I visited Auschwitz in March of 2019 and was surprised to see just how many people had made the trip. Later I did a little research and found that over two million tourists visited in 2018, a record for the memorial and museum. I was fortunate to find out early on that visiting Auschwitz takes a bit of planning if you’re doing it without a travel service and don’t want to stress out about the details at the last minute.
In the end, I’m glad I traveled on my own and did the necessary research in advance. I’m hardly the first (nor will I be the last) to travel solo from Krakow to Auschwitz. To spare you some of the headaches, I’ve detailed how to plan your own visit to Auschwitz.
But first, a bit of history.
There are countless books that cover the history of Auschwitz in far more detail and with far greater insight than I’ll be able to devote to this page. After visiting myself, I realized that the best preparation was a reading of Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize-winning Night about his experience of being taken prisoner from his hometown of Sighetu Marmației, Romania to Auschwitz and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The latter doesn’t take place in Auschwitz, but after reading Night, it was like seeing Wiesel’s work in action.
The main thing to keep in mind about the history of Auschwitz is that it, in contemporary terms, is the site of the deadliest Nazi death camp in the world. Approximately 1,100,000 victims were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau between May of 1940 up to its liberation by Soviet troops in January, 1945. Estimates say one million of those victims were Jewish, 900,000 of which were killed in the gas chambers immediately following transport.
Again, I strongly encourage you to dive deeper into the history before visiting Auschwitz. But this basic summary should get you started.
Visiting Auschwitz is free. Anyone can show up, wait in line, go through the metal detectors, and walk around like you would a museum. But if you want a tour, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum offers them in a variety of languages. You can choose either a 3.5-hour or 6-hour tour, both of which start at Auschwitz I before taking a shuttle bus over to Birkenau. Prices vary, but they generally run for a quite affordable 60 to 100 Polish zloty for the 3.5-hour and 6-hour tour respectively. That’s roughly €14 to €24 or $16 to $26.
If you know you want a guided tour, you’ll need to book well in advance. Tours frequently sell out and you’ll want to keep public transportation options in mind when purchasing your tickets. Purchase tickets at the memorial’s official website here.
I did the 3.5-hour tour, so I can only speak about that. First, you walk through the museum entrance, go past a metal detector, and you keep walking back until you reach a turnstile. They’ll point you toward the direction of an employee who will look at your ticket and give you headphones and a receiver so you can hear the tour guide at all times. You’ll also get a sticker with your language printed on it to stick on your jacket or shirt.
If you’re early (which you should be), you’ll grab a seat in a small waiting area and will be clearly notified when your tour is up. After going through the turnstile, you’ll stand outside for a moment as the tour guide gives the basic ground rules and sets up the audio receiver. (Quick note on the ground rules, don’t treat Auschwitz like your personal backdrop for Instagram, which is apparently a thing people are doing.)
From there, you’ll start your tour by heading to the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gates and work your way through various prisoner blocks converted into exhibitions. I don’t want to detail the entire experience here, so I’ll leave it at that.
About halfway through, you’ll head back into the museum where you started, dropping off your headphones. You’ll have about a 15-minute break to use the restroom, grab a snack, or coffee. (Note, you have to pay a small fee in zloty to use the restroom, but there is an ATM on site if needed.) Before going on the break, your tour guide will point out where the shuttle buses pick up to take you to Birkenau where you’ll spend the rest of the tour.
The most convenient location to pick up the train to Auschwitz is from Krakow. Auschwitz in Polish (and the name of the station) is Oświęcim and the main station in Krakow is Krakow Glowny. There are just two IC (intercity) trains running from Krakow to Auschwitz. One departs at 10:25, arriving at 11:52, and the other departs at 10:34 pm, arriving at 11:55 pm. Those are run by Polish Railways and you can purchase tickets at Intercity.pl.
Thankfully, there are regional trains not run by Polish Railways that run much more frequently and conveniently. The IC trains are a smidge faster, but it’s ultimately negligible. Nonstop departure times are approximately 10:32, 11:30, 1:32 pm, 3:32 pm, 3:56 pm, 5:30 pm, and 7:30 pm. Obviously, schedules can change depending on your day of travel, so find the time that works for you at Polregio.pl, where you can also purchase your tickets.
I traveled with Polregio for a very affordable 9 zloty one way. That’s just over $2 or €2.