The Subterranean Theme Park 390ft Down in a Transylvanian Salt Mine

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Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
It’s not every day you see a full-sized Ferris wheel in an underground salt mine.

Deep underground in Transylvania lies a series of long corridors and reverberating hollows. This hidden complex has been here for centuries, but until its 1992 opening to visitors it had barely been explored by anyone other than miners. Nowadays, however, things are very different.

Maria Terezia Mine view from the top
Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
Seen from above, the boating island in the Terezia mine almost looks like a docked spacecraft.

Today the general public can plunge into the dazzling subterranean world of the old salt mines of Salina Turda – which, far from being a spooky sideshow in Dracula’s former stomping ground, are in reality truly spectacular. Housing a museum, sports facilities and fairground attractions, they’ve been described by Business Insider as among the planet’s “coolest underground sights.”

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Image: Cristian Bortes
A seemingly never-ending tunnel in Salina Turda – not for the claustrophobic

Where once workers toiled away in semi-darkness, the chambers of Salina Turda are these days dramatically lit with cascading tubes of lights, which cleverly accent the mine’s otherworldly aesthetics.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Balconies run along the top of the Rudolf mine, allowing visitors a full view of the chamber.

The effect is akin to walking into a magical playground, or perhaps a giant UFO, and tourists from around the world undoubtedly fill the caverns with sounds of merriment. It’s no wonder, then, that Business Insider ranks the caves as among the world’s “25 Unbelievable Travel Destinations You Never Knew Existed.”

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Image: Cristian Bortes
The rower can be guided by the ethereal light.

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There are five main mine chambers to explore at Salina Turda. The largest, Rudolf, is located 138 feet below the surface and has a length of 262 feet and a width of 164 feet. It’s closely followed in size by the tapering Terezia mine, which is 295 feet high and has a 285-foot diameter.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Stalactites form a beautiful natural backdrop to the Ferris wheel.

However, the complex’s sheer scale is perhaps best demonstrated by the number of attractions it contains – namely a 65-foot-tall Ferris wheel, a boating lake and a 180-seat amphitheater, among others.

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Image: Octav Bobe
The impressive sci-fi stylings of Salina Turda’s Rudolf mine

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Of these chambers, Iosif, Terezia and Rudolf are probably the most impressive. Each has its own unique appeal: Iosif, for example, is known as the “Echoes Room” for its capacity to ricochet sound, while Terezia’s spellbinding lake features an island formed by salt deposits.

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Image: ursu polar
A closer look at the salt island in Terezia mine and its strange-looking structures

The aforementioned Ferris wheel can be found in Rudolf, where entertainment offerings are further complemented by a more educational attraction. Here, via inscriptions on the walls, visitors can see when each of its 13 levels was mined.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Without the illumination, walking down this tunnel might be foreboding.

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Indeed, parts of Rudolf – in which mining operations ceased in 1932 – resemble elements from a science-fiction movie, particularly the giant stalactites on its ceiling. Belying its space-like appearance, though, are its attractions.

Underground sport area
Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
Looking down on a section of the sports area in Rudolf

In addition to its Ferris wheel, the mine features the amphitheater, a miniature golf course, two small bowling alleys, a sports pitch and a playground. And with such an array of sights on offer, the complex is perhaps best appreciated from its well-placed elevator, which affords visitors a bird’s-eye view of the entire main underground expanse.

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The extraction machine
Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
An old timber extraction machine reminds visitors of the mine’s history.

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While Rudolf is Salina Turda’s largest mine, Terezia is the deepest, at 393 feet below ground level. The salt island at Terezia’s heart was formed after 1880, when mining here was concluded. Arguably the standout activity in Terezia is hiring one of its three-person boats. Costing less than $3 each to rent, they’re an exciting means of exploring the mine’s ethereal subterranean lake, which at its deepest sinks to 26 feet.

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Image: Daniel Vijoi
Magnificent man-made and natural features work in harmony at Salina Turda.

The main attraction of the Iosif mine is the fact that it’s relatively isolated – which means that sounds can be heard clearly more than once. Guests can enjoy this mighty noise-reverberation at length before moving on to the Crivac room, where an early salt-lifting contraption dating back to 1881 is displayed. The carts that subsequently moved the salt, and the rails that carried them, can also be viewed here.

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Galeria Franz Josef
Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
Tunnels wind their way through the mine complex, including the Galeria Franz Josef.

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A visual treat with a little history isn’t, however, the only reward for Salina Turda’s visitors. Because the complex’s air is almost free from allergens – and remains at between 51°F to 53°F – it’s particularly beneficial to the respiratory system. Indeed, it’s claimed that regular physiotherapy visits to the restorative atmosphere of its sports facilities can help ameliorate breathing problems associated with asthma and bronchitis.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
A vertiginous view of the mine’s fairground section

Even before it was converted into an underground amusement park, Salina Turda was an interesting place. According to written record, its history stretches back at least as far as 1271. In pre-industrialization days, salt was a precious product whose worth could support an area’s whole financial system.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Visitors wait for a thrilling ride

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The only way to mine for salt in centuries past was by hand, using rudimentary tools. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this was extremely dangerous work – not least owing to the ever-present threat of dehydration.

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Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
The new structures blend in well with the textured walls of the old mine.

Back then there was also a huge risk of excessive sodium ingestion, which had potentially fatal consequences for the body’s vital organs. Hence, while Salina Turda is a place of awe and wonder now, its not-too-distant prior incarnation was undoubtedly somewhere to be feared – for the workers there at least.

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Image: (c) Salina Turda, Photographer: Ananie Hiriscau
The Ferris wheel takes eight minutes for each rotation.

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Despite Salina Turda having initially been one of Transylvania’s premier salt production sites, by the mid-19th century increased competition was taking its toll on the facility. This eventually resulted in its shutting down in 1932.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Looking up into the spokes of the Ferris wheel

Due to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Salina Turda was briefly resurrected as an anti-aircraft shelter. Before it opened as a tourist attraction in the 1990s, however, one section of it was used predominantly as a cheese storage facility.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
Salina Turda’s many attractions make it a thriving spot for tourists.

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While the first visitors began arriving in 1992, it wasn’t until 2010 that the mines were transformed into a world-class tourist destination. Naturally, converting a once-powerful salt mine into an amusement park came with a hefty price tag – €5.8 million, or $7.2 million, to be exact. Such a sum has provoked the odd falling-out between local politicians, possibly because of Salina Turda’s outstanding $2.2 million debt.

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Image: Cristian Bortes
The lights around the fairground area give off an eerie glow.

Finances aside, Salina Turda is a marvel of human engineering – in terms of both its original construction and the subsequent modern-day revamp. Not only is it truly awe-inspiring, but it also offers visitors a glimpse into a significant branch of Romanian history. And then, of course, there are its health benefits. No wonder its visitors come from far and wide.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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