Located 8.7 miles from the historic city of Krakow, the village of Wieliczka rests atop the 1,000-foot-deep salt mine that bears its name. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, the Wieliczka Salt Mine has increasingly become a must-see for tourists visiting Krakow. But despite the tourist dollars the mine brings to the area, its true worth lies in its rich history of hard work, abiding faith, and artistic talent and innovation. Time spent in its depths is time well spent, and it will leave you with indelible memories.
The drive from Krakow takes less than 20 minutes, and convenient bus, train, and taxi service is available for the short ride.
Our visit was generously hosted by the Municipality of Krakow Promotion and Tourism Department, the Polish National Tourist Office, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. However, all opinions are entirely my own.
1. The Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine came into existence more than 700 years ago. Over the centuries, miners created a labyrinth of 3,500 chambers connected by approximately 185 miles of tunnels. The areas now open for tours were excavated between the 16th and 20th centuries, but the oldest parts of the mine are off-limits to the public.
Wieliczka is no longer a commercial mine. It is maintained mainly as a tourist attraction and for the production of health and beauty products for its gift shop. Still, Wieliczka is the oldest working mine in the world.
Pro Tip: The mine is busiest in the summer, so consider an off-season trip to Poland.
2. The Guided Tour
The only way you can visit the mine is under the leadership of one of Wieliczka’s official guides. They combine knowledge, humor, and charm to give you the experience of a lifetime.
Tours are available in 20 languages and can last as long as 3 hours; however, restrooms, shops, and restaurants are also located within the mine. There is a small fee for photographs and videos, but it’s well worth it to preserve your memories of this unique underground adventure.
Pro Tip: Elevators are available, and designated parts of the tour are accessible for standard-width wheelchairs. You will encounter a total of more than 800 stairs throughout the tour, so strollers are not recommended. They can be stored and retrieved at the end of the tour. Individuals with disabilities can fill out an online form in advance for assistance.
3. The Legend
There’s nothing like a fascinating legend to accompany a phenomenal experience, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine is no exception. The Wieliczka miners believed in the legend of Kinga, the daughter of the Hungarian king, who was engaged to a Polish duke. She wanted to give Poland a special gift of salt mines from Hungary. The logistics of this feat came to her in a dream, in which she was told to throw her engagement ring down a salt mine shaft and then look for a sign.
As her party traveled through Poland, it reached the village of Wieliczka. Kinga saw a salt spring, and she told her miners to start digging. The first block of salt they unearthed contained her ring.
Kinga was highly revered by the miners, and in 1999, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
4. Descending Into A World Of Salt
If you have mobility challenges, you will begin your tour in a shaky replica of a miners’ elevator that will deposit you 192 feet belowground. If not, you’ll take the stairs. Either way, you’ll find yourself on the first of the nine levels of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
A clean, well-lit environment; an arid but comfortable temperature; and a strong breeze from the ventilation system will greet you. The mine must be kept as dry as possible to keep the salt carvings from dissolving.
Pro Tip: You can ride the elevator down for a small fee. The ride back up is included with your ticket.
5. Halls And Walls
In the mine, salt is everywhere: The walls, chambers, chapels, art, and even chandeliers are carved from the mine’s natural resource.
Some sections of wall are the texture of small cauliflowers, while others have large, smooth strips, courtesy of millions of curious hands.
Along the tour route, visitors walk on wood, then on blocks of salt. They step in the grooves made by carts and walk down the center of train tracks. The Wieliczka landscape is ever-changing and always fascinating.
Pro Tip: Due to decades of wear, touching the walls is now prohibited.
6. The Salt
Wieliczka salt is dark gray because of impurities in its composition: sandstone, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals. Still, it’s 90 percent sodium chloride. Although pure white salt has been the norm for over a century, gray salt was once highly valued, making up 20 percent of Poland’s economy during the Middle Ages. And if you don’t mind a small amount of sandstone in your salt, the minerals make the gray salt a healthier option.
Pro Tip: Looking for something special to take home? The gift shop sells a variety of salty products, from bath crystals to luxurious body lotions.
7. The Salt Lake
The Wieliczka Salt Mine contains several lakes filled with water so salt-laden, a person could simply float serenely without the slightest concern of drowning. In one of these lakes, you’ll notice coins at the bottom. Toss in your contributions, and make a wish. This wondrous underground lake is a cross between the Dead Sea and the Trevi Fountain.
8. Chambers Of Salt
Over the centuries, miners carved out a series of chapels and chambers and lovingly decorated them with the marvels they created.
As a student in 1493, Copernicus visited the mine. In a chamber that bears his name, a carving was commissioned in 1973 to commemorate his 500th birthday.
In another chamber, you can witness a simulated methane explosion. Unlike the dust in coal mines, salt doesn’t burn, so the fireball is extinguished quickly.
Wieliczka’s largest chamber is 112 feet tall. It has attracted many thrill-seekers. The world’s first underground balloon flight and first underground bungee jump were recorded there.
9. The Chapel Of St. Kinga
In keeping with their strong faith, the miners carved out salt chapels so that they could attend religious services at the start of their day. The largest and most magnificent of these chapels is dedicated to St. Kinga, the patron saint of miners; it is 177 feet long, 69 feet wide, and 39 feet high. The chapel is decorated with detailed New Testament-inspired carvings, two altars, and sparkling chandeliers.
Explore the stunning carvings created by four miners between 1896 and 2004. A depiction of the Slaughter of the Innocents is one of the most arresting. Another carving features Pope John Paul II in papal regalia.
The Chapel of St. Kinga is far more than a tourist attraction. Services are held there every Sunday, and with a capacity of 300, the space is frequently used for weddings, concerts, and other events.
One of the reasons for the popularity of this venue is that the chamber has outstanding acoustics. When you stand on the balcony overlooking the Chapel of St. Kinga, you will hear samples of music by composers such as Gershwin and Mozart, and it will seem as if the orchestra is playing directly beneath you.
10. The Health Benefits Of Salt
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is renowned for its microclimate and other health-giving properties. You can make arrangements to treat yourself to the benefits of a spa and sanatorium located 440 feet belowground. Pamper your skin, or take treatments for chronic allergies and other health issues. You can even spend the night in a comfortable room with access to a library and other amenities.
11. Delightful Underground Amenities
When you arrive at a depth of 380 feet belowground, shops, restaurants, the Miners’ Tavern, and other pleasant surprises await. These family-friendly amenities include interactive exhibits, a playground, and restrooms with changing tables.
Should you decide to get married in the Chapel of St. Kinga, you can hold your reception in a hall at this level. Food and supplies for the reception hall and restaurants are brought down by elevator, but all the food is freshly prepared on-site.
Pro Tip: Fortify yourself for your salt mine experience with a stop at the tiny restaurant in the Wieliczka village square. There you can watch while the owner prepares your meal of the best pierogi on the planet.