It is the fourth largest region in the country in terms of size – it occupies an area of 24,000 square kilometers. It is divided into 21 counties (powiat), including 2 city counties (Olsztyn and Elbląg) and 116 communes (gmina). It is the only Polish region bordering the Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation to the north. It is also the neighbor of four voivodships: the Podlaskie Voivodeship, the Mazovian Voivodeship, the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship and the Pomeranian Voivodeship.
Within the voivodeship there are three historical lands: Warmia, Mazury and Powiśle. The Masurian part includes among others the Masurian Lake Distric, Mrągowo Lake District, Ełk Lake District including Ełk and Iława Lake District. Warmia occupies land in the Łyna and Pasłęka basin, and the capital of the region –Olsztyn - is in the southern part of the voivoidship. Powiśle is the region situated to the northern west of Warmia – right-bank Vistula valley with the city of Elbląg lies within this region.
The area of the voivodeship is located mostly within the former province of Prussia, a land inhabited from the mediaeval times by Baltic tribes of Prussians and Jacwings. The lands conquered in the thirteenth century by the Teutonic Order were inhabited by the population arriving from Germany, Poland and Latvia. A part of the State of Teutonic Order - the so called Royal Prussia - was after the Piece Treaty of Toruń in 1466 annexed to the Kingdom of Poland. The rest, i.e. the Duchy of Prussia - was Polish fiefdom. From the eighteenth century, the Eastern Prussia, was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia as a province, and then until 1945 they were a part of Germany.
Warmia and Mazury Voivodeship has the smallest population density in Poland – 59 persons per square kilometer (in Poland 122 persons per square kilometer on average). Over 1.4 million persons live here, among which 40 percent of population live in rural areas.
Warmia and Mazury are exceptionally ethnically diverse. Among 13 national and ethnic minorities residing here, the most numerous are the Ukrainian and German minorities, then the Roma, Belarusian and Lithuanian minorities. In accordance with census from 2011, over 13,000 people declared Ukrainian nationality, and over 4,600 persons declared German nationality.
Multicultural and religious diversity of this land is the result of historical processes and geographical situation. After 1945 few prewar inhabitants who stayed here, were joined by the settlers from the central Poland, as well as the population displaced from Borderlands (in Polish Kresy) and as part of “Vistula action” (akcja Wisła).
Respect for differences, tolerance and dialog between the representatives of different cultures and traditions are one of the trademarks of the region. The Warmia and Mazury regional parliament (Sejmik in Polish) as the first local government of the region in Poland appointed the commission for national and ethnical minorities. The problems which the social groups face are dealt by the state administration on the voivodeship level.
Warmia and Mazury stands out on a European scale richness of the natural environment. Within this region – also known as the Region of Thousand Lakes - there are in fact more than 2 thousand lakes of the area of over 1 hectare. The biggest one among them is the Śniardwy lake (11,000 hectars), also called the Masurian sea and the longest lake in Poland – Jeziorak (27 km). Other smaller lakes and waterholes, rivers Łyna, Drwęca, Pisa, Pasłęka, Guber, Węgorapa and others, the network of channels and Vistula Lagoon (Zalew Wiślany) create the water network here.
Another wealth of the region are the forests, mainly pine forests and pine-spruce forests, which occupy nearly 30 percent of the voivodeship area. The largest forest complexes are the Puszcza Borecka, Puszcza Napiwodzko-Ramucka, Puszcza Piska and Puszcza Romincka, the last one also referred to as the Polish taiga.
Naturally valuable areas which are subject to different forms of environmental protection, constitute almost 46 percent of the voivodeship area. There are 111 natural reserves among them. The largest one is the faunistical reserve „Ostoja Bobór na rzece Pasłęce” (Beaver reserve along the River Pasłęka”, which occupies area of over 4,200 hectars. The smallest reserve is the Island on the lake Patręciny Wielkie in the commune Kurzętnik, with the area of 0.6 hectars - it has been created for the purpose of protecting the lady’s-slipper orchid, a plant from Orchidaceae family. Apart from them, there are also eight natural landscape parks, 71 areas of protected landscape, 43 sites of community importance in Natura 2000 and 16 sites under special protection of birds in Natura 2000.
