Wieliczka, Poland - World's Most Famous Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine, located just 15 km (9 miles) south of Krakow - the most visited ancient Polish city - is also one of the most popular attractions in the region. Founded in the 13th century, it was in operation until as late as 2007. Visitors can admire many absolutely stunning, carved out using only man power shafts, corridors and chambers that have been lavishly decorated by tremendously talented artists. All the sculptures, statues, reliefs, walls, floor tiles and even chandeliers are made of salt. A walk down the long underground passages of Wieliczka is a great history lesson in practice, not only in theory. Read on and I'll give you some tips on how to enjoy the visit best.

 

How to get to Wieliczka Salt Mine

 

If you are in Krakow (I wrote a detailed post about what to see in Krakow here), Wieliczka Salt Mine, apart from the breathtaking Tatra Mountains and Auschwitz concentration camp is one of the things that simply cannot be missed. Walking down the streets in Krakow (or Cracow) Old Town, you'll probably see many tour companies offering a tour to the Salt Mine. I wouldn't recommend any of them as Wieliczka is only 15 km (9 miles) away and it's very easy to get there by public transport. This way, you'll also save around 50% on the full price of the tour. The public bus or a private minibuses run frequently both from Krakow Old Town and Galeria Krakowska Shopping Mall (which is also the entrance to railway and bus stations). The fare one way is very low, around 2 PLN (0,50 EUR/0,60 USD). The buses stop very near the Salt Mine, a 5 minute walk away.

 

Visiting The Salt Mine

 

The Salt Mine is visited by thousands of tourists every month. To enter, you must join a qualified guide, it's not possible to walk around on your own (you might get lost easily in the maze of the tunnels). The guides speak quite a few different languages (including English of course). If you wish to skip the crowds and have a more private experience, spend the afternoon in Krakow's lovely Old Town and join the last group entering the mine in the evening! The last admission in English is at 5 PM from October to May and 6 PM from June to September. You can find more up to date details on the official website here.

When I visited Wieliczka, there was only 1 tourist with us besides me and my friend. That was really cool as we could ask all the additional questions we wanted to ask and we found out about some extra stories and legends.

Unfortunately, the full entry fee (for foreign visitors) is quite expensive: 79 PLN (19 EUR/21 USD), student discount - 64 PLN (15.50 EUR/17 USD).

Another excuse to rip you off is the camera fee (10 PLN - 2,40 EUR/2.60 USD).

 

Wieliczka Salt Mine building

Wieliczka Salt Mine building

Hundreds of steps down to the first level

Hundreds of steps down to the first level

Wooden machinery

Wooden machinery

Nicolaus Copernicus Chamber

Nicolaus Copernicus Chamber

Salt statues

Salt statues

"Penitents" burning out methane

"Penitents" burning out methane

Mine workers - demonstration

Mine workers - demonstration

Mine workers - demonstration

Mine workers - demonstration

Mine workers - demonstration

Mine workers - demonstration

Salt stalactites

Salt stalactites

Fragment of original staircase

Fragment of original staircase

Drainage system

Drainage system

 You can try it yourself

 You can try it yourself

Another demonstration

Another demonstration

A chamber for children - colorful dwarfs

A chamber for children - colorful dwarfs

Deteriorating statues

Deteriorating statues

 

History and Legends

 

Wieliczka Salt Mine dates back to the 13th century and was operating incredibly successfully for many centuries until as late as a few years ago. In the middle ages, salt was as valuable as gold and the mine brought enormous prosperity and wealth to the region. It's hard to believe but all the shafts and chambers were dug up using only human power and horses. Sadly, the animals where transported down to the bottom and often spent their whole lives underground.

There's a legend that the salt mine was founded because of Hungarian Princess Kinga. After getting engaged with the Polish Prince of Krakow, she dropped her ring on the ground near Krakow and instructed the local people do dig a deep hole exactly where it landed. Large deposits of salt were discovered at that spot and since then the mine was extended and more and more shafts and chambers were carved out.

Centuries later, during the second world war, the mine's chambers were used by the Nazi Germans as facilities for various purposes.

In the twentieth century, when salt mining became unprofitable, the production of salt was limited and a special tourist route was created. Nowadays, although the mine is not operating anymore, it still brings large profits due to the number of visitors.

