I recently asked the Traveler, musician and Vegan Chef Lisa Spykers of Veganopoleio, a few questions about how to travel vegan.
Where can people travel as a vegan?
Obviously, some places are better than others, but I don’t think you should let a vegan diet stop you from visiting anywhere in the world as long as you have access to self-catering facilities. Most cities, even in the most ‘un-vegan’ parts of the world, have at least a vegetarian restaurant that generally also caters to vegans.
In my experience though, cities are a lot easier to travel to than rural areas as there is more ingredients available and of course, restaurants.
In small towns and rural areas, you must be prepared to cook. You may not even have plant milk available in the supermarkets if that is something you enjoy (I like oat or soy in my morning coffee).
It all depends on what kind of holiday you want. When I was in the Netherlands, I ate out a lot because there were a variety of options and they were all very good. In Croatia, I didn’t eat out so much except at an excellent restaurant in Dubrovnik called Nishta (and the only vegan one there). There aren’t many vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Croatia yet, and a lot of places did fast foods rather than Croatian dishes which I would have loved to try instead.
Sometimes, there aren’t vegan restaurants in certain areas. Do you ask restaurants to veganize dishes for you when eating out?
Yes, however, I refer to the Happy Cow app first for restaurant choices, reviews and I look at photos to see what the menu food looks like. Then I go to Google which is often more up-to-date with information (especially regarding operating hours). In some countries that have minimal listings (Iran and Turkey for instance), I’ve asked for dishes without meat and dairy, or suggest something easy to prepare/substitute and don’t set high expectations. Sometimes, I’m pleasantly surprised. In Aksehir, Turkey, I communicated with the guesthouse chef via Google Translate and was invited into her kitchen to point out what I could and couldn’t eat. I got a bulgur dish with chickpeas instead of just a regular green salad and fries.
How do you eat cheaply in places where there are often over-priced vegan restaurants and cafes?
I choose places based on originality and cuisine type. For me, the food has to be excellent to warrant the ‘vegan surcharge’ price that some restaurants have. I love Asian food and miss it so much, so if I find great reviews for a place, I’m there (here’s looking at you, Berlin). I also like trying local dishes ‘veganized’ which inspires my future recipe ideas too. Unless I’m absolutely craving it, I don’t go to many falafels, pizza or burger joints. There are a lot of vegan junk food places around so I’m not as excited by them these days (although an exception are the Vegan Junk Food Bars in Amsterdam!).
I also tend not to eat out a lot when I travel as I generally stay in places with kitchens to work on my creations, so that keeps costs low. If you are not buying mock meats and dairy, travelling as a vegan is quite cheap. Your biggest cost would be nuts, some imported fruit and vegetables (so I try to eat seasonal and local produce) and speciality items like nutritional yeast.
What snacks do you find best for travelling in areas where there are not many vegan to-go options available?
Nuts, seeds and dried fruit are really important. Pumpkin seeds in particular are are high in iron, provide protein and are easy to carry. I eat fresh fruit along with this (I’m all about textures). Hummus (if available), carrots, chips and crackers will fulfil the savoury cravings.
If I’m on the road, whether it be a flight or a long bus trip, I try to take leftovers packed in my travel container from my dinner the night before because I find it difficult to consume just nuts and seeds (not that you should). My taste buds get bored. Variety is the key.
How is traveling in Europe as a vegan?
A lot of Europe is great for vegans in terms of having clearly-marked vegan items in supermarkets. Some supermarkets (e.g. in some of the Eastern European countries I visited) will barely have any specialised vegan products so you’ll need to go to a bio/organic store, which there is at least one of in a city centre.
When eating out, there are still some countries (e.g. Portugal) where you pretty much need to go to a vegan or vegetarian restaurant as there will be very little on the local/traditional menu except a salad or chips if you’re lucky. I’ve traveled to at least 15 countries in Europe so far as a vegan (and will visit more in the coming months) and I have survived just fine!
