Ancient Polish Salt Mine Contains A Chapel, An Underground Lake, And Chandeliers Made Of Salt

I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word “mine,” I imagine a deep, dark pit with only minerals and machinery in view.

However, Poland’s historic Wieliczka Salt Mine thwarts all expectations with its gorgeous internal design and chambers alongside its impressive history and cultural importance to the area.

A Piece Of Polish History

mine exterior entrance
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located near Krakow in southern Poland, is one of the world’s oldest mines that is still technically operable. It has such powerful historic importance that it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Its Origins Trace Back To Neolithic Times

passageway down into mines
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Since neolithic times, sodium chloride—or as we know it, table salt—has been produced at the location from the upwelling brine. In the late 13th to the early 14th century, the Saltworks Castle was built. Wieliczka is now home to the Kraków Saltworks Museum.

A Long Time In The Business

carved salt statues demonstrate mining process
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Excavation at the salt mine began in the 13th century, and it continued to produce salt until 2007. The mine itself extends 327 meters (1073 feet) down into the ground, and the horizontal tunnels extend over 287 kilometers (178 miles).

The Product Itself

Salt block from wieliczka salt mines
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In contrast to this one sample shown here, most rock salt is naturally of varying shades of gray, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white crystalline substance that might be expected.

The Mine Was Instrumental In The Development Of Krakow

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Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The salt mine was instrumental in the economic development of the area. The King of Poland from 1310–1370, Casimir III, was so focused on developing the area that he even added a hospital and other amenities nearby to care for the workers.

There’s More Than Just Mining To The Location, Though…

inside the mines
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti /REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti /REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During World War II, the mine was used by the occupying Germans as an underground facility for war-related manufacturing, with artillery and other weapons being created and stored in the vast tunnels and spaces.

The Interior Of The Mines Have Become Quite Beautiful

The Chapel of St Kinga in the cathedral carved out of the rock salt in Wieliczka salt mine
Photo Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images
Photo Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images

The hollowed-out caverns left from centuries of digging have been transformed over the years into gorgeous spaces: grand halls lit by salt chandeliers, chapels devoted to Polish saints, beautiful walkways.

Lake Wessel Is A Sight To Admire

underground river
Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP via Getty Images
Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP via Getty Images

Included inside the expansive mines is an underground lake, named Lake Wessel. Extravagant galleries and walkways ave been carved and built around it; it kind of looks like something out of a fairytale.

From Mining To Scuptling

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is carved in the salt rock
Photo Credit: Grzegorz Galazka / Mondadori via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Grzegorz Galazka / Mondadori via Getty Images

Many of the miners would become artists once they’d finished their dangerous work: they’d use their skills to carve intricate designs into the rock salt. For example, this piece is a recreation of Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Salt Sculpture Is Still Performed Here

Sculptor Stanislaw Aniol works on a salt sculpture of Wieliczka city gate's keys
Photo Credit: BARTOSZ SIEDLIK / AFP / GettyImages
Photo Credit: BARTOSZ SIEDLIK / AFP / GettyImages

Salt carving is still done in the mines to this day. This photo depicts an artist, Stanislaw Aniol, sculpting a set of “keys to the mines” to be gifted the members of the Italian soccer team.

There’s A Chapel Located Down There

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Photo Credit: Getty Images
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Chapel of St. Kinga is located 330 feet below ground level and carved out of the rock salt. Due to the sacred nature of the space, it is only possible to organize selected celebrations there, such as Holy Mass for family celebrations like baptisms and weddings.

Salt, But It Looks Like Wood

ornate cross and wooden frame around it
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

In certain parts of the chapel, the rock was carved and combined with wooden elements, as was the norm in other churches during the early centuries of Roman Catholocism, as is shown on this cross and alcove with salt statues at the base.

The Mine Has Seen Some Very Impressive Vistors

Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and Sophie,the Countess of Wessex visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Photo Credit: Piotr Malecki / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Piotr Malecki / Getty Images

In this photograph, you can see Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, visiting the mines, but other visitors include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (an esteemed German writer) and Pope John Paul II.

Out Of Operation For Mining, But Still Very Busy

exterior mining complex
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Due to falling salt prices and mine flooding, commercial salt mining was discontinued in 1996 and the mining came to a total halt in 2007, but the grounds are still available for tourism.

Visitors From Around The World Come To Explore

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Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Federico Meneghetti / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There are two separate routes you can explore extending from the chapel: the mining route, which shows a detailed history of the mines and their function, or the scenic route with gorgeous carvings, vaulted chambers, and fairytale-like views.

See The Original Equipment

Horse-powered winch hoist, old Wieliczka salt mine
Photo Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images
Photo Credit: DeAgostini / Getty Images

Even though modern technology was used in the mine at the time the mine halted it’s actual mining operations, much of the original equipment is still intact for tourists to view.

The Legend Of St. Kinga Adds Fascination To The Chapel

An interior of St. Kinga's Chapel, a subterranean church
Photo Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Kinga was a Hungarian princess who was due to marry Duke Bolesław of Poland. They were both rich, so she didn’t think it was important to bring money to the marriage. Instead, according to legend, she asked her father to make her dowry up in salt. Upon moving to Poland, she demanded her men start digging what would eventually become this mine.

It’s Also A Cultural Experience

Polish Folk Dancers
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

Beyond the physical magnificence of the mines and the historical importance they have in the development in the area, visitors can also marvel at displays of traditional Polish culture, like folk music and dancing.

Salt In The Wound Might Not Be A Bad Thing

Patients exercise in the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is a leading tourist site as well as a venue for the treatment of respiratory diseases.
Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP via Getty Images
Photo Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP via Getty Images

The salt is believed to have healing abilities, especially for respiratory diseases. The mine even contains a health resort where patients from all over the world can come to for natural healing practices.

Just Another Part Of Krakow’s Rich History

exterior of entrance and roof
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Hermes Images / AGF / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Each year, the mine attracts about 1.75 million visitors from 170 countries. As spectacular as the mines are, they are just one part of the expansive and rich history in Krakow, one of Poland’s oldest and most important cities.