Within three episodes of watching the HBO series Game of Thrones (GoT), I knew I was hooked. I couldn’t resist seeing the drama of warring noble families unfold across Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms. The writing and storytelling (albeit at times, macabre as medieval stories often are) was itself certainly gripping – but for me, the stories really came to life due to the stunning on-location shoots. I found myself wondering … where did Game of Thrones come to life?
In short, HBO and George R.R. Martin turned Europe and North Africa into their filming playground! From Croatia to Spain, Iceland, Malta to Morocco, and the rugged coasts of Northern Ireland, chances are there is a Game of Thrones filming location close to your next vacation spot. If not, these “on-set” locations might be the perfect reason to plan a trip.
Warning: If you aren’t current on the series, there might be spoilers ahead!
GoT: Europe full of great spots
A picturesque town on the Mediterranean Coast, Dubrovnik’s fortified city walls (which you can walk!), beautiful tiled roofs, winding cobbled streets and jaw-dropping scenery became the perfect backdrop to set the sprawling royal metropolis – King’s Landing. Key filming locations in the city include: Ploče Gate (used as the Red Keep Gate), Ethnographic Museum Rupe (Littlefinger’s brothel), St Dominic Street (most of King’s Landing’s market scenes) and the stunning Jesuit Staircase (the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor – and where Cersei began her walk of shame in Season Five).
Dubrovnik features elsewhere in the series including: the House of the Undying (Mineeta Tower), and the Spice King of Qarth’s palace – where Daenarys Targaryen asked, and was refused, an army and ships in Season Two. It doesn’t end well for the Spice King.
- Lokrum Island
Just 600 meters off Croatia’s mainland, tourists will find Lokrum Island – aka, the city of Qarth where Daenerys first gave GoT fans a taste of what she and her dragons could do in Season Two.
As Croatia’s second-largest city, Split is firmly Daenerys country. The city featured in several of Khaleesi’s iconic scenes on her rise to power. Most significantly was the 1700-year-old Diocletian’s Palace, constructed by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century – and Split’s most famous tourist site. The palace doubled as Daenarys’s throne room and palatial grounds when she took control of Meereen. While the upper levels of the palace have not survived time well, the underground passages remain fully intact and visitors can explore the palace’s eerie tunnels and basements.
Klis Fortress, located just 20 minutes north of Split, also features heavily as Meereen.
With richly appointed interiors, exotic gardens and orchards, intricate ponds and fountains, the Real Alcázar – a 14th century Moorish palace, became the perfect location to represent the home of House Martell and create the Water Gardens of Dorne.
Remember when Cersei blew up the High Sparrow (“and all his little sparrows”) in Season Six? The Cathedral of Girona featured as the doomed structure. Portions of the cathedral were also used to portray the city of Braavos – where Arya Stark battled blindness, hunger and a crazy girl named the Waif to become a girl who has no name. Season Six featured Girona heavily; the city’s old town, cathedral, Arab Baths and Jewish Quarter were used extensively for filming, especially in Arya’s storyline.
Morocco ushered in a new world – the far-east region of Essos. In Season Three, Khalessi travels throughout Essos in search of an army. She finds a massive one, the Unsullied, in the fictional towns of Yunkai and Astapor.
In real life, most of these scenes were filmed in Morocco’s historic city of Aït Ben-Haddou (Yunkai) and Essaouira (Astapor). Feauturing stunning red mudbrick southern Moroccan architecture and sweeping views, both towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These sites were also one of the many trading posts on the commercial route that linked ancient Sudan to Marrakesh.
Before film scouts discovered Dubrovnik – the city of Mdina featured as King’s Landing in Season One. Sadly, the Azure Window off the coast of Gozo (Malta’s second largest island), which was the beautiful backdrop for Khal Drogo and Khaleesi’s wedding, collapsed in 2017. However, Gozo does have other notable natural features, including the Inland Sea and Wied il-Mielah Window – if you are visiting the Maltese Islands.
