4 Sites That Will Turn Your EuroTrip Into The Ultimate History Lesson

Europe History

Hi there! So if you’ve been with me the last few weeks, we have set off on an epic rail journey around Europe hitting 12 cities in 25 days. You can read all about the route HERE – and although we have just left Amsterdam and are heading towards Berlin, I though this would be a great opportunity to segway into one aspect of the trip I hadn’t anticipated when planning: the reality of the Second World War and it’s impact on European countries today. Join me as I explain how 4 sites in Europe turned my EuroTrip into the ultimate history lesson. Europe History

Europe History

4 Sites That Will Turn Your EuroTrip Into The Ultimate History Lesson

Europe is full of history – and not all of it is very pleasant. Hilter’s effect on the continent throughout the 1930-1940’s can still be seen across several countries, and little did I know when we embarked on our Eurotrip that we would be visiting some of the major memorial sites of the Second World War.

1. The Ann Frank Huis – Amsterdam

Europe HistoryThe first stop on our history tour, the Ann Frank Huis, was an introduction to the horror of Hilter through a child’s eyes. Ann was barely 13 years old when she and her family were forced into hiding as Hitler sought to remove all Jews from Germany.

Whilst living in the secret annex in a house in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Ann wrote about her life in hiding, in a space she shared with 7 other people. They lived in constant fear of discovery, had to be extremely quiet and could never go outside. The diary was a way for Ann to get her frustrations on her chest.

Despite hiding successfully for 2 years, the Frank family were betrayed just before the end of the war and of the 8 residents of Prinsengracht 263 – plus two helpers – were arrested and deported to (separate) concentration camps. Ann’s father Otto was the only person to survive.

Otto returned to Amsterdam after the war where he discovered his family had perished, and was given Anne’s diaries by the family who had hidden them. In reading the diaries he discovered a different Ann to the one he lived in such close quarters with and was moved by her writings. She had written in one book she wanted to be a journalist and hoped to have the diary published at the end of the war. Otto was convinced to do so by his friend and in 1947 ‘The Secret Annex’ was published.

The house was commissioned as a museum in 1960 and with parts of the property maintained in the state it was kept at the time Ann lived there, it is easy to imagine how hard it would have been to live in hiding for 2 years.

Only a small museum, it is a powerful memorial to the persecuted souls who lived there, and a testament to the bravery of those who hid them. It is also a reminder that although this museum is unique, the plight of its occupants was one that was mirrored across a lot of Europe throughout the Second World War, and the absolute horror of that weighs heavily on every visitor.


2. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin

Europe HistoryAn information center and monument in one, the Holocaust Memorial is a large site offering the most comprehensive memorial to the atrocities of the Second World War in Europe.

At ground level is the installation known as the ‘Field of Stelae’ – a monument constructed of around 2700 concrete slabs set out over 19,000 square meters. The are identical in depth and width, varying only in height, and create a maze effect once you enter the structure – which you must do to enter the information centre.

It’s designer , Peter Eiseman, said this about it:

“The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate … Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia … We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present.”

Located underground, the information center has 7 rooms, each detailing the horror of the National Socialist terror policy between 1933 and 1945.


The Foyer presents an introduction containing 6 portrait images representing the 6 million Jews murdered; The room of dimensions displays the number of Jewish victims from all countries in Europe along with quotations recovered from the memoirs of those persecuted; the room of families details the fate of 15 example families from different social backgrounds; the room of names contains nothing but blank walls, on each of which the names, date of birth and date of death of those who were murdered is projected on a loop. Should you wish to read each of the names and associated stories, it would take approximately 6 years, 7 months and 27 days. Other rooms contains details of over 200 sites where the persecution and destruction occurred, the location of over 400 memorial sites in Europe and at the end there is room where visitors can engage with the life stories over 150 survivors who have conducted interviews for the memorial – but this is only open on Sundays.

A very comprehensive museum that deserves a couple of hours of anyone’s time.


3. The Communist Museum – Prague

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Not as eloquent as the last two sites, the Museum of Communism in Prague depicts the history of the totalitarian regime which was imposed in 1948 through to its collapse in 1989. Although only tenuously linked to events during the Second World War (the Communist Part took control after Hilter had surrendered) it was a consequence of the fallout of the different ideologies of the Allies (Britain, USA & France in the West, and The Soviet Union & Russia in the East). Eastern Europe had typically been under a Communist regime and when the Second World War ended, the Soviet’s wanted a “buffer zone” from it’s Western neighbours.

The Communist Museum in Prauge is the only museum of it’s kind in Europe and its theme is “Communism – the dream, the reality and the nightmare.” With exhibits about daily life, politics, history, and sport under the regime, you are introduced to what life was like under Communist rule, and what is most certainly a much more repressed society than visitors from a Western nation would even have experienced.

