I've been planning to write this practical guide for some time now. The tourist season is now on so this could be useful for vegetarians and vegans travelling to Istria.
I've been vegan for the past 10 years and was a vegetarian for over 20 years before that. I've lived and travelled in many different countries so my experience living here for the past five years has been that it's not easy being a veggie! Istrian cuisine is dominated by animal products and for most people a meal is not a meal if it doesn't include meat. Also, many people are mostly clueless when it comes to eating plant-based and don't really understand how someone could live on vegetables and plants alone.
I don't know any vegans here and the few people I know who call themselves vegetarian eat fish. Actually many people think fish is vegetarian (from the Catholic tradition of substituting meat with fish on Fridays) so be prepared to explain what you don't and do eat. Indian vegetarians will also have to explain they don't eat anything prepared with eggs.
Though plant-based cuisine is still a new concept here, people are pretty open and will try their best to accommodate you. Sometimes waiters are a bit clueless when asked for suggestions so sometimes it's better to ask them to check with the chef. At restaurants located in tourist spots this should be easier because they'll have more experience catering to plant-based diners.
LOCAL PLANT-BASED DISHES TO LOOK OUT FOR
There are a few plant-based dishes that you can inevitably find on the menu of almost every restaurant in Istria. Look out for the following:
Pasta dishes like fuži, njoki, pljukanci (note that fresh pasta is almost always made with eggs)
Risotto (rižoto) with mushrooms (gljive) or asparagus (šparoge) (when in season)
Roasted vegetables (povrće na žaru)
Swiss chard (blitva) served plain or prepared in a puree with potatoes
Pizza (vegans can request no cheese - bez sira)
EATING PLANT-BASED AT HOTELS
If you're staying in a hotel that's part of one of the large chains like Valamar or Maistra you're in luck because they cater to 'alternative diets' including plant-based and gluten-free, and will have several options on offer as well as staples like dairy-free milk. Smaller hotels will also be happy to cater to you if you let them know your requirements in advance.
VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN RESTAURANTS IN ISTRIA
Artha is a vegetarian restaurant in Poreč run by Klaudija, who's super friendly and speaks English, Italian, German, and of course Croatian. The menu here is about 95% vegan according to Klaudija, and there are many gluten-free options too. I was surprised to see vegan pancakes on the menu, and there are plant-based milk options for your coffee. They have many good reviews on Tripadvisor, take a look...
Shanti Raw Bite in Pula serves 100% raw food so this is the only vegan place in town and in the whole of Istria. The menu changes every day and offers lots of raw and delicious goodies like gazpacho, pizza, lasagna, sushi, burgers, spring rolls, and quesadillas. Of course there are desserts too, like fruit tarts, chocolate and coconut cake and sorbets. UPDATE: SHANTI SHUT ITS DOORS IN 2019!
These restaurants are not vegetarian but are notable for their vegan and vegetarian offerings:
Velo Kafe in Labin stands out for its menu with dishes clearly marked as vegan and/or gluten-free.
La Grisa is a small hotel in charming Bale with a pleasant courtyard restaurant. The food served here is exceptional and the chef is happy to suggest off-the-menu vegan and vegetarian options. I've had very good experiences here.
Hotel Amfiteatar in Pula has a restaurant that's a good option if you're looking for something more upscale. Celebrity chef Deniz Zembo has the run of the kitchen here and has created what's Croatia's most innovative vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. These tasting menus are quite the culinary experience and can be paired with local wines and olive oils (see my pics below!). Call in advance to reserve and specify which menu you're interested in.
Super Konzum has more options, but Spar is a vegan 'junk food' paradise where you can find stuff like vegan mayo, cheese, salami, and ice cream.
bio&bio is a chain of health food stores that stock a great selection of veg foods too. Their only shop in Istria is in Pula.
Zelena is a great little family-run vegan shop in Pula. Try their vegan camembert! UPDATE: ZELENA HAS CLOSED! THIS IS SAD NEWS.
You can also find some vegan and vegetarian products in the health food sections of drugstore chains like Bipa, DM and Mueller.
If you know of any other cafes, restaurants and shops that should be on this list, please share the details in the comments below and I'll update this guide!