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dark hedges

Where to See the Best Game of Thrones Locations in Northern Ireland

Rabbie
Posted on 13 Feb 2023

Have you ever had that moment? You’ve been picturing somewhere in your mind for years – possibly decades – and you finally catch that first glimpse. Perhaps it’s a castle from your favourite TV show. You’ve put in your headphones and are blasting the theme song as you arrive.  

That little thrill is hard to beat. You feel a sense of achievement, in a way, that you’re finally seeing this place for yourself. And you feel a deeper connection to a story and characters you’ve come to love. 

Certain shows hold special places in our hearts. Game of Thrones is one such show for many people. And for such a small country, Northern Ireland punches well above its weight: it has more GoT locations than you can shake a sword at.  

With such an abundance of places to visit, you may feel a bit overwhelmed with where to start. Luckily, we visit a few of these amazing locations on our small-group tours and we’d be delighted to take you there. And if you’re going on a self-drive adventure of your own, we’ve added a few more special spots that you’ll absolutely love to see.   

So, follow the Three-Eyed Raven and enter Northern Ireland; the Game of Thrones territory. If you proceed with this blog, be warned: there be spoilers about.  

Coming up in this blog:

  • Old Castle Ward (Winterfell)
  • Tollymore Forest Park (Direwolves and Nightwalkers)
  • The Dark Hedges (the Kingsroad)
  • Ballintoy Harbour (Lordsport in Pyke)
  • Downhill Beach (Dragonstone)
  • Cushendun Caves (Shadow Baby birth)
  • Inch Abbey (Robb Stark's army)
  • Dunluce Castle (The Castle of Pyke)
  • Mourne Mountains (Vaes Dothrak)
  • Portstewart Strand (Beach in Dorne)
  • The Game of Thrones doors

Game of Thrones filming locations in Northern Ireland

1. Old Castle Ward (Winterfell) 

In real life... 

Castle Ward has belonged to the Ward family since the 16th century. It sits on 332 hectares of gorgeously landscaped gardens and the mansion itself is a strange mix of styles. Lord Bangor and his wife, Lady Ann Bligh couldn’t agree on one particular look, so they comprised. One face of the mansion is in a classical Palladian style, while the opposite face is done in a Georgian Gothic style.  

The estate was passed down through the family for generations, even standing empty for over a decade, until finally it was gifted to the Government of Northern Ireland. Today, the public can enjoy a visit to this interesting property.  

Just like in Game of Thrones, there have even been a few deaths here over the years. But let’s not dwell on that. 

In the show... 

What interests many nowadays when they visit Castle Ward is the tower house and accompanying farmyard on the estate, known as Old Castle Ward. It was in this location that many vital scenes in Game of Thrones were filmed. It stands in for part of the ancestral home of House Stark, Winterfell. This is where Theon Greyjoy turned on House Stark. It’s where King Barathon arrived in a dramatic fashion to forever change the lives of the Stark family. It’s where the climactic battle of season eight took place.  

Luckily, you don’t have to worry about the Night King when you’re visiting Castle Ward on one of our tours. This estate turned out to be a film-making paradise and was used for 19 other GoT filming locations. So, while you’re here, wander around and try to spot as many as possible. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Holly McDonagh (@hols07)

2. Tollymore Forest Park (Direwolves and Nightwalkers) 

In real life... 

In 1955, Tollymore was named the first state forest park in Northern Ireland. Underneath its beautiful canopy, you can wander along the Shimna River and discover the many treasures inside, including stone bridges and shelters, caves, a barn, and even magnificent Himalayan cedar trees.  

Perhaps you’ll spot a wild fallow deer. Or sense the scurrying of red squirrels that call the forest home. Be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an otter swimming in the river.   

You’ll see just how much life is in this forest, which has been home to people far longer than you may realise. Over the years, many artefacts have been found, including prehistoric blades.  

Open to the public all year round, visitors are invited to camp, explore, walk one of the many trails, frolic on horseback or simply take in the excitement of being that much closer to Game of Thrones.  