The voivodeship is one of the least economically developed regions in Poland. On the other hand, it is one of the least polluted ones, which is reflected in the fact that it belongs to the functional area of Poland’s Green Lungs. The Masurian Lakes were in 2011 the only Polish candidate in the world competition for 7 new wonders of nature. As the only candidate from Europe, they were in the prestigious circle of 14 most beautiful places on Earth.
Natural and landscape advantages facilitate the development of tourism. Over 1 million tourists take rest here every year, including ca. 150,000 tourists from abroad. These statistics do not include those tourists, who have lodges here, nor sailors who spend nights on water in the yacht cabin. It is estimated that ten thousand sail boats and speedboats float on the Masurian lakes during summer. Accommodation base in the region counts more than 40,000 beds. Over one hundred categorized hotels are registered here.
Water tourism is an great asset of this voivodeship. A total length of inland waterways is 352 km. Great Masurian Lake Route is one of the most popular attractions. Canals, which combine the majority of lakes into cruise and rally routes are also characteristic feature of the region. For example, the Mamry lake system is connected with the lakes: Niegocin, Śniardwy and Roś by Szymoński, Mioduński, Lelecki, Tałcki and Jegliński canal. Giżycko, Mikołajki, Sztynort, Ruciane-Nida, Ryn and Węgorzewo are considered to be the major sailing clubs. In total, sailors may use over 80 ports and havens as well as ca. 250 natural watering places.
Canoeing routes are also popular here, in particular Krutynia (99 km) with the developed network of riverside hostels, tent camps and guesthouses. Canoeing trips are also organized on the rivers: Drwęca, Wel, Walsza, Lyna, Sapina and Pisa, as well as lakes in the neighbourhood of Ostróda and Iława with the network of canals and rivers. They have different levels of difficulty and they offer a lot of individual options of canoeing trips.
Elbląg Canal is an exceptional attraction of the region – connecting the lakes of Western Masuria with the Vistula Lagoon. It is over 150 km long and it is the longest sailing canal in Poland. It was being constructed between 1844 and 1881, and it is a unique global monument related to hydrotechnique, thanks to the system of five monumental inclined planes with the so called dry ridge - in Buczyniec, Kąty, Oleśnica, Jelenie and Całuny. Ship and yachts wishing to cope with the difference in level, are placed on the cradles and are drawn on a rail track with steel ropes which are put into motion by a water wheel.
Even up to 60,000 tourists per year have taken a cruise on the Elbląg Canal in the recent years. The Canal is supposed to be made available to water sports enthusiasts again in 2015, after the revitalization process is finished covering the repair works of inclined planes and floodgates as well as deepening works of the waterway. In 2011 president Bronisław Komorowski included the Canal in the list of Historic Monuments, and local self-governments make efforts to include the system of monumental inclined planes into the World Heritage List of UNESCO.
Water sports enthusiasts may also take advantage of the Vistula Lagoon, which has an area of 838 square kilometers and is 2.5 m deep. During winter it is a good place to do iceboating, and during summer – windsurfing. Ships float on the Lagoon on the designated waterways. Through the Strait of Baltiysk passage into the water of the Baltic Sea is enabled. The main port of this body of water in the Warmia and Mazury Voivodeship is Elbląg. The ports are also located in Tolkmick, Frombork and Nowa Pasłęka, and the havens are in Suchacz and Kaminica Elbląska.
Thanks to numerous monuments of architecture and development, historical and cultural tourism flourish in the region. Gothic castles preserved in different condition are of the highest value – post-teutonic ones on the Masuria, and Castles of the bishops and chapters, cluster mainly in Warmia. The first group includes the castles in Barciany, Nidzica, Ryna, Kętrzyn or Ostróda. There were ca. 150 castles in the State of the Teutonic Order, which constituted the fundament of its power.
The main castles of Warmia’s chapter are situated in the cities of Olsztyn, Reszel and Lidzbark Warmiński. Nicolaus Copernicus, the creator of heliocentrism, has been connected with Warmia for 40 years. In 1507 he became the secretary and doctor of his uncle, bishop of Warmia – Lukasz Watzenrode. He lived then in the Litzbark castle, the main seat of bishops, referred to as the Wawel of the North, currently one of the best preserved gothic castles in Poland.
