When the leader of the North receives a lofty request from the King of Westeros to become the Hand of the King, the machinations of generations in the making begin to turn. So follows the complex, nuanced, and downright twisty narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.
In 2011, the first episode of Game of Thrones aired on HBO to much applause. Over the next several years, showrunners sprinted to keep the show’s eight seasons in front of the hype. Though fans have mixed reviews about the final season, it’s become a cult classic and a favorite high fantasy TV show for the ages.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, keep reading. Below, discover the five major countries the show was filmed in, unique tours you can take, and the flora and fauna of each region.
Where Was Game of Thrones Filmed?
Over eight seasons, the cast and crew of Game of Thrones filmed in five countries for the majority of scenes, with studio sets and a few specific locations for special scenes.
The beaches, hills, and forests of Northern Ireland transformed into several different countries in the Kingdom of Westeros.
Tollymore Forest Park became the site of two important Northern discoveries: the litter of dire wolf puppies at their late mother’s corpse, and the dead bodies in the snow that the White Walkers left for Night’s Watch scouts to find.
A bit away from the forest is the Glens of Antrim, the production used the rolling green hills of the Glen in several capacities. First, it became the “Great Grass Sea” that the Dothraki people regarded as their own. Then, Melisandre traversed the hills to birth a shadow monster in the real-life Cushendun Caves. In the fields of the Glen, Jaime Lannister and Euron Greyjoy fought a battle. It also became the Vale, where Ray the septon found the Hound and nursed him back to health.
For fans of House Greyjoy, travel to Ballintoy Harbour, where the production team set Lordsport and Pyke. If you’re already at Giant’s Causeway — Northern Ireland’s famous basalt columns — the Harbour is less than 10 miles away.
Walk the King’s Road yourself on the eighteenth-century Dark Hedges path. Lined with intertwining beech trees, the avenue remains fit for royalty.
Finally, many of the indoor filming took place at studios throughout Northern Ireland. Belfast became a hub for the early seasons, and Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, under an hour’s drive away from Belfast, remains the world’s only official Game of Thrones studio tour.
Best Times to Visit Northern Ireland
If you’re eager to go on an outdoor hike of Northern Ireland’s best Game of Thrones settings, go sometime in the late spring or early fall. You’ll avoid the busyness of the summer season while still having mild temperatures and dodging the never-ending rainstorms. Spring has a beautiful blooming season too, meaning the flora you find while you’re there will delight. The average temperature for Northern Ireland in April is around 55 degrees, with rain falling for about a week and a half out of the month.
Flora and Fauna of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has unique native life in both plants and animals. The fen violet, as well as the sea campion and the southern marsh orchid, are just a few of the many, many different plants that call places like Ulster home. Be careful what you find — deadly nightshade grows in spades in Northern Ireland!
Among the wildlife that live in Northern Ireland, you’ll find hedgehogs, badgers, minks, rabbits, and several kinds of rodents, deer, and bats. Birds vary widely, too, from waterfowl to woodpeckers to wading birds and even warblers.
The film crews needed to find a sunny, Mediterranean-like location for the hot and summery vibes of Essos and King’s Landing. Both Croatia and Spain came in handy for these fictional places.
Pivotal King’s Landing scenes, including characters walking through the palace gardens, external scenes on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor, and market scenes took place in the real-life locations of Dubrovnik. You can visit the Trsteno Arboretum (the palace gardens), the Jesuit Staircase (Great Sept of Baelor), or St. Dominic Street (various market scenes) to immerse yourself in Lannister lore.
For Essos, Minčeta Tower in Dubrovnik became the House of the Undying in Qarth. Diocletian’s Palace, three hours away from Dubrovnik, transformed into Mereen. In the Adriatic Sea, just a 15-minute ferry ride away from Dubrovnik is Lokrum, an uninhabited island that production used for multiple scenes set in Qarth.
