The Wieliczka Salt Mine was built in the 13th century and produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest salt mines. The mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and its corridors are over 300 kilometres long. The main attractions of the 3.5-kilometre route include dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral that has been carved out of rock salt.
The oldest sculptures in the mine are augmented by the new carvings by contemporary artists. About 1.2 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually. The mine features an underground lake and new exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 3.5-kilometre touring route (less than 2% of the length of the mine’s passages) that includes historic statues and mythical figures carved out of rock salt in distant past. More recent sculptures have been fashioned by contemporary artists. There is also a reception room that is used for private functions, such as weddings and celebrations, as well as a chamber with walls carved by miners to resemble wood, as in the wooden churches built in earlier centuries.
From its beginning and throughout its existence, the royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines (the mining company). Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and mine flooding. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad-hoc facility for various war-related industries.
The mine has been visited by many famous figures. These include, among others, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Frédéric Chopin, Dmitri Mendeleyev, Bolesław Prus, Ignacy Paderewski, Robert Baden-Powell, Karol Wojtyła (the later Pope John Paul II), and former US President Bill Clinton.
The rock salt in the mine is naturally gray (in various shades), resembling unpolished granite, rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect.