Basilica Cistern Basilica Cistern

A film lover's guide to Istanbul

Planning a trip to Istanbul? Before you go, check out these films that use this beautiful city as their backdrop

Istanbul may not be a popular backdrop for Hollywood films, but those that are set in the city highlight some of its best spots. From the renowned Topkapı Palace to the hidden rooftops of the Grand Bazaar, we follow in the footsteps of the (fictional) spies, hitmen, and thieves who ran, jumped, and shot their way through Istanbul.

Basilica Cistern

One of the most iconic films set in Istanbul is the Bond classic From Russia with Love (1963). The dashing Sean Connery as 007 darting around a much smaller and more picturesque Istanbul – what more could you want? While Istanbul has certainly changed over the past 50 years, one location from the film looks almost exactly the same: the Basilica Cistern. In the make-believe world of Bond, the Cistern was conveniently located directly under the Soviet consulate and thus the ideal setting for Bond to spy on the scheming Soviets. In reality this dark, shady spot is a cool refuge from the heat and crowds of Sultanahmet.

Related: 10 things you need to know about Istanbul

The rooftops around the Grand Bazaar

view-from-the-buyuk-valide-hanView from the Büyük Valide Han

James Bond just can’t stay away from Istanbul: in the opening scene of the 2012 film Skyfall, Bond (played by the stone-faced Daniel Craig) improbably drives a motorcycle on the roof of the Grand Bazaar while in hot pursuit of a baddie. A trip to the rooftops of the old city is not quite as adrenaline-inducing as Bond’s motorcycle chase, but it does afford you an exceptional view. The easiest way to reach this elevated position is to enter the Büyük Valide Han, an old Ottoman commercial building only a few streets over from the Grand Bazaar, and find the caretaker. Since the word is out on this secret spot, the caretaker will likely find you and, for a few lira, show you how to reach the roof. Here you can bask in the glorious view of old Istanbul and the mighty Bosphorus. 

Related: Top alternative tours in Istanbul

Istanbul’s ferries

istanbul-ferryIstanbul ferries

A significant portion of the 2011 film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes place in Istanbul. Yet rather than using the city’s major sites as its backdrop, the film shows Istanbul’s seedier side – drab bureaucratic offices and dark hotel rooms serve as the setting for this retro thriller. One of the most evocative scenes features the British spy Ricki Tarr (played by Tom Hardy) riding a ferry on the Bosphorus, a trip that thousands make daily. Hop on one of the big, lumbering ferries going from Eminönü to Kadıköy to recreate Tarr’s ride and get a feel for all the moving parts that make Istanbul run.

Related: Istanbul's best rooftop bars

Çemberlitaş Hamam

cemberlitas-hamamÇemberlitaş Hamam

Taken 2 (2012) is by no means a work of cinematic genius – not only does the dialogue border on the absurd, but the film also offers a laughably inaccurate portrayal of Turkish culture. Yet looking past its faults, Taken 2 does provide a whirlwind tour of Istanbul that ends with an extended fight scene in the Çemberlitaş Hamam, a stunning building designed by the famous architect Sinan and dating back to 1584. While your visit to the beautiful hamam will likely be a touch more relaxing than Liam Neeson’s, some of the bath attendants can bring the pain (in the best way possible).

Related: 5 of the best hamams in Istanbul

Topkapı Palace

topkapi-interiorTopkapı Palace interior

The jewels in the Topkapı treasury are so magnificent that no one would blame you for wanting to sneak off with them. The characters in Jules Dassin’s 1964 heist film Topkapi take it a step further and decide to act on this fantasy, which results in a bumbling heist chockful of comedic mishaps. An early precursor of films such as Ocean’s Eleven, Topkapi captures the charm and beauty of the Ottoman palace and its treasury. Luckily, Topkapı has retained its charisma and is still an enchanting spot to while away the afternoon. Just don’t get any ideas about that emerald dagger – the last scene of Topkapi shows the gang in a Turkish prison, after being caught red-handed.

1 Topkapı Palace
2 Basilica Cistern
3 Rooftops around the Grand Bazaar
4 Çemberlitaş Hamam