Calling all cat lovers: these are the best destinations around the world to immerse yourself in the world of cats. Here, our feline friends are not only cherished, but are also an integral part of the local culture. This International Cat Day, get ready to explore far-flung destinations where cats reign supreme, like Athens, Egypt, Japan, and more. Whether you’re strolling through the cat-filled streets of an ancient Greek city, or visiting modern cat cafés in Tokyo, you’ll find these places a pure heaven for cat lovers.
Istanbul, Turkey – The City of Stray Cats
Istanbul should be renamed Catstantinople (we didn’t come up with that. Credit.) due to its incredible population of charismatic cats. Here, cats are a beloved symbol of the city, so much so that they’ve been immortalized with a statue. Apparently, this love of cats can be traced back to Ottoman times, when Istanbul’s houses were made of wood – which allowed the spread of mouse and rat infestations. Therefore, cats were a welcome companion and a staple in many households.
An unspoken rule amongst Istanbulites is that you provide stray cats with food, shelter, and water. When taking a stroll through this cross-continental city, you’ll see this culture firsthand. Food and water dishes sit outside front doors. Little cat houses populate the streets, providing shelter from the elements. Tip boxes stand outside of restaurants, raising money for vet bills for the local strays. Market stall owners slip a sardine or two to those hungrily waiting by his stand. In these little moments of humanity, you see how the strays are not really strays: they belong to everyone.
That’s not even mentioning all the cats you’ll see yourself. Find them roaming through Istanbul’s bustling markets, or lounging amongst the ancient architecture of the Hagia Sophia or Topkapi Palace. Find them napping on restaurant awnings, peeking from behind rooftops, and stretching out on top of cars. Seeing their curious little faces is always a delight, and part of the Istanbul experience.
Watch Kedi, a really cute documentary that explores Istanbul through the perspective of its charismatic cats.
Meet Istanbul’s cats on Highlights of Turkey
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Athens, Greece – Cat Guardians of the Acropolis
In the heart of Athens, ancient ruins and majestic temples aren’t the only residents worth admiring. The city is home to a thriving community of street cats, known as “gata,” who roam the streets and alleys with an air of independence (what cat doesn’t?). These feline guardians have found their way into the hearts of locals and visitors alike, which is why, like in Istanbul, they’ve come under community care. Locals build little houses for the cats made out of boxes or crates, and in restaurants and in stores, people buy cat food and leave it out for their feline friends along with bowls of water. Be sure to visit the Acropolis Museum, where you can often spot adorable cats basking in the sun amidst the historic ruins.
Greece’s charming cats aren’t only found in Athens. Head to the islands to see charming cats jumping between sugar cube houses, basking in the island sunset glow, and enjoying the slow pace of island life. Photographer Hans Silvester saw the beauty in these island cats, and made them the subject of his work in several books, one of which is called ‘Les Chats des îles‘. Here, you can see how these beautiful cats are part of the very fabric of these Greek Island communities.
Meet Greece’s cats in both Athens and on the islands on Greek Island Hopper
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Cairo, Egypt – Bastet’s Sacred City
In Egypt, cats take on an even more sacred role. Considered one of the first places where cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago, Egypt could be considered the mecca for cat lovers. Ancient Egyptians tapped into the same love that we all have. They believed these magical creatures brought good luck, protected households from evil, and were even considered living reincarnations of cat gods. In tombs in Saqqara, paintings from the Fifth Dynasty reveal cats adorned with collars, living in grand palaces, a testament to their elevated status.
During the pharaonic period, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death, except for sacrificial purposes allowed by the priest class during the Hellenistic period. The Egyptians held such deep reverence for cats that they once lynched a Roman for killing one, despite Pharaoh Ptolemy XII’s attempts to calm the situation.
Legend has it that cats played a pivotal role in a historic battle with the Persian Achaemenid Empire. At Pelusium, the invading Persian forces painted images of cats on their shields and banners, and warriors held cats in their arms. Terrified of harming a sacred feline and facing eternal torture in the afterlife, the Egyptian army fled, leading to the Achaemenid Empire’s rule over Egypt.
Today, Cairo embraces this feline heritage, so you’ll see cats almost everywhere in the city. Look for the elderly men feeding the street cats, a gesture believed to ease passage into heaven. This enduring bond between Egypt and its feline friends reflects a deep-rooted cultural connection that spans thousands of years.
Read Travel journalist Lorraine Chittock’s Cairo’s Cats for an even more in-depth look at this connection.
Discover’s Cairo’s cats on Wonders of Ancient Egypt
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Tokyo, Japan – Cat Cafes and Neighbourhood Neko
In Japan, cats hold a special place in the hearts of the people, making frequent appearances in anime and becoming a significant part of the kawaii culture through adorable cat merchandise. The country’s love for cats is so profound that there are even islands dedicated to these furry friends. Take, for instance, Tashirojima, also known as Cat Island, off the coast of Ishinomaki city in Miyagi Prefecture. Here, the residents worship the several hundred felines that roam the island. There are no dogs (they’re not allowed), and you’ll find shrines dedicated to cats: a testament to their revered status. There are so many cats here that they actually outnumber humans! The love of cats in Japan is so high that there is actually another Cat Island: Ainoshima, near Shingu port in Fukuoka. Which one will you unlock?
Before you decide, let’s take things to Japan’s capital, Tokyo, a city that seamlessly blends tradition with modernity. Here, the love for cats takes on a unique form. There are really cute Cat cafés located around the city, which allow visitors to enjoy a cup of coffee while playing with adorable, curious cats. These have started a craze that has led to these cat cafés popping up in major cities around the world. Moreover, the old neighbourhood of Yanaka has plenty of “neko” (cat in Japanese) charm, where you can explore narrow streets adorned with cat-themed shops and cafes.
Explore Japan’s kawaii cat culture on Splendours of Japan
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Malta – The Island of Cats
Just like those found in Japan, Malta is known as ‘The Island of Cats‘. If you are visiting Valetta, the capital of Malta, you’ll find yourself meeting plenty of cute cats basking in the Mediterranean sun. Head to Valetta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens, affectionately nicknamed cat gardens, to see plenty of kitties strolling around. Be it homes, parks, turn and corner of the streets, felines are integral to Malta. While some locals shoo them away, most feed the cats and provide them temporary shelters. The Maltese strays enjoy the warmth of the sun during the day and sleep with full bellies. We love seeing them lounge on the iconic Maltese balconies or silhouetted against the sand-coloured houses.