The Game of Thrones series is known for its vastly different and dramatic landscapes – from the frigid, icy North where the wildlings live, to the vast central plains, home of the Dothraki. With its rolling mountains and spectacular coastlines, Northern Ireland is perfect for multiple filming locations in the show – think Winterfell, the Iron Islands and even parts of King’s Landing.
After watching the much anticipated final season of the series which was released earlier this year, I couldn’t resist getting more out of the show and decided to visit some of the filming locations as a way to say my own special farewell to this long-running fantasy series. Each of these places has its own charm, and I found this epic journey to be a great way to discover the wonders of Northern Ireland, whether you’re a fan of the series or not. If you belong to the tribe who has successfully resisted the temptation of starting on the series, and yet don’t want to miss out, this itinerary will give you a flavor of the magic of the region with its enchanted forests and stormy landscapes. And who knows, you might then just decide to watch the show, available on HBO Go!
The following locations can be covered in 2 to 3 days on a self-drive tour, depending on how much time you wish to spend in each place.
Important: Spoilers for Season 8 in the last location, so stop at #6 if you’ve yet to watch the last season!
If you need a quick introduction of who’s who in the scenes mentioned below, read the Game of Thrones Wiki created by fans here before you continue reading this article!
1. Tollymore Forest Park: Where the direwolf pups were found
Let’s start from the very beginning of the show, the opening scene in the Haunted Forest, where the three Night’s watchmen encountered a white walker. This scene was filmed in one of my favourite spots in the Game of Thrones trail – Tollymore Forest Park. In summer, the park is filled with exotic trees and flowers, and is an amazing place to start your journey.
Other than the opening scene of the show, Tollymore Forest Park was also the location where the Starks found six direwolf pups, which were eventually given to the Stark children. This scene was filmed below the Altavaddy Bridge (see picture above), and along the water stream. To get here from the main entrance of the park, you would have to walk about two kilometres, but there are plenty of breathtaking sights to distract you along the way.
This enchanting forest is definitely a trip highlight, with easy walking trails that are great for an afternoon walk. I would recommend you take about 2 to 3 hours to explore and soak in the sights and sounds of the park. Remember to wear comfortable shoes!
Address: Tollymore Forest Park, Bryansford Rd, Newcastle BT33 0PR, UK
Cost: Free, but you would need to pay £5 for parking.
2. Inch Abbey: Where Robb Stark was proclaimed King of the North
The Inch Abbey ruins are a short drive from Tollymore Forest Park, and well worth a visit. Featuring Gothic architecture, here’s where Robb Stark was proclaimed the King of the North after the Battle of Whispering Wood. It is also where his camp was located in Season 1.
The ruins, set next to the River Quoile, offer a hauntingly beautiful view. Most importantly, it’s also relatively quiet and free of tourists, which makes for an excellent place to take any kind of photos you wish with the ruins. You can safely set aside about 30 minutes to walk around and explore this site.
Address: Inch Abbey Rd, Downpatrick BT30 9AT, UK
3. Castle Ward: Winterfell, home to the Starks
Your Northern Ireland Game of Thrones journey won’t be complete without a visit to the farmyard within Castle Ward’s compounds, where Winterfell – home to the Starks – was filmed.In reality though, the castle doesn’t quite resemble what it looks like in the show, as sets were built around the existing castle and of course touched up in post-production.
At each of these filming locations, look out for an information board (you can see it in the picture above), which gives you some background on the scenes that were filmed here, with pictures taken on set.
Address: Strangford, Downpatrick BT30 7BA, UK
Cost: You will need to pay to enter the castle, but admission to the farmyard where the film set was (located a short walk from the Castle), is free. You can park for free near the castle and take a 10 minute walk to the film set, or drive directly on small roads to a carpark (follow signs leading to the “Shore Carpark”) located near the farmyard.
4. The Dark Hedges: King’s Road
This road lined with Beech trees, otherwise known as the “Dark Hedges”, is a location that’s really popular with Game of Thrones fans, probably due to its dark beauty.
Back in Season 2, Arya Stark escaped from King’s Landing in the back of the cart, with Gendry and Hot Pie. The brief scene was filmed along this road, and gave instant fame to this dark and brooding avenue of trees.
The Dark Hedges can get really busy, so I arranged to visit it at 8am, and managed to snap some empty shots before other tourists started arriving at about 8:30am. I would definitely recommend you do the same!
Address: Bregagh Rd, Stranocum, Ballymoney BT53 8PX, UK
5. Dragonstone Beach: Mussenden Temple and Downhill Beach
Ireland has some really strong winds, which explains the crazy waves crashing against the shores and the empty beaches, but it makes for a really pretty picture.
