Vegan in Spain: My Top 5 Travel Tips
What comes to mind when you think of Spanish food? If you know anything about the cuisine in Spain, you’re probably visualizing one of the following dishes:
- Jamón (ham)
- Queso manchego (cheese)
- Chorizo (sausage)
- Tortilla española (Spanish omelette)
- Sangria (at least this one’s vegan!)
When I first came to Madrid in 2012, I wasn’t even vegetarian yet, let alone vegan. I took to the Spanish gastronomy immediately, enjoying most everything I tried save the occasional meat dish. I ate with gusto, assisted by my host family and the knowledge that due to a recent relapse with my eating disorder, I needed to regain a substantial amount of weight. Since I wasn’t vegan or vegetarian yet, I rarely paid attention to whether there was plant-based food at the bars, restaurants, and grocery stores I frequented. I did have a vegetarian friend in my study abroad program, however, and I remember vividly her descriptions of the tasteless, brick-like meat substitutes she had to choke down not infrequently for lack of other options.
My friend’s experience, as well as my knowledge of traditional Spanish food, was enough to make me nervous as I nibbled at my vegan airplane meal on my connecting flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen. I traveled to Italy last May and eating vegan there was a breeze, but Spain? The land of jamón and chorizo? I was skeptical. Plenty of other people have had their doubts, too, since I get asked every other day how I can possibly be traveling through Spain as a vegan.
The reality is, however, that living and traveling in Spain as a vegan has been not only easy, but a ton of fun! What I miss out on in meat- and cheese-filled tapas I more than make up for with the incredible array of vegan cafés and restaurants here, especially in larger cities like Madrid. Being vegan in Spain is a little trickier than in the States, but it’s nowhere near as challenging as I expected. I’ve been happy and well-fed since arriving here a month ago, thanks to a few tips and tricks, and so I’m going to share them with you here. Some of these points are specific to Spain, but others apply to all vegan travel - I hope you find them useful!
1. Find out which local dishes are vegan-friendly.
This will vary widely from country to country (and in Spain, from region to region) so do your homework on the local cuisine. Which common dishes are naturally plant-based or easily veganized? This will be important for two reasons: first, you will get to enjoy the traditional foods in your destination, which is a key part of experiencing the culture; second, you’ll have a go-to dish if you find yourself somewhere without vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants.
In Spain, for example, the following dishes are vegan-friendly:
- Patatas bravas
- Gazpacho or salmorejo (common in Andalucía, ask for it without cheese and ham on top)
- Pan con tomate (a traditional breakfast - a friend of a friend confirmed with a baker that most bread in Spain is vegan)
And of course, the classic vegan fallbacks of salads, French fries, and various vegetable dishes can be found in almost every establishment. Do your research! Plenty of cuisines are naturally very vegan-friendly (India, Thailand, Italy) and others are more difficult (Spain, Argentina) but I promise there are at least a couple traditional plates for us vegans everywhere we go.
2. Explore the vegan scene.
Veganism is growing in popularity and with it, our options for dining out. Download the Happy Cow app and look up the veg-friendly spots near you. Rather than focusing on the local foods you’re missing out on - so many people give me pitying looks when I refuse tapa after tapa here - seek out the rad restaurants where you can eat well. Since going vegan, I’ve reframed eating while traveling with a new perspective: I may not try all the local delicacies, but I do get to eat my way through the vegan scene in each city, and that is no less thrilling and exotic a culinary adventure.
Granted, I’ve been in more populous cities (Madrid, Córdoba, Sevilla, Granada), but every place I’ve been in Spain has had at least 5-7 great spots with vegan options. As I write this post, I am sitting in La Libélula Coffee Shop in Córdoba, drinking a coconut-milk coffee with a menu full of vegan options sitting in front of me. The vegan food is there - you just have to find it.
Furthermore, at least in Spain, I’ve found that plant-focused restaurants tend to be cooler and more interesting than the well-trodden spots. Traveling while vegan is a fantastic way to avoid tourist traps and get to know the more local, real-life side of the cities you visit.
3. Embrace the grocery store and read the labels.
A well-stocked grocery store is your best friend while traveling, particularly in more rural areas that may not have many vegan-friendly restaurants, bars, or cafés. Spain in 2018 is lightyears away from Spain in 2012 in this department, and I’ve been delighted to find hummus, tofu, seitan, veggie burgers, plant-based milks, soy yogurt, and vegan cookies in most major supermarket chains in Spain. Mercadona is a particularly good one, but you can find at least tofu or hummus in most of them. Vegan and organic stores abound as well (you can find these on the Happy Cow app, too) so keep an eye out for them. Organic (ecológica) stores may not advertise themselves as vegan-friendly but they usually have a wide variety of vegan products.
Also, and you probably already know to do this wherever you are, make sure you read the labels on everything you buy. Not only is this crucial to avoid a misstep (I accidentally bought crackers with egg in them the other day) it will also help you discover accidentally vegan foods. Learn the words for animal products in the local language so that you can identify them on labels (and on menus at restaurants). I’ve found that while many gluten-free products are clearly labeled, vegan products in major chain stores often are not, so check for it! You’ll find more vegan stuff than you’d expect, at least in my experience. This goes especially for chocolate, cookies, and crackers.
4. Plan ahead.
This tip is rather obvious, but it’s important enough that it bears repeating what every traveling vegan everywhere will tell you: plan ahead! Always bring snacks with you, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. One of the best parts about traveling is being spontaneous, and the last thing you want is to be out and about having a great time…until you get hangry and can’t find any vegan food nearby.
Don’t be that person who has to rigidly plan their day around meals; just be prepared in case you end up out longer than expected. Search for vegan places ahead of time in the areas where you’ll be sightseeing and hanging out, and have your vegan-friendly traditional dish in your back pocket if there aren’t any. Take something to nibble on, even if you think you’ll only be out for an hour. And especially for bus, train, and plane rides, hit the grocery store ahead of time. I’ve found very few vegan options in the convenience stores and vending machines at bus and train stations. That said, Oreos are pretty much everywhere, and last week I assembled a lunch of bread, fruit, and chocolate at a roadside café. Some of my favorite vegan snacks that travel well and are easy to find are the following:
- Oranges and tangerines
- Breakfast cookies (these are everywhere in Spain)
- The obvious and universally European baguette (bonus if you can find peanut butter!)
5. Be flexible.
Before any vegans jump down my throat for this tip, let me clarify: I am not suggesting that you give up veganism or eat non-vegan food. What I mean by flexibility is that unlike in the United States, it will probably not be possible to always be one-hundred percent positive that everything you eat while traveling is vegan. Especially if there is a language barrier, you may end up accidentally eating something with animal products in it. Accepting that possibility will allow you to relax a little and enjoy your travels much more; if you spend the entire trip fretting over whether that chocolate bar wasn’t vegan because you didn’t know the word for “milk” in Russian, you’re going to have a miserable time (but like I said, learn the basic words for animal products). Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care to maintain your veganism - obviously I’m vegan for a reason, and I don’t want to eat non-vegan food - but I am saying that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for any mistakes that happen on the road. Traveling is supposed to be fun! And hopefully part of the reason you’re vegan is because it brings you joy, so be gentle with yourself and you’ll have a better trip.
There you have it - go forth and conquer, and don't let your veganism make you nervous to venture out into the world. Are there any tips you'd like to add? Leave them in the comments below! Happy traveling, vegan babes.