Craziest Places for Cat Lovers
Stephanie Harwin, who writes the cat-obsessed blog Catsparella, will go to great lengths to get her feline fix. On her quest to fulfill a lifelong dream—visiting Japan’s Hello Kitty theme park—Harwin endured a bout of severe food poisoning, a language barrier, and a long journey to reach her happy place.
“You ride a boat through a world of all of the Sanrio characters, and I rode that at least three times,” she enthuses. There’s also a life-size replica of Hello Kitty’s house and a parade each afternoon. “Hello Kitty descends from the ceiling wearing a dress covered in LED lights,” Harwin says. “Going to the park really lifted my spirits.”
Japan is the ultimate travel destination for cat enthusiasts and Hello Kitty just the beginning. After all, this is the country that gave us YouTube star Maru, whose antics have racked up more than 200 million views. Tokyo has become famous for its cat cafés, where you can hang out with the furry creatures, and each February brings the celebration of “Nyan Nyan Nyan Day” (a name inspired by the sound cats make).
While the Japanese have the highest per capita cat ownership in the world, there are people crazy for cats everywhere—London’s Zoological Society even created a global Cat Map that allows you to plot the location of your own pet and upload its photo. All this cat love has resulted in some strangely charming places where travelers can stop to pay tribute.
Since the Middle Ages, the Belgian town of Ypres has put on a Festival of the Cats, during which townsfolk gather in costumes for a colorful parade complete with giant cat figures. Amsterdam supports a floating cat sanctuary and a dedicated museum, while Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, FL, estate is overrun with the descendants of his beloved Snowball, a six-toed Maine coon. Follow up a visit to the estate with a performance by Dominique and His Flying House Cats.
Attempting to explain the hold these creatures exert on our collective consciousness, Harwin muses: “What’s not to love? Cats are cute and cuddly and each has its own unique personality. I’ve even heard people who don’t like cats joke that they enjoy watching cat videos. They’re always doing something funny or cute or interesting or ridiculous, and it’s so easy to assign human characteristics to them.”
We think you’ll agree: these vacation ideas are the cat’s meow. —Emma Sloley
Cat Cafés, Tokyo
Japan’s obsession with all things feline is well documented. After all, this is the homeland of YouTube star Maru, a Scottish fold whose antics have amassed more than 200 million views. Tokyo itself counts more than a hundred “neko” or cat cafés, where patrons come to sip lattes and socialize with numerous cats, who lounge around on chairs, sofas, baskets, and occasionally the laps of their human fans. Some of the more popular: Shimokitazawa’s Cateriam, Nekobukuro in Ikebukuro, Curl Up Café in Haramachi, and Nyafe Melange. There’s even a handy map to locate them all. —Emma Sloley
Festival of the Cats, Ypres, Belgium
The Kattenstoet (Festival of the Cats) is held every three years on the second Sunday of May; the next is scheduled for 2015. It celebrates the noble feline with a street parade of floats, music, stilt walkers, and costumed townsfolk, many of whom dress as cats, witches, or mice. The festival culminates with a performance in which a jester tosses children’s toy cats from the Cloth Hall belfry down to the crowd—a tradition that harks back to the harsh Middle Ages practice of throwing actual cats from the belfry in the spring. (Not to worry: no kitties are harmed in the modern reenactments.) —Emma Sloley
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West, FL
Cat fanatics who are also Hemingway fans will find nirvana at the writer’s former Key West home. The grand, plantation-style limestone house is the domain of around 50 cats descended from Papa’s original Maine coon, Snowball, who was given to him by a ship’s captain. The cats are polydactyl (six-toed), which lends them their distinctive appearance—some say it looks like the cats are wearing mittens. Hemingway named many of his cats after famous people, and the estate carries on the tradition today; look for Lionel Barrymore and Hairy Truman. hemingwayhome.com —Emma Sloley
Moscow Cats Theatre
This second-generation Russian theater, founded by Yuri Kuklachev and his son Dmitri in 1990, performs in Moscow when the troupe—which includes around 120 cats—isn’t touring the world. Shows feature a revolving series of madcap acts with names like Catnappers, Cat Clowns and Love, and Cats from the Universe. Expect to see the Kuklachevs’ furry stars performing stunts: walking a tightrope, teetering on a rocking horse, and posing on top of a mirror ball. kuklachev.ru —Emma Sloley
Kuching Cat Museum, Malaysia
Cats are considered lucky in Malaysia, as in many Asian cultures, and the Kuching Cat Museum in Sarawak pays respectful, if slightly wacky, homage to these fortune-bestowing felines. For starters, you enter the UFO-style building through a giant cat face. Inside await exhibitions, artifacts, artworks, and ephemera dedicated to cats. The pièce de résistance: a thousand-year-old mummified Egyptian kitty. The museum is on a hill, with great views of the city of Kuching—which translates as “cat city.” —Emma Sloley
The Supreme Cat Show, Birmingham, U.K.
