This paper examines the transition process in a boundary layer similar to that present over the suction surfaces of aero-engine low-pressure (LP) turbine blades. This transition process is of significant practical interest since the behaviour of this boundary layer largely determines the overall efficiency of the LP turbine. Modern ‘high-lift’ blade designs typically feature a closed laminar separation bubble on the aft portion of the suction surface. The size of this bubble and hence the inefficiency it generates is controlled by the transition between laminar and turbulent flow in the boundary layer and separated shear layer. The transition process is complicated by the inherent unsteadiness of the multi-stage machine: the wakes shed by one blade row convect through the downstream blade passages, periodically disturbing the boundary layers. As a consequence, the transition to turbulence is multi-modal by nature, being promoted by periodic and turbulent fluctuations in the free stream and the inherent instabilities of the boundary layer. Despite many studies examining the flow behaviour, the detailed physics of the unsteady transition phenomena are not yet fully understood. The boundary-layer transition process has been studied experimentally on a flat plate. The opposing test-section wall was curved to impose a streamwise pressure distribution typical of modern high-lift LP turbines over the flat plate. The presence of an upstream blade row has been simulated by a set of moving bars, which shed wakes across the test section inlet. Further upstream, a grid has been installed to elevate the free-stream turbulence to a level believed to be representative of multi-stage LP turbines. Extensive particle imaging velocimetry (PIV) measurements have been performed on the flat-plate boundary layer to examine the flow behaviour. In the absence of the incoming bar wakes, the grid-generated free-stream turbulence induces relatively weak Klebanoff streaks in the boundary layer which are evident as streamwise streaks of low-velocity fluid. Transition is promoted by the streaks and by the inherent inflectional (Kelvin–Helmholtz (KH)) instability of the separation bubble. In unsteady flow, the incoming bar wakes generate stronger Klebanoff streaks as they pass over the leading edge, which convect downstream at a fraction of the free-stream velocity and spread in the streamwise direction. The region of amplified streaks convects in a similar manner to a classical turbulent spot: the leading and trailing edges travel at around 88% and 50% of the free-stream velocity, respectively. The strongest disturbances travel at around 70% of the free-stream velocity. The wakes induce a second type of disturbance as they pass over the separation bubble, in the form of short-span KH structures. Both the streaks and the KH structures contribute to the early wake-induced transition. The KH structures are similar to those observed in the simulation of separated flow transition with high free-stream turbulence by McAuliffe & Yaras (ASME J. Turbomach., vol. 132, no. 1, 2010, 011004), who observed that these structures originated from localised instabilities of the shear layer induced by Klebanoff streaks. In the current measurements, KH structures are frequently observed directly under the path of the wake. The wake-amplified Klebanoff streaks cannot affect the generation of these structures since they do not arrive at the bubble until later in the wake cycle. Rather, the KH structures arise from an interaction between the flow disturbances in the wake and localised instabilities in the shear layer, which are caused by the weak Klebanoff streaks induced by the grid turbulence. The breakdown of the KH structures to small-scale turbulence occurs a short time after the wake has passed over the bubble, and is largely driven by the arrival of the wake-amplified Klebanoff streaks from the leading edge. During this process, the re-attachment location moves rapidly upstream. The minimum length of the bubble occurs when the strongest wake-amplified Klebanoff streaks arrive from the leading edge; these structures travel at around 70% of the free-stream velocity. The bubble remains shorter than its steady-flow length until the trailing edge of the wake-amplified Klebanoff streaks, travelling at 50% of the free-stream velocity, convect past. After this time, the reattachment location moves aft on the surface as a consequence of a calmed flow region which follows behind the wake-induced turbulence.