In 2017, when my daughter Annie was studying abroad in Ireland, we decided to book a Game of Thrones tour out of Belfast, Northern Ireland. At that time, the show was alive and well and broadcasting on HBO.
Fast forward to today, and we all know that Game of Thrones is over. Also, HBO is now Max. However, the Game of Thrones tour lives on.
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A year or so after returning from Northern Ireland, I wrote this recap of the tour and our vacation, originally for the Next Tribe website. Since I’m missing Game of Thrones so much, I decided to revisit that review, update and add to it here.
Our Game of Thrones tour experience
When I gave birth to my first child, thankfully my experience was very different from the birth scene in Season 2 of Game of Thrones. That’s when Melisandre birthed a smoke demon from a rock, in a cave somewhere in Westeros.
A few years ago, I was standing in that cramped cave where they filmed that scene. However, I hadn’t time traveled to Westeros. Now, I was on the Northern Irish coast, about an hour outside of Belfast. It was one of the first stops on the Game of Thrones tour.
As my husband, Annie and I stood there, I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world they fit an entire film crew in this space. And did the neighbors mind all the noise?
Maybe they did and that’s why, on the day of our visit, I noticed a driveway near that cave. It led to a Northern Irish home that was for sale. I Googled it–it was going for $US 424,000.
Why we booked a Game of Thrones tour
As I mentioned, we were in Ireland visiting our daughter who was studying in Galway. While we were thrilled to see Annie after so many weeks away, we were maybe equally stoked to learn that much of Game of Thrones is filmed in Northern Ireland—they use locations in Croatia, Spain, and Iceland, too—and that we could go on a fan tour of filming locations.
Game of Thrones Tour: In the Footsteps of Jon Snow
Game of Thrones Tours depart from four Irish cities—Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Tollymore. Each city offers its own GoT itinerary.
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We chose one out of Belfast called the Iron Islands tour, but we opted for the one without the rope bridge seen on screen—fear of heights and all. The other Belfast tour included the rope bridge.
A third focused on more southern destinations, including Castle Ward, the inspiration for Winterfell.
On tour day, when we queued up outside the TopShop near City Hall, at 7:30 a.m., it was like the weather was going on the tour, too. Even though it was summer, it was a cold, rainy Saturday morning, which was so appropriate since, you know, winter is coming.
Our bearded tour guide, Robbie, had brown hair flowing to the middle of his back. Dressed all in black and with a ruddy face, Robbie looked like he’d stepped off the set of GoT—which, in fact, he had.
Robbie of the Red Shirt
Robbie, an extra picked for his archery skills, explained how he’d been killed on the show seven times. The first time his ship blew up during the Battle of the Blackwater.
“Dead,” he deadpanned. Another time he was replaced by a mannequin at the last minute before a rock crushed his head.
“Really dead,” he added. The next time an arrow got him in the back. “Dead again.”
If Robbie were an extra on Star Trek, he certainly would have been issued a red shirt.
And so it was throughout the day as he regaled us with insider stories from the set in between holding up show stills to explain where we were standing in the Game of Thrones universe.
Get this: Unlike his heinous character King Joffrey, actor Jack Gleeson is a genuinely nice guy who liked to rap in between takes. Now I can’t think about Joffrey without imagining Eminem instead–blonde hair and all.
Almost Like a Dragon Ride
While we didn’t see any mythical creatures, we did experience a ride as terrifying as a trip on one of Dani’s dragons: the Causeway Coastal Route. That’s a narrow Irish road that our 20-person coach barely fit on. To be honest, it’s typical of most roads in the United Kingdom.
However, unlike roads in England, this one winds along the coast, sometimes with a sheer cliff on one side, straight down to the Irish Sea. Reminded me a bit too much of the Pacific Coast Highway, which I drove once and never again.
Speaking of England, one of our best family trips was when we took the kids to London.
My husband loved the historical tidbits Robbie wound into the day. This was usually during a ride from one Game of Thrones site to another.
Bill found it fascinating—me, not so much—when we visited the quarry that served as the backdrop for Renly’s Season 2 tournament. Robbie shared how locals had relied for centuries on quarry limestone to grind into mortar used to build their homes.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised later when Bill elbowed me, opened his hand and revealed the piece of limestone he’d pilfered when Robbie wasn’t looking. Not exactly my kind of souvenir.
Between tour stops we watched scenes from the show. Most featured locations we would be visiting that day, and yes Melisandre’s naked birth scene was played out in all its glory. Tours are for age 18 plus due to the R-rated nature of the show.
Hitting “The Wall”
Along the way, we passed a different quarry, where scenes from Castle Black are shot. In real life “The Wall” is a massive face of rock, hundreds of feet tall; on TV, thanks to computer-generated images (CGI), it’s a sheet of ice. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop there and I never got a good picture.