In the show...  

Remember that opening scene of Game of Thrones? Men of the Night’s Watch are patrolling the snow-covered woods beyond the wall, only to discover a pile of dismembered bodies? A bold introduction to the show but GoT fans would demand no less.  

But don't worry, going for a stroll in Tollymore Forest Park is unlikely to bring you face-to-face with Nightwalkers. Though, we cannot guarantee it...  

This enchanting forest was also used in the scene when the Stark family come upon the Direwolf pups. A pivotable moment for the Stark children and also for the fans.   

3. The Dark Hedges (the Kingsroad) 

In real life... 

In 1755, James Stuart decided to build a lovely mansion and name it Gracehill House after his wife Grace. He then felt inclined to plant over 150 beech trees along the entrance road leading to the estate to impress visitors as they approached. Someone wanted to make a statement. And he succeeded.  

To this day, people flock from all over to see the imposing Dark Hedges and they’re now one of the most photographed spots in Northern Ireland. 

But, if you do visit, be warned. According to legend (because who doesn’t love a good legend?), the hedges are haunted by a ghost called the Grey Lady. There’s some speculation as to her true identity. She might be the spirit of James’ daughter. Or she might be the ghost of one of the house maids who died mysteriously. There’s also a nearby abandoned (of course) graveyard that might be the culprit.  

Sounds like something straight out of Game of Thrones, right? No matter who she is, we’re not sure what she wants and it’s always best to tread lightly if you choose to visit the hedges.

In the show... 

The Kingsroad is the longest and grandest highway in the Seven Kingdoms. And nothing can give more prominence to this road than a spectacular row of overarching beech trees. The Dark Hedges was the perfect choice for this dramatic television show.  

The site featured in Game of Thrones series two, doubling as the Kingsroad which young Arya Stark travelled on in the back of a cart along with Yoren, Gendry and Hot Pie - all new recruits for the Night's Watch. 

4. Ballintoy Harbour (Lordsport in Pyke) 

In real life... 

All year round, Ballintoy Harbour is home to a crowd of small boats. Hugged as it is by beautiful limestone blocks, it makes for a striking photo. Whether you’re a painter, photographer, or general nature-lover, this is one beautiful spot. 

And on a dark and gloomy day, there’s something rather sinister about it. With grey clouds above, the waves crashing on the rocks within the harbour take on an ominous effect.  

Perhaps that’s why it was chosen to feature in Game of Thrones, and for a scene that was rather upsetting for one of the characters. Though, which scenes weren’t like that?  

In the show... 

Coming home wasn’t easy for Theon Greyjoy. 

You’ll remember that he docked in at Lordsport on the island of Pyke expecting his boorish father to accept an alliance with the Starks. 

Things turned out to be totally different. 

Torn between loyalty to people who brought him up and staying true to his roots, Theon betrayed the North. Ironically, Ballintoy supposedly means ‘Town of the North’. If that wasn’t a sign for Theon to choose the North, we don’t know what is. 

This shady port from the series is the calm Ballintoy Harbour in County Antrim. With its beautifully rugged coast, bobbing boats and friendly locals, this epitome of a fishing village is a must-see spot. 

5. Downhill Beach (Dragonstone) 

In real life... 

Being the top at anything is a pretty great achievement. Downhill is considered one of the most scenic strands in Ireland and from this area, you can see views of three counties: Donegal, Antrim and Derry/Londonderry.  

Not to mention that the beach and its dunes are an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to the quality of the sand dunes and associated flora and fauna. 

Then there’s what’s on up high. Perched on the cliff overlooking the beach is Mussenden Temple, one of the most photographed spots in Northern Ireland. The ruins of an 18th-century mansion that belonged to an eccentric Bishop lie nearby as well. And the temple was originally built as a library. On a cliff-face. Puts other libraries to shame, really. 

In the show... 

Downhill and Mussenden are both beautiful, but what also draws people to this spot is its connection to Game of Thrones.  

