Most people who associate salt with a city in Europe think of Salzburg. Salt and Krakow aren’t a usual mix, and yet, for hundreds of years, salt was king for the region. At one point, salt provided a third of Krakow’s income. For a city at the crux of trade routes, it was good to have such a valuable commodity.

Krakow’s salt came from the Wieliczka Salt Mines, located about 10 miles south east of the city center. Mining began there in the 13th century. Although the site stopped producing salt in 2007, today there is a whole lot more to experience at the salt mines than touring old mining shafts.

Hosting a million tourists annually, the Wieliczka Salt Mines were added to the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List in 1978. Not only do the old mines tell the story of eight hundred years of mining history, the seven stunning caverns emptied of salt have more than twenty chapels, dining halls, a hotel, and a spa and health center.

The site’s historical details have all the makings of great story telling. It was used as a refuge in war, was overtaken by invaders, witnessed catastrophic floods and became the graves of those lost in tragic cave-ins. Today, however, the mine’s atmosphere is closer an amusement park, with bungee jumping, windsurfing over salt lakes, tennis, and a marching band.

With dangers ever present, the miners made it a point to attend daily Mass before their arduous work began. The first chapel was carved out of the salt 400 years ago. Since then twenty others have been added. The miners, who taught themselves the art of salt carving, built chapels where everything was made from salt. The Chapel of the Holy Cross was built in 1876 as a thanksgiving offering to God after years of catastrophic flooding were finally brought to an end. The crown jewel among the chapels, the Chapel of St. Kinga, features an altar, a statue of Pope St. John Paul II and grand chandeliers all made from salt.

The descent into the mines starts with 800 steps down to the lower caverns (Travel tip: bring a coat. It is chilly). The seemingly endless flights of steps make it easy to imagine what life was like for the miners, as the rustic stairwells are the same they used centuries ago (the elevators used to return to the surface aren’t much newer).

Mining started at Wieliczka in the 13th century when rock salt was discovered. Shortly thereafter, the Salt Works castle was built over the site (which has been rebuilt several times over the centuries). By the 14th century, salt sales were significant enough that professors as the newly established Krakow University (now the Jagiellonian) were being paid from the revenues. At its height, the salt mine employed over two thousand miners who produced thirty thousand tons of salt annually.

Over the years, new technologies were employed, such as the use of gunpowder and machines to haul salt to the surface. Such dramatic improvements, however, could not prevent mining accidents. In 1992, a mining flood threatened both the salt mines and the community. After two years of struggle to protect the site from the floodwaters the rescue operation was finally completed. 

One doctor, noticing the health benefits of the saltwater, Dr. Feliks Boczkowski, started the first health treatments by building saline baths deep in the mine in 1838. Later, in 1964, Profesor Mieczyslaw Skulimowski recognized the unique underground atmosphere (pollen and allergy free) and established the first underground treatment center of its kind, the Allergy Treatment Health Resort Kinga.

The salt mines offer different kinds of tours for different interests. The classic tour offers a bit of everything, while others are for the more adventurous who want to experience what it was really like to be a miner and explore new parts of the mine. For those interested in the religious significance of the site, the Pilgrims’ Route is available. The two and half hour tour features the numerous chapels, including the magnificent Chapel of St. Kinga and the Way of the Cross, carved by the miners.

The Wieliczka Salt Mines can be reached via car, bus or train and is offering special hours (including nighttime tours) for World Youth Day pilgrims, as well as the opportunity to attend Mass in the underground chapels.

Short video featuring the Wieliczka Salt Mines: