When I visited Auschwitz for the first time, I didn’t know about the rules for visiting Auschwitz.
When I say ‘rules,’ I don’t just mean the official rules (but of course, they are important too), but also the other behaviours that I should avoid on my visit, which aren’t specified on the Auschwitz and Birkenau website.
Walking around the former death camps, surrounded by the ghosts of those who perished there, I barely even spoke to the friend that I was with.
The two of us walked around Auschwitz and Birkenau in near silence, partly because we weren’t really in the mood for conversation, and partly out of respect for those who lost their lives in this godforsaken place.
However, while most people abided by the unwritten Auschwitz rule that one should be respectful and sensitive when visiting Auschwitz, there were exceptions, and their number wasn’t insignificant.
While I was visiting Auschwitz, I witnessed people laughing and joking, taking selfies, play-fighting and posing for photographs in front of the ovens where countless people’s bodies were incinerated.
One man walked out of the crematorium crying as his wife comforted him, all the while surrounded by groups of oblivious teenagers who continued to crack jokes.
Unfortunately, for some, the need to visit Auschwitz and pay one’s respects has become overshadowed by the feeling that Auschwitz is some sort of tourist attraction.
Tour companies in Kraków bring busloads of young tourists to Auschwitz and Birkenau each day and now, rather than going to Kraków with the purpose of visiting Auschwitz and educating oneself about the horrors that occurred there, visiting Auschwitz has now become just another ‘thing to do’ in Kraków.
Young lads that have flocked to Kraków for the cheap booze and beautiful women find themselves heading to Auschwitz to “get a bit of culture” before the drinking commences.
I personally had the misfortune of talking to a group of young Canadian men who had been kicked off the bus on the way to visit Auschwitz because they were drinking.
Yes. You read that right. They were pre-gaming on their way to a concentration camp.
Unfortunately, Auschwitz and Birkenau are not unique when it comes to this type of behaviour.
I’ve witnessed the same at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (where for some reason, people simply cannot resist taking selfies), the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
It boggles my mind that people would visit Auschwitz for some kind of fun day out, and I cannot comprehend the mentality of people who think that taking a SELFIE at a concentration camp is okay, but apparently these things need to be spelt out to people, and so here I am to do just that.
Read on to discover both the official rules for visiting Auschwitz, as well as the unofficial Auschwitz rules.
I’ll also tell you everything you need to know about how to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, whether you should pay for a guided tour, and my tips for getting the most out of your visit.
The Official Rules for Visiting Auschwitz
The official rules for visiting Auschwitz are pretty much common sense.
For example, you are not allowed to bring any weapons into Auschwitz.
The official Auschwitz rules laid out by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial itself are the following:
- Don’t move, remove or damage anything at Auschwitz-Birkenau
- Behave with the ‘appropriate solemnity and respect’ and dress ‘appropriately’ (I will delve into this more later)
- The maximum size of bags and backpacks allowed to carry on the museum grounds is 30 x 20 x 10 cm
- Don’t consume food, alcohol or cigarettes (this includes chewing gum)
- Don’t enter with animals (apart from guide dogs)
- Don’t enter with any vehicles (aside from prams and wheelchairs)
- Don’t enter with flags, posters, banners or other promotional items
- Don’t possess any weapons
- Don’t play music
- Don’t use mobile phones inside the exhibition buildings
- Don’t enter under the influence of alcohol
- Don’t use a drone
- Don’t use flash photography or tripods inside the buildings
As you can see, most of these Auschwitz rules are obvious – most people wouldn’t think to start playing music or visit Auschwitz while drunk – but some of them are less obvious, like the maximum bag size for example.
However, while the rules listed above are the only official rules for visiting Auschwitz, there are definitely some unofficial Auschwitz rules, or etiquette.
Here are some unofficial rules for visiting Auschwitz.
The Unofficial Rules for Visiting Auschwitz
1. Don’t Complain
Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau takes a full day.
Your feet will hurt.
You might get cold.
Maybe you’re hungry and can’t wait to get back to your hotel for a hot meal.
Well guess what?
The prisoners of Auschwitz were also cold, hungry and in pain, and I’m willing to bet that they felt it a lot more acutely than you!
Don’t whine about your minor discomforts when walking on the very soil that so many people really suffered on.
If anything, you should be counting your blessings while walking around Auschwitz, not moaning about minor aches and pains.
2. Don’t see Auschwitz-Birkenau as a tourist attraction
Yes, you are a tourist.
Yes, you are visiting Auschwitz.
No, Auschwitz is not a tourist attraction.
I genuinely believe that we have a duty to visit sites such as Auschwitz in order to educate ourselves about what we, as humans, have done to our fellow humans.