Remember Lady Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light? With her unshakable faith and determination to go to any length to fulfil her god’s will, she’s a controversial figure. After gaining influence over Stannis Baratheon, she persuades him to reject the New Gods of Westeros and bury their effigies on the beach of Dragonstone. Aka Downhill Beach. 

It was here she said her famous line: “For the night is dark and full of terrors.” 

We don’t advise coming to the beach to recreate such a scene (though it’s tempting) but fans flock to the beach to imagine this dramatic moment, while also getting to enjoy a lovely day at the beach. 

We have a few tours that head to Mussenden Temple which overlooks Downhill. Those tours are the 4-day Donegal & the Wild Atlantic Way and the 6-day Wild Coasts of the North

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Audris Romualdez (@audr1s)

6. Cushendun Caves (Shadow baby birth) 

In real life... 

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that humans have only been here for a blink of an eye. And that somewhere like Cushendun Caves in Northern Ireland have been forming for over 400 million years. 400 million years. When people say 20 years ago, some struggle to believe that’s 2003, not 1983. Imagine what this cave has seen over the years.  

The cave walls are a beautiful mosaic of tiny rocks, sea salt, and sea creatures such as mussels. And a relatively new feature of the cave are the fans. Game of Thrones fans, we mean. Each year, hundreds of people are drawn to the caves thanks to perhaps one of the most horrifying scenes from the show. 

In the show... 

She’s back. Melisandre, the Red Priestess. Always causing trouble. It was in these caves where she gave birth to the shadow creature that was used to assassinate Renly Baratheon.  

Now is the perfect time to also mention the Game of Thrones doors. Remember before when we mentioned the Dark Hedges? They were damaged by a storm in 2016 and many branches came crashing down. Instead of wasting this beautiful wood, it was reused to make 10 wooden doors to commemorate Game of Thrones.

They are now spotted throughout pubs in Northern Ireland and you can find one near the caves at Mary McBride’s Bar. More on this later.

7. Inch Abbey (Robb Stark’s army) 

In real life... 

In 1171, an Anglo-Norman knight by the name of Sir John de Courcy arrived in Ireland as part of the Norman invading forces. Over the years, he got up to a lot of mischief while he was there and became a very ambitious man, taking a small army to the north of Ireland in 1177. It was during this time that he destroyed Erenagh Abbey. 

What’s this to do with Inch Abbey? As far as we know, not long after his conquests, he built Inch Abbey (among other good deeds) as penance for destroying Erenagh Abbey (and for being a troublemaker).  

In the show... 

Remember those quaint days of people rallying behind “THE KING OF THE NORTH”? It didn’t last long. And it didn’t end well.  

Fans of Game of Thrones may recognise Inch Abbey from the scene where Robb Stark’s army wait at the Trident to cross. We all know how that turned out. Not great. Then again, it’s Game of Thrones – what else can we expect?  

8. Dunluce Castle (The Castle of Pyke) 

In real life... 

Not for the faint of heart, Dunluce Castle sits perched on the edge of a basalt outcropping with incredibly sheer drops on all sides. It’s one of those medieval buildings you look at and wonder why we don’t make things this amazing anymore. It’s one of the most picturesque and romantic castles in Ireland.  

Like any good castle, it has a dramatic history filled with stories of warring clans and ships crashing onto the rocks below. But there are a few quirkier legends too – such as the tales of a banshee, or how the castle kitchens fell into the sea one stormy night in 1639. Of all the rooms, seriously. What about breakfast?  

For those planning a visit, you can learn all about the history of Dunluce Castle, as well as view the many historical and archaeological exhibits.  

In the show...  

Barren rock stacks, jagged cliffs, and swaying rope bridges. This is the Castle of Pyke, the seat of House Greyjoy, dramatically perched on an island of the same name. 

This gloomy fortress mirrors the harsh landscape of the Iron Islands. 

