As the largest city in Turkey and the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul’s cultural riches make it the natural hub for the country’s history and economy. It’s no surprise that nearly 15 million tourists visited Istanbul in 2019 with all there is to see: architectural marvels such as The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and incredible shopping complexes such as The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. But something else that stands out within this magnificent megacity are the cats. 

cat on alleyway staircase in istanbul
Photo by Hatice Yardim.
cat at istanbul harbor
Photo by Tolga Ahmetler.

Some places around the world might think of an estimated 125,000 cats freely roaming the streets as a concern, but locals here embrace the furry friends as part of the community and the city’s identity. 

Islam is the largest religion in Turkey, practiced by over 99% of the population. Within Islamic tradition, cats are viewed as clean and pure. It is also said that the Prophet Muhammad loved cats, so much so that he once allowed for a cat to drink from his ablutions prior to washing himself before prayers. As a result, Islam has a unique relationship with cats and treat them with respect. They are often welcomed when wandering into homes and mosques even including Masjid al-Haram, The Great Mosque of Mecca. 

cats on galata bridge in istanbul
Photo by Sahin Sezer
Photo by Berkin Uregen.

Istanbul is a vibrant city filled with life and energy — whether strolling through the streets at day or night, there is always something to see or do. The city is welcoming with locals dotted all around, socializing over Turkish tea at cozy cafes or outside in the sun fishing on Galata Bridge. In my experience, they’re always happy to help visitors with directions in case they are lost. Red and white striped street food stalls selling treats such as chestnuts, corn or Simrit, a traditional Turkish bread, can be found particularly within Sultanahmet Park between the two iconic mosques, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Sultanahmet Park is where many cats can be found sunbathing in pairs, groups or predominantly alone. They are often unbothered by the large crowds and excited tourists and continue lounging even as the action buzzes around them. 

Photo by Oksana Simanovscaia.
Photo by Nancy Lova.

My favorite part of my trip to Istanbul was visiting the Grand Bazaar. Spread across 30,000 square meters of streets and alleys, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Even here, the cats of Istanbul can be seen wandering through the thousands of shops and stalls, providing extra decoration alongside the endless gifts, souvenirs and accessories for visitors to buy and even here. They often love making themselves comfortable amongst rugs, carpets, and other fabrics.

Cat perched on colorful table cloth
Photo by Zoher Ismail.

Within the city, cats have become a significant part of Istanbul’s culture. Locals leave food and water out in parks, gardens and in front of homes despite the cats being strays. People believe that the cats are free, while also seeing a shared responsibility for them as neighbors. Here, cats are respected and also seen as legal beings with even a legislation in place protecting them from harm, ensuring they are safe at all times. Istanbul is an iconic city known for its grand architecture and wealth of history and culture but due to its relationship, respect and love for the furry feline friends, Istanbul is undeniably and rightfully also known as The City of Cats. 

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