Sofia De Vera combines a heartfelt passion for cinema with over 15 years of critiquing for esteemed film publications, wielding academic credentials from the University of Southern California and New York University, to serve as your personal guide through the enchanting worlds of film and television.
Istanbul has a lot to offer for both national and international filmmakers. The city is known for its awe-inspiring architecture, stunning scenery and religious communities. It is also well known for its rich culture and delicious cuisine. So it will come as no surprise that there are so many wonderful movies set in Istanbul.
Rich in history, teeming with culture, and filled with secrets, Istanbul is one of those cities that you’ll want to mark on your list, for there is no other like it. Even though this millenary metropolis was one the center of the world, it seems like many people often forget to take it into account when planning their trips through Asia.
And that’s a shame, for Istanbul has lots to offer. The city as we know it now is the result of a long and captivating history: during its over 2500 years, Istanbul was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires.
Of course, it wasn’t called Istanbul back then. As the lyrics from the 1953 song by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon say: “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”. Yet many traces of its history are there for you to see: not only are many of the ancient buildings still standing, but the city is still a hub of people from all over the world.
While Turkish tradition is strong among its locals, you call also see how the many travelers that visited it through the centuries have influenced their culture. Nowadays it’s a charming city that’s welcoming to travelers. A perfect spot for your next trip!
These films set in Istanbul have narratives that rely on their settings as much as their main protagonists, and as a result, spectators get a glimpse of this iconic city through the director’s eyes. To honor the concept of cinematic travel, we have also assembled lists of our favorite films shot in some of our all-time favorite travel destinations: Jamaica, Oregon, Edinburgh, Colombia, Ukraine or Turkey.
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
- Journey into Fear (1943)
- Topkapi (1964)
- L’Immortelle (1963)
- Midnight Express (1978)
- Steam: The Turkish Bath [Hamam] (1997)
- Journey to the Sun [Güneşe Yolculuk] (1999)
- Distant [Uzak] (2002)
- A Touch of Spice [Πολίτικη Κουζίνα/Politiki Kouzina] (2003)
- 2 Girls [İki Genç Kız] (2005)
- Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005)
This classic spy film marks one of the first times that the city of Istanbul was ever put to film so it certainly is worthy of being declared one of the best movies set in Istanbul. As such, it’s a very important entry in this list. Journey into Fear was originally a novel by renowned thriller writer Eric Ambler. Released three years before the film, the book told a thrilling spy story set just at the beginning of World War II.
The film follows the plot of the book closely, although some details have been changed—most notably, the fact that the protagonist is American rather than British.
The people behind the camera are very much of note: the movie was penned by Joseph Cotton, one of the most famous leading men of his time, and Orson Welles, the legendary director, and screenwriter who made Cotton famous with his 1941 film, Citizen Kane. Journey into Fear was directed by Norman Foster, who was also very much acquainted with Welles and went on to work with him multiple times.
Journey into Fear tells the story of Howard Graham (Cotton), an American engineer, and his wife Stephanie (Dolores del Río), who finds themselves trying to return home after visiting Turkey. They weren’t there on vacation: Graham works for the American Navy developing armaments and was tasked with making a deal with the Turkish Navy.
While the business goes on smoothly, the couple finds themselves stuck in Istanbul after an assassination attempt on Graham. Turns out that a professional assassin was hired by the Nazis to have him killed. With the help of the local police, the couple will try to escape in a steamboat, but the assassin will go after them.
Next on the list of best movies set in Istanbul comes Topkapi a thrilling and charming heist film that was a very big hit during its time. Like Journey into Fear, Topkapi is an adaptation of a book that had come out just a few years before—meaning that the preproduction of the film became just months after the book was out. The title of the novel was The Light of Day and, like the previous film, it was also written by Eric Ambler.
These aren’t the only books by Ambler that take place in Istanbul, which leads one to believe that the writer was very much enamored by the city. Its many alleys and picturesque characters can be seen in much of his work.
Also of note is the fact that the film was directed by Jules Dassin, who won Best Director in 1955 at the Cannes Film Festival. While he did not earn any awards for Topkapi, the film did win an Academy Award. Peter Ustinov received the award for Best Supporting Actor, which he had also received four years before.
Topkapi sees a woman called Elizabeth Lipp (played by renowned actress Melina Mercouri) who goes to Istanbul in search of riches: she is a thief by trade, although she doesn’t take part in the heists. She’s the mastermind behind them, though.
While visiting the Topkapi Palace, a marvelous building where sultans used to live during the Ottoman Empire, her eyes are caught by a precious dagger with emeralds encrusted on its hilt. Deciding to steal it, she enlists a group of criminals and begins to plan the heist. Among them is Arthur (Ustinov), who is tasked with carrying weapons and explosives without even knowing what they are.
