Northern Ireland has become a mecca for Game of Thrones fans – which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of earthly delights for those who can’t tell a Dothraki from a dragon.
Last year, when I broke my leg and was stuck in bed for three months, the one thing that got me through was watching HBO’s Game of Thrones (GoT). The show’s legions of fans knew something my doctors didn’t: an epic fantasy world of warring noble houses has surprising healing powers. When I was finally vertical again – and in anticipation of the Season 5 premiere – my newly perambulating feet headed to Northern Ireland. My quest: to explore the real world of my favourite make-believe show and a coastline that would inspire any traveller to fight dragons.
The much sought-after Iron Throne – the seat of GoT power and the subject of the battle on which the show centres – is right in the heart of Belfast. The sprawling Titanic Studios is home to most of the series’ in-house filming, but unfortunately, you basically have to be royalty to get in. Although it’s not generally open to visitors, Queen Elizabeth II was granted a rare tour a few weeks before I visited, meeting Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark. When asked what the visit was like, Williams responded that it was “awfully strange” to have a real-life monarch on set.
Across the street from the studios, access to the newly built £97 million Titanic Belfast is (thankfully) less exclusive. The museum is a step back in time, taking visitors deep inside the industrial culture of the city, where the Titanic was built, through the ship’s journey and inquisition into the sinking, and right up to today’s deep-sea diving excursions to its wreckage site. In addition to artefacts, such as an on-board menu saved in a survivor’s purse (lunch on April 14, 1912, featured corned ox tongue), the museum features recreations of the cabins, complete with holographic passengers, and a theme-park–style ride through a massive and magical reimagining of the Titanic’s construction site – cacophony of metal clanking on metal included.
The 200-kilometre causeway coastal drive, north of Belfast, is hours of green, rollicking hills and boat-studded turquoise water. Roughly an hour’s drive from the city is the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that interrupts the coastal landscape with hectares of otherworldly basalt columns. Nearby, the 30-metre-high Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, first erected by salmon fishermen to cross from the mainland to the island for which it’s named, is now used by thousands of thrill-seeking tourists looking to scare the bejesus out of themselves (I barely suppressed a scream as it swayed). For GoT fans like me, there are several set locations dotted along the drive, including Cairncastle, which has been used to film most of the exterior Winterfell scenes (the home base of the Starks) and where the series opens.
Not counting income from tourism, Game of Thrones has injected £82 million into Northern Ireland’s economy over four seasons of filming, creating roughly 900 full-time and 5700 part-time jobs, of which Dan Spencer and his wife, Brona (née Steenson), have the best. Owners of Steensons, a jewellery shop in Belfast, the couple have created many of the show’s signature accessories (such as King Joffrey’s crowns).
The store’s aesthetic is more modern than medieval but, prompted by the daily throng of tourists, Steensons has launched a GoT–inspired line of brooches, with pendants and rings being added this spring. When asked if he’s a fan, Spencer’s mouth slides into a grin: “I suppose we are now.” He admits he started watching only to see the shop’s trinkets but – like me and millions of others – soon got sucked in. “It’s really quite good.”
- Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queens Rd, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, +44 28 9076 6386, titanicbelfast.com
- Giant’s Causeway, 44 Causeway Rd, Bushmills, County Antrim, +44 28 2073 1855, causewaycoastandglens.com
- Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, 119a Whitepark Rd, Ballintoy, County Antrim, +44 28 2076 9839, 2073 1855, causewaycoastandglens.com
- Steensons, Bedford House, 16-22 Bedford St, Belfast, +44 28 9024 8269, thesteensons.com