FOR SOME PEOPLE, travel is all about the food. Others would prefer to climb a glacier, get lost in an art museum or gaze up at the clerestory of a Gothic church.

As far as I’m concerned, no trip is complete without a visit to the local barber.


Hadley Hooper for The Wall Street Journal

Over the years I’ve been shorn in Fez, trimmed in Luang Prabang and anointed with aromatic oils in Delhi—all of which I very much enjoyed. But for my money, the Turks are the best barbers in the world. So when my Turkish publisher offered to fly me to the International Istanbul Book Fair, I enthusiastically agreed—so long as there would be time in the itinerary for a haircut.

I was accompanied on my mission by Yusuf, an editor at the publishing house who knew exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to find a real, old-fashioned Turkish barber. He suggested we conduct our search on the side streets of Beyoğlu, a centuries-old shopping district known for its traditional bars dedicated to raki, an anise-flavored spirit; European embassies and hardware stores.

Making our way from Taksim Square down toward the Bosporus, we passed a couple of seedy-looking hostels, a string of nearly identical fish restaurants and more than a few “men’s salons,” modern hair cutteries that seemed to specialize in the gelled-up faux hawk. Eventually, we found an appropriately old-school barbershop by the name of Biber (“pepper” in Turkish). Its chairs were filled with hirsute old men, smoking and drinking tea while they submitted themselves to the straight razor or waited for their greenish-white facial masks to set.

Yusuf told the proprietor of Biber that I was a famous American novelist writing an article about Turkish barbershops for an important magazine. (In addition to his editing work, Yusuf doubles as a publicist.) The proprietor hesitated for a moment, looked at me again, then laughed and said he had just the barber for me.

“As he ripped off the wax, I tried to comfort myse