In the seaside town of Glenarm, Robbie walked us to the steps where Arya emerged from the water in Season 6, after the Waif had stabbed her. You’ll probably recognize these steps.
Robbie tells us that it’s the only part of that scene filmed there; the rest was done in Spain and then edited together.
You’ll want to book this Game of Thrones tour in Spain to see those locations.
As we gathered around the steps, snapping pictures, Robbie asked, “Anyone want to jump in and recreate the scene?” When no one answered, he faked like he’s going to grab the nearest person and toss her in.
“I don’t blame you,” he said with a laugh, explaining that actress Maisie Williams had to wear a wetsuit under her costume because of the frigid water.
At Ballintoy Harbour, our next stop, where Theon Greyjoy (Season 2) and Euron Greyjoy (Season 6) are baptized, Robbie asked again for a volunteer to step in the ocean. It was as if he had asked who wanted to fight the Mountain. Not a soul stepped forward.
What Would Arya Do?
But, at the same location, when Robbie threw open the trunk (or the boot) of the coach and asked who wants to dress up with robes and swords, you could hear shouts of “Hell, yeah,” as everyone rushed forward.
Annie and I put on Yara Greyjoy “armor.”
Bill buttoned up a blue leather and suede cape. We got to spend the next 30 minutes sword fighting and taking pictures on the beach, which also doubled as Slavers Bay and Sir Davos’ rescue point after the Battle of Blackwater.
By this point in the day, the cold rain had disappeared, and Northern Ireland was enjoying an unusually hot summer afternoon. Sunbathers nearby eyed us suspiciously.
Considering these GoT tours are stopping here seven days a week, you would think the locals would be used to fans geeking out in costume. And it’s not just obnoxious American fans on these tours. In our group of 20, there were rabid fans from Australia, Ecuador and Scotland.
Get Me To The Kingsroad
Before heading back to Belfast, we walked through the Dark Hedges, which doubles as the Kingsroad in Season 2. You’d recognize it, with its gnarled tree trunks and the almost pastoral-like setting along the path Arya and Gendry (Robert Baratheon’s bastard) take on the way to Harrenhal.
It was hardly pastoral the day we visited. It was jammed with coaches and cars, and people stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. Damn, tourists, get off the road. You’re ruining all of my photos!
Other stops on and off the tour
In addition to scenic locations from Game of Thrones, our tour included a stop at Giants Causeway. It’s a big deal for visitors to Northern Ireland because it’s such an impressive landscape.
You know what impressed me? The weather was so clear that we could see Scotland across the water.
Unfortunately, much like the Kingsroad, the Giants Causeway was filled with tourists. So it was crowded and hot.
One stop that was not on the official Game of Thrones tour out of Belfast was where they shot Winterfell. It’s located about an hour south and part of a different tour itinerary.
So, we drove there after our tour was over–we were heading to Dublin that day, and it was along the way from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland.
Like the other stops on the tour, there was signage to explain where you were in the series.
For example, we learned that the farm that stood in for Winterfell (the Stark’s official home) was only part of what you saw on screen. The rest they added in with CGI or sets built elsewhere.
Game of Thrones tour itineraries
Currently, you can book Game of Thrones tours in these European countries:
In some of these locations, you can choose from different itineraries. For example, Game of Thrones tours out of Belfast, Northern Ireland, primarily head west towards the scenes from the Iron Islands and include the Dark Hedges aka Kings Road.
However, one Belfast Game of Thrones tour heads south towards Dublin and includes a stop at the stand-in for Winterfell. It is the Game of Thrones County Down tour.
Want something a little bit more high-brow to do in Dublin? Check out these literary sites in Dublin.
In Dubrovnik, Croatia, Viator lists multiple Game of Thrones tour itinerary options. These include:
- Touring sites that stood in for Mereen
- Walking tour of Kings Landing
- Visit to Diocletian’s cellars, where Daenarys kept her dragons in Season Five.
The Spain Game of Thrones tours focus on the following:
- Bilbao coast, which doubled as Dragonstone.
- Girona (tour originates in Barcelona), which was a stand-in for Kings Landing
- Seville, the setting for Dorne and the House of Martell
Finally, it appears there is only one Game of Thrones tour in Iceland available on Viator.
Final thoughts on the Game of Thrones tour
I’ve never loved a TV show enough to purposefully take a TV show-inspired tour. For example, I’m a jaded native New Yorker so you would never find me on a “Sex and the City” tour to Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes.
But you know what? The Game of Thrones tour was awesome. A girl got a bit bored after the dress-up part, but not her parents.
I wish I’d been watching Game of Thrones in 2015 when we took a family vacation to Barcelona. You know I would have tacked on a Game of Thrones tours from Barcelona.
Finally, here are 11 other locations where you can enjoy film or screen tourism related to your favorite TV shows or movies.