Pyrrole–imidazole (Py–Im) hairpin polyamides are a class of programmable, sequence-specific DNA binding oligomers capable of disrupting protein–DNA interactions and modulating gene expression in living cells. Methods to control the cellular uptake and nuclear localization of these compounds are essential to their application as molecular probes or therapeutic agents. Here, we explore modifications of the hairpin γ-aminobutyric acid turn unit as a means to enhance cellular uptake and biological activity. Remarkably, introduction of a simple aryl group at the turn potentiates the biological effects of a polyamide targeting the sequence 5′-WGWWCW-3′ (W = A/T) by up to two orders of magnitude. Confocal microscopy and quantitative flow cytometry analysis suggest this enhanced potency is due to increased nuclear uptake. Finally, we explore the generality of this approach and find that aryl-turn modifications enhance the uptake of all polyamides tested, while having a variable effect on the upper limit of polyamide nuclear accumulation. Overall this provides a step forward for controlling the intracellular concentration of Py–Im polyamides that will prove valuable for future applications in which biological potency is essential.