However, it is important to visit Auschwitz for the right reasons, and if you are not visiting Auschwitz because you genuinely want to learn about the horrors of the past, it might be best that you don’t go.
For example, when I was in Krakow recently, I met a couple of English lads in a bar. When they found out that I’d spent a lot of time in the city, they asked me for recommendations on what to do, saying rather sheepishly that they weren’t really interested in the ‘cultural stuff’ that included Auschwitz.
Honestly, I applaud them for being honest, and I’m glad that they decided not to go rather than to visit for the sake of it and probably wind up behaving disrespectfully (however unintentional it may be).
Visiting Auschwitz is not the same as going to see St. Mary’s Basilica, and we should be very mindful of our reasons for visiting a sight of mass suffering.
If you are visiting because you heard it was a ‘must-see,’ you want to take some Insta-worthy shots with deep and meaningful captions, and you feel like you need to tick it off your Krakow bucket list along with the salt mines and pierogi?
If you are then don’t bother.
There are tonnes of other things to do in Krakow, and visiting Auschwitz should be reserved for people who genuinely want to pay their respects.
3. Taking Pictures at Auschwitz
Are you allowed to take photos at Auschwitz?
Yes, for the most part.
There are a couple of places where flash photography is not permitted as it damages the exhibition (but yet still people choose to flout this rule and destroy history at the same time), but on the whole, photography is okay.
Although you can take all the photographs you want at Auschwitz, just because you could, doesn’t always mean you should.
Some people choose to take photographs of parts of the camp that resonate with them, not to share on social media, but for their own private memories.
Some people choose not to take any photographs at all because they don’t feel comfortable.
Both of these approaches are okay.
However, some things are just objectively not okay.
For example, it is never appropriate to take a selfie at Auschwitz, and honestly the concept of wanting to be IN the photograph at all is very odd to me.
I understand that people may want to take photographs of things such as the Arbeit macht frei sign, but to actually pose in front of the train tracks or the barracks?
There is no way you can convince me that you aren’t being disrespectful.
On my visit to Sachsenhausen, I actually saw a middle-aged couple posing in front of the ovens that were used to burn the bodies of countless innocent people.
Will they frame the picture and hang it on their bedroom wall?
That type of behaviour is incomprehensible to me.
4. Dress Appropriately
In the official rules for visiting Auschwitz, the Auschwitz memorial centre state that you should ‘dress appropriately,’ but what does that mean?
What do you wear to Auschwitz?
Would you believe me if I told you that some people walk boldly around concentration camps wearing t-shirts sporting band names such as Megadeth or Slayer?
Megadeth might be your favourite band in the world, but maybe, just maybe it isn’t appropriate to be branding yourself with words like that when you are walking around a literal death camp.
I’m not saying that you have to dress the same way you would for a funeral, but just use your brain and realise that your neon yellow Full Moon Party singlet may not be the best choice of attire for visiting Auschwitz.
Just don’t wear anything too revealing, anything offensive or anything tone deaf, and you should be fine.
5. Don’t Laugh and Joke
Who are I, the fun police?
Well, actually yes.
I don’t care if your friend just made the funniest joke in the world about something completely unrelated to Auschwitz: it isn’t appropriate to laugh.
Auschwitz is a place for quiet reflection, not for comedy.
Even if you personally don’t feel affected by the things that you see when you visit Auschwitz, just remember that other people are affected, and if somebody who has lost family members in the gas chambers sees you and your mates cracking jokes, they may feel very upset.
How to Visit Auschwitz
There are 3 main ways to visit Auschwitz.
- Visit on a guided tour with an independent tour company
- Visit on a self-guided tour but book through an independent tour company
- Visit Auschwitz by yourself
Visiting Auschwitz on a guided tour
The second time I visited Auschwitz, I paid for a tour package on GetYourGuide.
There are many tour companies based in Krakow where you can walk into and buy tickets, but not all of them are great (more on that in the next point), and the booking process on GetYourGuide is so quick and easy that this is the platform I recommend.
You simply visit the website by using the link provided, select the date and time you want to go on the tour, choose whether to add on a lunch box, and pay by card. Your tickets will then be emailed directly to you, or you can download the GetYourGuide app and access them there.
The benefits of visiting Auschwitz this way are that you can get picked up and dropped off directly from your hotel, you get an English-speaking bus driver who will give you their recommendations for restaurants in Krakow, museums to visit in Krakow etc., the journey time is just 75 minutes, you can skip the queues (which will save you a lot of time), and you will also get an English-speaking guide to take you through the camps of both Auschwitz and Birkenau, as well as a private shuttle between the camps, which are 3.5 kilometres apart.
When I booked this tour, it cost just over 20 EUR, which I think is exceptional value.
