UPDATE: We hope everyone enjoyed the Season 7 Premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones and doesn’t if feel like this season is just zipping by?! But we digress… this post is long, and full of spoilers through the end of Season 6.
ORIGINAL POST: Now, down to business. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones then we don’t need to remind you that season 7 kicks off on Sunday July 16. Last we left our lovable band of ambitious thrones seekers, Daenerys Targaryen was on her long awaited journey back to Westeros with Tyrion (and dragons) in tow, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark were reuniting the North, and Cersei Lannister had wrested power from the grips of all challengers. But there’s still so many questions to be answered (like who are the three heads of the dragon?). Unfortunately, aspiring Maesters won’t find much resolution in the lines of this ponderous tome. But what we can offer is a look into the actual filming locations and sets of many of the iconic GOT settings; and while we’re at it, give you some insight into how you can visit some of these places on our tours.
Northern Ireland is to GOT as Kings Landing is to Westeros – that is to say, the buzzing capital of the entire operation. Paint Hall studio in Belfast, located on the original Harland and Wolff shipyard where parts of the Titanic were built, holds the interior sets of Winterfell, Castle Black, Daenerys’s throne room in the Great Pyramid and so much more. But it’s the broad sweeping landscapes and grand castle exteriors that really shape the settings of the show and define the stories of its characters, and it’s here where the country of Northern Ireland steals the show.
The entire series opens in Tollymore Forest Park in County Down where a Night’s Watch scouting party discovers that White Walkers are no longer the stuff of ancient lore beyond the Wall. This same forest is where the Stark children discover six orphaned direwolf pups. Not far from the forest sits 1,000 acres of land belonging to Old Castle Ward. On these lands is Audley’s Castle which serves as the exterior of Winterfell. And who can forget when Ned Stark beheaded a deserter of the Night’s Watch, performed against the backdrop of moors and hills of Cairncastle in County Antrim. Also in this county is Shane’s Castle, whose cellars serve as Winterfell’s crypts, and Cushendum Caves where the Red Priestess Melisandre gives birth to the shadow creature that assassinates Renly Baratheon. But perhaps the site that is most iconic to Northern Ireland and the show is the Dark Hedges, a countryside avenue flanked by beech trees that serves as the Kingsroad leading North to Winterfell and the Wall.
While we don’t visit any of these particular sites on our Best of Ireland, you do spend plenty of time in Northern Ireland’s countryside drinking in the rolling landscapes and ancient ruins that inspired GOT show makers to set their show primarily here. Plus, when in Belfast, you’ll visit the Titanic Belfast Experience, which is located along the same dock complex as Paint Hall studio. And Bonus: on your way to the Giant’s Causeway, from the road you may be able to make out the silhouette of Dunluce Castle, the ancestral seat of the Greyjoys!
When show runners and location scouts walked through Pile Gate, the main entrance of the ancient city walls into Dubrovnik’s old town, they instantly knew this Mediterranean seaside city would be the filming location for King’s Landing.
For the better part of six seasons, the narrow and twisting medieval alleys of Dubrovnik have served as the market laden and depraved streets of Kings Landing. Tyrion, Podrick and Bronn looked over the ramparts of the city walls after the Battle of the Blackwater. Cersei stumbles along The Stradun, the main thoroughfare of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, during her Walk of Penance in Season 5. You’ll recognize Minčeta Tower, the highest point in the Old Town, as the exterior of the House of the Undying in Quarth, which Dany slowly circumnavigates before disappearing into the wizard’s lair (you can walk around it too, sans the danger of being killed by nightshade drunk warlocks).
Gradac Park, which overlooks Old Town and is reached by climbing centuries old steps, is the location of the Purple Wedding where Joffrey met his demise. And the formerly grandiose outdoor atrium of The Belvedere, a decrepit and abandoned 1980’s Yugoslav hotel, was cleaned and restored to star as the fighting pit for Oberyn Martell and The Mountain’s trial by combat. Further up Croatia’s Dalmatian coast lies the equally as gorgeous seaside town of Split, and Diocletian’s Palace, which was used by show makers as the underground passageways in Meereen.
On our Discover Croatia and Croatia Cruise Adventure tours, you visit both Dubrovnik and Split and will have the opportunity to encounter many of the show’s filming locations. If you choose, during your free time in either town, you could venture out on your own to visit some of the other locations we’ve mentioned that aren’t seen on the tour.
After relying on artificial snow for Season 1, producers decided the show’s success warranted the real thing. So from thenceforth, and while not featured extensively, the dramatic geologic formations and expansive glacier fields of Iceland became the location for some of the Northern reaches of Westeros and the Wildling and White Walker infested lands beyond the Wall.
The frozen lava field near Lake Mývatn is where Mance Rayder’s Wildling army camp was built for Season 3. And Grjótagjá Cave, also located near the lake, happens to be where Jon and Ygritte, let’s say, succeeded in breaking Jon’s Night’s Watch vows. The Höfðabrekkuheiði hiking area near Vik, on Iceland’s south coast, also makes a cameo as the frostbitten desolate north of Westeros, while the Mýrdalsjökull glacier becomes the Fist of the First Men.
But our favorite is Thingvellir National Park, not far from Reykjavik. The park is most notable for being the site of the oldest running general assembly parliament in the world, established around 930 and lasting until 1798. However, and more importantly for GOT fans, the park is located on a tectonic plate boundary which has caused a large chasm in the ground. Visitors can hike through this crevice, following the footsteps of Arya, the Hound and Littlefinger as they hiked the narrow and perilous pass to the Eyrie.
On our Iceland Adventure, you can take an optional tour that visits Thingvellir National Park. (Insider secret: You can also visit Iceland on an optional post tour extension of our Downton Abbey Christmas Ball with London Tour. You could knock out two of the most popular TV shows of the past five years in one trip!)
Spain is all about Dorne, as George R. R. Martin has openly confessed. When he conceived this southern land ripe with seductive and vindictive olive-skinned ‘sand snakes’, world renowned wine and gardens that are architectural masterpieces, he had southern Spain in mind.
The scenes at the Water Gardens of Sunspear, with their intricate Moorish arches, sentinel palms and peacefully flowing fountains are shot at the Alcázar of Seville, marking the first time such an extensive film schedule with so much equipment and staff were allowed to utilize the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just an hour and a half away, Cordoba’s renowned Roman Bridge makes a brief appearance as the Long Bridge of Volantis.
This past season though, we were all gratifyingly served the answer to a series long question at the Tower of Joy (R+L = J), when Ned Stark slew the Sword of the Morning and finds his ‘kidnapped’ sister in labor atop the tower. That tower is a real place – it’s Castillo de Zafra in Guadalajara.
On our Discover Spain tour, you visit both Seville and Cordoba. In Seville, you have part of the day at leisure where you can do some independent exploring of the Alcázar. In Cordoba, your guide will be sure to point out the Roman Bridge (You can’t miss it!).
Of all the countries used for major scenes in GOT, Morocco appears the least, but is no less dramatic. The country was used to represent several cities across the narrow sea, as part of Dany’s storyline.
The serene coastal town of Essaouira in Morocco’s western shore plays the role of Astapor in GOT. In particular, the Unsullied are introduced to Daenerys atop of the city ramparts of Skala de la Ville. And the sandstone Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate, is the yellow slaver city of Yunkai.
You can visit Aït Benhaddou on our Best of Morocco tour, as well as take an optional day excursion to Essaouira.