Northern Ireland, a land where thick wilderness is only paused by open green fields that lead to ancient castles and rugged coastline, has stolen many a scene from the actors of HBO’s fantasy drama Game Of Thrones during its eight seasons. If you want to take an epic Game of Thrones road trip, this is the place to do it.
The man charged with finding those jaw-dropping settings for the majority of its on-location scenes is Robbie Boake, a location scout based out of Belfast. “This is a beautiful country and almost all of the natural world places seen in the show are just as they appear,” says Boake. “I don’t think people know how varied our terrain is, and how many different domains it has portrayed.”
Other countries have also been featured in Game Of Thrones like Croatia, Iceland, and Spain. The lion’s share has been always been in Ireland though, and with its diverse vegetation and numerous ruins there could be no better home for the series.
The process would begin with Boake receiving early drafts of the script to take out on the road. Stopping at a shortlist of places he believed fit the bill, he would take photographs to send back to the production team. Inevitably he would stumble onto more than he asked for, coming back from his treks with a locations bounty.
Reflecting back on the eight seasons, Boake is proud of the part he had in transporting millions to towering kingdoms filled with dragons and magic. “It has been hugely satisfying to see my work on the screen,” says Boake. “I have been paid to explore beautiful and interesting landscapes for the past decade.”
But while Game Of Thrones may be leaving the airwaves of HBO, the sets and stages where the hit series filmed will not be leaving their home of Northern Ireland anytime soon. To the contrary, they will be protected – and some even added upon – for fans to visit for years to come as a part of a new legacy project.
That is a little ways off though, so until then, here is a road-tripping guide (all you need is a maps app) through Northern Ireland to help you step back into Westeros whenever you want.
How To Get There
Opt to fly into Dublin first to get a taste of the capitol before heading up north. AerLingus currently offers nonstop flights from 13 different United States cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. Not to mention you will likely get an early taste of that famed Irish brogue over the speakers.
Pick Up A Ride
The only way to truly explore the far reaches of Northern Ireland is in your own vehicle, preferably one that is all-terrain. Since you are flying into Dublin, your selection is far more robust than it would be flying directly into Belfast. Should you want to keep it easy, Hertz operates out of the airport, and has a Prestige Collection should you decide you want to treat yourself to a Range Rover Sport or Audi Q7.
You may recognize this place as the lands around Winterfell in The North and the Haunted Forest where White Walkers began their march. Located in the foothills of the Mournes, Tollymore was the first state forest park established in Northern Ireland. You can kill a lot of time here, and there have been numerous scenes filmed around its towering oaks.
This place is the setting for Robb Stark’s Camp where Robb is informed that his father Ned Stark has been executed. The stones are remnants of an abbey found in 1180, and found beside the River Quoile, which is portrayed as Riverrun, There are a number of peaceful river walks around the Quolie should you be in the mood.
Welcome to the original Winterfell. The Castle Ward looks over the Strangford Lough, has been home to the Ward family since the 16th century and now will go down in history as the beginning of Game Of Thrones. The real castle is open year round. You can also visit Audley’s Field, home to another beautiful structure that was used for filming in the first couple seasons, by foot from Castle Ward.
Where To Stay
The cast actually stayed here during the filming of the first two seasons of Game Of Thrones. Part of the reason being that the location for Winterfell Castle was just about a mile away. Not just that though, they also have one of the famous “Game Of Thrones Doors” made with fallen trees from the filming location for The Dark Hedges.
Lough Neagh: Shane’s Castle
The beach that Tyrion Lannister washes it up on after the boat carrying him and Jorah Mormont is attacked by Stone Men. Game Of Thrones filmed on the shores of the Antrim side on Lough Road. Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles and is great to drive around if you have the time. Right along the northeastern edge of the lake is Shane’s Castle, a ruined structure that was used for many scenes including the crypt beneath Winterfell.