This beach in particular, was the filming location for Dragonstone Beach – where Stannis Baratheon drew the flaming sword (Lightbringer) from the fire, and where he rejected the Seven Old Gods, and turned instead to the Lord of Light.
What I found truly amazing though, was the Mussenden Temple that sits above the beach, that wasn’t featured in the show. This temple was built in 1795, and sits precariously on this cliff.It used to be a library built by the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry who owned the lands here. The temple can be found in Downhill Demesne, the area around the Earl Bishop’s house.
I took a leisurely stroll around the huge grounds with gorgeous cliff walks, and explored the ruins of the Italian-inspired Downhill House which had been devastated by a fire. I would strongly recommend visiting this place, and setting aside at least two hours for it!
Address: Mussenden Road, Castlerock, County Londonderry, BT51 4RP
Cost: £6.20 per adult
6. Iron Islands: Dunluce Castle and Balintoy Harbour
The Kingdom of the Iron Islands – yet another significant piece of the Game of Thrones, was also inspired by and filmed in parts of Northern Ireland.
While the Castle of Pyke was digitally created, it was inspired by the ruins of this medieval castle – Dunluce Castle. I would recommend you take your pictures from afar, where you can see how the gloomy ruins sit on the edge of the cliffs. You can also pay to enter and view the ruins up close.
Address: 87 Dunluce Rd, Bushmills BT57 8UY, UK
Cost: £5.50 per adult
Not too far away from Dunluce Castle, you can also visit the Balintoy Harbour. The harbour was used as the filming location for Lordsport Harbour in the Iron Islands, where Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands in Season 2.
Ballintoy is really a small village, with a small café where you can grab a quick bite. Take a walk around the harbour, and climb up some of these rocks for dramatic pictures of the coastal landscape around.
Set aside up to an hour to walk around and explore the harbour, for it makes for rather great pictures and videos!
Address: Ballintoy Harbour, Ballycastle BT54 6NB, UK
SPOILERS FOR SEASON 8 AHEAD!!!
7. Cushendun Caves: Where Jaime Lannister killed Euron Greyjoy, and where Melisandre gave birth to a shadow creature
The Cushendun Caves was probably the creepiest location that I visited during my Game of Thrones trail tour. Back in Season 2, Melisandre, the Red Priestess, gave birth to a shadow creature that killed Renly Baratheon. And it was also at this location, where Euron Greyjoy emerged from the waters after Daenerys Targaryen sunk his fleet, and fought Jaime Lannister to his death, in the penultimate episode in Season 8.
Once you enter the caves, it’s a short walk to the end which leads to a rather gloomy-looking opening. Rather than the rough and jagged cave surfaces we often see, my overactive imagination pictured the cave walls to be made up of rounded (dragon) eggs, fused together over thousands of years. Perhaps they were?
Address: Cushendun Caves, Ballymena, UK
Bonus: The Giant’s Causeway
Since you’ve travelled all the way to Northern Ireland, I would definitely recommend a visit to the Giant’s Causeway, the region’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s quite touristy, but it’s easy to see why people love this place. The amazing basalt rock columns, all 40,000 of them, is a fascinating formation that you have to see for yourself and marvel at the wonders of nature.
Address: 44 Causeway Rd, Bushmills BT57 8SU, UK
Cost: Only the Visitor’s Centre requires an admission fee (£12.50). You can visit for free by foot, if you park (for a fee) at the foot of the hill.
Northern Ireland was an amazing experience for me, and particularly so as a Game of Thrones fan. That said, with its awe-inspiring landscapes, this would make a great holiday for anyone who loves admiring nature at its wildest. Just remember to pack your windbreakers on the trip, and comfortable shoes for lots of walking!
About the writer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Lee Khai Yan.
About Khai Yan: Other than being a self-professed Game of Thrones and sci-fi geek, Khai Yan is also a Singaporean with an unquenchable thirst for travelling. Among her many memorable adventures around the globe, she’s a huge fan of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat) and Russia’s Lake Baikal – both of which are massive wonders of nature. While travelling, she loves sampling local food; in particular, she’s making it her own personal mission to sample all variants of dumplings around the world.
Best time to visit
June to September would be the best, as those months are the summer months. Rain and strong winds are a given, so come prepared with your windbreakers and water-proof shoes.
For the purpose of the above Game of Thrones trail, it would be best to rent a car to travel around, as some of the locations are not accessible by public transport. Manual cars are slightly cheaper, and you can get them from S$40 per day, depending on how early you reserve them. Be prepared to pay a premium for automatic transmission cars! There are plenty of car rental options available at the airport for your selection.
Northern Ireland uses the £ sterling, but do take note that if you intend to visit the Republic of Ireland, you will have to prepare Euros.
Fly to Ireland by transferring through cities like London, book your tickets now!