There’s plenty of things to do in Krakow like visit the New Jewish Cemetery, The Pharmacy Museum or the Plac Nowy Jewish Market but there’s also other activities you can do just outside of the city like making the short journey to Wieliczka to check out the world’s oldest salt Mine which dates back to the 13th century.
While touring a salt mine doesn’t come to the top of most people’s travel bucket lists, you might be surprised to find out that about 1.2 million people visit this UNESCO World Heritage site every year including the likes of Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton. For me personally, the idea of making a “journey to middle earth” to depths of 135 meters, checking out the cathedral carved out of salt and observing various works of “salt art” along the way appealed to my fondness of weird and offbeat sites.
As an excursion to the Wieliczka Salt Mines is about one of the most touristy things you can do when staying in Krakow, it’s super easy to book a half day tour through your hostel or hotel. I booked mine through the Secret Garden Hostel which even included pick-up/drop-off services! Of course, more independent souls who aren’t into group tours can also easily reach the site via public transit and buy a ticket upon arrival. I usually like to travel in such a way, but as the temperatures were -17 degrees Celsius and my time in Krakow was limited, I went with the warmer and more convenient option.
Arriving at the site, the group waited around while our coordinator fetched the tickets and took care of other logistical arrangements. Despite it being low season, the salt mines were packed with swarms of people.
As it was too cold to wander the grounds outside, I chose to warm myself up with nice cup of cappuccino at their little cafe.
Eventually our coordinator rounded us up to wait in line for one of the uniformed tour guides (employed by the mine) to lead us to a 380 step staircase that would take us down 64 meters underground. The overall tour involves walking over 2 kilometers, lasts about 3 hours and finishes at 135 meteres underground. Imagine that the mine actually stretches along 3 kilometers and reach depths of 327 meters, most parts of which are closed to the public.
If you think the hike sounds tough or you suffer from claustrophobia, you need not fret as the passage ways are very open and quite easy to walk along. You also stop for frequent breaks to listen to your tour guide speak abut the history of the salt mines and point out sites of interest.
The miners were a religious bunch and throughout the mine, you’ll encounter various chapels such as this one.
Then there’s a rather special story about a Hungarian princess who is said to have “inspired” the culmination of salt in this particular mine. As the mines brought a great amount of prosperity, Princess Kinga came to be viewed as the guardian angel to miners in the area.
The statues below depict the story of the princess and of course are carved out of salt.
As you continue your walk, you’ll see many recreations providing insight into how the mine was run by labourers.
Not only were miners religious, they were also superstitious about gnomes! The group stopped as music played and we were treated to a super cheesy light show.
This is where I almost regretted making a trip to the salt mines … I could have been doing something a lot more fun like snapping photos of street art around Krawkow.
But as we continued walking, things started to get more interesting. It finally felt that we were descending into Middle Earth and it started to look like the set of a Lord of The Rings movie.
And another chapel.
Finally, the absolute best part of the entire tour is the rather iconic cathedral, all of which is entirely carved out of salt! Even the chandeliers are comprised of salt pieces.
In the cathedral, weekly church services are held. People even book weddings and other religious events here.
Next, we were treated to some rather stunning views of some mine shafts.
The tour ends where you can purchase gifts from the gift shop. I scored some rose scented bubble bath that contains salt from the mine and supposedly yields health benefits.
Not only this, you can stop for lunch or gaze at the ball room where wedding receptions and other events are held.
As we left, there was yet another chapel! Told you these miner dudes were religious.
My verdict on the Wieliczka salt mines? Mehhhh! To be honest, I felt it was way too touristy and really wish I’d opted for a day trip to Auschwitz instead. Next time …
If you’re interested in making a visit to the mines, check out their web site for more information and have fun reading through their FAQ. This was my personal favorite (and not just for the obvious typo):
Why cannot I touch and lick the salt sculptures?
The salt sculptures not only adorn the Mine, but are also very valuable historic monuments (the oldest ones along the Tourist Route date from the 17th century), so we protect them with particular care. The salt sculptures are exposed to the leaching process, or humid air dissolving salt. Tourists who touch the sculptures contribute to accelerating their destruction.
So, visit the mine and be mindful not to lick things even if you’re really hungry! Admission prices vary, depending on whether you’re booked as an individual or with a group.
Address: 10 Daniłowicza Street, 32-020 Wieliczka Poland