So You Want to Visit Westeros…
In Westeros, kings and queens come and go, heads are firmly attached one minute and rolling along the floor the next, and your friendly royal rival and potential love interest suddenly is revealed to be your aunt. But while alliances can shift at a moment’s notice, there is one truth that is inescapable: winter is coming.
For the real-world locations that pose as the Seven Kingdoms, “winter” means tourists.
While Game of Thrones may be a fantasy with its lands formed in the imagination of George R.R. Martin, the creators of the show opted early on to prioritize filming in real locations with the real landscapes and elements that they provide rather than relying entirely on post-production and CGI to build the worlds of Westeros and Essos. This has resulted in an even more magical setting for the Seven Kingdoms’ shenanigans and has elevated the real-turned-fictional locations into characters in their own right.
Over the course of the eight seasons of HBO’s wildly popular series, filming has occurred around the world in countries extending from Northern Ireland and Spain to Croatia and Morocco. This range has created something of a cast rivalry. (Emilia Clarke recently scoffed at Kit Harrington’s complaint that his location in Iceland has the worst climate. Clarke told Stephen Colbert that Harington at least has short filming hours due to the lack of daylight, while she has to shoot “in a quarry in Malta in 100-degree heat passing out every single season.”) It has also introduced a new favorite past-time for devotees of the series: Game of Thrones tourism.
Like the armies of White Walkers, the hordes of GOT pilgrims have descended on many of these locations, which have largely welcomed them and their gold coins with open arms. Because, while traveling to the actual Westeros may not be an option (sorry, superfans), visiting the lands where the Seven Kingdoms were brought to life is. And you may just find that the real places are even more magical than those on the screen. So, pack your bags and queue up the Game of Thrones theme song because your trip across the Narrow Sea is about to begin.
Dubrovnik, Croatia (aka King’s Landing)
The Old Town of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea is steeped in a rich history of its own—it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 and it survived a siege during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. But it’s the city’s role as King’s Landing starting in Season 2 that has brought visitors pouring in. (Both Ned Stark and Malta as the capital city of Westeros were killed off at the end of the show’s first season.)
Avid Game of Thrones fans will recognize the charming red roofs that line the steep city streets and the medieval walls that surround them as iconic markers of King’s Landing, but inside the city gates there are more attractions to behold. Want to recreate Cersei’s walk of shame? It’s a questionable desire, but one that can be fulfilled starting at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church. Olenna Tyrell plotted regicide and held court in the palace gardens that can be found just north of the historic district at the Trsteno Arboretum. And you should probably watch your dragons while walking the city walls when you reach the Minčeta Tower, which is otherwise known as the House of the Undying.
While the TV tourist boom has brought some much-needed economic support to the city, the flood of visitors has also threatened the area with congestion. In 2017, the city’s mayor announced that the number of tickets to walk the walls would be limited to help create a more enjoyable experience for both residents and visitors.
Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland (aka Beyond the Wall)
Iceland has been experiencing a tourist boom over the last several years thanks to a few colliding forces namely, according to The New York Times, the 2008 financial crash that made it a relatively cheap vacation spot and the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that beamed images of the country’s exotic landscapes into homes around the world. Iceland began popping up on all of the travel “where to go lists” just as Game of Thrones became a viral sensation creating, as The New York Times put it, “an invasion on a scale possibly unseen since Vikings raided the island hundreds of years ago.”
While various sites around Iceland have been used to bring the North to life, the country has mainly served as the setting for the Land Beyond the Wall. The glaciers and frozen lakes and piles of snow of Vatnajökull National Park have created a world in which winter is always present.
“We always knew we wanted something really shatteringly beautiful and barren and brutal for this part of Jon’s journey because he’s in the true north now,” David Benioff, executive producer and writer, said of the scenes beyond the wall.
In addition to the national park, there’s the Grjótagjá cave to the north where Jon Snow and Ygritte got it on; Thingvellir National Park to the west near Reykjavik where the cannibalistic Thenns were introduced and where Brienne of Tarth fought the Hound, and the lava field of Dimmuborgir in the north of the country, which the wildlings made their temporary home.
Northern Ireland (aka nearly all of Westeros)
Robert Boake, supervising location manager for Game of Thrones, has called Northern Ireland the “mothership of the show.” As the production headquarters, it’s almost easier to list the scenes that weren’t shot in and around Belfast than those that were. As Boake summed it up, basically any location that didn’t require sunny, desert climes was filmed in Northern Ireland.
You may recognize the Dark Hedges in County Antrim as the dramatically beautiful Kingsroad; Dunluce Castle and Ballintoy Harbor on the coast served as the Iron Islands; Tollymore Forest Park doubled as the dark forests of the Old Gods that surround Winterfell; and, in a complete about-face, the Glens of Antrim were sometimes used to film the Dothraki Sea (which also was shot in Bardenas Reales in Spain because only on TV can you be in two places at once.)
It helps that Northern Ireland is all about the influx of visitors. According to John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism Northern Ireland, one in six visitors to the region is a GOT stan, and the tourism board estimates that £30 million is spent each year by visitors inspired to make the trip because of the show. Just to make Northern Ireland’s location reign official, HBO recently announced that they would be opening something of a fan experience in several filming locations around the region later this year.
Sevilla, Spain (aka Dorne)
The Martells may not have had quite as much screen time as the Lannisters or the Starks, but they win when it comes to the most colorful and aesthetically pleasing palace in the realm. (OK, the dreary Winterfell isn’t even in the running.)
That’s almost entirely due to the Alcázar of Seville, a castle built by the Moors in the eighth century that doubles as the Winter Palace of Dorne. The geometric ornamentation and Islamic flourishes of the palace help build the coastal aesthetic of the Sand Snakes, which pairs very nicely with their ornate, brightly colored, and often revealing garb.
While Dorne is the crown jewel of the Spanish set, the palaces of Spain played starring roles in the series, particularly in the seventh season. Castillo de Almodóvar del Río near Córdoba might be recognized as Highgarden, the Castle of Zafra as the Tower of Joy, and Castell de Santa Florentina as the family seat of House Tarly. And, of course, the only proper place to stage the fighting pits of Meereen would be in a genuine bullring in southern Spain.
Morocco (aka Astapor and Yunkai)
Sure Westeros tends to get all the glory, but let us not forget that a significant portion of Game of Thrones takes place across the Narrow Sea in Essos. In the third season as Daenerys works to free the captives in the cities that make up Slaver’s Bay (which also helps to shore up her political base), two of the slave cities—Astapor and Yunkai—can be found in Morocco. The former of these was filmed in the coastal town of Essaouira and the later in Aït Benhaddou near Marrakech.
While production in Morocco largely dropped off after the third season, this location might help explain all those flowing, flimsy dresses that Khaleesi wears. Long live the desert-chic Mother of Dragons!