As the world is gripped by “Games of Thrones,” now into its seventh series this month, some travelers have been touring the globe trying to locate and discover its more spectacular backdrops.
It’s easy enough to identify some of the very real locations. Local tour companies are looking at how to cash in from interest in the series based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world. It’s all very well to walk in the footsteps of the Khaleesi and the Night’s Watch, but here, BLOUIN ARTINFO adds local context of artistic places nearby and insider-tip choices of the best hotels and restaurants.
Click here to see a slideshow of images.
King’s Landing is really Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia
Dubrovnik has been the setting for King’s Landing since the second season and is coincidentally a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its long stretch of defensive walls, baroque churches and Gothic palaces, Dubrovnik is a dream come true for the makers of “Game of Thrones.” Diocletian’s Palace in Split has also served as a location for King’s Landing. This town is a pleasure to visit, thanks to its beautiful beaches and view of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.
Insider tip: Be aware that many visitors are there for relatively cheap summer holidays, ideal for sun-bathing and exploring the beaches. It’s a good idea to avoid the height of the season. Both Dubrovnik and Split have international airports, so travel is easy.
Art: Split has a range of galleries worth exploring, such as the Gallery of Fine Arts and the Ivan Meštrović Gallery, home of the Croatian sculptor. Croatia also has a booming market for boutique music festivals such as Soundwave and InMusic.
Hotels: Chic five-star hotels abound in Dubrovnik especially. Prices are steep at the top level: Hotel Bellevue has its own private beach and a spa complex. The Pucic Palace hotel is a period building in the old town with a restaurant that locals recommend.
Restaurants: It has to be the Nautika in Brsalje, which has spectacular clifftop views from its outdoor terrace and much-praised Mediterranean cuisine.
Astapor is really Essaouira, Morocco
The Army of the Unsullied at Astapor or Slaver’s Bay turn out to be major assets for Daenarys in season three of “Game of Thrones.” The port city of Essaouira in Morocco served as the real-life set for most of those scenes. Spectacular ocean views, the ‘Alizée’ trade winds and water sports on the beachside such as windsurfing and kitesurfing make Essaouira an exciting travel destination.
Insider tip: This is a year-round resort but you may see Essaouira at its feisty best in the strong winds out of the summer season. In the warmest months, the temperatures can also get a little over hot for most. Agadir Airport is 122 km away.
Art: Essaouira has numerous art galleries close to the touristy and ancient Kasbah, such as Galerie d’art Damgaard. The hip area has been a trendy tourist spot for years and is linked with Jimi Hendrix’s song Castles Made of Sand, whether he wrote the lyric while visiting there or before.
Hotels: Hôtel Riad Nakhla and Les Matins Bleus come highly recommended.
Restaurants: Restaurant Café des Arts has live music and authentic Moroccan food in a courtyard style setting.
The Water Palaces of Dorne are really Seville, Spain
The Water Palaces of Dorne scenes in “Game of Thrones” were shot at the Alcázar de Sevilla in Spain. The palace was built by Moorish Muslim kings and is full of picturesque fountains, gardens, ornamental arches and 16th-century tiles.
The palace is only 12km away from Seville Airport. It’s open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 or 7 p.m. depending on the time of the year, all days of the week. There’s an entry fee of 9.50 euros.
Insider tip: Buy tickets online in advance to avoid long lines. It’s the oldest palace in Europe that is still in use.
Art: Seville is almost as rich in art galleries as Madrid and Barcelona. The Museo de Bellas Artes has works to rival the Prado, by artists such as Murillo, Zurbarán and more.
Hotels: Seville is blessed with many good hotels. Corral de Rey is particularly special, a 17th-century hotel with a rooftop pool.
Restaurants: Seville is the home of tapas and there are many good local tapas places. Az-Zait restaurant in Pl. de St. Lorezno has Michelin-worthy food.
A lot of the series is filmed here.
The King’s Landing Scaffold was filmed at Fort Manoel, Malta
Many tears were shed during the first season, when the noble Ned Stark met his end at sadistic King Joffrey’s behest. This sad moment was filmed at Fort Manoel, an old military establishment built by the Knights of Malta between 1723 and 1755. Overlooking Marsamxett Harbour, the fort features baroque military architecture.
Insider tip: The fort is almost fully restored after a long program of works and is now reopened for lectures and other events. Email [email protected] for more information. The fort can best be viewed from boat tours in Gzira.
The wedding of Daenarys and Khal Drogo was filmed at Azure Window
Although fans dreaded watching this particular scene, everything turned rosy eventually, with the fearsome Khal falling for Daenarys and making her his Khaleesi. Their wedding was shot at Azure Window, whose natural regal arch came into existence after many limestone caves collapsed. However, due to centuries of natural erosion, the arch collapsed completely on March 8 this year. It is still spectacular. It had also been captured in “Clash of the Titans” (1981) and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002).
Insider tip: Dwejra Bay, where the fallen arch is located, is 46.5 km away from Malta International Airport. Catch the ferry to Gozo. The casual Azure Window Restaurant is nearby.
Art: While on Malta, do not miss the Victor Pasmore Gallery, housed within the historic walled town of Valetta so not far from the fort. It displays paintings and sculptures made by British abstract artist Victor Pasmore during his time on the island.
