Istanbul is a unique city. The “center of the world” for many centuries. With a storied history that spans millennia, Istanbul was historically one of the most strategically important places in the world and the capital of multiple empires. It is a place where, very literally, east meets west. Spending a few days there last week was an amazing experience.
There was one unique feature, though, that I had not expected: the Istanbul stray cats.
Istanbul: A Cat Lover’s Paradise?
I’m an unabashed “cat person.” While I don’t mind dogs, they have nothing on our feline friends. Cats are the perfect pet. Not overly needy, not overly excitable, happy to let you enjoy their company, but also keen to do their own thing. After being pet-less for years due to our former rental agreement, our family now has two cats. And they are the best.
But pet cats are one thing. Seemingly hundreds of stray cats in any given neighborhood is different. Istanbul is literally strewn with cats.
I first saw a couple stray cats while walking to the Nish Palas, my first hotel while in Istanbul. I thought nothing of them. We have a few strays in our neighborhood at home. People feed them, and they come and go. The actual pet cats (which includes ours) outnumber them.
But then I saw more and more cats. Then like seven at once all hanging out together. The more I walked and explored from Maçka to Taksim that evening, the more cats I saw. They are literally everywhere!!
It is definitely a thing: Istanbul is home to a ridiculous number of stray cats. Estimates put the number in the hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, in a city of 15 million people.
I asked the hotel front desk staff, and he brushed it off as totally normal. Yup. There are just cats everywhere. Isn’t every city like that? Uh…definitely not.
Who Takes Care of All the Cats?
I’ve called the cats strays, but stray really isn’t the right descriptor. The cats are simply a part of Istanbul. They belong to no one and everyone. A stray cat in the U.S. is one that doesn’t have a home. The streets of Istanbul are definitely the cats’ home. People pet them, hold them, and feed them. They are taken care of collectively.
There is even a documentary on the stray cats of Istanbul. I’m not kidding. They are part of the city’s soul.
At first I thought I was the odd one wanting to kneel down and pet a beautiful feline from time to time. But then I noticed the occasional Istanbulite doing the same. Cats are esteemed in the Islamic religion, viewed as ritually clean. So their proliferation makes total sense.
I noticed one kid delicately pick up a kitten straying into a street. The cat was already wandering across the sidewalk again and into the road again when I passed. I, too, picked him up and placed him next to the dish of water someone had left for the cats. The person after me moved him onto the wall itself, where he mewed desperately. No one wants you to run into the street, silly thing!
The issue Istanbul faces is what to do with a cat population that is unlikely to decline anytime soon. Spay and neuter clinics (if they are a thing in Turkey?) could have their hands full for months on end and still not put a dent in the population projection. People would need to round up the cats and bring them into be sterilized.
It’s clear that the cats are loved. These aren’t animals that no one wants around. Yet something needs to be done.
Three Good Places to Find Stray Cats as a Tourist
If you are visiting Istanbul, you’ll certainly see some cats. They are unavoidable. But there are a couple areas where I found a high concentration of felines.
The first was in Maçka Demokrasi Park, at the northern, uphill end. There are several high-end hotels in the Maçka area, including the Park Hyatt and St. Regis. The park is less than five minutes from either of these properties. If you’re staying closer to Taksim, Galata, or in the older section of the city, Maçka will be a bit out of the way.
I’d already seen quite a few cats near the Nish Palas, just a block or two away from the park. It was a morning walk that brought me here randomly. But I’m so glad it did. There are cats everywhere. I probably saw more than a hundred(!).
The other location was a street just off of Istiklal Caddesi where my last hotel was located: the Tomtom Suites. My morning walk up to the pedestrian street brought me face to face with over a dozen cats. And there is good reason they are hanging around there. People are feeding them.
The last location was on my walk from the Fatih Mosque to the Suleymaniye Mosque. There were an inordinate number of cats along some of the streets. I can’t give you an exact route, but if you stick to the parks, around the aqueduct, and near a couple of the mosques, you won’t be disappointed.
Some are friendly. Others are skittish. They really run the gamut. I only picked up a couple. It’s always a bummer to realize you can’t hug every cat. 🙁
Final Thoughts on the Istanbul Stray Cats
Would I plan an entire trip to see cats? Absolutely not. Well, okay. Maybe I’d tack a visit to a cat island in Japan onto a larger itinerary.
But Istanbul has so much more to offer than just cats. They are just an added perk, and a inescapable part of the experience. If you’re a cat lover, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re not, well, there is still time to repent.