We scheduled a morning tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mines on our way out of Kraków. We rarely do tours as a family. In fact, I think this was our first. I’ve always been nervous to join a tour, since toddlers enjoy making noise at inopportune times and don’t care what sort of schedule you’re on. It just seemed courteous to fellow tourists, and my sanity, to stay out of the guided tour scene in this season of life. But we wanted to see the salt mines, and the only way to do it was with a guided group. So, our first guided tour as a traveling family was 100+ meters underground, in a dark and enclosed space. With no way out except to keep going forward. In a pandemic. Go big.
Everything went great up to the very end when Max choked on a chicken nugget mid-boohoo in the cafeteria, where we grabbed an underground lunch before hitting the road. Because heaven forbid we ask him to share ketchup with his brother. Nothing gets your adrenaline flowing like administering back blows and finger sweeps to your child, 300 feet underground, while simultaneously wondering how long it would take paramedics to get down the mine shaft. Family travel is never a perfectly smooth operation. We’re all ok, but I’m 100% certain I carry PTSD from the experience.
But before all that, we huddled outside under a pop-up awning in our masked, and physically distant little family bubble, barely sheltered from the cold, early October downpour that was flooding down from the sky. All the while trying to ensure dry shoes for the rest of the day by keeping the boys from splashing in the puddles encroaching on our feet. I figured if we could make it past the wait for the tour to begin, we’d be good to go. And we were. An underground tour on a rainy day is a good idea.
You start your tour by spiraling straight down over 400 stairs, to the bottom of the mine. We carry-skipped our four-year-old (I think he actually floated to the bottom) and had Max in the Osprey backpack. If you, or your child is exceptionally tall, this setup might not work for you, as there are low ceilings throughout. We are pretty much average height. Set the seat of the backpack as low as you can. Miles kept up like a champ and we made it to the bottom at the front of the pack where we began. Because, as my husband who thinks of literally everything said, if we’re in the front we don’t have to breathe in everyone’s germs on our way down. Do not fact check this.
We made it to the bottom and proceeded to tour for the next two hours. Seeing and learning about the famous Wieliczka Salt Mines with our English-speaking tour guide and about 25 other people. Because we went in October, 2020 the tourist activity at the salt mines was way, way down from 10,000 to about 500 people per week. It felt like we had the place to ourselves, maybe the one and only perk to the pandemic.
We stopped for a break at the halfway point in a large chamber with a little underground café, gift shop and restroom. The dimly lit tunnels put Max to sleep for a backpack catnap. There were a lot of up-and down steps, and walking on uneven ground, but Miles (and everyone else in the tour group) did great.
The Wieliczka Salt Mines have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. I was really impressed by the size, frequency, and grandeur of the underground chapels we passed. The mine is old. Really old. Having been mined since the 1200s. We passed through chambers that had been cut underground in the 1600s. I feel like I learned a little about salt, and a lot about history on the tour!
Thankfully, at the end of the tour, when you are ready to exit after having (or not having) a bite to eat in the restaurant, there is an elevator lift to the top. The only thing about it, is that it is just barely large enough to hold four people, is shaky, and open like a cage on all sides. The good news is that it moves quickly. The bad news is, if you’re claustrophobic or nervous, you might not like it. I’m neither of those things, and even still, I kept my eyes closed.
Mine Fun Facts:
- We walked for two hours, stopping frequently for our guide to talk, and covered around 3 kilometers. Which is about 1% of the mine. If you stretched all the tunnels out they would reach from Krakow to Warsaw (245 kilometers). The longest single tunnel is 1 full kilometer long.
- The tourist route tour passes through 22 chambers and chapels. The largest of which is the Saint Kinga’s Chapel. You can get married there, or head down for 7am Mass in Saint Kinga’s on Sundays.
- Legend has it that the mine was created in the 13th century after salt was discovered there. Now-Saint Kinga from Hungary asked for salt as her dowry, since there were no mines in Poland and she knew it would help the people there prosper. She threw her engagement ring into a shaft of the largest salt mine in Hungary, praying and asking God to help her bring salt to Poland. After arriving in Poland, near Krakow, she told the men in her party to start digging. They struck rock, which she recognized as salt. They broke the rock open and inside was her engagement ring. You can read more legends about the region on our trip to Krakow here.
- History has it that salt has been mined here since 1251. The tourist route tour passes through mine chambers from the 1600s onward.
- Wooden support beams in the mine become petrified because of the salinity of the atmosphere.
- Speaking of salinity, salt actually has antimicrobial properties. Because of the unique underground microclimate, the mine has a health resort specializing in the treatment of respiratory diseases. Right now, this includes stays for recovery after COVID-19.
- All the statues and carvings are done in salt rock by amateur miner-sculptors.
Key Info for Parents:
- There is a potty break halfway through the 2-hour tour. We even had time for a quick snack.
- We carried our toddler in a child carrier backpack and it worked out great. If you’re above-average height, check with the ticket agent and ask if the setup will work. Consider a lighter, lower carrier like the Ergo 360, vs. a higher-riding carry pack.
- There are over 400 steps down to the bottom initially. An elevator takes you up at the end.
- The tour has many up-and-down steps in the middle. Much ground is covered, but the walking periods are short in-between stops.
- Once you exit there is no access to restrooms. This might have been because of the way they had positioned things for flow of traffic during the pandemic. But to be safe, if you have little ones or, you yourself need to use the WC/restroom before departure, do so prior to the elevator ride.
- Ketchup costs extra. Make sure you purchase enough so your children don’t have to *heaven forbid* share.
For more mine info, and to further plan your trip head to the official salt mines website here.
Have you been to the Wieliczka Salt Mines and have some great info to add? Do you have questions about planning your trip there with kids? Drop them all in the comments below so we can learn from each other’s experience!
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