Lying 70km west of Kraków and within easy day-trip range, the complex of camps known as Auschwitz-Birkenau (auschwitz.org.pl) has become synonymous with World War II and the Holocaust. The camps lie on the western fringes of Oświęcim, which is in all other respects a perfectly nondescript middle-sized Polish town. Auschwitz was established by the Germans in 1940 to house Polish political prisoners but swiftly expanded to accommodate Soviet POWs. The Birkenau annexe, built in 1941 to cope with growing numbers, became the site of one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious death camps: about 1.3 million people, 90 percent of them Jews, were murdered here. The Germans failed to destroy the camp before they left and over 60,000 prisoners survived – which is why the horrors perpetrated here are so well documented. The two sites, Auschwitz and Birkenau, are 3km apart, but are linked by shuttle bus. Together they are visited by over 1.3 million visitors a year.
You can catch one of the regular buses (2–3 every hour; 1hr 40min; 10zł) to the main camp from Kraków’s PKS Terminal. There’s an hourly shuttle-bus service to the Birkenau section from the car park at Auschwitz from April to October. Taxis are also available; otherwise it’s a 3km walk.