Hotels: The hotel yacht Bavaria is in the Marina not far from the fort and offers a sun terrace and views of the sea. Casa Ellul in Old Theatre Street is an impressive boutique hotel.
Restaurants: While down by the Valetta waterfront, check out The Harbour Club in Quarry Wharf, which is known for its French-cuisine seafood and said by locals to be worth a visit. To get off the tourist track, try a cocktail in the quiet Rampila restaurant in St John’s Cavalier.
5 Northern Ireland
Most of the “Game of Thrones” series is filmed in Northern Ireland, either on location or in film studios. As a tourist destination, the area is not so popular but still worth a visit, with many artistic venues close by.
The Iron Islands are really Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland
The sparsely populated area around Ballintoy Harbour shot to fame when HBO’s film crew decided to make it the port of Pyke on the stark Iron Islands. The town itself is worth visiting for an authentic seaside rural Ireland experience. It’s also known for its pretty church and tiny, sandy beaches.
Insider tip: Ballintoy Harbour is 45.6 km away from Belfast International Airport. This is not a tourist area, with visitors booking seaside homes on vacation rental portals or Airbnb.com. Others head back to Belfast.
Winterfell’s forests are really Tollymore Forest Park, Northern Ireland
The Forest Park is where the Stark brothers chanced upon a litter of direwolf puppies. This was the first state forest park in Northern Ireland and a place of incomparable beauty, featuring interesting garden follies, caves, bridges and exotic trees (though not, actually, wolves).
Insider tip: Plan your visit well as the nights close in during the fall because the place is open daily from 10 a.m. but closes promptly at sunset. It’s located at Bryansford, near the town of Newcastle. Again, many visitors may prefer a day trip and stay in Belfast.
The Kingsroad is really The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland
A long row of two-century old beech trees intertwine to produce just the right, mysterious tunnel-like effect for the depiction of Kingsroad, the grandest avenue in Westeros. The trees were planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, to create an impressive driveway to their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. Today, they are less impressive because some trees have been pruned, but the Hedges are still worth a visit.
Insider tip: This rural road is perhaps the most photographed spot in Northern Ireland, so you may not be alone. Combine a trip here with a visit to the Giant’s Causeway just 20 minutes away by car. The Dark Hedges are located near the town of Ballymoney in County Antrim.
Winterfell is really Doune Castle in Scotland and Castle Ward in Northern Ireland
The pilot episode of “Game of Thrones” was shot at Doune Castle in Scotland. However, thereafter the majestic Castle Ward in Northern Ireland has been the chosen location for Winterfell. This 18th century National Trust property overlooks Strangford Lough and is a major tourist attraction.
Insider tip: You can even try some archery like the Stark brothers. The mansion and gardens are open to the public with standard admission for adults of £7.27. For more information, visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-ward.
Art: Belfast has major museums and many tourists will head for the Titanic display. The city also hosts major concerts – such as Adele’s opening show of her world tour last year. Still, local people will also point to some fine contemporary art galleries such as the Eakin Gallery, with a constantly changing display of Irish art.
Hotels: The Europa Hotel, located in Great Victoria Street, is known as “the most bombed hotel in the world,” having been blown up 36 times during unrest in the area. It has now been restored, and having hosted many presidents and prime ministers, it is a pleasant enough base. It is large, modern and efficient. For a more period feel, try the Merchant Hotel, which has original artwork in every room.
Restaurants: Right in the center of the city and not so far from the Merchant Hotel is James Street South, with sophisticated and classic food.
Beyond the Wall: Iceland
The untamed territories north of the wall – home to the White Walkers and the Wildlings - use Iceland’s striking landscapes, including the Myrdalsjokull glacier, Hverfjall volcano, and Vatnajökull glacier. The Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park served as the location for the scenes featuring the Frostgang Mountains and “The Fist of the First Men.”
Insider tip: Although Iceland is most welcoming in spring and summer, the barren look seen in “Game of Thrones” is best witnessed in winter (December to April). Do be aware that transport can be difficult in the depths of winter.
Jon and Ygritte’s cave is Grjótagjá, Iceland
This wonderful lava cave in Iceland provided the backdrop for Jon and Ygritte, his wildling love interest’s romantic moments. Located near Lake Mývatn, this small but atmospheric cave also houses a thermal spring, which made it a popular bathing spot until the 1970s. Incidentally, the outlaw Jón Markússon lived here in the early 18th century.
Insider tip: Some visitors take a torch or flashlight because the cave is quite dark. Venture with caution into the war, which can be very hot.
Art: Reykjavik is putting its mark on the contemporary art map. Its Art Museum is at three sites in the city, with the best by the old harbor. The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum is in Laugardalur. Information: http://artmuseum.is/
Hotels: Assuming you are using the city as a touring case, residents speak highly of Hotel Holt in Bergstadastraeti 37, which doubles as an art gallery and has an outstanding restaurant displaying its works.
Restaurants: Apart from the Gallery Restaurant just mentioned, there are plenty of outstanding seafood eateries such as Fish Company in Vesturgata 2a, again not far from the harbor.