You’ll know by now that I’m not a great 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 that 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 appreciated quite how much of a magnet for tourists the salt mine is (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 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, although you might be able to avoid some of the queuing if you book online, or if you join a coach trip from Kraków. 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.
Salt Statues and a Salt Cathedral
It is the art that everyone comes for. The mine is filled with dozens of figures carved from salt: statues of famous people, religious images, and historical scenes. Most of these were carved by miners themselves over the course of many centuries. But the highlight of the tour is the cathedral, a breathtaking construction that was begun in 1876 and took 70 years to complete. Everything in the cathedral (including the chandeliers) is made from salt. It is no surprise that the mine became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
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.
Is a Visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine Worthwhile?
So, would I recommend that you visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine? If I’m honest, I’m not sure that I would have bothered if I’d known what I was going to find when I got there. But, if you decide that you can tolerate the crowds 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. Bochnia 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?