 

Underground experience

 

The Unesco site Wieliczka Salt mine has 9 levels, reaching down over 325 m (1000 ft.) deep. The full length of corridors, chambers and shafts is around 300 km (178 miles) long. The tourist route includes only a tiny fraction of it - slightly over 3 km (nearly 2 miles). The temperature is constant (14-16 degrees Celsius/57-61 degrees Fahrenheit), all year round.

You will visit only 3 first levels of the mine at the depth of 65 to 135 m (215-445 ft.). After you meet your guide, you'll have to climb down around 800 steps (350 from the ground down to the first level) but don't worry, it's easy! You won't have to worry about going up as there is an elevator (very tiny) that will bring you up to the surface.

The guide will give you the details about the site, answers all the questions and tell you the names of the sculptures, statues and chambers created throughout the centuries. The whole experience is very interesting, some chambers are small and others are really large and lavishly decorated. The most impressive is Saint Kinga's Chamber which is embellished with beautiful chandeliers (made of course of salt crystals!), impressive statues and even Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" relief carved in salt! Basically everything you'll see is salt. The ceiling, the walls, the floor and the statues. If you don't believe try to lick the wall!

Besides Saint Kinga's Chamber, there are a few other - interesting too! One of them is called "burned chamber". The name is associated with the fire that occurred here while burning methane. The gas was released while salt mining and, when combined with oxygen and candle fire (obviously there was no air conditioning and electricity when the mine was operating), caused massive explosions. To reduce such risks, prisoners were hired to burn out methane using a long firebrand. They would rub the burning torch against the chamber's ceiling where the dangerous gas got accumulated to get rid of it. Those prisoners were called "penitents" as the hazardous job they were forced to do was treated as punishment for sins.

Another interesting chamber is "Weimar", named after the place where German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe lived. He was also one of the first guests in the mine. The chamber is located at the second level, 110 (360 ft.) meters deep and visitors can admire a beautiful underground salt lake.

At the last, third level, a restaurant, wedding venue and museum are located. The guides usually describe the first two levels really willingly, however, when it comes to the museum, they (especially when there are not too any tourists) can sometimes discourage you to go down there. They might claim that there's still a lot of steps to climb or it's far. Probably they wish to finish their work earlier or believe that visitors are already tired. During my visit, only me and my friend decided to go down as the other person gave up. My advice is, do insist that you want to visit the museum (you've paid for it after all - it's included in the ticket price). It's really interesting, many colorful salt crystals, original tools and machinery are displayed there. You can even use some of them to see how it all worked back then. There are also barely any tourists dat the museum and the chambers of the third level boast the most impressive salt formations, stalactites and stalagmites.  The time required for a visit of all 3 levels is around 3 hours.

If you want to visit the mine individually and see the other, rough parts not available for tourists, the management of the mine can arrange a special tour for you and provide necessary equipment. You can contact them here via the official website.

 

Saint Kinga's Chapel - note chandeliers made of salt

Saint Kinga's Chapel - note chandeliers made of salt

St. Kinga's Chapel

St. Kinga's Chapel

St. Kinga's Chapel - every object in this photo (including the chandelier) is made of salt

St. Kinga's Chapel - every object in this photo (including the chandelier) is made of salt

Salt sculptures in Saint Kinga's Chamber

Salt sculptures in Saint Kinga's Chamber

Chandelier made of salt crystals

Chandelier made of salt crystals

Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" carved in salt

Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" carved in salt

Underground salt lake

Underground salt lake

Wooden construction helps keep the ceiling intact

Wooden construction helps keep the ceiling intact

Weimar Chamber

Weimar Chamber

Underground restaurant

Underground restaurant

Underground chapel

Underground chapel

Salt deposits

Salt deposits

Horn - an artifact in the museum

Horn - an artifact in the museum

Museum presentation

Museum presentation

The tools used in mining

The tools used in mining

Ancient settlements - model

Ancient settlements - model

Carriages used to bring visitors in 20th century

Carriages used to bring visitors in 20th century

Salt deposits

Salt deposits

Museum artifacts

Museum artifacts

Mammoth bone

Mammoth bone

Wieliczka in the middle ages

Wieliczka in the middle ages

 

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