“A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things”
One often hopes as a child that someday, they’ll find a place that looks like a their favorite storybook come alive – somewhere they can easily imagine sword fights and magic and otherworldly creatures roaming about. I’m one of the lucky few who can actually say that they’ve visited such a place.
Northern Ireland is the main headquarters of where Game of Thrones is filmed. An avid fan of the show, I quickly booked my ticket for the Game of Thrones Tours in Belfast. The experience was more rewarding and beautiful than I could’ve hoped for.
Game of Thrones films most scenes of the show in Northern Ireland, either using the rugged landscape for inspiration for the North of Westeros and places alike, or using their expansive studio in Belfast to build sets. Places like the South of Westeros or some places across the Narrow Sea are filmed in other parts of the world, for instance in Spain or Croatia.
There are seven current seasons of Game of Thrones (with the eighth soon approaching), thus there are many scenes to choose from that are shot in Northern Ireland. Because of this the tour group, Game of Thrones Tours, has an array of different tours you can choose from.
These tours can pick you up from one of four places, Belfast, Dublin, Derry, and Tollymore. Most are coach tours, where they drive you to different filming locations, but some are walking tours where the filming locations are closer together.
I chose to take the Belfast Iron Islands, Giant’s Causeway, and Rope Bridge Adventure. This trip offered lots of Game of Thrones locations and new knowledge, while also showing me famous parts of Ireland like Giant’s Causeway, which is not used in filming. However, this mix of both filming and not gave me more of an opportunity to appreciated Northern Ireland for more than just Game of Thrones.
A huge bonus of this trip is that to get to these locations, they take you on the famous Causeway Coastal drive, named as one of the best drives you can take in the world. Then returning back to Belfast they take you through the lush countryside.
The First Stop
“You, who walk in here with a coin you never earned, whose value you do not respect. Who are you?” “No one” “A lie, a sad little lie. Who are you?”
Multitudes of fans of Game of Thrones are conflicted on their feelings about the Waif and about the Many Faced God. The Many Faced God himself is meant to be shrouded in mystery and the Waif is a servant of the god, as Arya is meant to be. Most can agree that by nature the Waif is cold hearted, and perhaps mean spirited. But how can we tell what is her bidding and what is the bidding of the Many Faced God?
Perhaps the point is that we can’t tell, but most fans will admit a dislike for the Waif and relief that in the show at least, the Waif dies and Arya survives. But before the Waif’s death, Arya was stabbed and her future looked uncertain.
Our first stop was a small one, the rounded stone steps where Arya emerged from the water after the stabbing.
(In the show)
(In real life)
For the shot, they added moss and aging elements to the stone. Additionally, they used the black and white posts in the back for the rough outline of where the pillars are later in the shot.
The Second Stop
“Shadows are the servants of life, the children of fire”
I think that most Game of Thrones fans can agree that some of the most disturbing scenes in the show and books involve the character Melisandre in some way. The first that comes to mind is the death of Shireen, but the other is the birth of the shadow assassin.
In the scene, Davos leads Melisandre towards a cluster of caves under the order of Stannis. He assumes that she is about to perform some kind of dark magic, and she does, but not in a way he is expecting. She strips down naked and reveals a large baby bump, one that the audience knows has grown too fast since when she had sex with Stannis to be a normal baby. This is true, she lies down and gives birth to a demon of smoke, with the sole purpose of killing Renly Baratheon.
These caves are called the Cushendun Caves in real life. The left one is the real filming location, although most will think it’s the right one due to its size.
(In the show)
(In real life)
The first picture is dark because the scene is dark in general and I couldn’t put the brighter screenshots in because they had naked Melisandre in them.
The Third Stop
“I ask the honor of a place in your Kingsguard… I will be one of your seven, pledge my life to yours, and keep you safe from all harm”
As we learned on the tour, some filming locations in Game of Thrones are used multiple times. One such place is Carrick, where scenes from Renly’s battle camp, meetings between Brienne of Tarth and Catelyn Stark, and long shots of fleets in the ocean take place.
