Discover the Game of Thrones in Belfast

Richard Mckenna
7th September 2022

With HBO's House of the Dragon currently exploding into living rooms worldwide, the pop-culture steamroller that is Game of Thrones is back in the spotlight. 

As everyone not living Beyond the Wall knows, Game of Thrones is the blockbuster fantasy TV series that took over the world. Based on George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series of fantasy novels, it detailed the struggle for power between the noble houses of the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. Running for 73 episodes across eight seasons from 2011 until its controversial conclusion in 2019, it took the planet by storm, spawning a million memes and helping consolidate the fantasy genre's transformation from something marginal and nerdy to mainstream world-conquering juggernaut - a transformation that had been set in motion by the success of Harry Potter and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film adaptations. At its peak, a monumental average of nearly 33 million viewers were watching each new Game of Thrones episode, a success that House of the Dragon, a prequel focusing on the downfall of the peroxide-haired members of House Targaryen, looks set to repeat.

Game of Thrones' immense and diverse range of settings (places like Winterfell, Casterly Rock, The Iron Islands, The Vale of Arryn, King's Landing and Dorne, all as familiar to fans of the show as anywhere in the real world) necessitated shooting in locations all over Europe and North Africa, from Scotland and Iceland to Morocco, Malta, Croatia and Spain. But thanks to a generous tax credits system, the availability of the huge amounts of studio space required and easy travelling distance to some of the most dramatic and mystical landscapes around, the show’s home base ended up being Northern Ireland and its capital city, the wonderful Belfast.

Paint Hall

Perhaps due to its history, Belfast has always been woefully underappreciated as a tourist destination, but it's a city that has the lot - great food, breathtaking museums, culture, art, history, architecture, vibrant nightlife, its own distinctive and welcoming personality... you name it and Belfast has it, in bucketloads. The main studio for Game of Thrones was Paint Hall in what is known as the Titanic Quarter of the city, an enormous waterfront regeneration site which once upon a time was home to the Harland and Wolff shipyard, best known as the manufacturers of the city's most famous product - yes, that Titanic, the doomed passenger liner which sank in the North Atlantic in 1912 - and which now hosts luxury boutique hotel Titanic Hotel Belfast, whose Art Deco furnishings and nautical touches offer travellers a unique immersion in the elegance of the day. Situated opposite Titanic Belfast, a visitor attraction that details the story of the tragic ship's creation and the fate of its passengers, it also offers an award winning fine-dining restaurant with views over the slipways where the Titanic and her sister ships the Olympic and the Britannic were constructed. The luxurious Grand Central Hotel Belfast in the Linen Quarter is another great base from which to explore the Titanic or the Cathedral Quarters, with their charming cobbled streets and inviting pubs and eateries, while Dukes at Queens in the bohemian Queens Quarter of South Belfast offers a stylish sanctuary near the beautiful Botanic Gardens, the Ulster Museum and local theatres. And just a 5 minute walk from Belfast Central train station is human- and pet-friendly ETAP Hotel Belfast, whose cosy, modern central lodgings are ideal for exploring the city.

Unfortunately, Paint Hall isn't currently open to visitors, but GoT fans visiting Belfast can start getting a fix of their favourite show by following the Glass of Thrones Trail, a series of six free-standing stained glass windows dotted around the city and depicting scenes from the first eight seasons of the show, with each window representing the trials and tribulations faced by one of the different houses. And at the last window there's even an Iron Throne for you to snap a pensive selfie in while you figure out how you would deal with the arrival of the White Walkers. But about thirty minutes outside of Belfast is where the real GoT magic begins, in the authentic filming location of Linen Mill Studios in Banbridge. This is where you’ll find the Game of Thrones Studio Tour, an immersive experience that allows visitors to step behind the scenes of the Seven Kingdoms and see how the TV series was brought to life on screen. There’s everything from production designs and costumes to makeup and prosthetics, special effects and props, giving visitors the chance to walk through iconic sets like the Great Hall of Winterfell and King’s Landing and to explore the craftsmanship and artistry that brought GoT to life on screen. The surrounding area is lovely too, and there are plenty of places offering a bit of that warm Northern Irish hospitality - sample it with a stay in one of the local guest houses, like pet-friendly Lisnacurran Country House, a country guest house which also offers a self contained barn conversion with 3 bedrooms, open plan living room, BBQ patio area and hot tub, or the Kiltariff Hall Country House, a Victorian Country House on the outskirts of the small market town of Rathfriland with exquisite views of the dramatic Mourne Mountains.

Giants Causeway

And if your thirst for the world of Game of Thrones hasn’t been slaked by the Studio Tour, dotted around the beautiful and rugged Northern Ireland countryside are dozens of locations in which the show was shot. Places like the harbour of the small village of Ballintoy in County Antrim which featured as Varyn’s home, the Free Cities, and as the coastal town where Theon Greyjoy arrived back in the Iron Islands. Positioned on the edge of nearby Bushmills village is welcoming B&B the Rest A While, less than three miles from one of the most incredible - and natural - special effects Northern Ireland has to offer: the Giants Causeway, which is well worth a visit in itself. Then there’s Castle Ward, an 18th-century National Trust property in County Down whose farmyard stood in for Winterfell, or Tollymore Forest Park where the Direwolf pups were found and the Nightwalkers were spotted. Scenic Downhill Strand, the seven-mile-long beach dominated by the elegant 18th century ruins of Mussenden Temple in County Londonderry that played Dragonstone island, with nearby Carnalbanagh House offering a quiet coastal retreat with beautiful panoramic views for a relaxing coastal getaway. Or Magheramorne quarry, which stood in for Castle Black and the Wall, and 17th century Ballygally Castle offering luxury guest rooms and even afternoon tea in its medieval dungeon. Or even Shane’s Castle in County Antrim, the ruined castle that was the backdrop to the jousting tournament in which Gregor Clegane beheaded a horse. Not far away is the Dunadry Hotel & Gardens, a historic former linen mill dating back to the 12th Century and offering guests a welcoming escape on the banks of the beautiful Six Mile River. 

Among the many other locations, we mustn’t forget the Dark Hedges, the evocative tree-lined avenue planted in the 18th century that runs between Armoy and Stranocum in County Antrim, and which in the show stood in for the iconic King’s Road. After Storm Gertrude blew down two of the Dark Hedges’ beech trees in 2016, the resulting timber was used to craft ten commemorative carved doors, which are scattered across Northern Ireland near as many of the show’s filming locations. Each door captures one of the series’ most exciting moments, leading those who wish to visit them all on a quest from The Cuan restaurant in Strangford, County Down, where the first door evokes the show’s iconic title sequence with its animated map of Westeros, to the tenth door, at the Dark Horse pub back in Belfast, which shows the Lannister lion rearing over the Sept of Baelor, but hints at secrets yet to be revealed. 

If you don’t want to drive, there are GoT coach tours, walking tours, boat tours, cycling tours, archery tours, feasts… there’s even a GoT helicopter tour! Check out the Ireland tourism site for more information. So as you can see, to paraphrase one of the show’s most famous lines, if you think this has a happy ending, you might just have been paying attention after all!

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