At the U.K.’s largest and most prestigious cat show, held each November at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham, you can watch cats relax in their pens and be judged in the ring, and browse for every cat product imaginable at an array of stands. Each cat gets a large double pen, decorated by its owner with brightly colored drapes or more creative trappings based on a given theme—in 2012, it was “Diamonds are forever.” supremecatshow.org —Emma Sloley
Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, Rome
The mission of this sanctuary is to “work together to raise the quality of life of Rome’s abandoned cats”—and it welcomes volunteers. Expect to perform duties such as cleaning cages and distributing food to some of the 300-odd cat residents; if you’re living in Rome you can volunteer as a “foster parent” for young kittens in your own home. The site, which contains ancient ruins, has a glamorous pedigree: while filming at the nearby Teatro Argentina, Italian actress Anna Magnani famously spent her breaks here feeding the cats. romancats.com —Emma Sloley
Dominique and His Flying House Cats, Key West, FL
Dominique LeFort is one of the more idiosyncratic locals—and in Margaritaville, that’s really saying something. The performer and his troupe of trained house cats entertain regularly at Sunset Celebration, a nightly arts festival at Mallory Square Dock. The shaggy-haired Frenchman ushers his nonchalant cats across tightropes and through flaming hoops, all while keeping up a madcap banter with the audience (including his catchphrase, “Clap, clap, clap!”), a shtick that has earned the act a cult following. catmankeywest.com —Emma Sloley
Poezenboot, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Cats and water don’t usually mix well, yet this floating cat sanctuary on Amsterdam’s Herengracht canal has proven a grand success. Founded in 1966 by a local legend named Henriette van Weelde—who took in stray cats and eventually moved them onto a houseboat in the canal—the floating barge has become a tourist attraction, drawing cat lovers and the curious alike. Visitors can volunteer, donate, or adopt. poezenboot.nl —Emma Sloley
Hello Kitty Theme Park, Tokyo
A pilgrimage to Tokyo’s Hello Kitty theme park, known officially as Sanrio Puroland, is a must for fans of the cult cat character (a Japanese white bobtail). The park attracts 1.5 million annual visitors of all ages, who come from far and wide to watch Hello Kitty–themed musicals, take a spin on cat-tastic rides, and visit Hello Kitty’s house, which features portraits of the famous cat’s family and a bathtub shaped like her face. There’s also a boat ride in which another Sanrio character, Cinnamoroll, leads visitors on a trip to Hello Kitty’s party. puroland.co.jp —Emma Sloley
Kattenkabinet, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
This museum’s comprehensive collection of cat-related art includes posters, paintings, artifacts, and even furniture, and the gift shop stocks all manner of catty paraphernalia with which to remember your visit. We’re particularly smitten with the “Cat That Walked by Itself” logo T-shirts, exclusive to the museum. kattenkabinet.nl —Emma Sloley
Le Cimetière des Animaux, Paris
The world’s largest pet cemetery can be found in Asnières-sur-Seine, a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. While it may be dedicated to all creatures in the animal kingdom, with an emphasis on dogs (a statue of Barry, a famous 19th-century Saint Bernard, marks the entrance to the cemetery), the cat also looms large in the mythology of the graveyard; an array of elaborate tombstones commemorates felines both famous and anonymous. You just might encounter some alive-and-well furry critters roaming the site too. asnieres-sur-seine.fr —Emma Sloley
Tashirojima Island, Japan
Cats outnumber the human residents on Tashirojima Island, near Honshu Island in Japan. In the past, the islanders raised silkworms for silk, relying on stray cats to control the mouse population. The fishermen that followed would feed the cats that hung around the inns, and a kinship developed between the two species, aided by a local belief that looking after cats brings good luck and fortune. The island is now a popular tourist destination, complete with shrines to the feline population and architecture shaped like cats. —Emma Sloley
Leopard Spotting, Sri Lanka
You’ll find one of the highest populations of leopards at Yala National Park, in southeastern Sri Lanka. While these gorgeous big cats also live in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and even Russia, Yala has the only population that’s considered the top of its local food chain, with about 350 roaming the park. Safari trips with groups like Mahoora Mobile Safari Camps can get you close enough to count each leopard’s spots. You’ll also have a chance to see nonfeline species like sloth bears, spotted deer, and a variety of crocodiles. —Matt Haber
Jaguar Spotting, Belize
At the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve in southern Belize, you might catch a glimpse of some of the 200 jaguars that live in the preserve, but you’ll have more luck if you go at night. The preserve, which opened in 1986, is home to these slinky predators, but because they’re nocturnal, your best bet is to rent a cabin on the grounds through the Belize Audubon Society, for better nighttime spotting. —Matt Haber
Stray Cat Hostel, Istanbul
Turkey’s largest city has always been a haven for stray cats, which have been considered part of city life for decades. The Stray Cat Hostel has taken Istanbul’s unofficial mascot as its spirit animal and inspiration. The walls of the common areas are decorated with cat-themed art, and the seating is dominated by, you guessed it, cats. According to Stray Cat management, there are three resident felines. The Stray Cat also offers a free night for “artistic travelers who want to make a performance or paint at the hostel.” hostelstraycat.com —Matt Haber
Matilda, the Algonquin Cat, New York City
There may be no more famous cat in New York City than Matilda, the Algonquin Hotel’s in-house guard cat. There may be no more controversial as well, since Matilda, the 10th cat to take up residence in the hotel’s lobby and bar since 1930, found herself subject to a Department of Health investigation in 2011 that forced the hotel’s staff to keep her leashed up behind the check-in desk. After some tabloid back-and-forth (The New York Post called her confinement a “Meow” trage), Matilda was fitted with a vibrating collar that keeps her away from the Algonquin’s kitchen and in good stead with the city. Tourists flock to see her in the hotel’s lobby and even send her fan mail at her official email address: email@example.com. —Matt Haber
Big Cat Rescue, Tampa, FL
Located on 55 acres in north Tampa, Big Cat Rescue is an up-close sanctuary that’s home to 14 species including tigers, lions, leopards, ocelots, lynxes, cougars, and other—often endangered—big cats. Founded in 1992, it has grown to be the world’s largest accredited sanctuary dedicated to big cats, with more than 100 animals that have been abandoned or abused by their previous owners or retired from circuses.
