Visiting Westeros: A Complete Guide to Game of Thrones Filming Locations
The immense landscape across which the multiple stories of Game of Thrones unfolds is rich in geography and culture. The continent of Westeros that has sprung from the fertile imagination of George RR Martin provides the sumptuous setting that its vast array of characters and creatures inhabit. With the highly successful TV adaptation, the production team has the (un)enviable task of globetrotting and filming the various storylines - from the frozen north of 'Beyond the wall' to the scorching desert landscapes of the free cities of Essos.
The avid traveler and a fan of the stories who wants to combine a great holiday with an opportunity to visit the locations where the TV series has been/is being filmed needs to look no further. This handy guide will give you up to date information, map of locations and pictures of these delirious landscapes. Many of these locations has seen a significant increase in Tourism and have benefited from the Game of Thrones phenomenon.
So come join me as we visit the vast continent of Westeros straight from the imagination of George RR Martin - as visualised by the wonderful creative team behind the TV series.
Game of Thrones
The Epic phenomenon that is Game of Thrones is taking over the world. What started as a series of popular fantasy novels with a niche audience has now grown into a global juggernaut.
When author George R R Martin started penning his original series of novels 'A Song of Ice and Fire' ( the first book of the series is called A Game of Thrones) the sf/fantasy readership rejoiced at the richly detailed world creation, the social and political allegory, a vast number of characters that one could relate to, thrilling spectacle, mind boggling plot twists and assured story telling.
What really elevates the novel to higher echelons of literary fantasy is the meticulous world building. Martin based his fantasy grounding it on medieval European - especially British- history. In order to distinguish the Seven Kingdoms within Westeros Martin wanted to create distinctive cultures, habits, politics, personalities and allegiances. He felt strongly that the nature of the land they originate from will temper these traits.
So the land of Westeros has the frozen uncharted territories of rugged north, the exotic land beyond the sea where the free cities of Essos reign, the stark grey landscape of iron islands, the fertile riverlands, the lush Vale of Arryn, the marches and red mountains of Dorne and the uncharted territories of the grassland that is Dothraki Sea.
Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and other lands
Beyond the Wall
Uncharted north/ Wildlings
Cold, harsh, frozen, inhospitable
House Stark of Winterfell
Cold , Harsh, frozen but habitable
House GreyJoy of Pyke
Infertile, Rich with minerals, mines
House Tullys of Riverrun
Vale of Arryn
House Arryn of Eyrie
Surrounded by mountains, Valley
House Lannister of Casterly rock
Rich in Silver and Gold mines
Area surrounding the capital city
House Tyrell of Highgarden
Fertile, farming, villages
Harsh, rainy, forests
Dry, Arid, Red soil
Painthall Studios is the base of Game of Thrones filming crew
The Game of Thrones production team has set its base in Northern Ireland There are many reasons for this. The landscape is rich with medieval castles, craggy shores, lush forests and rivers; the Government provides ample support and tax rebates for the crew; majority of the cast hail from UK making it easier on the travel costs; the Irish base also makes it easier to travel across Europe onto further locations. For those who don't know UK - Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom - Southern Ireland is a separate country- The Republic of Ireland.
Primary filming takes place in sound stages of Painthall Studios in Belfast. Originally a shipyard where parts of the Titanic were built, the vast buildings now form one of the largest film studios in Europe. New extended soundstages have also been built to accomodate the behemoth that is Game of Thrones.
Lets have a look at the various locales in Northern Ireland where the series has been filmed.
Tollymore & MagheramorneClick thumbnail to view full-size
Tollymore Forest, County Down
This lush forest is location for key scenes in the pilot episode where Ned Stark and his sons find the Direwolf pups.
Although snowbound in the episode, the forest is renowned for its lush greenery and trickling streams, making this National Park a scenic place to visit in summer.
Magheramorne Quarry, County Antrim
The steep limestone quarry provided a suitable location for filming some aspects fo the 'Wall' for the first series. A set was built complete with the gates of Castle Black and the rickety wooden lift that takes the Nightswatch to the top of the wall.
Using disused timber and stone from the quarry the set was built and filmed. CGI trickery was added was added later to give it the frozen makeover for the mammoth wall built of ice (500 miles long and 700 feet wide according to the stories)
Ballintoy & Castle WardClick thumbnail to view full-size
Ballintoy Harbour, County Antrim
The Craggy harbour at Ballintoy in North Antrim served as the seat of Pyke, the Iron islands of House Greyjoy. Shots of Theon Greyjoy arriving by sea and walking down the harbour were filmed here.
Although visual effects were added to remove some of the modern features from the harbour and to cast a medieval look, much of the original stonework of the old harbour and the coastline were used extensively in filming.
Castle Ward, County Down
The exteriors of Winterfell especially scenes in the first episode where King Robert Barratheon arrives to meet the Starks were filmed at Old part of Castle Ward in County Down. Situated in a vast estate this place is full of character. The house itself is a stunning building ( not used for filming) that has a gothic facade and is surrounded by a vast 820 acre landscape with sunken gardens and beautiful vistas.
Sandy Brae & Dark HedgesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Sandy Brae, Newry & Mourne
The vast grasslands of Vaes Dothrak ( Dothraki Sea) needed a suitably vast vista adorned by distant mountains. A location was found in Sandy Brae, Newry in N.Ireland that fitted the bill. The two large horse statues rearing up high provide a majestic foreground to the landscape as the Dothraki ride onto their homeland.
