Northern Ireland has never had to contend with dragons, white walkers and the chill of an endless winter. That hasn’t stopped its wild landscape scoring a starring role in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Driving the 120-mile Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast to Derry-Londonderry is a must for fans of the show, and offers a dramatic lesson in history and nature, from the Titanic and famine to a relaunched cliff path and the epic Giant’s Causeway.

The Giant's Causeway, one of the highlights of the Causeway Coast © Joe Daniel Price / Getty
The Giant's Causeway, one of the highlights of the Causeway Coast © Joe Daniel Price / Getty

The Titanic & the Troubles

Belfast is home to the studios where much of Game of Thrones is shot. There's no public access, but the city's tumultuous past is well worth exploring. From the Falls and the Shankill Rd to the so-called ‘peace lines’, the Troubles cast a tangible shadow across the present. For outsiders it can be baffling, but jump on a Black Taxi Tour to get an insight into the complexities behind the headlines. One of the most experienced guides is Billy Scott (touringaroundbelfast.com), whose prodigious knowledge extends way beyond politics to reveal the rich heritage of the city that was the industrial powerhouse behind the construction of the Titanic. That great, doomed ship, and the city's maritime history, are now the subject of the world-class Titanic Belfast exhibition.

Titanic Belfast © Reading Tom / CC BY 2.0

The Gobbins Cliff Path

As the city boomed in the early 20th century, the visionary Berkeley Deane Wise of the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway conceived a series of innovative attractions along the beautiful Antrim coast to encourage the newly flush shipyard workers onto his trains. The most popular of them was the Gobbins Cliff Path, which skirts the contours of Islandmagee. Years of wind, rain and rust saw it closed in the 1950s, only to reopen in 2015 after a £7.5 million restoration. As fat Atlantic waves lash the cliff below, guides chaperone visitors across the suspended promenade to spy porpoises in the Atlantic swell.

The Glens of Antrim

At Larne a small stone marker signposts the start of the Causeway Coastal Route (discovernorthernireland.com), which cuts through County Antrim. Its completion was overshadowed by the Great Famine in 1845, when the road became an escape route for migrants fleeing the valleys.

Now it’s one of the most scenic drives in the United Kingdom. Around 23,000 cubic metres of rock were blasted out of three great lava flows to form a narrow strip of road between sea and high cliffs, and you can see the different rock strata in the cliff face. The nine glens – Glenarm, Glencloy, Glenariff, Glenballyeamon, Glenaan, Glencorp, Glendun, Glenshesk and Glentaisie – are the remnants of deep valleys scoured by glaciers 60 million years ago.

Grasslands stretch towards Slemish Mountain © Cultura RM / Planet Pictures / Getty

It’s easy to see why the Game of Thrones location scouts chose this wind-whipped coastline as the basis for so many scenes in the fantasy epic. From the grasslands around Slemish Mountain, where St Patrick spent six years as a slave, to the rocky crag of Fair Head, the 21st century seems more distant than an army of Dothraki horsemen. At Glenarm (‘Valley of the Army’) you can even kit yourself out with lion pendants or stag pins at Steensons (thesteensons.com), a family-run goldsmith that handcrafted jewellery for the series.

Views of Scotland and seabird colonies

The detour from Glenarm to Fair Head crag along the thin ribbon of the Torr Head road offers great views of a stretch of coast that stood in for Game of Thrones' Iron Islands and the Stormlands.

Views stretch south to Cushendall from Torr Head Road © Paula Hardy / Lonely Planet

As you continue round the headland, you'll see the Mull of Kintyre. Scotland is so close (11 miles) that on a fair day it feels like you might be able to swim across. In the foreground, Rathlin Island has long acted as a stepping stone between the two countries, launching St Columba and Christianity into the Scottish Highlands in 563 and providing refuge for Robert the Bruce during his struggle for Scottish Independence.

Today it’s still a wild and woolly place, home to just over 100 people and thousands of seabirds. Seals and eider ducks laze around the harbour, which is serviced by boats from Ballycastle. In May, orchids carpet the hills, heralding the start of breeding season for vast colonies of raucous puffins, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes. It’s a perfect place for walking, with spectacular views back across Murlough Bay.

Here be the Giant’s Causeway

In fact, Ballycastle is a good place to ditch the car altogether in favour of hiking the Causeway Coast Way (walkni.com), which runs all the way to Portstewart. Along the headland, the path meanders through bright bursts of gorse, sea pink and bell heather via the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to picturesque Ballintoy. This part of the route is dense with filming locations: Renly Baratheon's army camped at Larrybane headland by the bridge, and Ballintoy stood in for the Iron Islands harbour of Pyke.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge © Westend61 / Getty

The path continues around the sandy sweep of fossil-rich Whitepark Bay to the Giant’s Causeway. Here you reach a landscape scarred by natural forces that dwarf the terrors of Game of Thrones. The 40,000 polygonal basalt columns, thought in folklore to be the links in a giant’s causeway across the water to Scotland, are the remains of fissure eruptions that spewed out waves of molten magma. This was a seismic period in Earth’s history, when the modern Atlantic Ocean was born and the world transformed from a place dominated by reptiles to one in which mammals could thrive.

From the past to the present

Many travellers pull up at the Giant’s Causeway and head back to Belfast, but it’s worth pressing on into County Derry. Here you can see the romantic ruins of Dunluce Castle, eat haddock in buttermilk batter at Harry’s Shack and hike out to the Downhill Demesne and the beach where CS Lewis holidayed (and where Game of Thrones’ Red Priestess proclaimed ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’). From here, cut inland to Binevenagh Mountain, which marks the western extent of the Antrim Plateau. The distinctive basalt escarpment has a vertical drop of more than 100m and dominates the landscape. It’s a magical place at sunset, when the shadows gather on glassy Lough Foyle.

The sea god Manannán Mac Lir at Gortmore © Paula Hardy / Lonely Planet

At Gortmore a statue of the Celtic sea god, Manannán Mac Lir, stretches out his arms towards the setting sun and the city of Derry-Londonderry, sitting snug behind its defensive walls. Daily tours (derrycitytours.com) around the ramparts lay bare the ethno-political struggle that tore the city apart for decades. At its heart are two mutually exclusive visions of national identity and belonging. The difference now is that the politicians pursuing those visions have resolved to do so peacefully. The grand and bloody Game of Thrones version of Northern Ireland is just a fiction, after all.

Practicalities

The Causeway Coastal Route runs between Belfast and Derry. Most flights to the region go to Belfast City or Belfast International airports. To cover the entire route (plan on 4-7 days), you should hire a car or join a tour (touringaroundbelfast.com). The route can also be cycled, although there are challenging hills.

Characterful and convenient sleeping options include Malmaison Belfast, Blackhead Lighthouse (greatlighthouses.com), Whitepark House (whiteparkhouse.com) and the newly opened Bishops Gate Hotel (bishopsgatehotelderry.com), a listed 17th-century property.

Paula travelled to Northern Ireland with support from Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), Dan Dooley car hire (dandooley.com) and Tourism Ireland (ireland.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies for positive coverage.

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