Brienne is one of the most badass characters in Game of Thrones, a female knight who holds honor in the highest regard and doesn’t take shit from men who think that women are weak.
There were a few scenes shot at the third stop, one of which was for Renly’s battle camp where we meet Brienne for the first time.
(In the show)
(In real life)
Our guide Brian carried around a book of reference photos so he could show us the exact scenes. He said that for this scene, they had to bring in tons of sand to cover the mats underneath that were used for when the knights have to fall. Apparently the armor is so heavy that if the mats aren’t there, anyone could break a bone or get injured when falling.
Just around the corner was a tall pillar of stone and a narrow passage way where Catelyn Stark and Brienne walked down to the cliffside to talk.
(In the show)
(In real life)
We had another excursion on this stop to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, which you can actually faintly see in the picture above, in the crag just where the earth starts to jut out into the water.
Top Tip! – The bridge has a near 100 foot drop below and is sixty six feet long, my advice, do not try and film yourself going across! If you want a picture, have one of your friends or a stranger wait on one side and take pictures of you walking across.
The rope bridge was originally built by fisherman for easier access to the islands beyond but is now a tourist attraction due to the beautiful views offered.
You can’t go to the last island anymore because it’s roped off but you can still get stunning views.
It’s a ten or so minute walk to the rope bridge from the parking area and it costs around 10 Euros per visit. With the Game of Thrones Tour however, this was free!
The Fourth Stop
“Lemon cakes are my favorite”
Lunch was next at the Fullerton Arms Hotel and Restaurant. Although it didn’t have lemon cakes like Sansa would prefer, it consisted of some pretty standard Irish fare with reasonable prices. The hotel itself was connected to Game of Thrones in that some actors like Alfie Allen (who plays Theon Greyjoy), stayed there when filming Iron Islands scenes.
The restaurant pays homage to Game of Thrones by having memorabilia all over the place, with one room specifically dedicated to the show, complete with an Iron Throne.
It is also one of the locations of the famous “Game of Thrones doors,” one of ten door made from the fallen trees of the Dark Hedges. This door was the Targaryen door, complete with the family sigil and a huge, intricate carving of a dragon.
All of the doors are in Northern Ireland, and all except one are places somewhere close to a filming location or where the cast or crew stayed for any period of time. The one door (the Lannister door) where this is not true is placed in The Dark Horse, a restaurant and coffee house in Belfast. It’s placed there because Belfast is home to the main inside filming lot for Game of Thrones and it is meant to honor that.
The Fifth Stop
“What is dead may never die”
Theon Greyjoy and the Greyjoy house have been the subject of much debate. There is no doubt that Theon is a very interesting character who is hard to figure out, no matter if he’s likable or not. The Greyjoy house itself is controversial, in that their way of life is built on reaving and raping. Additionally, they seem to take pride in this. So at what point do we say that Game of Thrones is roughly based on the Middle Ages (if you were to place it in time) and that our modern sensibilities should not be taken into consideration as much? I cannot answer this because there are so many factors, both in the show and in the books.
However, the Iron Islands and the Ironborn have admirable qualities as well. They are strong, hardened people who are fiercely proud of all that they have built. They are unwaveringly loyal to their compatriots (ignoring Theon) and it is traditionally forbidden to spill the blood of another Iron Born – although this becomes less relevant as Euron Greyjoy comes into the picture.
The filming location for the Iron Islands is in Ballintoy Harbor, where rugged rocks jut out unevenly into the bay. Just looking at the rocks gives the illusion of a bleak place, lacking warmth and prospect, where the sea dominates all and the people are born from it.
(In the show)
(In real life)
We were given Iron Island costumes to wear for this stop. Women wore an exact replica of Yara’s (or Asha for those who read the books) jacket and men wore a more standard male outfit. They also gave us blunted swords and shields as well.
