This wasn't my first trip to Istanbul. I had visited this mysterious city before, in November 2013 when I spent an entire month living in Beşiktaş, a neighborhood on the European side. Istanbul is spread out over two continents. Back then, I made a spontaneous decision to fly to Istanbul from Dubai when I had heard that Turkey had started issuing e-visas for tourists. This time, I made a spontaneous decision to fly to Istanbul when I heard something else about the city - its one of the top destinations this side of the world for dental tourism.
Quick flashback. I had been exploring Sri Lanka when I developed a severe tooth ache. The dentists told me that I needed a root canal treatment and I almost flew back to India for treatment when I came across some interesting reports on the internet. Istanbul offers world-class root canal treatment at affordable prices from highly-trained dentists. So I said to myself "why not?" and contacted my friend in Istanbul who arranged an appointment with Confi-dent, the dental clinic that he visits.
Flights to Istanbul are relatively cheap from Sri Lanka. I prefer to travel via Etihad whenever I can so I didn't mind catching the early 4.40 am flight. After some visa-verification delays at the check-in counter at Colombo airport, the Etihad staff promptly offered me an upgrade to Business Class to make up for the inconvenience. A free upgrade to Business Class on the World's Leading Airline with a horrible pressure-sensitive toothache - truly a bitter-sweet moment for me!
To make matters complicated, Etihad misplaced my luggage on arrival at Istanbul Atatürk Airport. And since I had arrived towards the end of Ramadan, the dentists were going home for their Bayram holidays (also known as Eid in other Middle-East countries) and my treatment had to be spread out over two weeks instead of one.
From experience, there's only one way to blow off some steam after such a rough start to your trip.
Kittens! The Turks really care about their stray cats and you will find lots of little kitten-petting public parks all over the city. Definitely an under-utilized technique for stress-busting in other countries!
That's a stray cat sleeping inside a cute cat-home outside a cafe in the Nişantaşı neighborhood. As you can tell, Nişantaşı is probably the fanciest neighborhood of European Istanbul and you definitely need to walk around to experience it.
If you do feel the need to get a ride however, I highly recommend the BiTaksi app. It has PayPal integration making it easier to make payments without the need for credit cards or cash. (PayPal was running a '5TL off every ride' promotion at the time as well, which made getting around even cheaper!) Uber is not yet popular in Istanbul but I'm sure that in a few years, they will be.
Back at the dental clinic, I was quite impressed! On my first visit, they took a digital dental x-ray which uses an electronic sensor as opposed to the traditional "film" x-ray. Not only are the radiation levels significantly less (~80% to 90% lower radiation) but the results are instantaneous. The image was captured in mere seconds and transferred back to my dentist's screen in his office where we went over the treatment plan. The root canal treatment would cost 850 Turkish Lira (~USD 300) - this included the cleaning and filling of three roots; as well as the posterior composite restoration of a nearby affected tooth. Compare this with a median of $890 in Chicago for just a single molar root canal, not including the cost of filling. With some negotiation, I even got them to waive off the additional $40 x-ray fee. The senior dentists spoke English very well and the endodontist who worked on my teeth knew enough to explain what she was doing. In fact I was so pleased with the treatment at Confi-dent that on my second visit, I opted to complete an additional two molar fillings for 385 Lira (~135 USD)
With my teeth finally back to normal, I was ready to put them to good use. FOOD!
Turkish breakfasts are large - usually including fresh tomatoes and a selection of cheese, olives, jams, honey, bread and 'cay' (Turkish tea - pronounced "chai"). My favorite dish was "menemen" - lightly scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes, green peppers and spices. I prefer mine with a little bit of "beyaz peynir" (white cheese that tastes quite close to Greek 'feta' cheese). Another breakfast favorite is 'kaymak' - probably best described as "creamy" cream. Served with honey and bread.
Lunches are varied. Istanbul is fairly cosmopolitan and you can find all varieties of international cuisine in the city. In fact, you don't even need to leave your home to find food thanks to an unbeatable smartphone app called Yemeksepeti. With just a few clicks, you can create a profile on this app that offers home delivery from a network of 9000+ restaurants. This is especially useful when you live on the 5th floor of a building without an elevator. They even bring along a portable credit card machine so that you can pay at the door!
But why travel all the way to Turkey for international cuisine when they have so much to offer in their own cuisine? The best kept foodie secrets are the local "lokantasi" scattered all over the city, many of them away from the major streets. These are usually packed with locals around lunchtime and most of the staff won't speak any English. Fortunately, all you need to do is point and nod as all the food is laid out in buffet-style. Lokantasis charge by the plate and portions are usually large and cheap. And of course, they all offer grilled kebabs. My personal favorite? Stuffed peppers and eggplants!
Another "secret" is the Anatolian (Asia Minor) side of Istanbul, specifically the neighborhood of "Kadikoy". A cheap ferry ride across the Bosphoros, Kadikoy is held in high regard by locals and expats alike. I found it to be an ideal blend between the super-hipster Cihangir (avoid!) and the super-traditional Sultanhamet. Another way to describe it would be the neighborhood of "endless cafes". They are literally hundreds of cafes in Kadikoy, within walking-distance of the center. For freelancers, I recommend the "Liberta" cafe where I spent many afternoons working away on my laptop. If you venture deeper in Kadikoy, you will reach Bostanci, a laid-back residential area where I tried siphon-coffee for the 1st time at Baba Bodan Cafe. I also had a long chat with the owner who educated me on his latest experiments with coffee, adding that Baba Bodan was a 16th-century Sufi saint who originally brought coffee to India.
On a completely random note, I came across a barbershop called Coiffeur GOA although nobody inside looked Indian.
In my opinion, Kadikoy is the perfect neighborhood for the 21st century digital freelancer and an ideal location for co-working centers and startup incubators. For a short while, I considered extending my stay in Turkey by applying for the newly-reformed Foreigner Residency Permit. However, the program is working through its kinks and certain steps are still bureaucratic, to say the least. With the growing number of expats in Istanbul, I remain optimistic that this process will become easier in the coming years.