A particular point of interest for me was the exhibits dealing with the arts, media propaganda and censorship. Growing up in a liberal society with unprecedented access to the rest of the world through the internet (and travel!) – it was (and is) hard for me to comprehend a world where access to independent, unbiased information is limited. (I could argue that we do not automatically receive that in the West today, but that’s a different topic..)

Europe History

The Museum of Communism is a great way to spend an hour, and gain an insight to the lifestyle many throughout Eastern Europe were forced to endure under the repressive regime.


4. Auschwitz & Auschwitz-Birkenau – Krakow

Europe HistoryAuchwitz is the saddest place I have ever visited.

Auchwitz and Auchwitz-Birkenau are the two site of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp, and the place where over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives.

When visiting, I highly recommend doing so with a guide (this can arranged as part of a group, or on an individual basis). The grounds of both sites are large and contain a wealth of information, that it is highly likely you will feel overloaded should you try to tackle it yourself. The guides at the centre are knowledgeable, compassionate and will guide you through the exhibits, providing details and information you otherwise wouldn’t know. These guides are invaluable to the centre and I cannot rave about ours enough. She was passionate about the education of visitors and dealt with the subject matter is a respectful and humane matter.

A typical guided tour last 3.5 hours in which you will be taken through the original buildings at Auschwitz where there exhibits detailing the conditions where prisoners lived; photographs of those who were held (and died) at the camp; buildings where doctors used detainees for medical experiments and a section of the camp, known as the death wall, where executions took place. In addition to this are the collections of personal possessions that were removed from prisoners on arrival at the camp and include over 110,000 shoes, 3,800 suitcases – of which around 2,100 bear the name of their owners, almost 500 prostheses and over 4,500 works of art, including 2,000 which were made by prisoners. Although there are photographs of these exhibits of personal items floating around the Internet, it is important to note that it is considered disrespectful to those who were murdered to photograph these items.

The camp details the daily life and routine of those prisoners who were not exterminated on arrival and it is heart-breaking to try to understand the horror of their existence under Nazi detention.

At the end of the tour of Auchwitz, there is an opportunity to go into the first gas chamber and crematorium built at this site. The building is the original structure that stood there and it is entirely optional to enter. We were advised that people often decide not to enter the building as the their religious or personal beliefs do not permit them to be in a place where people died, but for those who do, you are met with an overwhelming sense of sadness and a struggle to comprehend the fear and confusion people must have felt when those doors were locked behind them.

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The development of Auchwitz II, officially named Auchwitz-Birkenau, became necessary when the original gas chamber could no longer cope with the Nazi’s unquenchable desire for death. The site was originally built as a prisoner of war/labour camp to hold 125,000 people, but quickly became the site of much larger gas chambers and as such, was where 90% of Auchwitz’s prisoners were executed. The chambers themselves were destroyed by the Nazis’ when they realised the war was lost, and their remains stand today as a memorial to the scale of the extermination.

The original railway lines transect the middle of the camp and it is explained how prisoners were ‘sorted’ on arrival. Those who were above 14 years of age and who were fit and healthy were directed to one side of the ramp for manual labour, the elderly, women with children and those who were deemed to be unable to work, we condemned to death in the chambers almost immediately.

On the opposite side of the tracks to the chambers are the remnants of the huts that served as living quarters of those who were allowed to live. The conditions were primitive and I would go as far to say that you would keep animals in better conditions that what was provided to the prisoners. It is truly horrifying.

To try and understand the incomprehensible nature of the crimes committed here, we were advised that if you were to stand and hold 2 minutes silence for each of the people murdered at this site, you would have to stand there for over 4½ years.

The tour concluded at the end of the railway tracks where there is in International Memorial to those murdered. On the steps to the memorial there is a row of granite slabs covered by a plaque with an inscription in every major language in Europe.

The English slab at the far right of the monument states:


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Pebbles are left in place of flowers – as flowers die and disintegrate, the rocks will take a lifetime to disappear…

And so concludes my tour of 4 European sites which offer the ultimate history lesson. It might not exactly what you are looking for on your European extravaganza, but I believe these sites are so important to visit.

We cannot truly understand our future, without understanding the horrors of our past and I would encourage everyone who has the opportunity to visit to do so. Because, without educating people of these horrors, how are we going to prevent them from occurring again?


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81 thoughts on “4 Sites That Will Turn Your EuroTrip Into The Ultimate History Lesson

  1. Katy says:

    Thanks for this Vicki. It is easy to forget in these busy times that these tragedies didn’t happen so long ago. We were recently in Amsterdam and our children are too young for the Anne Frank Huis but I hope to return when they are older and can learn from her short but important life. #wkendtravelinspiration

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    • Vicki says:

      Thank you Katy.
      And good call on not taking your little ones – there is a time and place for them to learn, and it would only be scarring to expose them to these horrors too early.

