If you were to make a bucket list of European landmarks to visit, you’d likely include the classics: Wander the sprawling Gardens of Versailles in France. In London, climb the thousands of steps to the top of Big Ben. Tilt your head and take a silly picture at the Tower of Pisa.
But in Poland, a lesser-known experience awaits, centuries old, but vividly immersive — and similarly impressive. When we unearth some fascinating details about this miraculous attraction, you’ll be tempted to revise the agenda of your next international trip…
Kraków, Poland, is the quintessential European city. Culture, history, architecture, it has them all. But just outside the bustling city streets, a secret gem, hidden to the eye, makes Kraków a place unlike any other.
Cross the bridge out of the city, and you’ll find the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Centuries old, the mine is now a tourist attraction, and people from all over the world travel to see its hidden grandeur. Rest assured, the mine is more than just an underground cavern of tunnels.
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In fact, stepping into the Wieliczka Salt Mine is closer to stepping into a royal palace or a cathedral. It’s ornate, a fact made far more impressive when you consider what everything in the mine is carved from.
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Rock salt! And up until 2007, Wieliczka was a working mine! They produced regular old table salt, the kind you may have once sprinkled on your fries or used to give your last meal a little extra something.
In medieval times, when the mine was founded, salt was a highly valued commodity. Its preservative properties were unmatched, and a mine like Wieliczka meant riches for the taking. For hundreds of years, it was one of Europe’s most profitable businesses.
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Naturally, the wealthy frequented the mine for business dealings, but the miners were the backbone of it all. They spent their working lives picking at the walls of the cave and carving out the beautiful structure — and more — in the process.
When the mine opened in the 13th century, miners began constructing figures from salt for fun. The job trapped them underground for the sunlight hours, so the miners took it upon themselves to make their space feel vibrant.
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The tradition of carving designs in the mines began as a way to honor St. Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners. In fact, Legends say Princess Kinga came to Poland from Hungary to marry Polish prince Bolesław the Pious.
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Before leaving Hungary, the princess tossed her engagement ring down a mine shaft. Then she set off to Poland. She traveled to Krakow with a team of miners, and when they arrived, she instructed them to dig.
They hit something solid! A huge lump of salt. The miners broke open the lump, and nestled inside was the Princess’ engagement ring! From then on, she was their patron saint and kept miners safe and secure during their forays into the earth.
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The chapel built in her honor was adorned with the most lavish embellishments of the entire mine. Skilled artists were brought in to furnish the space. One such artist, Antoni Wyrodek, carved a tribute to da Vinci’s “Last Supper” out of salt.
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At 443 feet deep and over nine levels down, miners constructed breathtaking chambers. Many of these chambers are stunning chapels that draw the eyes upwards.
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But it was at 330 feet below the surface that the miners built their masterpiece. The most famous chapel, dubbed the “crown jewel” of Wieliczka mine, is the Chapel of St. Kinga. Actually, it’s one of the largest underground church structures in the world.
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In more recent years (since the mine opened to the public), and leaders added a sculpture of Pope John Paul II to the chapel. But continuing to commission artwork for the worship space doesn’t make much sense unless it’s being enjoyed, right?
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The present-day owners of the mine agreed the space should be utilized. Every Sunday, holy mass is held in the chapel. Lucky sweethearts can also use the space to tie the knot! Still, the Chapel of St. Kinga isn’t the only area people can wander through…
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If you walked the 2,000 chambers of the mine, it would take about two full months! That’s a lot of real estate! Lots of businesses pounced on the potential of the salt mine to draw curious customers.
A few of the saline chambers host a health resort that’s been around since 1839. The resorts offer a slew of different services: massages, salt baths, and overnight “health sleep.” Relax as your body adjusts to the conditions of a “salt microclimate.”
Millions walk through the Krakow Saltworks Museum annually, learning the ins and outs of its history. But for those looking to take their experiences a little further, there are other underground services, too…
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You can, for instance, take a step into a salt miner’s shoes! The Miner’s Route expedition is an intense trek through the less-developed chambers. Don’t worry, a professional guides the tours. Bonus: you get a cool spotlight helmet.
Contemporary artists also showcase their works in certain chambers. Other chambers are occupied by bars and restaurants and even rented out for conferences.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The miners of Wieliczka could never have imagined their craftsmanship would be marveled at by millions. But if any of them were wandering the caverns and chambers today, they’d surely be delighted!