation, check if you can leave it at the hotel reception or at a luggage deposit in the city center or at the Krakow train station.
8. If you go on your own, better use the bus
If you have ruled out the option of joining a guided tour and prefer to buy tickets to Auschwitz and visit on your own, you will have to prepare your trip from Krakow.
Although traveling by train is usually very comfortable, in this case the bus makes a more direct (and therefore shorter) journey. The first bus leaves at 6:20 a.m. and takes just over an hour, leaving you much closer to the concentration camp than the train itself (the train station is about two kilometers from the entrance to Auschwitz).
If you need to know more details to plan your arrival, I recommend my article on how to get to Auschwitz.
9. Don't forget your passport or ID
For security reasons, to enter the concentration camp you will need to be documented, so don't forget to bring a valid ID card or passport with your photo. Without this, I am afraid you will not be allowed to enter Auschwitz, remember that!
10. Plan your visit: you will need at least half a day
Although the concentration camp is not too far from Krakow and can be reached in little more than an hour, the visit inside the facilities can take two to three hours.
If you add to this the round trip and the waiting times for public transport, you will easily need half a day for the entire visit. Keep this in mind when planning the rest of your day in Krakow, figuring out where and when you can eat, what other visits you can do on the same day, etc.
You can take a look at my article on How long are the Auschwitz tours if you want to have more details to organize your day.