Cheetah and Leopard Safari, Namibia
Okonjima Main Camp in Namibia’s Central Highlands is a laid-back thatched lodge famous for its cheetah and leopard populations, and home to the AfriCat Foundation, responsible for rescuing more than 1,000 big cats since its founding in 1993. After a 10-week upgrade, the main camp reopened in March 2013 with 18 rooms.
This sybaritic Greek isle has another draw besides parties, beaches, and nightclubs—its famous cats, which prowl the postcard-perfect cobblestoned streets. In the island’s main town of Chora, every street has a feline mascot, with every corner offering a cat photo op. Locals may have a love/hate relationship with their strays, but tourists can’t seem to get enough of them. In fact, there are whole coffee-table books devoted to pictures of them. —Emma Sloley
Florida Panther Festival
This event, held each November, offers a host of activities devoted to supporting and educating the public about the beautiful Florida panther, one of the most endangered mammals in the world. (There are estimated to be only 100–160 of the animals left in the wild.) The festival includes talks, live musical performances, adopt-a-panther programs, and an array of field trips like hikes, bike rides, and a buggy tour that let visitors see the panther’s natural territory, especially at the renowned Florida panther refuge. Field trips fill up fast, and registration opens in late September, so get in quick. floridapantherfestival.com —Emma Sloley
Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, India
Tiger safaris are a popular activity for both tourists and locals in India, who join guided jeep tours into regions known for this endangered big cat. The Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, in the gorgeous state of Rajasthan, is the former hunting grounds of the maharajas of Jaipur. The park offers diverse wildlife, picturesque ruins (including a crumbling fort high on the hill), and good chances of spotting one of India’s most graceful creatures up close. Meanwhile, at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, visitors have an even greater chance of spotting tigers—the state is home to 19 percent of India’s tiger population and 10 percent of the world’s tiger population. Be sure to pack that extra memory card. —Emma Sloley
Feline Historical Museum, Alliance, OH
The nonprofit Cat Fanciers’ Association licenses more than 400 annual shows worldwide. For those needing a more accessible feline fix, the foundation runs a small museum dedicated to cats in Alliance, where visitors can peruse the comprehensive collection of cat ephemera, including books, magazines, artworks, and cat show memorabilia. felinehistoricalfoundation.org —Emma Sloley
Inle Lake, Myanmar
The Jumping Cat Monastery, on Inle Lake, sounds like a promising destination for cat lovers—monks there had trained their cats to jump through hoops. But performances seem to be on either temporary or permanent hiatus—all you’ll see are a few felines sniffing fruit and lapping water left on the altars. Instead, head to Inle Lake’s Inthar Heritage House and visit its Burmese cats. Once the preferred breed for Burmese royals, this species had disappeared from the country; the house is working to reintroduce them. —Rich Beattie
Walking Safaris, Africa
Jeep tours are great, but real safari aficionados swear by walking safaris. Several African outfitters offer this novel way of experiencing the flora and fauna of sub-Saharan Africa up close. Micato, for instance, offers a 15-day Private Invitation safari that includes visits to several boutique properties like Campi Ya Kanzi, in the Chyulu Hills of Kenya, where founder Luca Belpietro leads walking tours to spot lions. At Tanzania's Dunia camp, which is situated between the prime wildlife areas of the central and southern Serengeti, guests can spot big cats of all kinds, including rarely seen leopards. If you’d rather someone else did the walking for you, Micato also offers a new Elephant Back South Africa Sojourn that includes stays at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve and game viewing atop elephants at Shambala Private Game Reserve—two areas known for their proliferation of big cats. —Emma Sloley