Are you a Game of Thrones lover? If you are, keep reading.
Or are you more like, “why does everyone love this darn show so much?! It’s basically soft core porn, but with more death and incest”? If you are, keep reading because you don’t have to love the show to appreciate the beauty of Northern Ireland.
In June, my friend Steve needed some help shooting a documentary about the various Game of Thrones filming locations, and I offered my assistance because I am a kind and giving person like that.*
(*Because Guinness tastes better in Ireland and I have been dying to go back ever since I left)
I honestly don’t really watch TV or movies, a source of much frustration for my friends on a lazy evening in, and thus am not usually a TV or movies tour type. I did, however, catch the first season of Game of Thrones on a flight between Europe and the US last summer, and therefore wasn’t completely in the dark.
Yet even if I had never seen an episode, it was the pleasure of exploring Northern Ireland that I was after, and which is quickly becoming the place of traveler’s dreams as its dark history fades into the past.
I’m referencing the three decade-long period of conflict in Northern Ireland that began in the late 1960s and lasted until the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. The struggle was mainly a political one rooted in religious and ethnic differences between parts of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community (principally Roman Catholic) and unionist community (principally Protestant).
On paper the disagreements and conflicts stemmed from Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom and anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, employment, policing, and voting. The fighting resulted in over 3,600 casualties, many of which were civilian. The Good Friday Agreement “ended the violent conflict in Northern Ireland by creating a power-sharing government and serves as a positive example worldwide for handling ethnic conflic” (via NPR).
I mention this because for many people, the fear of visiting Northern Ireland remains due to its history but is largely unfounded. The Northern Ireland I saw was the well-built industrial city of Belfast, lovely beaches, and gorgeous countryside.
What additionally stood out to me was the friendliness and sense of humor of the locals. This is something I’ve encountered in countries with similar recent histories such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka as well.
So if these photos tempt you to visit, go knowing that you’ll be safe.
After all, the Northern Ireland of today is where dragons, khaleesis, and kings roam. Take a look:
Tollymore Forest AKA The Haunted Forest
The first day started here with a bike ride through the forest and, most importantly for me, dressing up in a cape and running around with a foam sword. As Steve explains in the documentary, several scenes from the beginning of the series were shot here.
Plus, all this really cool stuff:
Castle Ward AKA Winterfell
I had no problem remembering Castle Ward as the filming location for Winterfell as it appeared quite a bit in the first season, and is where Bran was memorably (except for him) pushed out of a window.
I, however, will always remember it as the place where I learned how to shoot with a bow and arrow:
And where I ran around in a cape (again) because I can’t get enough of dress-up time.
The guide for Tollymore Forest and Castle Ward was Winterfell Tours – highly recommended if you want to do something similar. The owner, James, was a great guide and host!
Prices for the Archery Movie Set Experience start at £32.50 per person, including costumes.
Cushendun is a massive cave where, in the show, the shadow assassin was born. I liked it even more after learning that because how badass does “shadow assassin” sound?!
At around 3:00 in the video you’ll see our next guide, Phil with McComb’s Coach Travel , who took us around to all of the filming locations over the next couple of days (tours start at £35/person/day). He was, without a doubt, the best guide I’ve ever had. For anything. Ever.
Given he normally drives the cast and crew during filming, he was the perfect person to show us the remaining locations. He’s also just nice to be around, and we spent the whole time joking, poking harmless fun at each other, and enjoying the beauty of the Northern Irish coast.
I don’t often talk up tours, but this one is well worth it, mainly because of Phil and how knowledgable he is about the history of the area and the lore from the show.
Murlough Bay AKA Storm’s End
This was my favorite stop of the second day and maybe of the whole trip. It was such a clear day standing atop the cliffs of Murlough Bay that it was possible to see Scotland clearly across the North Channel.
It was so blue and so green – I actually had to take the saturation down when I edited the photos that evening.
It was truly the Ireland of dreams and movies (and TV shows, as it were).
Though not a filming location, no trip to Northern Ireland is complete without visiting the Giant’s Causeway. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was formed by volcanoes, or, depending on what you believe, feuding giants.
A tip from Phil: Most people think that it’s necessary to pay an entrance fee to visit the rocks, but the fee only grants access to a visitor’s center and isn’t required to see the rest of the area. If you ask me, that’s a needless expense.
They’re also open any time, so get there before the busses start running at 9am. Steve and I arrived at around 8:30, walked the whole 12 minutes down (easy peasy), and had them nearly to ourselves until 9 o’clock.
Ballintoy Harbour AKA Pyke
Ballintoy Harbour was another highlight for me. I love a cloudy, rugged beach, and it was just gorgeous with the various colors of moss, seaweed, and wild flowers.
It was once a small fishing harbor and processing area for rocks coming from a nearby quarry, back in the day. Up until recently, it wasn’t on the tourist radar. Thanks to the show, now more than just the locals know about it.
As they should, because it’s so impressively beautiful.
The Causeway Coast was also a destination in itself, and the drive along it is gorgeous:
Dark Hedges of Armoy AKA The King’s Road
Yet another place that was rather unknown prior to becoming a GoT filming location (for only a few seconds when Arya Stark escapes King’s Landing), the Dark Hedges is now a favorite amongst photographers.
The Hedges are one street lined with intertwined beech trees that were planted in the 18th-century. The perfect time to catch them looking their finest is at sunset.
Despite not being a huge fan of the show, mainly because I was talking about myself earlier when I mentioned that I’m most likely watching YouTube videos about slow motion while binge-eating Cheeze-Its when I’m feeling lazy (because have you tasted them? Holy crunchy, salty goodness), this remains one of the most unique and entertaining trips I’ve taken. Plus, the guides truly were wonderful and enthusiastic about the subject matter.
If you find yourself in the area, pop up to Northern Ireland and take a look around. You’ll never forget it.
*Since I was there working and providing assistance to Steve, this visit was not paid for by me, however, I wrote this only because I wanted to, not because I was expected to, asked to, or compensated to do so. I shared the experience with you because I enjoyed it and thought you guys would, too.