Despite spending a week in Poland in April 2014, I realized I’ve barely written about it on the blog! Well, considering that Poland is one of my favorite countries, that needed to change. My trip over Christmas and New Year’s only reminded me just how great and unique this country is! Here are 10 things you should know about Poland before you go:

1. Poland is very Catholic

There are lots of very religious countries around the world. Poland’s national religion is Catholicism, and, trust me, you won’t be able to miss it when you visit. During the country’s troubled times, especially under communism in the second half of the 20th century, Polish people turned to religion and the church. The country goes all out for religious holidays like Christmas and Easter (I’ve visited Poland twice now for both), churches will be packed, and everything absolutely shuts down as people spend time with their families. Attending a Catholic mass is something I highly recommend if visiting during a major religious holiday.

2. Poles LOVE Pope John Paul II

No other person is as venerated and loved across the country as Pope John Paul II (or JP2, as I affectionately call him). He was the first Polish pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in centuries. There are statues of him everywhere, in every city, in the most random places you could think. You can buy any sort of Pope John Paul II religious memorabilia easily, and many streets are named after him (for example, ulicja Jana Pawla II in Warsaw). I don’t think any other person could mean as much to a country as Pope John Paul II means to Poland. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

3. The country has suffered immensely throughout history

Poland has been screwed over for centuries. For hundreds of years, people have been dividing and partitioning Poland and the country has passed back and forth between empires. More recently, Poland suffered a great deal during World War II—the country’s Jewish population was decimated during the Holocaust, cities were completely destroyed, and people lived in fear for their lives everyday during Nazi occupation. Following the war, the country was absorbed into the Soviet bloc and fell behind the Iron Curtain. These scars are still visible and tangible today.

4. Złotys are a very cheap currency

Although Poland is a member of the European Union (EU), they have still retained their own currency, the Polish złoty. And good news for people with dollars, euros, or pounds: Poland is incredibly affordable! Things are cheap for western travelers here. Prices are low for pretty much everything: food, beer, vodka, museums, hostels. If you’re on a Eurotrip and need a budget relief, spend some time in Poland. You won’t regret it.

5. There is dog shit everywhere

I don’t think picking up after your dog poops is a thing in Poland. Because there is dog shit literally everywhere—on the streets, in the parks, everywhere. Be careful where you’re walking.

6. Polski Bus is the way to go

The national bus company in Poland is Polski Bus, and I absolutely love them. Prices are shockingly cheap for inter-city bus travel in the country, with lots of buses running frequently on popular routes. They also give you a free small snack! Poland is very well connected with the rest of Europe, and Polski Bus does have international routes as well.

7. Krakow is a perfect “gateway” city

On this most recent visit, Krakow really took my breath away. It is such a beautiful city! The Old Town is gorgeous, the Market Square is the largest in Europe, the architecture is incredible, the church game is on point, the bars will keep you busy, and all in all it’s a city you really should visit. But more than that, I’ve decided that it’s one of the best “gateway” cities between Western and Eastern Europe. It’s a bit less traveled than France or Italy (although not by all that much nowadays), the currency and language are very different, there are those “eastern” quirks like people wanting you to pay in exact change and the style of dress. But it’s still decently safe, a popular tourist destination, an easy city to get around, and a lot of people (especially in the Old Town) will speak English. And for all of these reasons, I think it’s a great gateway city in Central Europe when starting travel in Eastern Europe.

8. Polish beer!

The beer in Poland is cheap and delicious and should be consumed as frequently as possible. You can get a good pint of lager (light beer or “jasne piwo”) for 4-5 złotys (~$1-1.25) if you go to the right place, or 7-8 złotys (~$1.75-2.00) otherwise. The beer should be reason enough to visit the country in the first place.

Grocery stores in Poland have their own vodka aisle… // Krakow, Poland

9. Whatever you do, don’t try to out-drink Poles

Polish people are very friendly, and generally tend to be very welcoming to visitors. But don’t try to out-drink them. You might think that you’re a big drinker and that the only people you wouldn’t try to out-drink are Russians (very true—never try to out-drink Russians, you never will). But Poles are just a hair behind and can drink you down easily. For safety’s reason, don’t try to out-drink them—if you can keep up their pace, that’s bragging rights already!

10. A word on pierogi

Pierogi are Polish dumplings, typically filled with meat, potatoes, or fruit (berries). They’re an incredibly hearty and filling meal—and they are SO. DAMN. GOOD. You absolutely must eat some on a trip to Poland. Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a spring—pace yourself!

Have you ever visited Poland? What were your thoughts?