During 1516 – 1521, Copernicus, as the administrator of the chapter’s goods, resided in Olsztyn, where an astronomical table drawn by him on the wall is still preserved. During Copernicus residence in Olsztyn, he was preparing the castles of Warmia to protect from the Teutonic Knights’ invasion. The astronomer died in 1543 in Frombork and he was buried on the cathedral mount. The place where Copernicus was reportedly buried was discovered in 2005 in the Frombork Cathedral.
There are numerous monuments of sacral architecture in the Warmia region, including the Gothic St. James’ Cathedral in Olsztyn, collegiate church in Dobre Miasto or St. John the Babtist Church in Orneta. The architectonic baroque pearl is St. Mary’s Sanctuary in Święta Lipka.
Pilgrims are also glad to see St. Mary’s Sanctuary in Gietrzwałd. Local apparitions from 1877 are the only apparitions in Poland which have been approved of by Vatican. Currently there are 24 sanctuaries and 9 basilicas within the area of the voivodeship. A unique structure is the monastery in Wojnowo, constructed in the middle of 19th century. It consists of the orthodocs church and the former female old believers’ monastery.
A growing number of tourists are attracted by former fortifications from 19 and 20th century. One of the largest constructions of this kind is the Boyen Fortress in Giżycko from 1855 with an area of 120 hectares on the isthmus between the lakes Kisajno and Niegocin. Its construction cost over 2 million Thalers, and the crew was composed of up to 3,000 soldiers. The fortress was the element of the so called Pozycja Jezior Mazurskich, an enforcement line protecting the Prussia from the East.
Tourists from the whole Word come to Gierłoża, where during the World War II the quarter of Adolf Hitler called Wilczy szaniec was built. Hidden in forests, the complex of formidable shelters was surrounded tightly by safety zones, rings of abatis and landmines. Within the area of 800 hectares there were almost 200 constructions, including bunkers with 8m thick ceiling. Gierłoża is famous for a failed attempt of lieutenant county Claus von Stauffenberg in 20 July 1943 to assassinate the leader of the Third Reich.
Equally interesting constructions of post-German bunkers are made available to the visitors in Mamerki, where the quarter of the high Command of Land Army was located, as well as Pozedrze, where the quarter of SS commander Heinrich Himmler was located, in Kumiecie near Gołdapia – where there was a quarter of the Luftwaffe command and in Radziejce – the seat of the Hitler’s head of chancellery.
The history enthusiasts should not miss the historical reconstuctions, organized in Warmia and Masuria. The production of the Battle of Grundwald of 1410 is the most popular one of them. Over 1,200 reconstructors play the roles of Teutonic knights and joined Polish and Lithuanian and Russian forces and the struggles on the Fields of Grundwald are watched by tens of thousands of viewers. Smaller productions of fights from the Napoleon Era between the French armies and Russian and Prussian armies are made in Lidzbark Warminski and Jonkowo. Apart from that the production of the battle between German and Russian armies in Tannenberg in 1914 is organized in Szkotowo. This battle is considered to be one of the most significant battles in the Eastern Front of the World War I.
Numerous parties and musical or cabaret festivals are held in summer to attract tourists. The most popular ones are: Piknik Country (festival of country music), festiwal kultury kresowej i kabareton (the festiwal of borderland culture and a cabaret marathon) in Mrągowo, Ogólnopolskie Spotkania Zamkowe "Śpiewajmy Poezję" (national castle meetings “Let’s sing poetry”) in Olsztyn, Ostróda Reggae Festiwal, Olsztyńskie Noce Bluesowe (Olsztyn nights of blues music), Międzynarodowy Festiwal Jazzu Tradycyjnego Old Jazz Meeting "Złota Tarka" in Iława, Seven Festival Music in Węgorzewo, Festiwal Piosenki Żeglarskiej (Sailing Song Festival) in Giżycko and Lidzbarskie Wieczory Humoru i Satyry (Humour and Satire Nights) in Lidzbark.
In the summer popular sport events take place in Warmia and Masuria. In Stare Jablonki the World Tour beach volleyball competition is held, for which the best duets in this sport discipline arrive as well as thousands of fans. On the gravel roads in the neighbourhood of Mikłajki a car rally of Poland Rajd Polski is organized. Top crews from a lot of countries take part in this event. From 2012, the regional self-government organizes Warmia Mazury Senior Games every two years, a competition promoting physical activity of seniors. Over 1,200 contestants take part in the games. Numerous sailing regatta are also held in the region.