Dark Hedges, Ballymoney
This magnificent road adorned by beech trees is over 200 years old. The trees were originally planted to impress the visitors arriving at Grace Hill, the household of Stuart family, two centuries ago. It now impresses as one goes down the road. One of a popular destinations for photographers this amazing natural phenomena serves as the setting for Kings Road in the series.
Iceland with its glaciers and frozen vistas is an ideal place to represent the icy wastelands of the land 'beyond the wall' where wildlings roam and the undead whitewalkers stalk. As the story moves to the adventures of Jon Snow more the scenery moves to an snow clad landscape. A large portion of his episodic narratives were filmed in Iceland around some well known locations.
The panoramic vista of Svínafellsjökull glacier served as the main shooting spot for Season Three. These depict scenes where Jon Snow joins the wildlings and meets the King beyond the wall. The volcanic ash following Icelandic volcanic eruptions had disrupted soem of the white landscape however fresh snowfall arrived on time to make shooting possible in this rugged landscape. It is a beautiful place to visit in summer and if you're feeling brave, winter.
The picturesque caves of Grjótag with its natural lakes and streams forms the setting for a romantic interlude between Jon Snow and the wildling Ygritte in season three.
The scenes of wildlings camps and march were also filmed in and around Mývatn lake. This shallow lake is in an area of active volcanos. In summer this area has rich flora and fauna due to the nutrient rich springwater that flows in. The surrounding wetlands provide rich diversity of insects and birds.
With its mediterranean climate, ancient monuments and surrounded azure blue sea Malta has been a favorite destination for filmmakers. Many films such as Gladiator, The Count of MonteCristo, Midnight Express and recently WordWar Z have been filmed there.
The First Season of Game of Thrones used Malta's unique visuals for several scenes. Parts of Valetta's harbour front and its forts were used to represent King's Landing and the beautiful Azure window in the nearby Gozo island serves as the backdrop for Daenerys Targaryen's wedding ceremony.
Valetta & GozoClick thumbnail to view full-size
Azure window, Gozo, Malta
The natural stone arch in the island of Gozo is known locally as Tieqa Żerqa. This beautiful natural landmark is surrounded by other picturesque locations such as the Inland sea and Dwejra bay. The natural limestone formation makes it an attractive filming location due to the vivid colours against the blue backdrop of the sea.
The wedding of Daenerys with Kal Dothrak was filmed here and later enhanced by CGI with crowds and camps. Scenes involving Daenerys and her brother Viserys discussing dowry and the wedding were also filmed in Malta.
The capital of Malta is also known for its ancient fortifications. These unique forts serve as Kings Landing in the first season of the series. Scenes where Ned stark first rides up to Kings landing, his subsequent capture and shock exit were all filmed around Forst Ricasoli and Fort Manoel in Valetta.
Mdina is the ancient capital of Malta. This ancient phoenician fortification still has charming buildings fort walls and cobbled streets. all of which were desirable for the Game of Thrones crew. The fantastic Mdina gate served as a backdrop for key scenes. Visiting Malta would be an an enchanting holiday with so much history and atmosphere not to forget the beautiful blue seas.
To capture the travels and adventures of Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, in the lands of free cities beyond the narrow sea, the team needed sun scorched landscapes with ancient buildings. Morocco, with its confluence of cultures and red brick fortresses seems a right fit for the cities of Astapor, the Slavers Bay, Qarth and others.
Essaouira & Ait BenhaddouClick thumbnail to view full-size
The scenic coastal city with its medieval ramparts serves as the site of slavers bay. Daenerys and Ser Jorah's search for an army takes them here.The beautiful backdrop of sun and sea serve to enhance the vivid colours and exoticism of the setting. This is a developing tourist destination and hotels have begun to spring up in the coastline.
Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate
Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO world Heritage site in the city of Ouarzazaote. This fortified village harks back to ancient times with is reddish brown buildings and ramparts. The visuals here have been used to represent various free cities in Essos. Including Astapor and Qarth.
The gates of Qarth were represented by reusing the set for the film Kingdom of Heaven which is still preservedat the Atlas film studios in Ouarzazote.
The name Ouarzazote literally means 'the door of the desert' as south of the city lies the Sahara.The city itself is located high at the foothills of the Atlas on a bare plateau.
The latest addition to the location map is the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The sunshine, sea and the ancient fortified walls of the old Dubrovnik have taken over from Malta as Kings Landing. The Croatian government is very supportive of the filming no doubt due to increasing influx of tourist revenues.
This delightful city on the Adriatic coast has now taken over from Malta as the 'new' Kings Landing. A long maritime history, multiple influences from Greek, Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian influences have all shaped the city's unique scenery, old and new buildings and culture. The stunning coastline along with the delights of the old walled city make it an ideal spot for filming. The Trsteno Arboretum has served as the location for the palace gardens where Sansa Stark converses with the Tyrells. Dubrovnik has become a highly popular holiday destination and has some fantastic hotels, beautiful medieval buildings and a sunny climate.
This lush island that is overlooked by the city has been used ot film a few scenes depicting Qarth. The presence of many peacocks in this scenic location may have influenced the decision somewhat.
Plan your trip
There are many holiday makers that are now offering Game of Thrones themed tours in their respective countries. You could either book with one of these tours or perhaps plan your own for maximum impact and freedom. Many of the locations are quite close to popular tourist spots and travel to key cities and locations is not that difficult.
Even without the added value of being in a Game of Thrones filming location, many of these are fantastic holiday destinations in their own merit- rich with culture and local colour. They will all offer you a memorable holiday experience worth savouring.
What are you waiting for?
Game of Thrones Trailer for Season 3
How they create Westeros- VFX Showreel
© 2013 Mohan Kumar