The Wieliczka Salt Mine located in the town of Wieliczka in southern Poland, lies within the Kraków metropolitan area. The mine, built in the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world's oldest salt mines still in operation. From its beginning and throughout its existence, the Royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and mine flooding.
The mine's attractions include dozens of statues and an entire chapel that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The oldest sculptures are augmented by the new carvings by contemporary artists. About 1.2 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually.
The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 327 metres (1,073 ft) and is over 300 kilometres (190 mi) long. The rock salt is naturally gray in various shades, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad-hoc facility for various war-related industries.
The Wieliczka mine is often referred to as "the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland." In 1978 it was placed on the original UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites. Even the crystals of the chandeliers are made from rock salt that has been dissolved and reconstituted to achieve a clear, glass-like appearance. It also houses a private rehabilitation and wellness complex.
Visitors to this site have included Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Fryderyk Chopin, Dmitri Mendeleyev, Bolesław Prus, Ignacy Paderewski, Robert Baden-Powell, Jacob Bronowski (who filmed segments of The Ascent of Man in the mine), Karol Wojtyła (the later Pope John Paul II), former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and many others.
There is a chapel. There is a reception room that is used for private functions such as weddings and celebrations. There is a chamber with walls carved by miners to resemble wood, as in the wooden churches built in earlier centuries. A wooden staircase with 378 steps provides access to the 64 metres (210 ft) level of the mine. There is a 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) tour of the mine's corridors, chapels, statues and lake, 135 metres (443 ft) underground. An elevator provides access to the surface. The elevator holds 36 people (nine per car) and takes some 30 seconds to reach the surface.