The regions of Poland

Malopolska Region (Little Poland) Possibly in name, but certainly not in size nor significance, this region of Poland formed the southern half of the initial nation formed in the 10th century by Mieszko I.
Using semantics to establish political dominance, Mieszko took the name 'Great Poland' and relegated 'Malopolska' to his Vistulanian allies. 70 years later, the region gained power when the capital was moved to Krakow and from that springboard developed into what some consider the heart of Poland. Strengthening that claim is the multi-besieged but never-taken Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, home to the immortal Queen of Poland, the 'Black Madonna'. The spiritual 'king' of Poland, Pope John Paul II, grew up in Wadowice, and eventually served as archbishop in Krakow before his election in 1978. This region is also dotted with wooden churches built by the Lemk, an ethnic minority common to the Beskidy Mountains. These peaks are joined by the limestone-ranged Pieniny and the alpine-like Tatra Mountains, which are best enjoyed from Zakopane. The Tatra draw the most tourists, but the Pieniny offer wild rafting down the Dunajec gorge in May through October which is well worth the wetting. If spas are your weakness, then visit the many nestled in the Beskidy in Krynica, Rytro, or Muszyna. In general, these still-pristine Carpathian peaks provide an excellent setting for myriad activities, be it horseback riding, hiking, biking, skiing, bird-watching, or whatever else suits your nature-loving fancy.
The Tatra Mountains

If architecture is of interest to you, Malopolska includes not only the renowned beauty of Krakow, but also that of Kazimierz Dolny and Sandomierz. The former in particular is still untouched by time and the tourism already commonplace in Krakow. In addition, being small (fewer than 5000 people) it is well worth a visit. If castle ruins excite your imagination, then seek out the Janowiec, Lancut, or the Krzyztopor. The latter, in Ujazd, well exemplifies the tremendous wealth of the semi-independent Polish magnates. Another well-known magnate went further and established his own town in Zamosc; because he spent his college years in Padua, he styled his town square after those he admired in Italy. Another square and castle worth seeing are in nearby Lublin. Not in the best shape, the center of Lublin provides a glimpse of time past, and atrocities committed: its 'castle' was refashioned into a prison in the last century, and functioned as one in this

Mazowsze Region A sandy land difficult to farm, this part of Poland might have remained obscure except for a twist of fate: Poland teamed up with its eastern neighbor Lithuania in the 16th century and needed a political meeting point closer to the Lithuanian capital in Vilnius. It found it in Warsaw, and from that time on this region became the center of the country.
Outside of the nation's capital, you can explore one of Tylman van Gameren works for the powerful Lithuanian family, the Radziwll, in Nieborow. For another glimpse of castles, try the Romantic version in Opinogora which fittingly houses the Museum of Romanticism. If something more current is to your taste, visit the city of Lodz. Depicted in Wajda's film The Promised Land, Lodz gives you a taste of life in industrialized Poland but do not expect any hidden pockets of aesthetic beauty that you can find in other Polish cities. For another sense of commerce, visit the market town of Pultusk, where trading has gone on for centuries. Mazowsze also offers something for the religious: it is here that the line of the Hasidic Alters began in Gora Kalwaria; commencing with Rebbe Meir Alter, his grandson managed to make it to Israel and continue there. On the sadder end of Jewish history in Poland, you can pay respects at the concentration camp Treblinka. For a different spiritual flavour, enjoy the folk culture in full form during the festival of Corpus Christi in Lowicz where the Archbishops of Gniezno traditionally resided. Or explore the 12th century collegiate church built in the Romanesque style in Tum.

Pomerania Region Poland's answer to Club Med, Pomerania's 500 km long sandy coastline still offers a quiet spot here and there in addition to the numerous coastal resorts like Sopot, Hel, Miedzydroje, Kolobrzeg and Koszalin.
Besides viewing the architectural sites in these once-Hanseatic towns, you can enjoy music in the Opera in the Woods in Sopot or at the music fest in Kamien Pomorski. If you'd like a taste of the coast as well as the unique sand dunes to the south, take the red trail from Leba into the Slovincian National Park (only one of several national preserves in the region). In addition to hiking or biking your way through nature, you can also kayak down the hundreds of lakes linked by rivers. Similar to the better-known (and hence more crowded) Mazurian Lakes to the east, these glacier leftovers also offer excellent sailing and fishing.
Pomerania remains an historically unique region, whose diverse population has included the original Celts displaced by Germans, then Slavs, and then Poles when Mieszko I took the historical capital of Szczecin in 979. Poland did not rule this region for long once it invited the Teutonic Knights in (1226) to quell the historically pagan population. The Knights took over, built a few incredibly fortified castles (an excellent example still stands in Malbork) and ruled the region until 1466. They supplanted most of the native population with Germans (the exception being the Kaszuby, who still practice their language and culture today) and built the port cities into strong mercantile centers. Even when Poland regained the region in 1466, it soon lost it again to the Holy Roman Empire, then the Swedes, and then the Prussians as it focused its energies on the East. During those centuries, the region was divided, and Gdansk became the capital of the eastern component. 400 some odd years later, portions of Pomerania again became 'Polish' after WWI, but to no one's benefit. The lines drawn at the end of the war created the unfortunate Polish Corridor which cut off eastern Pomerania from Germany. That portion reclaimed in WWII is now again in Polish hands, along with the rest of Pomerania (ceded to Poland to compensate for land losses to the east) after more than half a millennium under 'foreign rule'.

