The exact population of Istanbul seems to be a mystery. The number changes depending on who you talk to – or which guidebook you read. I did a little research before leaving for Istanbul and read that the population is 12.5 million. One taxi driver in Istanbul told us the population is 20 million; a bartender told us it’s 25 million. After spending eight full days there, walking the streets among residents and visitors and riding public transit, I’m almost certain that the population is closer to one gazillion.
And we were there in the low season. I cannot even begin to imagine what the crowds must be like during the high season. I have never been so overwhelmed in any of my previous travels. The streets were crowded at all times of day, and all days of the week. It didn’t matter if it was a Tuesday or a Saturday. This isn’t coming from some small-town farm girl whose closest neighbor is four miles away. I was born in Chicago and have lived in Chicago my entire life (and in “real” Chicago; not the suburbs). I know a thing or two about crowds. I also know that even notoriously crowded and chaotic Napoli didn’t freak me out as much as Istanbul initially did.
The concept of two-way pedestrian traffic is lost on the people in Istanbul. It’s haphazard; folks are crisscrossing every which way. I can’t tell you how many times I was pushed, stepped on, or elbowed. And there is no such thing as personal space. I felt like there was always someone breathing down my neck or trying to hurry past me. As much as I missed my daughter back home, I was so thankful that we didn’t bring her with us. I would have been a nervous wreck trying to navigate those crowds with her in tow, and it would have been nearly impossible to push a stroller through the insanity.
Of course, these are my initial impressions and reactions to my first full days in Istanbul. We did have several days to spend there and by the fourth or fifth, I had gotten accustomed to the crowded streets and suffocating masses, but it wasn’t easy.