Visit Auschwitz on a self-guided tour with an independent tour company
This is what my friend and I did the first time I visited Auschwitz, and to be honest I don’t recommend it.
We simply walked into a travel agency in Krakow and asked to be booked onto an Auschwitz tour.
We had to walk to a random part of town to be picked up and dropped off, we did not have a guide in the camps (not even an audio guide, which you will be given for free if you visit Auschwitz by yourself), and the only information we were given about the camps at all was on a leaflet.
This tour cost about the same as the one I outlined above, so in my opinion, it really wasn’t worth it – we basically paid 20 quid for a return bus journey.
However, if you’re not much of a planner and there are no available tours on either GetYourGuide or the official Auschwitz website, this might be your only option.
Visit Auschwitz independently
I never intended on booking an Auschwitz tour with GetYourGuide.
I had been to Auschwitz before and felt as though it wouldn’t be too difficult to get there and back myself, saving some money.
However, when I started looking into it, the cost basically worked out to be the same, hence why I ended up booking an organised tour.
Anyway, if you want to visit Auschwitz independently, the first thing you’ll need to do is reserve your spot on the official website.
Entry to the camp itself is free, or you can pay for one of the official Auschwitz guides to take you on a tour.
When I tried booking, about 5 days in advance, there were no free self-guided slots left, so the only option was to pay for a guide.
The guided tour costs 85 PLN, or about 17 euros.
To get between the camps, you can walk or take the free shuttle bus, which is either every 10 minutes or every 30 minutes, depending on the season.
To get from Krakow to Oświęcim, you can take a bus, which takes around 1 hour and 40 minutes.
It will cost about 16 PLN (or just under 4 EUR) each way, and you can book in advance on the MDA bus planner.
You can also pre-book a shuttle bus for 5 EUR each way.
It’s definitely doable, but it does involve quite a bit of planning, and if you end up paying for a guide at Auschwitz, the cost is basically the same, which is why the option I recommend is a full guided tour.
Things to Know Before You Go
As I mentioned in the intro, visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau takes an entire day, and there are definitely some things that you can do to get the most out of your experience.
Here are my recommendations on planning a trip to Auschwitz.
- Wear comfortable shoes – You will be doing a lot of walking, as well as a lot of standing still and reading the exhibition/listening to your guide. Trust me, you’ll want to be wearing comfortable shoes.
- Wrap up warm – Unless you’re visiting in the height of summer, it could well be chilly. Poland isn’t the warmest country, and while you will mostly be inside at Auschwitz, the Birkenau portion of the tour is all outside, and you will be outside for around an hour.
- Bring a form of identification – This doesn’t need to be a passport, it just needs to be something with your name on it. It could be a bus pass, student card, bank card or even a letter with your name on the top. This is to make sure that the name on your ID matches the name on the ticket, to prevent people from reselling tickets.
- Bring lunch – You can’t eat or drink inside the grounds of the camps, but there are benches outside for you to sit and have a quick bite. Chances are, you’ll want to eat something in between visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau but you won’t have much time to stand in line at the café, so bringing a packed lunch is ideal.
- Plan for the bus – The drive from Krakow to Oświęcim (the city where the camps are located), takes about an hour and a half. If you get travel sick, bring your medication. Bring a bottle of water for the journey, as well as anything else that you might need.
- Don’t overindulge the night before – Krakow is a great place to party, but you will not want to wake up early and embark on a 7-hour trip that involves a lot of walking, concentration and emotion. Don’t drink too much the night before and get a reasonable amount of sleep the day before you visit Auschwitz.
- Don’t try and cram too much in – some companies offer a combined tour to Auschwitz/Birkenau and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Do not do this. This is far too much for one day and you will be too exhausted to enjoy the second half of the tour.
Rules for Visiting Auschwitz | Final Thoughts
And there we have it – the official and unofficial rules for visiting Auschwitz.
I strongly believe that visitors to Poland owe it to themselves and to the victims of Hitler’s regime to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. We cannot erase history, and we shouldn’t want to. We should want to pay our respects and educate ourselves about what our fellow humans have done before us.
If you can follow my guidelines on how to behave while you are walking around Auschwitz, Birkenau and other sights of mass tragedy, I implore you to go and visit them and learn about the atrocities committed not that long ago.
You can buy your tickets here.
However, if you want to walk around in a Megadeth t-shirt laughing, joking and taking selfies then perhaps skip the day trip to Auschwitz and visit a beer garden instead.
Do you agree with me? How do you feel about taking photographs at Auschwitz? Can it be done tastefully or is it never appropriate? What is the worst type of behaviour that you have witnessed at Auschwitz/Birkenau? Please let me know in the comments section so that other readers can know what else not to do at sights like this.
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