If you are visiting Krakow, you can’t skip the Wieliczka Salt Mine! It is an extraordinary place, full of legends and treasures. Take a trip to the depths of the earth and find out why salt used to be called “white gold”!
There are so many reasons why you have to go there!
- Did you know that in 1978 the Wieliczka Mine was among the first twelve entries in the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites?
- It is one of the oldest salt mines in the world.
- St. Kinga Chapel is a subterranean church carved in rock salt and is the only underground church in Europe – and it is entirely made out of salt! It really takes your breath away!
- You can also find the world’s largest mining machine made of wood, a horse treadmill from the 17th century.
- Contrary to what might seem possible, in 2014, the first underground balloon flight took place in the highest chamber and lasted 4 minutes.
- Wieliczka entered the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the largest number of participants in the polonaise dance.
- There was also a bungee jump in the Wieliczka mine, a football game, and even a windsurfing ride on an underground lake.
- A total of 23 million tons of rock salt has been mined in the Salt Mine in Wieliczka.
The oldest salt working tools in Central Europe come from the village near Wieliczka and are dated to Neolithic times. People use them to extract salt from water drawn from the spring. When those springs started drying up, people started digging more holes to build wells and get saltwater that way. When doing so, they discovered a rock salt, and around the 13th century, the mining started.
Salt was an essential commodity, being used for conserving food and therefore was important for survival. Salt was so valuable that it was called “white gold”. During King Casimir the Great’s reign (1333–1370), the salt extraction constituted as much as 1/3 of the royal treasury’s income. The high profits from salt mining enabled King Casimir, among other things, to found the Krakow Academy – the first university in Poland. The mine continued to develop and grow in the following centuries.
In 1964, the mining of rock salt in Wieliczka was completely discontinued in favor of more modern mining methods.
In 1978 the mine was added to the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List, and in 1996 a decision was made to end industrial salt production in Wieliczka.
Although the industrial production ceased, the miners to this day continue their work underground. Several hundred miners protect and maintain the Mine every day, manage freshwater leaks, and renovate new historic chambers, corridors, and shafts.
The Salt Mine in Wieliczka spans over 300 km! The deepest level is 327 m underground and is divided into 9 levels.
The Tourist’s Route is 3.5 km long and includes 20 chambers, 800 stairs, and descends to the third level of the mine, located 135 m underground.
There is another, more adventurous option – Miner’s Route. It leads through excavations located outside the area of the mine that’s shown during the standard guided-tour. During the Miner’s route, you wear a protective suit and carry a miners lamp. You can try to break the salt lumps, set the bucket wheel in motion, draw the brine from the sinks, and more.
It was, unfortunately, unavailable because of Covid-19 restrictions, but I will definitely go again once the pandemic is over!
St. Kinga Chapel
The most unforgettable attraction in Wieliczka is definitely the Chapel of St. Kinga. It is the largest and richest underground temple. Work on its creation began in 1896, in a huge space created after the extraction of a large green salt lump. It is about 12 m high, 18 m wide, and 54 m long.
Three miners: the brothers Józef and Tomasz Markowski and Antoni Wyrodek, forged the beautiful decorations found within. It took them nearly 70 years! Everything in this underground chapel is made of salt rock – from floor to ceiling with its wall decorations, chandeliers, the altar, the religious statues, reliefs. I am out of words every time I visit this chapel.
To this day, masses are held on St. Kinga’s and St. Barbara’s name day and during Christmas Eve. Because of its good acoustics, there are sometimes concerts held in the chapel too.
The figure of St Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners, is connected with a legend about salt discovery. The daughter of the Hungarian King, Kinga, came to Poland to marry Duke Bolesław the Chaste. She received an engagement ring from her future husband. Her father wanted to gift her silver and gold as dowry, but Kinga asked for salt as Poles already had gold and silver, but they did not have much salt. As a result, the king gifted her Máramaros Salt Mine. On her way to Poland, she visited the mine and knelt to pray next to the entrance. Afterward, she threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt, and when they split it in two, they discovered the princess’s ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners.
Because of the COVID-19 situation, the amount of tours has been limited, and it was my first time where I could marvel at this impressive place without tons of tourists wandering around. Breathtaking!