Krakow, Poland with a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau
It is amazing what you can convince yourself of when you really try. For example, when planning your dream trip while sitting on your comfortable couch, well rested after sleeping in the soft refuge of your very own bed, it is easy to persuade yourself that booking an overnight train from Prague to Oswiecim is a wonderful idea. Better still, why not add an overnight bus to Budapest 36 hours later, just to see what you are really made of!
In truth these are the experiences that create memories for life and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Besides, what better way to really test your marriage while travelling?
It was with heavy eyelids that we arrived in sleepy Oswiecim, Poland at 5:30am for a sombre day at Auschwitz, where any possible human suffering you can imagine simply pales into comparison to the un-imaginable trials of those who tread there before you.
Visiting Auschwitz is a harrowing, chilling experience. Different aspects of it will take you by surprise and what brings tears to your eyes may not be what you expect or even what most affects your travel companion. What is inescapable is the human element and the shear horror of what humans are capable of. We can’t say exactly how you will feel when you get there, for every person it is unique and we believe this is something you need to experience for yourself.
While words can’t begin to describe the solemnity and lasting impression that was left with us following our visit, we believe there are a few key steps you can take to make the most of what will be a day you will never forget.
Key tips for a day trip to Auschwitz.
- Forget what I said above and take an overnight train. If you are travelling from anywhere further than Krakow, then an overnight train is probably your best option. Rolling along, sleep deprived through countless mist covered fields to an unknown destination provided an eerie effect to frame our day and became, strangely, one of the most memorable parts of the whole experience.
- The train station is a bit of a walk from the main town square. We arrived 3 hours before the visitor centre was due to open. Your best option in this case is to head to the nearby McDonalds and wait it out. Note: When you walk out of the train station you turn right to head towards the visitor centre or left to head towards McD’s (approx 5 minute walk).
- If you need Polish money (which you will) there are ATM’s in the town square. Walk past McD’s and follow the signs for the town centre. In the main square we found no less than 9 banks! They must do some serious saving in Oswiecim. We came from Prague and had no local currency so it was lucky we found an ATM before heading on our tour.
- Pre book your tour. Bookings open 2-3 weeks prior to the date you expect to visit and a tour is well worth it to understand the deeper meaning of what when on. When you arrive you will see a very long queue – this is for people who do not have a booking, so if you have pre booked a time you will be able to skip this and join the shorter queue outside the main entrance (we recommend you line up approximately 30-45 mins before your ticketed time).
- The second part of the tour will take place in Birkenau and is entirely open air so if you are visiting in summer tray to book a early tour time so you are not having to do this section of the complex in the heat of the afternoon.
- Do not bring anything larger than a small handbag/clutch. Auschwitz is extremely strict as to baggage allowed on site and anything larger than a small handbag will be allowed through. This means no backpacks. They do have a really good baggage storage hut to the left of the main entrance which opens at 8.30am and will store any luggage or larger bags you have for the day.
- Take plenty of water. You are allowed to take this inside with you and you will need about 3-4 hours to see everything so it is important to have plenty of fluids with you. There are stores available on site for you to purchase water and snacks however these are outside the main entrance.
- You have to pay to use the toilets, so make sure you have some change with you.
- The bus back to Krakow is easy to catch (from the same bus stop as the one for the shuttle to Birkenau). It takes about an hour and you can buy your ticket on board.
- Brace yourself for the fact that some for some people visiting Auschwitz is simply another tourist activity that needs to be ticked off the list and therefore do not give it the respect that we believe it deserves. At times other tourists were rude and selfish during their visit, pushing in lines, talking loudly, yelling at each other. Of all aspects we found this the most upsetting so best to just be prepared and ignore them as much as you can.
Krakow: A day to recover
The closest City, and logical base for a visit to Auschwitz / Birkenau is the beautiful Krakow. We stayed here one night following our visit and wish we had stayed longer. The old town was buzzing with charm and character. Complete with leaning tours, a thriving market, an imposing hill-top castle and more churches than any sane person would consider reasonable.
Where to stay:
Apartamenty Parkside Krakow. Booked via EuroCheapo (which hasn’t failed us yet). Simply the best short term accommodation we have had outside of Airbnb’s, which are more suited to 3+ night stays in our experience. If not this perfect spot then we recommend somewhere near the old town so you can enjoy a walk around without having to translate the local bus timetable.
Note: The bus timetables where not available in Google Maps when we visited (August 2016) so we recommend finding the tourist office when you arrive to get a map and a timetable if possible.
Where to eat:
Vegab. A massive vegan kebab with sides and a smoothie for under NZD $10. Upon finding this gem we discovered that eating in Europe can in fact be delicious and cheap at the same time! At the time of writing this fast food outlet was ranked #1 of 1,112 restaurants in Krakow on TripAdvisor.
Note: There is also a monstrous mall near the main central train station where you can find any shop you need, it even has 2 starbucks. An ideal spot to kill a few hours while you wait for your train or overnight bus to arrive.
Warning: Whatever you decide to do next, don’t make it an overnight bus to Budapest with Polskibus (but do go to Budapest, that place is friggin amazing). The bus was scheduled for 11pm but 11pm came and went with no sign of it. Most disconcerting was that it didn’t appear on any departure boards (despite a constant stream of busses coming and going from the same station, often from the same company).
After the first 30 minutes everyone thought it just wasn’t going to arrive and must have been cancelled. This created pandemonium amongst waiting passengers every time a new bus from the same company arrived. Every waiting person would suddenly spring to life and form a mosh pit outside the bus drivers door demanding information, desperate not to be left stranded in a Polish bus station overnight. Word would spread amongst the crowd that ‘this was the bus’ and everyone would jostle to get to the luggage compartment. As we jostled, squashed against metal doors another rumour spread ‘this is not the bus!’ Suddenly the crowd would back off and resume their waiting and wondering.
This happened 4 times before our fateful bus finally arrived around 1am. There was such a rush to grab seats that we sadly weren’t able to sit next to each other. To make matters more interesting, the toilet broke down 20 minutes into the trip which resulted in an un-scheduled trip back to the bus depot in the middle of the night.
I know, I know, this is Europe and you have to expect some things won’t go right. It was the most memorable journey of our trip so far and makes for a funny story right?