Experience an otherworldly adventure deep beneath Poland.
With its ancient cities, fairytale castles, Gothic churches and diversified geography, Poland has inspired wanderlust among countless travelers. But what if we told you one of the country’s most unforgettable spectacles lies underground?
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, begun in the 13th century and located less than 10 miles from the historic city of Krakow, descends almost 450 feet into the earth. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, the mine houses nine levels and 152 miles of passageways brimming with countless natural wonders and manmade marvels – from saline lakes to elaborate salt-carved chapels and chandeliers. Its walls have hosted royalty, international leaders, a windsurfer who was propelled across still saltwater, a bungee jumper who took a subterranean plunge, and even a Guinness World Records achievement for underground ballooning in 2000.
Diving into a buried treasure
A typical visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine begins in the Paderewski Shaft, where you’ll be met with an array of chambers, including the heart of the mine: St. Kinga’s Chapel. Complete with intricate woodwork, ornate chandeliers made of salt crystals, and devotional carvings – including one of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” – this centuries-old chamber honors the patron saint of miners. Legend says the mine miraculously appeared when St. Kinga asked for her wedding dowry in salt.
Off the upper gallery of the chapel, travelers choose between the Miners’ Route, offering a technical history of mining, and the more scenic Tourist Route, which takes you more than 800 steps down (an elevator makes the return journey so you don’t have to climb all those steps) and covers nearly two miles of winding galleries and caverns. Astoundingly, the salt labyrinth is so massive that only about 2% is open to the public.
Traversing the Tourist Route
Your underground adventure is set to be a feast for the senses. You’ll begin the Tourist Route nearly 70 yards deep at the mine’s first level. Take a deep breath, taste the salt lingering on your lips and feel the silence surrounding you as you immerse yourself in a 700-year treasure.
Along the route, you’ll find stunning saline lakes and over 20 chambers surrounded by salt in shades of gray, black, white, green and honey. You’ll also see the St. Anthony and Holy Cross chapels, both featuring beautiful altars and freestanding salt and wooden sculptures of religious, historical and mythical figures created by miners over the past 300 years. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll even catch a statue of Snow White’s seven dwarves hauling salt from the site. In other chambers, you’ll explore methods of extracting salt over the centuries through dioramas, along with digging tools and salt transportation devices that double as decor.
Nestled among the Tourist Route is the Stanislaw Staszic Chamber. With soaring 118-foot ceilings, the cavern is among the mine’s largest and reached a world record when one balloonist managed to float seven feet off the floor, 410 feet underground.
The route concludes on the third level, where you can quench your hunger in the Karczma Górnicza restaurant, buy souvenirs, send a postcard using the underground post services, or explore a multimedia exposition and the first underground 5D cinema, which combines 3D technology with the seat movements of 4D cinema and adds exciting special effects such as smoke and water droplets. You can even visit a submerged health resort that has capitalized on the mine’s allergen- and pollution-free air to pioneer a treatment called subterranotherapy said to alleviate respiratory problems. Those who aren’t ready to reenter the world above can stay overnight, as long as they don’t have children younger than age 4.
Tours come in a variety of languages, including English. They start at 10 a.m. and last until 5 p.m. on weekends and 3 p.m. on weekdays. Should you embark on this subterranean escapade, expect to have between 20 and 30 people in your tour and to stay for upward of three hours.
The roots of the mine
Looking at its colorful history, it’s clear the Wieliczka Salt Mine is more than a crystalline spectacle. It is a cultural trove and one of the world’s oldest continually operating mines, having produced table salt from the 1200s until 2007. It’s a place where love and labor and art have collided for centuries. And while the mine has ceased production, hundreds of miners work each day to preserve the popular attraction, helping ensure it survives for generations to come and immortalizing a crucial part of Polish history with it.
Sources: discovercracow.com; thedailybeast.com; wieliczka-saltmine.com; visitworldheritage.com; insider.com; whc.unesco.org; poland.travel/en