You wouldn’t think that touring a salt mine would be particularly interesting. I pictured tunnels carved into solid salt, and that was about it.
It turns out that the Wieliczka salt mine outside Krakow, Poland, is much more than tunnels carved into salt. It has a history all its own, and, surprisingly, it has artworks made of salt!
Disclosure: I received a tour of Wieliczka Krakow salt mine for free as a participant in the TIS Trablin influencer conference. Nevertheless, all opinions are my own.
History of Wieliczka salt mine
Salt was an extremely important commodity for Krakow starting from the 13th century, when rock salt was discovered there. Why was salt so important? Because people didn’t just use it to flavor food. In the days before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food, so it could be stored for long periods of time. It was essential.
For that reason, the Wieliczka salt mine became the key to Krakow’s prosperity, and remained so for centuries.
The men (and horses) who worked in the mine, though, didn’t have easy lives. It was heavy and at times dangerous work. Men died in explosions. They worked incredibly hard in dank, dark conditions.
They were religious, and they prayed. So deep underground – the mine reaches 327 meters at its deepest and comprises 287 kilometers of passages – they couldn’t just pop up to the surface easily to go to church, so they began to carve figures, religious and otherwise, into the walls of the mine. They made themselves places to pray.
These carvings are what makes a visit to the mine so interesting. The images range from relatively simple, even primitive, to ornate masterpieces. Some are centuries old; some are modern. Many are religious: images of Jesus or various saints.
The most impressive part, though, is the underground Chapel of St. Kinga, essentially an entire cathedral carved out of the salt and adorned with carvings and statues.
The detailed work even went so far as the floors, which are carved to look like ceramic tiles, and the chandeliers, made of pieces of salt that look just like crystals. It’s astonishing and, at times, magnificent. These anonymous men left a visual treasure underground.
Other articles about Krakow sights:
- Urban Adventures Krakow food tour review
- A Krakow tour with a twist
- Ruminations on an Auschwitz tour
- Rynek Underground Museum at Krakow Main Square
Krakow salt mine tour
Wieliczka salt mine offers a number of different tours of various degrees of difficulty. I took the basic tour as a guest of the mines. While most of the people in our group walked down the initial 350 or so steps, I joined a few others who had mobility problems (I’ve been experiencing knee problems.) in the elevator. While I assume the elevator has been approved for use by the public, it looks and acts like a mine elevator: the doors were closed on us from outside, we were plunged into darkness and the cage we were standing in descended far too quickly for comfort, shaking violently the whole time.
The tour itself involves quite a bit of level walking, interspersed with further descents down several flights of stairs, none of them terribly long. In total, the tour covers almost three kilometers – only a very small percentage of the mine’s extent – and 800 steps, mostly down. Fortunately, the whole group could return to the surface by elevator.
Our guide recounted the history of the mine as well as the stories of the various images we passed. Along the way we passed several displays showing how the work was done, such as a pulley system used to lift blocks of salt. She seemed concerned to keep the group together and, when a group of us slowed down to take some pictures, she chased us along quite harshly. Given the mine’s 287 kilometers of tunnels, I suppose she must feel the pressure not to lose any tourists!
The tour ended, not surprisingly, in a gift shop and café deep in the earth. There, you can buy various objects made of salt, such as tea lights, or concoctions of flavored salt.
Wieliczka and Bochnia Salt Mines: a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Another mine nearby is also open for visitors: Bochnia Royal Salt Mines. Equally ancient, Bochnia combined with Wieliczka are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is based on the rock salt art as well as how they illustrate the development of salt mining from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, when both mines closed.
I have not visited Bochnia Royal Mine, so I can’t compare the quality of either the artwork or the tours. Bochnia is smaller, and it costs 75PLN (€17 or $20) for a tour in English. The air in Bochnia is reputed to be particularly pure, and you can pay to stay overnight in the mine for 58-88PLN (€13-€20 or $15.50-$24) .
The Wieliczka salt mine is located about 10 km from central Krakow. You can either take bus 304 from Galeria Krakowska on u. Kurniki, or take a train from the airport or from Kraków Główny (the main railway station) to Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia.
Some tours start at the main Danilowicz shaft, while others start at the Regis shaft in the center of Wieliczka town.
Open April-October 7:30-19:30; November-March 8:00-17:00.
Tours cost 89PLN (€20 or $24) most of the year, 94PLN (€22 or $25) in the summer. You’ll be charged an additional 10PLN (€2.50 or $2.75) to take photos.
Several different tours are available:
- The Tourist Route is the closest to what I took and includes all the highlights, including the underground cathedral and a saline lake. Starts at the Danilowicz shaft. You do not need to reserve for this tour.
- The Miners’ Route involves dressing like a miner and wearing a hardhat, then learning some of the basics of a miner’s job. It is more about mining and does not include the highlights of the mine. Regis shaft. Reserve ahead.
- The Pilgrims’ Route focuses on the religious sculptures and various chapels, and includes stops for prayer. Danilowicz shaft.
- The Mysteries of the Wieliczka Mine route is an off-the-beaten-track tour, involving mining equipment and some serious physical effort. It allows visitors to see artwork that most tourists do not have access to. Regis shaft. Reserve ahead.
- If you don’t fancy going underground, a large “graduation tower” stands next to the Danilowicz shaft entrance. Built specially for purpose of larch wood covered in bundles of blackthorn branches, the construction disperses the salt water running through it, creating damp, salty air. It is reputed to be good for respiratory problems of all sorts. It is open for visitors; no reservations required.
Note: According to the mine’s website, “the most marvelous section” of the Tourist Route is accessible to people in standard size wheelchairs. Book in advance.
It’s chilly in the mine, even when it’s warm on the surface, so make sure to bring a jacket.
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