With season six of Game of Thrones almost here, these are exciting times for fans of high adventure and courtly intrigue.
Though set in the invented kingdom of Westeros, the hit fantasy series has since 2010 showcased many stunning real-world locations. From Iceland to Northern Ireland via Spain and Croatia, the show doubles as a whistle-stop introduction to a number of Europe’s (and North Africa’s) most stunning under-the-radar destinations. Here’s a country-by-country tour of Game of Thrones, with a key filming location from each highlighted.
Spain Girona (Oldtown)
This Catalan jewel is 100 km north of Barcelona (about an hour by train). Game of Thrones has shot extensively here for season six, with the gorgeous medieval settlement rumoured to be a stand-in for Oldtown, a venerable centre of learning in Westeros. Its wending alleyways and soaring battlements certainly suggest something out of a fantasy novel.
Eleventh century Girona Cathedral is acknowledged as an outstanding example of Catalan Gothic architecture while the older sections of the city provide mesmerising views of the glimmering river Onyar. The best way to drink in the vista is to walk the city walls, built by the Romans and refortified in the 1400s. If it wasn’t for the absence of dragons and angry people with swords you could be in Westeros.
Morocco Aït-Ben-Haddou (Pentos)
The venerable mud-brick city stands at the edge of the Atlas Mountains. Rising from the sun-bleached landscape the fortified settlement looks like something from a historical epic – and has not surprisingly enjoyed starring parts in Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and Prince of Persia (it is also listed as Unesco World Heritage Site). In Game of Thrones it has doubled as the mysterious eastern conurbation of Pentos. Accessing Aït-Ben-Haddou can be a challenge, especially off-season. The most straightforward strategy is to hire a car from Marrakech, a three and a half hour drive away.
Iceland Grjótagjá (Jon Snow’s Cavern of Love)
In season four of Game of Thrones, doomed lovers Jon and Ygritte enjoy a leisurely splash in this lava-heated cave in the north-east of Iceland. The water can rise to temperatures of 43 degrees celsius, as snow drifts gather around the entrance. Even setting the Game of Thrones connection aside, the cave has quite a history ,as it functioned as a hide-out for notorious 18th century Icelandic outlaw Jón Markússon. Something of a well-kept secret among locals, reaching Grjótagjá is not straightforward – you’ll need to take a car from Reykjahlíð, a village of 300 on the shores of lake Myvatn in Iceland’s north-west, and follow the signs. Helpfully, a car-park adjoins the cave.
Croatia Minceta Tower, Dubrovnik (House of the Undying)
The Adriatic port-town has been pressed into service extensively by Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik has since 2011 served as a double for King’s Landing, sun-dappled capital of the Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, the iconic Minceta Tower has been used as the House of the Undying, a mystical fortress where dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen was assailed by spooky visions.
In real life, the tower stands at the highest point of the old city walls ringing Dubrovnik.Climbing the edifice is not for the faint-hearted – there are 750 steps to negotiate along a narrow, winding stairway. But the effort is arguably worthwhile as the battlements afford a stunning vantage point over the old town.
Northern Ireland Tollymore Forest Park
This sprawling forest is located at the foothills of the scenic Mourne Mountains (worth visiting in their own right). Many of Game of Thrones’s iconic early sequences were filmed here, including the first attack by the White Walkers and the Stark family’s encounter with dire-wolves. The Shimna river passes through the park, where it is crossed by 16 bridges. A two hour drive away, close to the north coast, stand the “Dark Hedges”, a gothic avenue of beech trees lining the entrance to Georgian Gracehill House and familiar to Game of Thrones fans as the King’s Road leading to the capital . These and other iconic locations can be visited on an official tour supported by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (discovernorthernireland.com/gameofthrones).
Malta Fort Ricasoli (Red Keep Gate, King’s Landing)
Long considered impregnable, the fortress was built by the Knights of Malta in the late seventeenth century. It remained in active military use until the Second World War when it was extensively damaged. For that reason it is not possible to visit, though you can admire from close by.
The fort is near the picturesque village of Kalkara in the south east of Malta. In early seasons of Game of Thrones Fort Ricasoli was used for external shots of the Red Keep, seat of power in King’s Landing.