Our guide Brian was amazing and made sure to take as many awesome pictures of us as he could, while also keeping us on schedule.
Driving back up the hill and away from Ballintoy, he pointed out a beach where background shots of Dragonstone were taken too.
The Sixth Stop
“Power resides where men believe it resides”
This stop was the Giant’s Causeway, which has nothing to do with Game of Thrones but is a famous Irish landscape. On our way there, Brian told us a bit about Irish folklore and how legend says that the Causeway was made (spoiler, by giants). Then how it was actually created (spoiler, lava).
The Causeway itself was beautiful and was around a 10-15 minute walk downhill to get to (or less by tram but that costs 3 Euros). It is a major tourist attraction and is a protected landscape, thus it has become overtaken by people trying to make a quick buck (the government). There’s a visitors center at the top of the hill but here’s the catch, you have to pay to use their toilets, and to do anything else within the center.
It’s much better to just walk down yourself and experience the Causeway without any of the extras. Plus, the view down to it is incredible.
It’s a very popular destination so be prepared for crowds, also for rain as it’s near the very top of Ireland. The stones can be slippery so be careful, but also have fun because it’s like the jungle gym you’ve always dreamed of – but with better views.
The Causeway was formed by volcanic activity that caused lava to solidify in huge, interlocking columns. It is a UK natural wonder and rightly so, as it genuinely looks like giants must’ve stacked them together like in the folktale.
The Seventh (and last) Stop
“I’d stay well clear of that Kingsroad, if I were you. It’s worse than bad, I hear. Wolves and lions both, and bands of broken men preying on anyone they can catch”
The Kingsroad is the main, and longest, road in Westeros, around which a lot of action in the show takes place. There are fewer direct shots of it however, particularly around Kings Landing.
One such shot is seen when Eddard Stark has been beheaded and Arya is put on the first ride back to the North, which happens to be with Gendry on his way to be a man of the Night’s Watch. They ride through a thick clustering of trees, Gendry with his bull’s helmet and Arya with her newly shorn head full of recent horrors.
The site itself is called the Dark Hedges, which is famous in its own right in Northern Ireland, as it used to be the entranceway for a rich lord’s manor (now a hotel).
(In the show)
(In real life)
The Dark Hedges appear more patchy now as many are starting to fall due to negligence from over-trimming the trees. Then the ground started falling away on both sides because of crops leaving thin soil, thus exposing the roots to the elements.
Try and see them soon if you can, because more and more keep falling and soon this site may no longer exist!
After the Dark Hedges we rode back through the countryside towards Belfast, passing sheep and a few whiskey distilleries. Northern Ireland is as beautiful and green as its counterpart and is a pleasure to watch.
The way back was about an hour or so, which was filled with our awesome tour guide Brian telling jokes and sharing filming secrets about Game of Thrones. Then he put on two behind the scenes videos to show us filming locations and the cast talking about the process.
Brian was really the best tour guide we could’ve possibly hoped for! He has been involved in every season of Game of Thrones as an extra. He has been a wilding, an Iron Born, involved at the Red Wedding, and involved at the Battle of the Bastards to name a few. He’s also a huge fanboy for the show and is involved in other film projects as well, so he knows a lot about the process for making a show like this a success.
If you ask nicely, he’ll even throw in a few secrets about the cast, which I won’t share because he said he didn’t like to gossip. After the tour he even asked me and my friends to join him for some drinks to talk about movies and Game of Thrones some more! He showed us a fun beer garden and we talked about movies we liked and funny experiences we’ve had for nearly two hours before we parted ways.
(Ignore my bright red face, I got sunburnt by the end)
I highly recommend this tour service and Brian to everyone wanting to do a Game of Thrones tour! It is the first Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland to ever be made, and its authenticity is real. It’s so much fun!
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”