The foreground of the Azure Window wedding scene looks quite different in real life; film crews covered the ground in a mesh and smothered it in sand to achieve a ‘desert’ effect. This was not received well with the Maltese authorities, and may have contributed to the show’s eventual relocation to Croatia for King’s Landing.
Get ready to channel your inner-wildling and go “North of the Wall” in Iceland. Several locations were used to create a barren, harsh land and a place where Wildlings, White Walkers and only the bravest men of the Night’s Watch roam.
Thingvellir National Park and Europe’s largest glacier – Vatnajökull, were used to set the stage for the otherworldly landscape “North of the Wall”. Visitors can also find the gorgeous Grjótagjá Cave, near Lake Mývatn, a key piece in Jon Snow’s storyline.
Sharp-eyed fans can also find the rare “Dragonglass” in the park, which is actually obsidian – a piece of cooled lava, but used in the series to mimic this precious resource. It is only one of two methods known to kill white walkers; the other of course is Valyrian steel.
Belfast in Northern Ireland is home to Titanic Studios, where the magic of Game of Thrones comes to life. Not surprisingly, Northern Ireland is packed with filming locations from several seasons, and is an easy day trip from Dublin.
Even better, book a Game of Thrones tour out of Belfast and explore Ireland’s north coast for a few days – as there’s plenty to see and do.
- Cushendun Caves
Nestled beneath rocky cliffs by the sea are the Cushendun Caves, where Melisandre (the Red Witch) came ashore on a dark night and birthed the shadow assassin – that went on to kill Renly Baratheon.
- The Dark Hedges of Ballymoney
In the 18th century, the wealthy Stuart family planted a beautiful avenue of beech trees to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion – Gracehill House (now a popular wedding venue). Two hundred years later, the road has lost none of its charm as The Kings Road, where Arya traveled to escape King’s Landing, disguised as a boy.
- Castle Ward, Strangford
The Stark’s castle at Winterfell is in reality Castle Ward, an 18th century mansion set on sprawling farmlands near the village of Strangford. The mansion actually features two contrasting architectural styles, Classical and Gothic, making it incredibly versatile for filming.
- Ballintoy Harbour
Seeing Ballintoy Bay in person was one of the most photogenic and jaw-dropping locations I’ve seen throughout my travels. I could not get enough pictures of this tiny fishing village and its gorgeous harbor. This is Iron Islands country and the port of Pyke – home of the Greyjoys’.
- Downhill Strand and Mussenden Temple, County Derry
Stretching an impressive seven miles, the strand is one of the longest beaches in Northern Ireland and home to Dragonstone. Dragonstone is a small island at the (fictional) entrance of Blackwater Bay. The castle on the island (the real-life Mussenden Temple) is also called Dragonstone – the original family seat of the Targaryens, and the place where Daenerys was born one dark and stormy night. As Dragonstone also contains the volcano Dragonmount (and a hoard of Dragonglass) – expect to see this lair featured heavily as Season Seven (and hopefully more!) continues.
What’s the best way to see all these awesome locations?
- Tips for touring
There are a few ways to embark on your very own Game of Thrones tour. Several cities have developed guided tours (like Belfast and Reykjavik), with all manner of tours springing to life. Not all are created equal. Research travelers’ reviews (Tripadvisor is a great tool for this) carefully. Some locations yield themselves easily to group tours, like Ireland’s Northern Coast and the remote areas of Iceland – where tour buses are not heavily impacting most ordinary citizens’ ways of life.
Other cities, like Dubrovnik and Mdina are easily toured on foot. And in some cities, like Girona – where film crews brought the heart of the city to a standstill, gridlocking streets and traffic for months to accommodate filming, the locals are not especially welcoming of the big cheesy yellow tour buses featuring “Game of Thrones tours here!” as they jam the streets (again).
Note – We self-toured in Girona, and used an excellent tour company (after researching several) in Belfast – ‘Game of Thrones Tours’.
No matter which location you choose, get ready to experience the same “on-set” magic that captured the imaginations behind this iconic series.