Once upon a time, I traveled to Northern Ireland… but somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in Westeros. But they gave me a sword and made me an honorary member of House Greyjoy! If you’re a fan of the fire and ice, then a day trip with Game of Thrones Tours is hands-down the best way to explore Northern Ireland.
While I didn’t see any wights, dragons, or three-eyed ravens along the road, I did get to explore the majestic landscapes where the magic comes to life, with an actual extra from the show sharing stories and secrets from the show. My tour guide was a wildling as well as Tormund’s body double. He shared amazing tales from set, like the time he stole the last dessert from Jon Snow or what it was like to film the Battle of the Bastards.
Game of Thrones Tours offers a few ways to explore the North, stopping at the likes of Winterfell or the King’s Road. But their Iron Islands route is my favorite because they also stop at some of Northern Ireland’s greatest highlights that aren’t necessary featured in the show, like Giant’s Causeway. If you only have one day to explore, it’s a great way to see it all. When I went on the tour, we stopped at both the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge and Dunluce Castle, although it looks like they’ve recently split the route into two separate tours: the Iron Islands, Giant’s Causeway, and Rope Bridge Adventure and the Iron Islands, Giant’s Causeway and Castle Adventure. Both leave from Belfast, and there are other routes that leave from Derry, Dublin, and Tollymore. The Iron Island’s trek costs £50 for adults and departs Belfast at 7:45 AM, returning around 5:30 PM.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
The capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast is the best base for exploring the surrounding terrain and Coastal Causeway. Not to mention that it has become the home base for Game of Thrones, with Titanic Studios hosting a majority of production. It’s a running joke among everyone in Belfast that if you don’t work on Game of Thrones, you know someone who does. The free Ulster Museum is well worth a pit-stop for any fan to visit the Game of Thrones tapestry, which depicts the entirety of the show to date!
Carnlough Harbour (Braavos)
The tour began with a scenic drive up the County Antrim coastline, passing the castle of Carrickfergus. Though not a filming location, it certainly set a medieval tone for the day. Next we passed Magheramorne Quarry, which serves as the Wall. You may even catch a glimpse of Castle Black built into the cliffside as you drive past. The first stop is in the small village of Carnlough, where an unimposing stone harbor actually doubles as Braavos, if only for a second. You may recall in season 6 when Arya Stark was stabbed by the Waif. She escapes by jumping into the river, and is later rescued by Lady Crane of the Braavosi theater troupe. But back to the river – Arya crawled out of the water via a stone staircase, the very which you’ll find in Carnlough Harbor.
The Caves of Cushendun (Melisandre’s Cave)
Ah, who could forget that time that Melisandre gave birth to a shadow demon tasked to kill Renly Baratheon in a cave somewhere in the Stormlands? Ser Davos definitely can’t. This scene was filmed on location at the Caves of Cushendun, which is generally freezing year round so my props to Carice van Houten. The caves are stunning to explore, but can be difficult to maneuver depending on the weather – so watch your step for any mud or, you know, evil spirits.
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge (Iron Islands)
The iconic Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge is one of the highlights of Northern Ireland. Swinging 30 m (98 ft) above the sea, crossing it is like an Irish right of passage. Of course, that right of passage can be entirely dependent on the weather, which we all know can be quite erratic. Which is why when I visited on a windy and overcast day, the bridge was closed. The closest we could get was a panoramic lookout from the cliff above. Assuming that the weather is less Irish, crossing the bridge is covered in the cost of the tour. Just try not to think about how Euron pushed Balon Greyjoy to his death over the side.
Larrybane Quarry (Renly’s Camp + Dragonstone)
Sitting across from Carrick-A-Rede is the Larrybane chalk quarry, a stunning series of coastal cliffs and emerald landscapes. It was here where Brienne of Tarth bested Ser Loras at Renly Baratheon’s camp, and where Catelyn Stark brought Renly word of Robb’s rebellion. Although the quarry serves as an overflow carpark for the rope bridge, trails lead up past ruins to the top of the cliffside for stunning views over the sea.
The island in the distance once served as Dragonstone. The surrounding area of Fair Head also serves as Dragonstone in the latest season. Just imagine Jon Snow petting a dragon on that massive cliffside beyond those sheep.
Lunch at the Fullerton Arms
We stopped for lunch at a cozy pub in the village of Ballintoy known as the Fullerton Arms, which the cast and crew often frequents the pub during filming. The pub was gifted one the ten Game of Thrones doors that were salvaged from the wood of two trees that fell at the Dark Hedges. This one, in particular, represents the Targaryens. Beautifully carved dragons and Dothraki horses mark then entryway, so even the lunch break doesn’t break character.
Ballintoy Harbour (Pyke and the Iron Islands)
What is dead may never die. The next stop on the tour was the infamous home of House Greyjoy – Ballintoy Harbour, or the Iron Islands. The harbor itself is where Theon comes ashore on Pyke. On the stony beach, he rededicates himself to the Drowned God. And who can forget Euron’s harrowing coronation in that very sea?
The best part of the day, we were given House Greyjoy costumes and actual swords when we arrived at Ballintoy Harbor. Because what’s a Game of Thrones tour without a little LARPing? We were even mistaken for actual extras by several other tourists. Of course, when they realized there were no cameras about, we had to own up that we were just nerds… but the photo opps were absolutely worth it.
Our next stop was the gem of Northern Ireland – Giant’s Causeway. This UNESCO World Heritage Site may not have been a filming location on Game of Thrones, but it would certainly be a shame to leave Antrim without visiting one of the most incredible geological wonders of the world. Over 40,000 basalt columns create this coastal causeway that was formed some 50 million years ago.
The Giant’s Causeway has a fantastic story of it’s own, which goes something like this. A giant by the name of Finn McCool was threatened by the giant Benanadonner over in Scotland. To teach him a lesson, Finn built a causeway between the lands, but retreated when he saw that Benandonner was far more massive than him. His quick thinking wife disguised him as an infant by hiding him in the crib, and when the giant Scot saw the baby, he realized that if the child was that big, the father must be far larger.
As Benandonner fled, Finn scooped a clod of the earth from the ground and threw it after him. The hole filled with water and became the biggest lake in Ireland, Lough Neagh. The earth landed in the middle of the Irish Sea, forming the Isle of Man. And as he fled, Benandonner tore up the causeway, leaving two shattered ends at the two shores. The scientific logic, of course, says that the causeway has something to do with a volcanic fissure eruption. But that’s far more boring, don’t you think?
Dunluce Castle (Harrenhal)
The ruins of Dunluce Castle sit perched on the cliffside near Bushmills and Portrush. Dunluce dates back the 16th century, and has quite a tumultuous history of its own, having once been the seat of the MacDonnell clan and later the earls of County Antrim. Though in the world of Game of Thrones, the ruins were used as an establishing shot to create the castle at Harrenhal.
The Dark Hedges (Kingsroad)
The tour ends by visiting Westeros’ Kingsoad, or the iconic Dark Hedges. This dirt road is lined by rows of beech trees, who’s haunting branches create a canopy over the road. It’s along this road that Arya and Gendry escape King’s Landing. It’s only fitting then that we take the Kingsroad to escape the world of Westeros and head back home to Belfast.
Want to explore more of Westeros and Eros? Check out my guide to Game of Thrones filming locations you can visit IRL here!