Can I be a vegan and travel in Asia?
Absolutely! I have spent a lot of time in South East Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to name a few). As long as you can communicate that you want no egg, meat stock or fish/oyster sauce, it’s easy to eliminate these from rice and noodle dishes. The great thing about Asian food is that they rarely use dairy, unlike some countries that seem to use it in almost everything (like Scandinavian countries). Of course, in India, you must be careful with ghee (clarified butter) which they use in otherwise vegan dishes.
Can I survive Iran as a vegan traveler?
Iran was a challenge at times. Again, I had kitchens where I stayed so it wasn’t a big problem because Iran has an abundance of fruit, vegetable, beans, grains, nuts and seeds you can buy from the bazaar. Eating out was often limited to rice, a tomato and eggplant dish, bread, salad and falafel (although I later learned that sometimes they use egg). Like Greece, the vegan-friendly dishes are cooked at home and rarely served in restaurants where there is a bigger demand for meat.
In Tehran, there is one excellent vegan restaurant called Zamin. It does veganized versions of the local cuisine, such as doogh (sour yogurt drink) and seitan kebabs (vegan chelokabob) coated in Iranian spice mixes. I brought a non-vegan friend here and he said the flavors were on point.
Popular Destinations to Travel Vegan in Europe
There are quite a few! The UK (London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol) has a huge scene. Poland and the Netherlands were great in each of the cities I visited. Madrid, Paris and Prague were enjoyable. Porto, Portugal has a fantastic buffet called Da Terra. Berlin is one of my favourites for its abundance of choice, quality and its affordability. What I liked about the cities already mentioned is that there are a variety of cuisines available. I like to be able to eat veganized Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Mexican, Italian, Middle Eastern, sweets and even junk food classics (American burgers and dogs) as well as local cuisines when I’m traveling. I grew up on a multicultural diet: one set of Dutch grandparents, the other Cypriot and my Malaysian aunt who exposed me to a variety of flavours at a young age.
A lot of people love Budapest, but I discovered I’m not a big fan of this type of cuisine!
The UK, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, Czechia, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Hungary to name but a few. There are so many more and the scene is changing quickly. I apologise to the readers if I have left any of their favourite countries out! I’m sure when I return to some of these destinations, there will be even more choices.
Popular Destinations to Travel Vegan in the USA
I enjoyed LA — they have an all-vegan upmarket Japanese (Shojin) and a fancy Mexican restaurant (Gracias Madre) and some hipster donut shops (Donut Friend) just to mention a few places. Portland is also a fantastic city on the west coast. I can’t wait to go back to New York which I hear is one of the best cities in the USA and Mexico City has a ridiculously high number of vegan restaurants I discovered in my research (as I’m planning on being there in October!)
Popular Destinations to Travel Vegan in the Middle East
I’ve visited Egypt, Iran and Turkey as a vegan travel and have found some options (rice, pasta and vegetables mostly), but not the abundance that there is on other continents. Egypt has koshari restaurants where they serve just this one dish (rice, macaroni, and lentils topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions). This is generally vegan (you have to ask) in most places, and of course, falafel. One day, I’d like to make it to Tel Aviv which apparently has the biggest vegan population per capita.
Popular Destinations to Travel Vegan in Australia
A lot of people like Melbourne. I only tried a few things when I was home last but I found it quite pricey for the portion sizes (except Lord of the Fries. This is the most affordable vegan fast food there and it is really good!). Price is a reason I rarely eat out in Scandinavian countries too. I’ve only tried two restaurants in Copenhagen even though I go there for work sometimes and four in Sweden. The Swedish ones were slightly cheaper and I really enjoyed my meals there (two were buffet style, Hermans in Stockholm and Vegegarden in Malmo), so I felt my money was well spent.
For vegan food, people rave about Melbourne and Sydney. I’ve talked to someone who spent 6 months in Brisbane and there’s a supportive community there including a regular vegan market.