Silesia Region Silesia - named for two isolated peaks used as a worshipping ground by the Celts - has exchanged hands over the centuries: initially part of the first Polish nation, it then slowly merged with Bohemia to its south (as Sleszko), then became part of Austria and eventually part of Prussia to its west (as Schlesien).
Given its many masters over the years, the inhabitants are commonly bilingual and tend to think of themselves as Silesians first. As in northern Poland, the German influence and interest in the region is apparent today: Karkonosze was and is becoming again a popular holiday spot, and the former home of the Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann is in Silesia (Jagniatkow). After passing back into Polish hands at the end of WWII to compensate for losses to the east, Silesia now offers a typical Polish mix of the industrial Katowice contrasted with the cosmopolitan Wroclaw. Like other regions in Poland, it has its castles (in Ksiaz or Brzeg), monasteries (Krzeszow, Trzebnica, Lubiaz, or Henrykow), and health resorts (in Polanice Zdroj, Duszniki Zdroj, or Kudowa Zdroj). For pure recreation, the 300 km long Sudety Mountains offer a popular alternative to the Tatry to the east. Here you can hike, ski, bike, or simply relax in the health spas.

Warmia & Mazury Region If you like water, come to the Mazury. When the final glacier departed Poland, it left behind a legacy of a thousand lakes, most of which are interconnected with rivers that make for excellent water-sports.
You can push off from Mragowo which also plays host to a country and western music festival, or from Gizycko which sits to the south of Lake Mamry, or from the more aesthetically-pleasing Mikolajki on the Sniardwy.
If you like castles and churches, come to the neighboring region of Warmia. Here you could visit the numerous Gothic brick churches which testify to the centuries-old Prussian presence. An excellent example of the fortified castles which housed the Bishops of Warmia still stands in Lidzbark Warminski. The spiritual home of the bishops was in Frombork, where that famous Polish son Mikolaj Kopernik also lived out the last decades of his life. Other, less pleasant reminders of the past also exist, one being the eastern-front headquarters of Hitler in Gierloz. This 'Wolf's Lair' was the site of the failed 1944 assassination attempt, and its remains provide a chilling glimpse of the might of Nazi Germany. Stretching a bit farther back in history, the battle grounds of Grunwald outside of Olsztynek still serve as a symbol of resistance to foreign domination: it was here in 1410 that the increasingly ambitious Teutonic Knights were defeated by a mixed army of Poles, Czechs, Tartars, Lithuanians and others in a rather big and rather bloody battle. In Olsztynek itself, you can enjoy an interesting skansen of 18th and 19th century architecture from this region and from Lithuania. Olsztynek is easily reached from Olsztyn, which also offers a glimpse of Kopernik's life: he lived here as a provincial administrator in the 1500's.

Wielkopolska Region (Greater Poland) Visit 'Greater Poland' for its history instead of its (mainly rural, unvarying) landscape. It is from here that the Polonian tribe forged the nation of Poland by joining its lands with those of 'Little Poland' and Silesia when its first dynastic ruler Mieszko I accepted Christianity along with independent status for these regions.
The Piast dynasty that followed ruled Poland for over 4 centuries, initially setting up shop in Gniezno where legend claims that the father of all Poles, Lech, first sighted a white eagle's nest. That spot became the first capital, and that eagle still symbolizes the country today. Gniezno is one stop along the 200 plus km long Piast Dynasty tour, which also includes Lake Lednica (with a notable ethnographic park) and Biskupin (a village with origins back to the Stone age and archeological digs to prove it). Another blast from the past worth appreciating is Kalisz which reaches back to Roman times and earned historical mention as far back as the 1st century. More recently, this region is renowned for its second capital Poznan, a commercial center where appropriately enough the first public signs of discontent with communism broke out in the 1956 riots. Wielkopolska also offers up the typical castles, in Kornik (a hybrid architectural wonder begun in the medieval times and updated by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 19th century), Rogalin (in the Baroque-mixed-with-Neoclassicism style), Goluchow (for a French touch), and in Antonin (as a modern hotel where you can dream away royally).
For those interested in rails, a few narrow gauge lines still operate between Stare Bojanowa and Wielichowa, and Gasawa to Znin. In Wolsztyn, you can even catch a glimpse of a steam engine or two. For something a bit different, visit the beehive skansen in Swarzedz where more than 200 different hives can be enjoyed.