Any fan of cinema who hasn’t seen L’Immortelle should go out of their way and see it straight away—after finishing the rest of this list, of course! This mesmerizing drama is told in such a way that you’ll want to see it two or three times to completely wrap your head around it.
For some, this would be a flaw, but those who see the film will realize how beautifully crafted it is. Suffice it to say that even upon its release L’Immortelle was considered an instant classic, having won the Prix Louis Delluc award, which is given to the best French movie of each year.
The film was directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a very successful novelist who is also one of the most underrated French directors. If you’re familiar with the movies that were being made in France at that time, you’ve probably heard of Last Year at Marienbad, a surrealist drama that Robbe-Grillet made in collaboration with Alain Resnais—a great French director who isn’t at all underrated.
Those who have seen that film will know what to expect from L’Immortelle: a poetic film that isn’t so much about the story as it is about the experience of watching it.
The movie begins with an unnamed French man who has gone to Istanbul for work. As he goes around the city exploring, he meets a mysterious woman driving a top-of-the-line convertible. She invites him in and he accepts. They spend a wonderful time together. Although it’s not clear how much time has passed, one can tell he has fallen in love with her. But, when she disappears, he will realize how much love can hurt.
This next film was based on a book, but not a fictional one. Midnight Express takes place and tells the story of Bill Hayes, an American student who was put in prison in Turkey after trying to get out of the country with hashish in his possession. The consequences of the War on Drugs which began in the early seventies are still felt to this day, so you can imagine how big of a deal it was.
At that time, the United States was completely against anything drug-related. So, when they heard about one of their citizens being locked up abroad for carrying drugs, they decided to make him an example. The film begins in 1970 with Hayes and his girlfriend preparing to leave Istanbul and shows the process by which he was tricked by Turkish and American agents and left alone to be abused by the local prison guards.
While he was sentenced to serve thirty years in a Turkish prison, after five years locked up, he managed to escape. The book of the same name was published a year before and it was written by Hayes himself as a way to share his experience with the world.
Midnight Express was a total sensation upon its release and it’s no surprise: it had award-winning director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone at the helm. While Parker was known, Stone became famous with this film and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (he would go on to write Scarface and Platoon). It also won Best Original Score, which interestingly enough was composed by Giorgio Moroder, a famous Italian producer who is widely known as the Father of Disco.
Unless you’re a fan of Turkish cinema, this movie has probably flown under your radar. Steam: The Turkish Bath is an inspiring story about the importance that some places can have in our lives—a truth that people who travel often hold close to their hearts. It’s a three-way co-production by Italy, Turkey, and Spain.
This is because the film was directed by Ferzan Özpetek, a talented director of Italian and Turkish descent. Steam: The Turkish Bath is a very special film in this list, for is the first featured here to be directed by someone who was born and raised in Istanbul.
Even though he spent most of his early years living in the city, Özpetek did end up traveling to Rome to study cinema and dramatic arts. There, he got his start in the film industry, working as an assistant for many important Italian directors. But when he got the chance to finally make his first film, he decided to do it back in his home city. While his film didn’t win any awards, it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Steam: The Turkish Bath follows an Italian married couple who, over the years, have drifted apart. As Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) lost interest in Marta (Francesca d’Aloja), she decided to have an affair. The two of them are on the brink of divorcing when Francesco’s aunt, who’s living in Istanbul, dies.
So, he’s forced to go to the city to sell his aunt’s property: a big home with a ruined Turkish bath, known by the locals as a hamam. Upon discovering it, Francesco decides to stay for a few weeks in order to restore the bath.
Journey to the Sun [Güneşe Yolculuk] (1999)
Even the biggest fans of cinema are sure not to have seen this film. Journey to the Sun is a Turkish film that didn’t have much distribution through the rest of the world—which is a shame. It’s the kind of story that should be told more often. There are more reasons why this film is worth watching. For one, it was directed by one of Turkey’s most talented directors: Yeşim Ustaoğlu.
She has only made a few feature films, but they are all worth a watch. There is also the fact that the film is beautifully shot and edited: it’s a captivating experience that will make you feel like you’re watching something unlike anything else. As if that isn’t enough, you should also know that the film received much praise from critics. It even won the Blue Angel Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Journey to the Sun tells the story of two young men who try to make a living in the streets of Istanbul, Mehmet and Berzan. Although the two of them are from Turkey, there is a big divide between them: Berzan is from the East, meaning that he’s a Kurd, and Mehmet is from the West.
These two different ethnic groups have been in conflict for a while: since the late seventies, the Kurds have been fighting the Turkish government to create their own separate nation. The film, however, sees these two men becoming very close after Mehmet is unjustly arrested and then ostracized by his dorm roommates for having darker skin than most Turks. Together, they will face the world and its prejudices.