Popular Destinations to Travel Vegan in Asia
Under the radar, although it shouldn’t be, is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I lived there for several months and love the diversity of the local cuisine: South and North Indian, Chinese and Malay. There are a lot of vegetarian restaurants which are mostly vegan. My favourite Asian buffets are there, and they have the best vegan ice-cream chain I’ve ever tried called Kind Kones! The gluten-free almond meal cones are quite amazing. Thailand of course is another great place for vegans, particularly expat hub Chiang Mai and island Kho Phangan (I had a vegan friend rave about this island).
Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia (Bali) and Vietnam. Sri Lanka had lots of delicious vegan curries and Myanmar had quite a few good vegan dishes too. I did cooking classes in both those countries.
As a vegan traveler, what difficulties did you encounter during vacations or business trips?
Difficulties regularly occur in restaurants when there is a language barrier and veganism is a rare concept. Sometimes, a waiter says they know what ‘vegan’ means but somehow, the message doesn’t get through to the chefs. I’ve listed what I can’t eat when ordering (meat, fish, milk, cream, butter, cheese, egg) and have still found dairy in my food, and then have to awkwardly send it back. I hear the Vegan Passport makes life easier — I must try it next time!
The other difficulty is reading labels in supermarkets but since discovering Google Translate, this has made life a bit easier. I might add, however, that this isn’t a guaranteed method: recently in Croatia, the app did not recognize some of the words on the label. The translations sometimes make for a good laugh though!
Are there any group tours specifically for vegans?
Vegan tours are becoming more popular — I see them posted on Facebook a lot. Vegan cruises have started, there are vegan food tours in some cities and organised travel groups which might suit in countries where there are limited options (they have a vegan chef cook for you). I personally don’t like organised tours because I like to discover things myself, so I don’t know much more about these.
About Lisa Spykers and Veganoploeio
She has predominantly cooked vegetarian food all her adult life despite only being vegetarian for 8 years. After a lot of research, she decided to transition to veganism. She started her Vegan travel journey in 2016 while in Vancouver, Canada.
Vancouver is an easy city to be vegan in and she even had vegan groceries she could order online!
In 2017, she moved to Athens, Greece. After nearly 6 months there, she stumbled on a platform called ‘Taste Please‘ which was essentially the Airbnb of social dining. You host dinners in your home, invite people via Facebook groups and the company takes a 20% cut of your earnings. She signed up, advertised on the Expats in Greece group and discovered that she was the first to host dinners in Athens, and vegan dinners at that! She hosted 5 events over the following months with different themes and cuisines to challenge my skills and make it interesting for guests, showing them that vegan food was really quite interesting and exciting. This included Greek, Thai, Middle Eastern, food related to astrology (yes, a very unique theme) and American Diner food.
She learned a lot about cooking for small groups, time management and kitchen prep (and my kitchen and fridge were TINY). She decided to brand herself as ‘Veganopoleio‘ which means ‘place of vegans’ and is a take on the Greek ‘mezedopoleio’ restaurants that serve small plates with orders of tsipouro (local liquor).
A journalist attending one of her dinners invited her to contribute recipes to ‘Gefsignostis’ gourmet food magazine the following year. During this time, she also catered for private orders in Athens and gave some workshops on how to make simple dairy substitutes. Most of her clients have been non-vegan who are interested in incorporating healthier choices into their lives.
In 2018, she catered 2 charity events: one in Greece and the other in Portugal, both raising money for animal welfare. For over a year now, she has been on the road and has traveled to over 20 countries as a vegan. Traveling is also broadening her skills as she tries to veganize local dishes and tries new ingredients whenever she goes (and yes, she travels with spices!). She currently has a goody-bag of spices from Hungary, Greece, Iran, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and South Africa. Her recent event was held June 6th in Split, Croatia to celebrate a ‘Dinner Around the World’ event and she has veganised traditional Croatian dishes.