Even if you aren’t a fan of the show, you can’t help but feel the excitement when stopping at a Game of Thrones location. We can understand why the producers of the HBO series chose Northern Ireland as one of the main locations for the medieval fantasy drama. With its sweeping landscapes, abandoned castles, and striking coastline, you feel as if you have stepped in the middle of the seven kingdoms.
We started our Game of Thrones adventure at Castle Ward located on Strangford Lough. This is where the entire phenomena began with Ned Stark and his family enjoying a pleasant, worry-free life in Winterfell.
A memorable scene was when all the Stark sons were together for what would be one of their last family gatherings. Remember the scene where the brothers were teasing Bran as he learned to shoot a bow and arrow? It was now our turn to re-enact that moment.
We were met by William: a Game of Thrones expert and John Snow wannabe. He joked that everyone tells him he’s too old to be John Snow but he replies, “Have you seen John Snow since he came back from the wall? The wall can age a man!” After donning our fur-lined capes straight from the Game of Thrones costume department, we walked out to the shooting range where we received a quick archery lesson.
“The stakes were high.” Said William. “If you weren’t strong with a bow, you wouldn’t be able to feed your family. If you can’t feed your family there is no use for you, so you will most likely be killed.” Sadly, my skills were lacking in the duel between Dave and I. Dave had a steady hand and straight shot. I lost the contest and was swiftly beheaded in the courtyard.
After our archery lessons, we were free to walk through the grounds exploring more set locations. There are 11 in total from “The Hanging Tree” on a wooded path to Tywin Lannister’s camp, and the Twins Castle spanning The Riverlands. You can rent a bike for the day, take a guided canoe trip or simply walk through castle grounds exploring on your own. Game of Thrones fan or not, it’s a perfect way to spend a day in Northern Ireland.
Having a rental car in Ireland is a must. It gave us freedom and flexibility to explore as we wished. We managed to avoid the busy times of the day when tour buses flocked to the major sites and we could make our own itinerary. During our drive around the country we saw many Game of Thrones stops, but our next most notable locations took us to Ballintoy Harbour. Regular tour buses can’t make the sharp turn into this picturesque village so you can explore in relative peace and quiet. Ballintoy Harbour was transformed to Pyke Harbour for an episode where Theon Greyjoy returned to his boyhood home.
The harbor is an interesting stop for a Game of Thrones location, but it’s the spectacular coast that is really the star attraction. Make sure to hike to the top of the cliffs to watch the waves crash onto the shore. Giant rocks offshore are completely drenched with the raging sea. It’s a dramatic scene and was one of our favorite stops on the entire Irish coastline.
A trip to Northern Ireland wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Dark Hedges. Over the years, they have become one of the most photographed spots in the country thanks to a short scene that was used in Game of Thrones. Remember when Arya Stark fled Kings Landing by horse cart while masquerading as a boy? That scene was filmed here.
The Dark Hedges are a tree-lined trail planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century to impress visitors when visiting their home. It clearly did the trick as people have been flocking to this road for years to photograph the mysterious looking branches creating a canopy over the street for decades. We visited the Dark Hedges at dawn and had it all to ourselves. We hear that this short road can be quite congested with tour busses at mid-day so make sure to arrive early for an unobstructed view.
Even a visit to Belfast allows the opportunity to experience Game of Thrones. Titanic Studios is located in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast Harbour. We took a Segway tour through the site where the ill-fated ship was built and eventually sent to sea. We couldn’t help but feel a little bit giddy when we passed the film studios where Game of Thrones is shot. Our imaginations went wild as we wondered who was shooting scenes behind closed doors right at this very moment.
By the time we finished exploring so many Game of Thrones sites, we were ready to role-play like the best of them. If you truly want to immerse in Game of Thrones, one must ride a horse and see the land through the eyes of the Starks riding into battle. Stables can be found throughout Northern Ireland and the republic and it is an experience not to be missed. Walking through green rolling hills beside ancient ruins, deserted towers and picturesque forests will transport you to Westeros and let your imagination run wild.
Northern Ireland is a destination that does not need a specific reason to visit. There is so much history, beauty, and culture that it is a country that can be visited by everyone. But if you are a fan of Game of Thrones, a TV Tour itinerary can be a lot of fun. Follow your map and enjoy the views and lose yourself in a fantasy world of magical realms, betrayal, and battles.