Uzak is a small Turkish drama that took the film community by storm. Those who were able to see it in the various international film festivals where it was shown were shaken to the core by its dark beauty and touching drama. It won over thirty awards, most notably Best Actor (for Muzaffer Özdemir) at Cannes and the coveted Special Jury Prize at Chicago.
What’s most surprising about all this is that the film was produced, directed, and written by just one person: the rising star of Turkish cinema, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Although he became quite well-known with Uzak, he would go on to make a film that was even more successful, 2014’s Winter Sleep. However, Uzak is still regarded by many as one of the greatest films of the 21st century.
The film follows Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), a young man who, after losing his job, has no choice but to move to Istanbul in order to live with Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), an older relative of his. The two of them could not be farther apart: while Mahmut enjoys sophisticated art and works as a photographer, Yusuf doesn’t care for anything artistic. They constantly bicker and argue, seeming to be total opposites in all senses of the word.
One day, Mahmut, who has spent all of the film pretending he’s better than everyone and being close off from the world, decides to reach out to Yusuf. He takes the young man to drive around the countryside and take some photographs, but they end up fighting again, becoming even more distant from each other. Even though there are many people in Uzak, it’s a film about loneliness. It’s sad but very touching.
Coming all the way from Greece is this charming film about a Greek man who recalls his childhood in Istanbul. This is a film that was made by and for food lovers.
A Touch of Spice shows that food is one of the most important aspects of who we were and who we are: the dishes that we eat mark us from our earliest years and become a part of ourselves forever. It’s centered around Greek and Turkish cuisine, so it’s perfect for anyone wondering about what kind of food one may find in Istanbul.
However, you should know that A Touch of Spice is not only about food. It’s a film about being in love with the past. Through the story of Fanis (Georges Corrface) and his childhood love, the film explores the idea of what Istanbul was years ago and what it is today—it dives into how political turmoil can change the people of a country forever.
The film was a major hit in Greece, receiving eight of the now-defunct Greek State Film Awards, given at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
A Touch of Spice follows Fanis Iakovides as he thinks back to his life in Istanbul when he lived with his grandparents. He had a lovely childhood living there, spending time with his grandfather and even falling in love for the first time with a girl named Saime.
But in 1964 most of his family was deported due to rising tensions between Greeks and Turkish: from 1955 to 1978, the Turkish government supported major mob attacks against Greek people in what is now regarded as a genocide. After the turmoil dies down, Fanis decides to go back to meet his dying grandfather.
It is hard to find LGBT movies that are set in Turkey, but there are some out there. This one in particular is perhaps the best among the few LGBT movies filmed in the country.
2 Girls is a lovely film that became a landmark in lesbian representation in Turkey. The film is an adaptation of a book of the same name by Turkish writer Perihan Mağden, which quickly became an international bestseller once it was translated into English.
2 Girls closely follows the events of the book. That is no surprise, for Mağden herself was one of the people who wrote the screenplay. The other person was Kutluğ Ataman, the film’s director, a Turkish-American filmmaker who throughout his whole career has dealt with the subject of self-expression and identity.
The film actually won fourteen awards, from Best Actress to Best Cinematography and Best Director, in one of Turkey’s most important film festivals, the Antalya Golden Orange.
The film follows two girls who find what they need in each other. There’s Behiye (Feride Çetin), who lives in a broken-down and dangerous neighborhood, and Handan (Vildan Atasever), who is lucky enough to be living a really good life in the center of Istanbul. But that life comes at a price: her mother works as a call girl for rich men in the city, something that really hurts Handan.
2 Girls sees Behiye and Handan becoming closer, experimenting with their sexuality and finally finding a happy place in life—wherever the other one is. But as their relationship evolves, they are faced with the harsh reality that is being a lesbian couple in Istanbul. The film will test their love again and again until it becomes too much.
What better way to close this list than with this beautiful documentary exploring the work of some of Istanbul’s most talented musicians? Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul was made by Fatih Akin, a German-born director of Turkish descent who has won many awards over the years, mostly for his fictional movies rather than his documentaries. However, there is no disputing that he is a talented force when it comes to Turkish-German cinema.
Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul was made entirely by Akin. The film consists of him traveling the street of Istanbul with a humble mobile recording studio. As he makes his way through the city, he asks artists and bands to hop on and show the world the work they do.
This naturalistic documentary style allowed for some very authentic recordings to be made. Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul paints a vivid picture of Istanbul’s diverse and appealing music scene. You’ll be able to hear some familiar sounds, like those of rock bands and rappers, but also some exotic arabesques like you’ve never heard.
This documentary is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of what the culture of Istanbul is like: it’s a multicultural city where people from all over the world come to live their lives and create art. While its people have a very distinct culture and way of living, you can also see that, through the years, they have been influenced by the world.
Like many cities in Asia, Istanbul is like a big stew where each ingredient combines to produce some of the greatest cultural works you’ve ever experienced.