Some 14km southeast of Kraków, the Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) salt mine has been welcoming tourists since 1722 and today is one of Poland's most popular attractions. It's a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels and chambers – about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground – of which a small part is open to the public via two-hour guided tours. First-time visitors take a standard 'tourist' route of the main sights, while return visitors can opt for a more-immersive 'miners' route.
The salt-hewn formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures, while others are adorned with statues and monuments – and there are even underground lakes. The climax of the tour is the vast chamber (54m by 18m, and 12m high) housing the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga (Kaplica Św Kingi). Every single element here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for three men to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed. Other highlights are the salt lake in the Erazm Barącz Chamber, whose water is denser than the Dead Sea, and the awe-inspiring 36m-high Stanisław Staszic Chamber.
Included in the entry price is a further one-hour tour of the Kraków Saltworks Museum, accommodated in 14 chambers on the third level of the mine, where the main tour ends, but most visitors appear to be ‘salted out’ by then. Here you can visit the underground restaurant, after which it's another 15-minute walk to the lift that takes you back up to the real world.
Visitors are guided in groups and the tour takes about two hours. You walk about 2km through the mine, so wear comfortable shoes. The temperature in the mine is 14°C. In July and August English-language tours depart every half-hour from 8.30am to 6pm. During the rest of the year there are between six and eight daily tours in English.
A second touring option is aimed at repeat visitors who have already seen the main sights. The 'miners' route bypasses the mine's highlights in favour of a more immersive experience – visitors wear standard mining clothes and gear (including respirators) and set off in groups of 20 to live the life of a salt-miner for the three-hour tour. It's great for older kids and more adventurous adults. The tour departs from the Regis Shaft, near the centre of Wieliczka.
To reach Wieliczka, both trains and buses depart regularly from the main train and bus stations. The trip costs around 4zł and takes around 30 minutes. Several tour operators, including Cracow City Tours, run bus tours to the mine, starting at around 150zł, including admission.