I’m not normally a fan of major tourist attractions. So why did I want to visit the underground cathedral in Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine (estimated annual visitors in excess of 1.5 million)? And would I recommend my readers to go there? (Read on to the end of the post and you’ll see that I’ve suggested an alternative for those who don’t like mega crowds.)
Why Did I Visit The Wieliczka Salt Mine?
Although it wasn’t my main reason for visiting Kraków, the salt mine was certainly in my mind when I booked the trip. I’d been wanting to go there for a long time, for the simple reason that I like art and architecture, and I always enjoy anything that’s a little bit quirky. And you can’t get much quirkier than a cathedral built underground in a salt mine.
However I hadn’t fully appreciated that this is one of Poland’s most famous tourist attractions (although perhaps I should have been warned by the number of people offering day trips from Kraków). We took the train to Wieliczka, so didn’t realise how busy it would be until we arrived at the mine and saw the length of the queues. We nearly changed our minds at this point but reluctantly joined the first queue – for tickets – and then the second queue – for the guided tour. About an hour’s wait before we even started!
Highs And Lows Of A Visit To The Wieliczka Salt Mine
The crowds are the main downside of a visit to the salt mine, but there were other things I wasn’t too keen on. The descent to the mine (380 steps in the company of hundreds of other visitors), and the ascent (squashed into a tiny lift), were both rather claustrophobic. For health and safety reasons you have to join a guided tour, which means that you can’t explore at your own pace. And it is all rather touristy, with a light show (complete with “ghost”), cafés and souvenir shops.
On the plus side, once you’re inside the mine the crowd control is very good. Most of the time our group was on its own, or in a room with one other group. The mine itself is interesting, with a history that goes back to the 13th century, or even earlier if you count the neolithic people who extracted salt from the nearby springs. Although the tourist route only covers about 3.5 km, the mine is massive, with 9 different levels and 250 km of corridors. You will see salt-encrusted walls, old mining machinery, and underground lakes. And, of course, there is the art.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Wieliczka became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. This is one of the world’s oldest salt mines, with many kilometres of underground passages. But what is remarkable about it is the art. The passages are filled with dozens of salt carvings: statues of famous people, religious images, and historical scenes. Most of these were carved by miners themselves over the course of many centuries.
It has to be said that, once you’ve battled the crowds and descended to the mines, the place does have a unique atmosphere. As you walk through the magnificent chambers, full of salt sculptures, you have to marvel at the sheer amount of effort that has been put into the artworks over the centuries.
If you’re wondering why all of this art was created, the short answer is that the Wieliczka Salt Mine has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century. An early visitor was the Polish astronomer Copernicus (whose statue is in the mine), and there has been a steady increase in tourism ever since. In the 19th century people started to use the mine for balls and other functions, and today it is popular for weddings, concerts, and much more.
A Cathedral Of Salt
The highlight of the tour is the Chapel of St Kinga. Dedicated to the patron saint of salt miners, this is a breathtaking construction that was begun in 1876 and took 70 years to complete. Everything in the chapel (including the chandeliers) is made from salt.
The chapel is full of all the fittings that you would find in a conventional cathedral. There were reliefs depicting the Nativity and the Last Supper, an ornate altarpiece, and a statue of Pope John Paul II. All – of course – fashioned from salt.
A Possible Alternative?
So, would I recommend that you visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine? The answer is both yes and no. To be honest, I might not have bothered if I’d known about the queues and the crowds. But, if you decide that you can tolerate the waiting and the sometimes cramped conditions, then the mines and the artwork are worth seeing.
However, there might be an alternative. A quick Google search shows that there are other salt mines around the world with statues (and a salt cathedral in Colombia). And one of them is in Bochnia, an easy 40 km train ride from Kraków. The Bochnia Salt Mine is part of the same World Heritage Site as Wieliczka, but it is less well known. It has its own underground chapel, tourist route and a spa resort, and you can even stay the night in one of their underground rooms. If I’d known about it beforehand (yes, I know I should have done my research), I think I would have gone there rather than to Wieliczka.
Have you been to Wieliczka or Bochnia? Which would you recommend to other readers?
How To Visit The Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Wieliczka is an easy train ride from Kraków. But be prepared for queues to buy tickets when you arrive, especially in high season.
- You may be able to avoid some of the queuing if you book a guided tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mines in advance.
- If you prefer to visit Bochnia, take the train direct from Kraków or book a private guided tour.
- If you are staying in Kraków have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com.