Travel Myth: I Won’t Be Able to Eat Abroad Because of My Dietary Restrictions

Jul 24, 2017

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In his Travel Myths column, Brian Biros will be debunking common misconceptions about travel, with topics ranging from toilets to terrorism. No myth is safe.

One traveler’s dream can be another traveler’s nightmare. An omnivorous foodie would drool over an itinerary that included steak in Buenos Aires, pasta in Italy or fondue in Switzerland. But what is a vegetarian to do in Argentina? A celiac in Italy? A vegan in Switzerland? The association between a location and it’s trademark cuisine can be great for some, but for others it leads to a scary question: “Will I be able to eat anything?” If this is you, don’t be afraid of your biologically, ethically or religiously necessitated nourishment needs — the answer, more often than you may think, is yes. It turns out much of the world eats the same way you do.

If You’re a Vegetarian

I consider myself to be a recovering vegetarian. Several years ago, as a veggie, I was kicking off a six month journey through South America in Rio De Janeiro, a former home from my pre-vegetarian days — I caved at the first whiff of picanha. Since then, I’ve cycled through non-committal euphemisms including semi-vegetarian, pescatarian, pollo-pescatarian, flexitarian, but probably the most accurate term is what vegetarians call it: not vegetarian.

However, don’t let the weakness-exploiting churrascarias fool you, Brazil has much more to offer than meat on a stick. Roughly 8% of the population is vegetarian and there is even a great selection of vegetarian restaurants — particularly in big cities — to feed them.

If you skip Brazil because you
If you skip Brazil because you’re vegetarian, you’ll miss out on dishes like this. Image courtesy of Org Bistro in Rio.

It’s estimated that 3% of the US population is vegetarian, while 5-10% of the world’s population is vegetarian. Theoretically, it should be easier to eat as a vegetarian abroad than stateside. Keep in mind, though, that many vegetarians globally are that way simply because meat is inaccessible or too expensive. As a traveler often having to eat out and not having your regular go-to spots, you may think you’ll have a tough time finding vegetarian eats.

The team at HappyCow has been helping traveling herbivores get their meat-free fill since the turn of the millennium, with a user-generated directory that lists more than 7,300 vegan and vegetarian restaurants and health food stores in over 100 countries. Many of the locations have reviews from other vegetarians, too, so you’ll know what to expect.

Veggie-Friendly Destinations

If you’d like to make the process easier, look into visiting destinations where much of the population is vegetarian for religious or traditional reasons:

  • India: The Hindu religion calls for a cruelty-free diet, so more than 40% of the population is vegetarian. Some cities like Rishikesh don’t even allow meat.
  • Bali: The Balinese Hindu population follows similar dietary rules, while enlightenment-seeking expats usually prefer seitan to steak. Restaurants in the tourist areas cater to veggie demands, and the tropical fruit selection is a treat for all diets.
  • Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church mandates vegetarian week days and lengthy vegetarian fasts so asking for vegetarian food at a restaurant won’t catch anyone off guard.
  • Israel: There’s a vegetarian population of roughly 10% and between the veggie-friendly Mediterranean offerings to the innovative wave of vegetarian gourmet, veg-heads should be excited to eat here. Even in traditional Kosher meals, meat is kept separate so it’s easy to exclude.
  • Sweden, Italy, UK, Austria, Germany: All rank among the highest percentages of vegetarians in the developed world, so you can expect to find plenty of restaurants to meet the demand.
Vegetarians have full access to buffets in Rishikesh, India. Image courtesy of The Sitting Elephant.
Vegetarians have full access to buffets in Rishikesh, India. Image courtesy of The Sitting Elephant.

If You’re a Vegan

Luckily, there’s plenty of overlap between veganism and vegetarianism so anywhere that caters to ethical vegetarians will also cater to more ethical vegans — some interpretations of strict Hinduism and Ethiopian Orthodox even call for vegan diets. And HappyCow allows you to search specifically for vegan spots. Here are a few locations with vegan-specific highlights:

  • Berlin: According to HappyCow, Berlin is the most vegan-friendly city in the world! Aside from the wide range of vegan cuisine available, specialty stores proudly sell vegan shoes, vegan clothes and even vegan tattoos.
  • Taiwan: Buddhism also follows a cruelty-free diet, and restaurants in Taipei are getting creative with their vegan offerings.
  • Tel Aviv: If there is one thing restaurants in Tel Aviv pride themselves on more than vegetarianism, it’s veganism. You’ll find vegan versions of pizza and burger joints, as well as more exotic cuisines like Persian and Georgian.
Tel Aviv is for vegans who miss their carnivorous days. Image of vegan burger courtesy of Rainbow.
Tel Aviv is for vegans who miss their carnivorous days. Image of vegan burger courtesy of Rainbow.

If You’re Gluten-Free

While most of the world knows what it means to be vegetarian, the gluten-free diet isn’t as globally understood. However, once again, the internet saves the day. The helpful gluten fighters from celiactravel.com have created gluten-free restaurant cards in 54 languages so you can download them to your smartphone or print them out and show them to the waiter or chef. Each card explains your gluten intolerance and informs them as to which cooking methods and food you can and cannot eat.

Some cultures naturally have predominately gluten-free options, but even then you should use the gluten allergy card to avoid surprises. These destinations might make it easier for you:

  • Thailand: Many Thai dishes are naturally gluten-free and even noodle dishes use celiac-friendly rice noodles. But take caution with the cooking sauces, particularly soy.
  • Italy: Surprise! You probably weren’t expecting the land of pasta and pizza to be on this list, but aside from dishes that are naturally gluten-free like risotto, Italy has been on the forefront of battling celiac disease and offering gluten alternative foods.
  • Australia: The land down under has a high awareness for celiac disease and many resources for coping with it. The Gluten Free Eating Directory can help point you to restaurants, shops, products and references across the country.
Pizza sans gluten in Rome, Italy! Image of Voglia di Pizza courtesy of TripAdvisor.
Pizza sans gluten in Rome, Italy! Image of Voglia di Pizza courtesy of Lori B on TripAdvisor.

Another Option: Have Your Own Kitchen

If you normally cook for yourself to satisfy your dietary restrictions, look into staying at an Airbnb. Unlike most hotels that don’t have kitchens, Airbnb rentals usually have access to a full kitchen where you can whip up meals just like you do at home. Hit the local grocery store or farmers market and whip up your favorite meals with the same peace of mind you get in your own kitchen. Another option is to stay in hostels, which normally have full communal kitchens. Plus, whipping up a group meal is the best way to make new friends.

If this is your kitchen, why would you want to eat out? Image of listing in Porto, Portugal courtesy of Airbnb.
If this is your kitchen, why would you want to eat out? Image of listing in Porto, Portugal courtesy of Airbnb.

Check, Please

Just because a country is famous for a certain cuisine doesn’t mean all its residents eat it. In most major cities and countries, there are plenty of locals and travelers that share your dietary restrictions and thanks to a wealth of online resources, you don’t have to search for long to find places where you can eat. And if you’re worried about ending up in a bind, travel with some safe snacks that will hold you over until your next trustworthy meal.

What are your strategies for traveling with dietary restrictions? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image courtesy of Moksa Restaurant in Bali.

Brian Biros is a veteran backpacker who has explored nearly 100 countries on a budget using points and miles to fly for free. He began contributing to The Points Guy after winning the “Into The Blue: Marathon to a Million” photo contest and scavenger hunt. Follow along with his travels on Instagram and read tales of his misadventures at www.biruvia.com

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