This is the land of the feared Dothraki that we first came across when Khal Drogo is in charge. Boake considers this one of the more important locations of the early seasons, along with the Leslie Hill estate to really capture the land of the Dothraki.
Galboly In The Glens Of Antrim
You may better know this green expanse beneath towering basalt cliffs as Runestone where Lord Yohn Royce takes Sansa Stark as a ward and Petyr Baelish arrives with a pet falcon. The hidden village of Galboly has a storied history in its own right, and requires a little enterprise to find. Prepare to hike a little bit up from the road to get to its abandoned buildings.
Where To Stay
Check off one of the locations by staying at the Londonderry Arms, located in Carnlough, which stands in for the fictional village of Braavos. This is the costal place where Arya crawls up the steps after being stabbed by the Waif. Should you have extra time, you may even be able to get a little fishing in.
You may recognize this as the cove in the Stormlands where Lady Melisandre and Davos Seaworth landed ashore in the second season. The red priestess also gave birth to the shadow creature that eventually kills Renly Baratheon here. The caves, which have formed over 400 million years, stand on an elevated beach at the outflow of two valleys.
This may be recognized as the stunning vista where Theon Greyjoy goes horseback riding with his sister Yara and Davos Seaworth is shipwrecked after the Battle of Blackwater Bay. It is also the place where Tyrion Lannister and Ser Jorah Mormont are captured by slavers on their way to Daenerys Targaryen. Get off the main road and go down a steep winding path to make it to the beach where you can look out to Rathlin Island.
The setting for Dragonstone, Boake says this is one of the locations that he is most proud of. He scouted the entire Island of Ireland to find a place suitable for dragons, and he found it at Fair Head. The sheer mountain is one of the most epic views and it is no surprise the cliff also happens to be an epic rock-climbing destination.
This place played home to Renly Baratheon’s base camp in the Stormlands and where Brienne of Tarth was named to his guard. The headland leads to the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, a rope bridge that will take you to the cliff top.
This harbor stands in for Pyke of the Iron Islands where Theon Greyjoy is baptized into the religion of the drowned God. This was also the setting of the burning of the Bannermen in the fourth season. The locals refer to it as the ‘raised beach’.
Where To Stay
Right along your way is this charming little hotel owned by a husband and wife team. They are also home to one of the Game Of Thrones doors carved from the wood of trees from The Dark Hedges.
The Dark Hedges
Better known as Kingsroad, this may be the most recognizable and now iconic natural place in Game Of Thrones. This should be your first stop of the day, as you will be able to dodge the crowds and take in its glory alone. This is one of those must-stops, a geological wonder that feels a little magical.
Since you have been visiting a lot of the Greyjoy land, it seems only fitting to visit their home Castle Greyjoy. The ruined medieval castle used for those scenes is located at the edge of a basalt formation and accessible by a bridge that connects it to mainland.
This is the Coast Of Dorne, where Jamie Lannister and Ser Bronn of Blackwater land to try to rescue Myrella. Stop here to step into the cool sea while looking out at its rolling dunes and wide-reaching beaches.
One of the places used for Dragonstone, this beautiful and gentle cliff is a great place to look out to the ocean. Find your way to the top where you can visit the Messenden Temple, a tiny structure built in 1785 sitting above the Atlantic Ocean.
The last stop of this journey will take you along a scenic drive up to the summit of Binevenagh Mountain. Looking down you will look upon the lush greenery of and powerful basalt cliffs. You may recognize them as the expansive Dothraki Grasslands where Daenerys Targaryen was taken by her dragon after avoiding capture.
Where To Stay
Located by the Giant’s Causeway and along the iconic Causeway Coastal Route, which you are spending a lot of time on, this inn is where Boake spent many of his nights scouting on the Irish coast. Originally built in the 1600s this boutique is a peaceful place to have a Bushmills whiskey (yes the distillery is also in town) by the fireplace. This is the perfect place to finish your Game Of Thrones adventure.
The complete eighth season of Game Of Thrones is now available on HBO Go.