The HBO hit show Game of Thrones, based on the epic fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, captivates audiences with its tales of lust, war and political intrigue. Most of the show is set in the mystical realm of Westeros, an island continent resembling medieval Britain, while Daenerys goes it on her own in Essos, a continent east of Westeros that has a very distinct Turkish/North African flair. Because the show is set in another, more magical world, it requires some seriously fantastical filming locations. With the next season upon us, let's take a look at a few of the real-world places that the show's producers deemed impressive enough to sub for Westeros, Essos and that scary place Beyond the Wall.
Malta as King's Landing in Season 1
Valletta, Malta – photo by Erin and Lou
In the show's first season, the historic Mediterranean island of Malta was the real-world setting for King's Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The historic settlement of Mdina saw its city gate sub for the gate to King's Landing and the island's Fort Ricasoli fronts as the exterior of the show's Red Keep, the castle home of the king of the Seven Kingdoms. Incredibly historic, Malta has an almost surreal history itself as an island base for the Crusade-era Knights Hospitaller who fought to defend the island from Barbary pirates, the Ottoman Empire and even Napoleon himself.
Getting there: Malta is served by the Malta International Airport, which is on the main island of Malta. The airport is well connected to the rest of Europe on airlines like Air Malta, Ryanair and a host of other flag carriers, but does not have any direct connection to North America. Americans, wishing to visit Malta, then, must first connect in a European capital, with many flights first stopping in London, Paris or Rome. According to Hopper's when to fly and buy reports, Malta can be reached from New York for $749 round trip, from Boston for $710, from Chicago for $749 and Los Angeles for $1,002.
Gozo, Malta's smaller sister island, was the setting for the Dothraki Wedding in the show's first season between protagonist Daenerys Targaryen and the Dothraki king Khal Drogo. The island's Azure Window, a natural rock arch on the sea, was the spectacular backdrop to the scene. Part of the reason why Game of Thrones moved production from Malta in its second season was due to controversy over damage to the Azure Window and its ecosystem caused by the show's contractors. But that aside, rest assured that the Azure Window is still very much a treat for visitors.
Getting there: From the northwestern tip of Malta, one only has to travel by sea for a few miles to reach the shores of Gozo. Ferries depart from Cirkewwa on Malta every 45 minutes or so, and the crossing time to Mgarr on Gozo is less than 30 minutes.
Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik – photo by Dubrovniklady
Starting in season two, the Croatian walled city of Dubrovnik became the real-world home to King's Landing. One reason behind the set change was the producers' wish to show more exterior shots of a seaside walled city, and in that regards Dubrovnik was a great move. Once the capital of Ragusa, a historic maritime republic, the old city of Dubrovnik and its walls can be clearly identified in the show, as can several of its historic attractions. Fort Lovrijenac is the new substitute for the Red Keep, and the bay just outside its walls was the scene for the naval Battle of Blackwater, in which King Stannis Baratheon attempted to invade King's Landing and dethrone King Joffrey. Another must-see GoT filming location is the Trsteno Arboretum, which is the seaside garden in King's Landing where characters like Tyrion and Varys go to work through their intricate plots of deception.
Getting there: Dubrovnik is situated at the southern end of Croatia, not far from the border with Montenegro. Travelers on a lengthy trip to Croatia can reach the city by ferry from other coastal Croatian cities or by road from Split, to the north. The city also has an airport that is well connected to the rest of Europe, especially in the summer high season. Americans wishing to fly to Dubrovnik, however, will have to transit through a major European hub first, like London, Rome or Zurich. According to Hopper's when to fly and buy reports, round-trip tickets from New York to Dubrovnik go for about $1,305, Chicago to Dubrovnik for $1,195 and Los Angeles to Dubrovnik for $1,372.
Essaouira, Morocco – photo by lovebug
Dating back all the way to Orson Welles' Othello, Essaouira's historic medina has been a hot commodity for Hollywood producers looking for an out-of-this-world filming location. In season three of Game of Thrones, Daenerys continues on her journeys in Essos and stops by the slave-trading city of Astapor in hopes of buying an army of their "Unsullied" warriors. Well, Astapor is actually Essaouira, and though the city doesn't have any armies for sale, visitors will immediately recognize its coastal fortifications and windswept beaches from the show.
Getting there: The first step in getting to Essaouira is to fly to Marrakech. This can be done directly from many European cities, but for North Americans it will most likely require a connection in Casablanca. According to Hopper's when to fly and buy report, a round-trip flight from New York to Marrakech should cost $711, Boston to Marrakech is $997, Chicago to Marrakech is $708 and Los Angeles to Marrakech is $1,167. Once in Marrakech, Essaouira is a 3.25-hour bus ride to the coast.
Aït Benhaddou is another Moroccan city with a long history in film – some recent films shot in the city include Gladiator, The Mummy and Prince of Persia – but unlike Essaouira, Aït Benhaddou is set in the Sahara Desert/Atlas Mountains region of Morocco. Its historic medina, surrounded by giant red walls, was a central trading post for caravan traders in the Sahara, and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Game of Thrones universe Aït Benhaddou is the city of Yunkai, a slaving city that Daenerys besieges with her newly acquired Unsullied army.
Getting there: Like Essaouira, to reach Aït Benhaddou one must first fly to Marrakech. From there, Aït Benhaddou is located about 2.5 hours southwest on the bus route from Marrakech to Ouarzazate in the Sahara Desert.
Photo by Michael Jessen/Flickr.
Winter is coming, and that means we'll see more of the mysterious lands Beyond the Wall. One of the main story arcs of season three followed Jon Snow on his adventures in the frozen landscapes Beyond the Wall, and, though the setting looked otherworldly, the scenes were filmed in Iceland. One filming spot was Lake Myvatn, whose shores are lined with rock pillars known as "black castles."
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Iceland is with a flight to Reykjavik, its capital, on Icelandair. The airline connects the island to the rest of the world through its daily flights to Europe and North America. And, luckily for travelers, tickets are cheap. Round-trip flights from New York to Iceland cost about $659, Boston to Iceland is $622, Chicago to Iceland is $965 and San Francisco to Iceland is $1047. From Reykjavik, travelers will want to rent a car and drive the nearly six hours to Lake Myvatn in the north.
Castle Ward, County Down – photo by Timothy Belmont
Most of the action in Game of Thrones takes place in Westeros, and most of its filming locations are in Northern Ireland, where the show's principal photography takes place. Castle Ward, for instance, is the setting of Winterfell, home of the House of Stark. The tourism bureau of Northern Ireland has gone to great lengths to promote its GoT filming sites, and travelers following their Causeway Coast and Glens road-trip itinerary are sure to see a ton more recognizable places from the series.
Getting there: Northern Ireland's chief airport is Belfast, which has a direct connection to New York and is otherwise connected to the rest of the world via connecting flights on British Airways and EasyJet. According to Hopper's when to fly and buy reports, Americans traveling to Belfast can expect to pay $804 from Boston and $913 from Chicago.