It’s that time of the year again!
You know that another Game of Thrones season has begun when your Facebook news feed is flooded with cheers of excitement, cries of anger, and death threats for friends who are posting spoilers. It is not difficult to understand why HBO’s highly entertaining and often wildly brutal adaptation of the George RR Martin novels has reached the legendary status in pop culture. It has all the right ingredients: compelling characters, convincing production, unpredictable plot twists, and the right amount of fantasy. And dragons! Put it all together and you get a weekly serving of wonder. Brutal at times, but still pretty mindblowing.
But there’s one more thing that always captivates me about this phenomenal hit. On the Season 6 premiere, for instance, when the khalasar made their way to Khal Jhaqo with Daenerys Targaryen in tow, I was so drawn to the arid landscape that surrounded them that I googled it right away. Bardenas Reales in Spain, it turned out.
I have been so fascinated with GoT’s choices of filming locations that I have come up with a mission: visit as many of them as I can. The first that I set foot on was Essaouira in Morocco, which was where all Astapor scenes were shot (including that part where Khaleesi freed the Unsullied and ordered them to kill their masters). And when I backpack across Europe later this year, I’m certainly making stops in Northern Ireland, Croatia, and Spain.
So I decided to make a list of the fictional places in the series and their real-life counterparts, where they were primarily filmed. But before we begin, some notes:
- This list covers exterior shots only. Many of the interior sequences were actually done elsewhere. For example, Dobrovnik’s streets and coastal walls are used mainly for King’s Landing, but interior shots (Red Keep, Iron Throne, etc.) are done in sets in Northern Ireland.
- This is not 1:1. King’s Landing may be filmed mainly in Dubrovnik, but they also took supplementary footage of Essaouira and Malta as the Westeros capital. Dubrovnik also stood in for the City of Qarth in Season 2.
- Many of these sites have been digitally modified or enhanced by the show. Winterfell, for example, is almost unrecognizable as Castle Ward.
- This is not complete. I will update this as the series moves forward.
Now that we got the caveats out of the way, here it is: a Game of Thrones fan’s travel bucket list!
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
1. King’s Landing: Dubrovnik, Croatia
The ancient port city of Dubrovnik has seen a steady increase in tourism since they first used it to depict King’s Landing in Season 1. Executive Producer David Benioff said, “The first time we saw Dubrovnik, I was in shock, because the whole city really looked the way we pictured King’s Landing looking.”
2. Winterfell: Castle Ward, Northern Ireland
The vast 1000-acre grounds surrounding Castle Ward has hosted the production team as they bring to life many of the series’ key moments, including scenes featuring Winterfell, seat of the House Stark and capital of the North. Much of the first 2 seasons took advantage of the sheer size of its grassy farmyard, perfect for army camp sequences, and ancient structures including Audley’s Castle.
3. The Wall and Castle Black: Magheramorne Quarry, Northern Ireland
The Magheramorne Quarry is an abandoned limestone quarry in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This is where the Castle Black set was installed. (It has also been used as Hardhome and the city walls of King’s Landing in Season 2’s Blackwater episode.) It is currently not accessible to the public, but there are pending plans of reopening it as a mountain biking center. Fingers crossed.
4. Beyond the Wall: Iceland
Most of the events north of the Wall of Westeros are realized in Iceland. This includes the glacier at Snæfellsjökull (I don’t even know how to pronounce that properly) which was used as the Fist of the First Men; Mývatn Lake, a frozen lava lake close to the town of Akureyri, which was where Mance Rayder’s wildling group dwelled; and Grjótagjá Cave, where Jon Snow and Ygritte had a very wet consummation of their love.
5. Dorne: Seville and Guadalajara, Spain
Dorne was actually what I was so excited to see on television. I just thought it had the most character. Dorne, the southernmost region of the Seven Kingdoms, in the books was actually inspired by medieval Spain, so it totally makes sense that they chose Seville as location, including Sunspear, seat of House Martell, which was actually the Alcázar of Seville in reality.
This season, fans are also excited to see the Tower of Joy, which was said to be Castillo de Zafra, a 12th-century castle in Guadalajara.
6. Iron Islands: Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland
Also known as “raised beach,” Ballintoy Harbor in County Antrim can take pride in being real-life Iron Islands. Images of this picturesque harbor were digitally enhanced to mimic the jaw-dropping seascape of Pyke and Lordsport. You remember that scene where Theon Greyjoy first meets his sister Yara? That was shot here.
7. Dragonstone Island: Downhill Strand, Northern Ireland
Stannis Baratheon’s bailiwick is actually Downhill Strand, a beach destination in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. It’s where Stannis and Melisandre set the Seven idols on fire and where Davos allowed Gendry to flee.
8. Kingsroad: the Dark Hedges of Armoy, Northern Ireland
Do you remember when Arya, Yoren, Gendry, and Hot Pie were on the way to the Wall after escaping King’s Landing? Did you notice the beautiful avenue flanked with rows of eerie but beautiful trees? That’s the Dark Hedges of Armoy, which in the GoT world is Kingsroad. It is actually a road of beech trees, which according to Northern Ireland’s tourism website, were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family “to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House.”
9. Pentos: Malta
And now we go all the way back to Season 1. The Mediterranean archipelago of Malta has been home to the GoT team for many days, too, mostly during the filming of Pentos. In particular, the 16th century Verdala Palace, the official summer residence of the Maltese President, stood in for the mansion of Illyrio Mopatis, the merchant-prince who sold Daenerys to Khal Drogo in marriage. The wedding feast then took place in Gozo Island, the second largest island in Malta.
10. Meereen: Split, Croatia
Meereen, the largest city that Daenerys Targaryen has conquered and ruled so far, is the Croatian city of Split in real life. Situated on the coast of Dalmatia, this picturesque city faces the Adriatic Sea. Among the sites used in the series is the Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose cellars provided replacement for the underground passages in Meereen.
11. Braavos: Šibenik, Croatia
Šibenik, a quiet medieval town in Central Dalmatia, Croatia, made its GoT debut in Season 5 as the free city of Braavos, where Arya Stark found herself after sailing from Westeros and where the Iron Bank is located.
12. Astapor: Essaouira, Morocco
The port city of Essaouira along the Atlantic coast of Morocco serves as Astapor, one of the cities in Slaver’s Bay. Essaouira is where most scenes in Astapor was shot, including the unforgettable and iconic scene wherein Daenerys Targaryen bought and freed the Unsullied, and then ordered her dragons to attack. Dracarys!
13. Yunkai: Aït-Ben-Haddou, Morocco
Also in Morocco is the old city of Aït-Ben-Haddou, a fortified city on the edge of the great Sahara desert. It’s no stranger to movies as it has been the setting for The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy (1999), and Prince of Persia (2010) among others. But in the GoT world, Aït-Ben-Haddou is Yunkai, aka Yellow City and one of the three great city-states in Slaver’s Bay.
14. Vaes Dothrak: Almeria in Andalusia, Spain
Vaes Dothrak has yet to be featured, but rumor has it that the team tapped the exotic charms of Almeria, a city in Andalusia, Spain, for this. We’ll see in the coming episodes.
15. Dothraki Sea: Bardenas Reales, Spain
Many places have been used to depict the many parts of Dothraki Sea, but in the Season 6 premiere, the place we casually refer to as “wherever the fuck Drogon dropped Daenerys” is Bardenas Reales, the 100,000-acre badlands in southeast Navarre, Spain.