On the edge of Europe lies a city that has been the capital of two powerful empires, and a major centre of both Christian and Muslim faiths. Travellers return time and again to discover a new branch of its history, cuisine, or creativity. Through it all, İstanbul has remained one of the world’s most important trading ports, and a cultural powerhouse whose reach extends around the world.
Today, it is home to a population of over 15 million… along with over 125,000 stray cats.
Cats are as İstanbul as the Hagia Sophia, the Bosphorus, or döner from a street vendor. They are part of the city’s landscape and personality, weaving their way through its streets, bazaars, cafes, shops, and tourist attractions, enjoying the freedom of Türkiye (Turkey)’s no kill, no capture policy. Every neighbourhood has its own cats, and you’ll often see small ‘cat houses’ where locals care for the strays as collective pets. It’s the modern-day manifestation of a sultan’s decree protecting İstanbul’s rodent catchers.
A visitor can learn a lot from these cats. İstanbul is one of the world’s great cities to wander on your own in search of new discoveries. And just as cats graze their way through each day, visitors should stop and sample often in one of the world’s truly great street food cities.
Strays from every part of the world—globetrotters this time, not cats—come to İstanbul each year, and no single landmark draws them more than the Hagia Sophia. Built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I around 535 AD, this magnificent complex was the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost 1,000 years until Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453 transformed it into a mosque. A museum since 1935, Hagia Sophia returned as a mosque by government decree in 2020. To avoid busy prayer times, try to visit between 9am and noon. Buried on-site is the Hagia Sophia’s resident cat, Gli, who passed in November 2020, leaving 118K Instagram followers, and former US President Barack Obama among her fans.
Just on the other side of Sultanahmet Square, the Blue Mosque stands guarded by felines of its own. If you think its patchwork of blue hues is impressive on the outside, its interior will show you why this is one of Türkiye’s most beloved places of worship. Rules for visiting both mosques, along with others open to visitors in İstanbul, are well signposted as you enter. When you’re ready for lunch, follow your nose to the Eminönü district, and graze the famous Grand Bazaar or the nearby Spice Bazaar for tasty souvenirs. If you like fish, there’s no more local snack than a balık ekmek (fish sandwich) eaten overlooking the Bosphorus, especially if you want to make a local feline friend or two. Note that veterinarians discourage feeding the cats, even though that ferry has long sailed. If you’re not a fish fan, pick up the ubiquitous kumpir (jacket potato), gözleme (a flatbread with a savory filling), or döner instead. Street food is everywhere in İstanbul.
You can spend the balance of the day exploring the bazaars, the city’s evocative and ancient cisterns, or Topkapı Palace with its splendid Harem, before a sunset cruise on the Bosphorus with spectacular views over this ancient city. Old İstanbul is compact and walkable, but before you try to do the whole thing in one day, take another lesson from the city’s cats. Rush nothing! Two days should be your minimum to see the essential sights, with breaks for people (and cat) watching over a Turkish coffee or tea. Then ideally, take another day or two to explore today’s İstanbul in trendy, innovative neighbourhoods like Karaköy, or Ortaköy, where İstanbul tries on new looks for the next of its many lives.
This article was originally published in Vol. 29 of Globetrotting Magazine.
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