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The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex ( en.auschwitz.org/m/) comprises two concentration camps. Auschwitz 1 gives details of the history of, and life in the concentration camp but the enormity and scale of the extermination is most evident at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, built specifically for mass “liquidation” and which was still being expanded until the end of the war.
While entry to the complex is free, visitors must take a guided tour (40PLN) if they arrive between 10a.m. and 3p.m. The guided tour price includes both camps and a free bus between them. There are pros and cons to taking a tour; this is discussed in the forums.
Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors have stipulated that the complex not limit the number of visitors per day, which makes it challenging for both the museum and visitors. It can get very crowded and chaotic, and guided tours can be substantial in size, with the English ones particularly busy. But the museum does attempt to limit the size of tour groups, and in Auschwitz 1, visitors are given headphones so that they don't always have to be right next to the guide. Headphones are not used in Birkenau as the group sizes decrease considerably.
Visiting Auschwitz from Krakow
There are two ways to reach Auschwitz from Krakow, either by bus or by train; both take about the same length of time. The trains are not very frequent, whereas the buses area approximately every half hour. (This is in summer, timetables change and there are fewer trains and buses when the tourist season has finished).
The bus will drop you at Auschwitz 1; it is about a 15-minute walk from the train station to both Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau II. There is a shuttle bus between Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Visiting by Bus:
The bus station can be reached through the train station - go under the platforms and out the other side. The mini buses go from the lower level concourse stop D8 and the normal buses run by PKS leave from the ground floor; there is a large departure board in the building that tells you which stand you need. Your destination would be Osweicim, or somewhere else via Osweicim.
The mini buses take one and a half hours, with frequent stops. The bus stops at the back gate of Auschwitz 1 and it is a short walk to the main building. Ask the driver for a timetable for the return journey to Krakow.
The PKS buses take just over an hour, with fewer stops. There is a bus stop within the museum grounds where you can check for return journey times. The bus driver will drop you off at the museum.
It costs about 12PLN per person, each way. If you buy bus tickets from the counter, you will get first preference for seats (at least for the mini buses), but you can also just buy tickets from the driver. It is advisable to buy one-way tickets in case you decide to use a different bus company to return to Krakow.
To return to Krakow by mini bus, go out to the same main road where you were dropped off and wait for the mini bus on the opposite side of the road. To return to Krakow by the PKS bus, wait at the bus stop within the museum grounds. There can be a mad rush to get onto the bus.
Inside the first building, the ticket office is through the first display; here a ticket can be bought for the cinema, or guided tours can be booked. Entrance to the museum itself is free. The cinema shows a 15-minute film giving a basic background and showing some horrific images, and children under 14 are not allowed to watch.
There are also a few kiosks, one next to the ticket office and one outside that sell guidebooks of varying sizes and price. These guidebooks are useful for visitors who prefer self-guided tours.
Most of the barracks here contain displays relating to life in Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. There are English versions of most of the writing and picture captions. There is no specific route you have to follow; you are free to wander around the camp, although a specific route is outlined in the guidebooks and by a few arrows.
Zyklon B was developed at the nearby chemical factory and first tested at the gas chamber next to where Rudolf Hoess, the camp kommandant, was hanged.
Birkenau, the main camp, is about a 10-minute bus ride from Auschwitz 1. It is vast and is where the main gas chambers were situated (Birkenau was the site of most of the killings and not Auschwitz 1).
It has been mainly left as the Nazis left it, with many of the buildings dynamited flat or burnt down. There are a few barracks open to the public, which are left if their original state rather than housing displays as in Auschwitz 1. The size should not be underestimated and there is no shade or shelter so water/warm clothing is recommended depending on the weather. There is a hot/cold vending machine in the hall outside the bookshop, which is to the left of the main entrance, as you arrive.
The remnants of the main gas chambers are at the end of the main road from the main gate - just follow the railway line. These have been left exactly how the Nazis left them having dynamited them. If you turn right at the end of the line and walk over the monument steps to the rear right corner of the monument, you can follow a path through a small wood until you come to the only museum-like exhibition at Birkenau. This is housed in the shower block where people and their clothes were decontaminated and the belongings of those who had been sent straight to the gas chambers were sorted. The displays explain what happened inside the building and there is also detail the fate of families who passed through Auschwitz.
Walk some yards further on past the front of this building and you will pass the levelled ruins of crematorium/gas chamber no.4 on your right. Walk a little further and you will come to the ruins of crematorium/gas chamber No.5. Here you can see the twisted metal frame of the oven.
When you return, just before you reach the shower block building again, you will see a path on your right leading to a fence with a watch tower. Walk down the path, past the tower into a field. 200 yards in front of you is a small levelled building. This is crematorium/gas chamber No.1, the first built on the site. As more victims arrived, they kept building new ones until they had 5.
It is possible to walk back to the train station from Birkenau, without passing back through Auschwitz 1. Follow the road straight out from the camp entrance, crossing over a rail bridge to a T junction. Turn left at this junction and at the roundabout turn right. The station is at the next roundabout. Buses also stop at the train station (but on the other side of the road for buses into Krakow).