Finally, the city of Sibenik shifted its face to become the Free City of Braavos, where Arya learned how to become a Faceless Man.
Best Times to Visit Croatia
Did you know that the best times to visit Croatia differ by location? If you’d like to visit coastal Croatia, where many of the filming locations above are, seek to travel between May and October. Except for July and August, this season provides pleasant, warm (not stifling) weather and lower crowd numbers.
Inland Croatia is incredibly rainy in August, and winter can bring freezing temperatures quickly. If you’re heading inland after visiting the coast, try to visit around the springtime, like May, to catch the best weather and crowd traffic for inland and coastal landmarks.
Flora and Fauna of Croatia
The plants in coastal Croatia will delight every arborist who steps foot on the sandy shores. Classic trees like olive and bay laurel flowers often, while beautiful petals of sage and fruits like pomegranates and figs hang from branches.
Near the coast, you’ll see many more reptiles and fish than you will see inland mammals like bears, foxes, and boars. Sea urchins, Adriatic sturgeons, striped dolphins, and the endangered Mediterranean monk seal are just a few of the many different marine species that make coastal Croatia their habitat.
Film crews traveled to three different cities in Spain for the locations that encapsulated Dragonstone, Dorne, and Highgarden.
First, they traveled to Basque Beach to create the dark, mythical wonder of Dragonstone Beach. Throughout the series, the beach served as a maker and breaker of human royalty and a place for the faithful to worship.
Next, Seville’s Royal Alcázar became Dorne’s Water Gardens — amid which many a Martell strolled and plotted their calculated rise to power. Seville’s Osuna and Plaza de Toros also cameoed as a location in Mereen: Daznak’s Pit.
Finally, Córdoba, Spain’s Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir River became the Long Bridge in the Free City of Volantis — most clearly seen when Daenerys and her posse occupy Mereen and fight against the Sons of the Harpy. Parts of Córdoba also make their way into Game of Thrones’ season seven, when Jaime lays siege to Highgarden. During some scenes, you can make out Castillo de Almodóvar del Río, which stood outside of Lannister’s possession after the sacking.
Best Times to Visit Spain
Like Croatia, the “peak summer” months are times to avoid traveling to parts of Spain based on weather and tourist traffic. For a trip planned around the Game of Thrones filming locations, spring and fall are the best months to visit. This includes the months of April, May, June, October, and November. The Córdoba courtyard competition takes place in May, and Seville’s April Fair is a can’t miss event if you’ve planned at least a week in the country.
Flora and Fauna of Spain
In the south of Spain, where Seville and Córdoba lie, the inland and Mediterranean climates support vegetation like oaks, cacti, and century plants. These spots are covered in grasslands. Conversely, in Basque country near the beach, you’ll encounter English ivy, florist kalanchoe, golden pothos, and jade.
Did you know that Spain has a handful of native animals that take their names after the country? For example, there’s the Spanish ibex, the Iberian brown bear, the Spanish fighting bull (Spain’s national animal), the Iberian wolf, and the Eurasian beaver.
The Moroccan cities of Essaouira and Aït-Ben-Haddou in Morocco both hosted Daenerys on her rise to power.
Essaouira became the crucial city of Astapor, where the Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne meets and frees the Unsullied Army. The other city, Aït-Ben-Haddou, is a real-life fortified village now used only as a tourist attraction. During filming, it set the scene for Slaver’s Bay and moments in the Free City of Pentos.
Best Times to Visit Morocco
Avoid summer crowds and still enjoy the warm weather of Essaouira between September and October. Most importantly, the wind around the city drops considerably in speed and presence, giving you a much better experience. Aït-Ben-Haddou only takes about two or three hours to walk around and explore, so you can organize other attractions in the area to enjoy after your tour.
Flora and Fauna of Morocco
The province of Essaouira is covered in argan trees, Norfolk pines, thujas, and other conifers that grow among the forests, dunes, and wild coasts. Both the cities and nearby Mogador Islands work hard to preserve the natural beauty found in the region.