But this place sounds too bleak to be true. And it is. The Pyke you’ve seen in the series has been virtually created. Still, Dunluce Castle, the real-life inspiration for the seat of House Greyjoy, isn’t that tame. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by AnJa Anna (@anja_therapy)

9. Mourne Mountains (Vaes Dothrak) 

In real life... 

There are a lot of stories associated with the Mourne Mountains. One name you should know is Boirche, a man who roamed the mountains with his herds and called it home. Some say he’s mythical, mere folklore, while some historical records suggest he was real. 

One tale says Boirche was a skilled musician and had magical pipes made from elderberry trees that grew by Blue Lough. The story goes that one day a raiding party landed disguised as shepherds. Chaos ensued and they stole Boirche’s pipes (perhaps they would have fetched a fine price).

But this wasn’t their land and they weren’t as savvy as they thought. The men got stuck in Donard Bog and eventually drowned. Boirche was reunited with his pipes and, the legend has it, their music can still be heard whispering among the hills today.  

In the show... 

Considering the passion and mysticism of Mourne Mountains, no wonder this location was chosen as the land of the Dothraki. The wildness and passion of this landscape perfectly matches the horse-mounted warriors of Essos.  

Vast dramatic landscapes, a sea of grass, and the clopping of the horses’ hooves. That is what fans of Game of Thrones think of when they picture the land of Dothraki. These nomadic people have only one city: Vaes Dothrak. And this is where Daenerys Targaryen went to gain acceptance and approval for her marriage to Khal Drogo at the beginning of the series. 

The backdrop to the city of the horselords are the peaks of the Mourne Mountains. This landscape features in the pilot episode and in season one. 

But this stunning area has more fantasy connections. C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia was also inspired by the beauty of these mountains. So, stop trying to find Narnia in your wardrobe and see this mythical landscape for yourself on our 3-day Discover Northern Ireland tour.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Katrina (@katrina_calvert)

10. Portstewart Strand (Beach in Dorne) 

In real life... 

Just spitting distance from Downhill Beach is Portstewart Strand, one of Northern Ireland’s finest beaches. It’s one of the top 10 visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, but don’t let its popularity put you off. The dunes are of special interest and have been named an Area of Special Scientific Interest due to the rare and fragile wildlife found there. So, while you wander the area, keep an eye out for those unique species, such as the bee orchid.  

Whether you’ve been drawn there by the 6,000-year-old dunes, the variety of flora and fauna, or its connection to Game of Thrones, this is definitely worth a visit. 

In the show... 

Dorne is a hot country inhabited by hot-blooded, proud and revengeful people. When tensions between House Martell and House Lannister escalate, the life of young princess Myrcella Baratheon becomes endangered. 

That's when Jaime and Bronn secretly come ashore in Dorne and kill some Dornish men on a mission to rescue the princess. 

And the beautiful beach they land on is this slice of coastal heaven, Portstewart Strand.  

11. The Game of Thrones doors

Finally, don’t forget about those 10 wooden doors we mentioned earlier, as you should definitely add them to your road trip list where possible. Here is where you’ll find them: 

  1. The Cuan hotel (Strangford, County Down) 

  1. Fiddler’s Green bar (Portaferry, County Down) 

  1. Percy French Inn (Newcastle, County Down) 

  1. Blakes of the Hollow pub (Enniskillen, County Fermanagh) 

  1. Owens’ Bar (Limavady, County Londonderry) 

  1. Fullerton Arms hotel (Ballintoy, County Antrim) 

  1. Dark Hedges Estate (Stranocum, Ballymoney County Antrim) 

  1. Mary McBride’s pub (Cushendun, County Antrim) 

  1. Ballygally Castle (Ballygally, County Antrim) 

  1. The Dark Horse pub (Belfast) 

If you’ve ever wanted to be part of the adventure that is Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland is the closest you can (and should) get to it. Whether you join us on one of our tours, or journey there yourself, make sure you brush up on your favourite parts of the series before you visit.  

Game of Thrones map guide

 

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