The Wieliczka Salt Mines are Krakow’s other UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting over a million visitors a year versus Auschwitz’s two million. While it is certainly possible to do the tour yourself (the train station is right beside the carpark), we elected to go on Legendary Krakow’s Salt Mine Tour for 130zł.
The tour included hotel pickup and drop off. For comparison, the train is 10zł return and the tickets currently 84zł (89zł in high season), so it is possible to do it cheaper. If you did it solo you’d still get a guide (they’re compulsory), but the timing of when a guide speaking your language would be able to fit you in their group (limit of 40) would be the issue. With our group we had a ten minute wait for our driver to connect us with our tour guide and get our tickets but it started to snow (in April!) so we had something to amuse ourselves with while we waited.
So we begin with the stairs. Wooden stairs going down, six stairs to a flight, turn down another six. Over and over again. There are little numbers on stickers above each landing, and it’s fun listening to everyone trying to do the math of how many landings there should be given the information that there are 378 steps. There are periodic pauses, which I never figure out if they are caused by our group catching up to the group ahead or just people taking the obvious shot up or down the central shaft. I make sure to have a firm grasp on my camera!!
And then we don’t so much reach the bottom of the shaft (that continues on down into the darkness) as get spat out into a level 64m below the ground. Then begins a delightful procession of corridors, sometimes with exposed salt rock, sometimes shored up with white washed timber, punctuated by caverns of various sizes that have been hand carved out of the salt. It’s quite amazing that the salt can be worked like rock – the floor looks to be marble, but no – it’s salt. Hexagon tiles on the floor? Salt.
Periodically we’ll descend well made wooden staircases with sturdy rails into the depths to see another cavern, some with lakes, some built as chapels with chandeliers and religious statues – the miners were a religious bunch as all dangerous professions tend to be. The most impressive of which is a chapel where, as we arrive, a choir starts singing. We’d luckily chosen a Sunday to visit and a choir comes down to enjoy the acoustics.
The Mine has been operating since the 13th Century and the part we explore in three hours (3km) represents about 1% of the entire complex. We end up 135m below the surface and are glad that there is a lift to take us to the top.
Should I Go?
Definitely! We’d been to Auschwitz the previous day and the tour was a well needed counterpoint to the somber nature of that location. Touring Wieliczka is multi faceted: there’s the historical aspect – salt was valuable for a long time, so the salt mine was an impressive source of wealth. There’s substantial beauty down there – large chapels and lakes with artistic lighting and frescoes. And I think there’s even a touch of Disney – an unnaturally safe environment with dwarves and gnomes and gift shops everywhere: the only thing missing is an automated ride on rails and “It’s a Small World After All” piped through speakers.