Essaouira also has surprising biodiversity, boasting hundreds of different species across mammals, birds, invertebrates, and fish. Like in Spain, the endangered Mediterranean monk seal lives on the coast of Morocco — but it’s not the only endangered species in the area. Morocco is also home to 11 threatened or endangered species of birds and 18 threatened species of mammals.
If it’s in your heart to venture beyond The Wall, you’ll want to travel to Kirkjufell, Iceland, where many of the scenes with the Night King and the Night’s Watch occurred. Other icy formations used in filming — including the Myrdalsjokull glacier, the Hverfjall volcano, and the Vatnajökull glacier — aren’t as easy to reach for tourists.
Also difficult to reach but worth the trip in Iceland is the iconic Grjótagjá Lava Cave where Ygritte and Jon Snow spent a night together.
Best Times to Visit Iceland
If you’d like a near guarantee to see the Northern Lights, aim to travel to Iceland between March and September. If you’re interested in walking around outside, June through August will provide much more comfortable weather. Before you go, check with local guides about the accessibility of the glaciers used in filming Game of Thrones. They may or may not become inaccessible due to weather conditions.
Flora and Fauna of Iceland
Iceland’s unique topography and climate create a world of natural wonders. Around the glaciers used in filming scenes for the Night’s Watch and beyond The Wall, you won’t see much vegetation. On your way around Kirkjufell and Reykjavik, however, you’ll see rolling hills with mother of thyme, bog bilberry, Nootka lupine, and garden angelica.
Surprisingly, Iceland only has one native land mammal: the Arctic fox. While many might believe polar bears and walruses would enjoy the frigid temperatures and watery edge of Iceland, both species only visit on occasion. Walrus are rarely seen in Iceland, while polar bears wander in from time to time after drifting on an ice floe from Greenland.
How Did Game of Thrones Pick These Locations?
The cinematography of Game of Thrones remains favored by even the biggest critics of the final season. For years, the show won awards like “Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in One-Hour Episodic Television Series,” “Production Design for a Television Drama,” and “TV Series Cinematography.”
Because Game of Thrones featured multiple different locales in one episode (often across continents, both in the story and real life), the production crew had to plan organized filming schedules based on location rather than episode. So, many of the Night’s Watch scenes in Iceland were shot at the same time while when viewers watched the season, they may not revisit the Night’s Watch for three or four episodes.
Producers initially thought they would want to film the entire series in Scotland because of the castles — one of which (Doune) became Winterfell in the original pilot episode. However, after finding ample studio space and advantageous tax credits in Northern Ireland, principal filming and production moved.
George R. R. Martin, the author of the series material for Game of Thrones only visited the set a few times; most of which took place in the first season. He became less involved with the show as time went on; especially after production diverted from the material in the published books. However, he involved himself more in House of Dragon, the spin-off and prequel to Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones Tours You Can Go On
As popularity for Game of Thrones wanes, even though House of Dragon continues to air, more and more European tour guide companies have discontinued their themed Game of Thrones tours. A few still do exist, and they take tourists on a sprawling journey through the most vital locations used for filming.
One company, accurately titled Game of Thrones Tours, still operates coach and walking tours around Belfast, where the studio created the show’s sets. Some of the tour guides were even extras on the show.
If you’re looking for a studio tour, remember to visit the previously mentioned Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. It has exclusive Game of Thrones merchandise, authentic sets, real costumes and props used by the actors, and a green screen experience for the whole family.
Winter is Coming
Whether you align yourself with House Stark, House Lannister, House Targaryen, or one of the lesser houses of Westeros, the sights you’ll see in Ireland, Croatia, Spain, Morocco, and Iceland remain fit for the one who sits on the Iron Throne. Create your own song of ice and fire with self-guided tours to both cold and hot filming locations, take pictures at iconic points of interest, and experience the magic of George R. R. Martin’s best-selling series in real life.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/StockByM
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