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  2. Arzo Travels says:

    What an important post. As students from Germany we were always confronted with our past and most students got sick of it but it is such an important topic and it is important to be reminded of it regularly so sth. like this never happens again.

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  3. The London Mum says:

    I have been meaning to visit Auschwitz for a while. I think the history of it is so important, and I’ve alway been fascinated by the wars probably because it’s an integral part of our history. When I was younger we went to Flanders on a school trip which really opened my eyes to the horrors of the wars.
    The Anne Frank house was a very moving place, I recommend it for everyone.

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  4. Darlene says:

    Such a great and relevant post Vicki! I have only seen these places in documentaries so I really want to experience them in person, especially Auschwitz-Birkenau. I know that I’ll probably cry buckets when I get there, but the pull to see that place is really strong. Must be from all those documentaries.

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    • Vicki says:

      Thank you Darlene. Walking through Auschwitz I felt numb mostly, and it wasn’t until the end when I finally broke. The feelings the overcome you when at the sites is something I find hard to describe.

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  5. LeAnna says:

    We currently live in Germany and one of my favorite parts about Europe is that basically every town is a history lesson in and of itself! Nurnberg is another amazing place for history, we live just 45 minutes away and are always blown away with what we learn each time we go.
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  6. Brenda Tolentino says:

    These sites are all very important to visit in each of these cities. Unfortunately, the world is full of trauma and awful events this these and they must be remembered so we can learn from them. Question is, are we learning? Regardless, it’s vital to know our past.

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  7. Justin says:

    Thanks for sharing – I feel that it would be so difficult for me to visit some of these places, but I know it is important to be reminded of the tragedies of our past so that we are not doomed to repeat them.

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  8. Monika says:

    I’ve been to Prague a few times but I’ve never visited the Communist Museum, but it might be because I’m Polish and I do remember those times – it it’s not so much history only to me, but my early childhood as well.
    I visited the other places, and I agree it is a good selection to learn about history.
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  9. Mansoureh says:

    I have not visited all the sites you mentioned, but I visited Ann Frank in Amsterdam. I can’t agree with you more. I learned about history in this particular house. The house impressed me a lot and when I went back home, I read more about her and her book.

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  10. Danielle says:

    Great post, the only one I haven’t visited is the museum in Prague, I didn’t have time to fit it into my schedule unfortunately! I also thought the Typography of Terror in Berlin and the House of Terror in Budapest do a really great job of portraying the horrors of this era!

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  11. Anda says:

    Very interesting post, Vicki. I haven’t seen any of these sites, although I’m from Europe and I’ve traveled back to Europe so many times. I should make it a point to go visit them. They are all so loaded with history, a sad part of history though.

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  12. christine says:

    Europe has so much history, it is one of the things I love about it. I am bummed I didn’t get to go to the Ann Frank Huis in Amsterdam, the line was wayyyyy too long and I was only there for a couple days so I couldn’t do the wait 🙁

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  13. Sarah says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these Vicki. So often traveling becomes about sight seeing, wining and dining and we can gloss over the raw and gritty history of the places we go to enjoy. This post was a great reminder that some of the most popular destinations have a dark and complicated past that should not be forgotten.

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  14. Corinne says:

    Vicki, I’ve been to three of the four and don’t they just whet your appetite for more? I think they are gut-wrenching and at times, especially at Auschwitz, I felt my stomach flip. But they are real lessons about real people. Great post.

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  15. Kim-Ling Richardson says:

    Great read! We visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and found it so moving. I think the designer did such an amazing job in commemorating the victims. We passed Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, but the lines were so long (and it was such a freezing day in the middle of winter), that we decided not to go in. After reading your description though, I would like to go back and visit it. Our friends are going to Krakow next month, so I’ll let them know to get a guide! Thanks!

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    • Vicki says:

      Thank you Kim-Ling – we pre-booked our tickets for the Ann Frank Huis after hearing how long the lines were likely to be! And a guide is definitely worth the money at Auschwitz.

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  16. Akid says:

    Vicki, this is an immense and a a shocking reminder of the mistakes of history. I am for one ashamed that I’ve been to these cou tries yet didn’t take the time to see the sites. I have been in the Jewish memorial which was incredible bit didn’t find the museum. It’ll serve as a reminder to go again and pay my respects. Thanks.

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  17. sabrina barbante says:

    It’s a great and deep itinerary. I have to be true… I didn’t want to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau when I went to Krakow because I was too afraid of my reaction. Maybe too sensible, I can’t stand the clear evidence of violence, and that’s why I don’t like torture museums. this would have too bad effects on me and they would add nothign new on my personal awareness of the WWII. But I think this can be useful for so many people, even considering the fact that there are so many people who still deny the holocoust existence! thank you for sharing

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  18. Natalie says:

    Powerful. Thank you for giving information on these sites. As a huge believer in learning along the way – especially for children, this is a tough area to approach when the learning is about the horrors and unpleasantness of history. I write travel guides for kids so they can absorb the wonder of that they see. Thanks!

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  19. Veronika says:

    I visited three places of your list and I must say that Krakow was the most powerful one – they do really informative guided tours, so one really gets to know about how people were treated. Terrible!

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  20. Meg Jerrard says:

    Yes to all of these – I’m not a huge museum person, but I really loved the history of the museums in the Netherlands – the Anne Frank museum was by far the highlight of my time in Amsterdam. I found the whole experience both sobering and fascinating. It left a very big impact on me.

    I would submit the whole city of Rome for consideration in a list like this – the destination is truly where history comes alive!

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  21. Claire says:

    I’ve visited FrankHuis and Auschwitz, and both left me distraught and overwhelmingly confused. I’ve studied the Holocaust and still fail to understand how such a large group of people could think what the Nazis did. But I strongly believe that education about these horrors is so important so it doesn’t happen again. You can read about it all you like, but nothing compares to actually going to the places and seeing what actually happened. Thanks for raising awareness about this Vicki, I hope people will continue to write posts mentioning these sites because it results in more readers visiting them and thus being educated about the atrocities that went on here, which hopefully lessens the chance of something similar happening again.

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  22. Danielle Des says:

    I have been to Anne Frank’s Huis and I learned so much about her. How she wanted to be a journalist and her father’s perspective when reading her journal for the first time. I would visit again for sure, once isn’t enough I think. I do want to go to Auchwitz one day soon.

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  23. anto says:

    I’ve been to all of these and the Anne Frank house made the biggest impression on me. I read her diary as a child and still re-read it every now and then. My dad lived through WW2 here in Holland and we heard his real-life stories all the time, so the war has made a big impact on me and my family…

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  24. RobRob @TravelLatte(.net) says:

    Especially for travelers from the U.S., these sites are so important. We obviously don’t have the local impact, and often have something of a cavalier attitude towards WW2. Especially as the veterans and victims of that time are few and far between, it’s important for us to visit these sites and learn the real impact of history. Thanks for sharing. #TheWeeklyPostcard
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  25. Alex Datsev says:

    I think the Auschwitz-Birkenau is the hardest one (simply because of the scale of it and how graphic the memorial sites are) but a pilgrimage one has to take nevertheless…

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  26. eileen g says:

    I’ve been to isle Goree in Senegal and to Tuol Sleng, which are as grim as Auschwitz. I think it’s important to preserve these places and to be witnesses to the grim side of history. But I did not sleep well after visiting either. I’m sure auschwitz would be equally disturbing.

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  27. Gery de Pierpont says:

    Hi Vicki,
    As an archaeologist (and former History museum curator), I’ve had the chance to read and learn a lot about the European history of the last century. And of course, I’ve been extremely moved too by my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau or to the Communist Museum in Prague (and tens of other commemorative spots, WW1 cemeteries, battle fields, Gestapo cells and torture rooms, military museums, …)
    I’m sure you must have heard a lot about EU history in the UK too, as a student (especially for what regards WW1 and WW2), but these tragic pages can be quite a surprise for non EU-visitors indeed. There is so much we can learn from the former generations, so many errors we can try to avoid, so much we gained from their sacrifice! I try to raise tourists awareness about EU cultural heritage, to stimulate ‘historical experiences’. Not just with the mind, but using our sense and our heart. As ‘private encounters’ with bygone generations, authentic emotional contacts.
    Thank you very much for your well documented, respectful and touching post. Looking forward to read the next ones you’ll write travelling through EU!
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  28. Indrani says:

    Great list! I had been to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, very touching experience. The Berlin site scares me. This history lesson is important so that we are able to treasure today’s peace more!

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  29. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie says:

    You are so right to say the effects of the Nazi regime can still be seen and felt in many European countries. Traveling around to see various sites, it’s so interesting to get the local perspective on what was happening to the people there. Recently, I was in Prague and learned about the “liberation” by the Soviets and saw the Shoes Memorial along the Danube. In Normandy, you can hear about the French resistance and the quiet (and not so quiet) things that were done to disrupt Hitler and his invading armies. First-hand learning of history is always so impactful. It’s truly the best way to learn.
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