Having only just wrapped up its epic eight-season, 73-episode run, we can finally look back at Game of Thrones with some perspective. It was the most pirated show in the entire world, and its finale was the most-watched show in HBO’s history. Thrones has also won 38 Emmy Awards, surpassing Frasier by one win to become the show with the most wins in history. It’s safe to say that we’ll never see a show quite like Game of Thrones again.
While it has been criticized for its writing, nothing but praise has been heaped on virtually every other aspect of the show. From the acting to the special effects and costumes, this was one television show that put many Hollywood productions to shame. Where the show truly shone, however, was its sets, creating fantastical locations like Braavos and King’s Landing. But were they all created on a computer? Hardly. These are Game of Thrones’ most iconic locations in real life.
Castillo de Zafra (Spain) – The Tower of Joy (Dorne)
The somewhat ironically named Tower of Joy is located in the Red Mountains of Dorne. It makes an appearance in a season six flashback, when Bran witnesses Ned Stark rushing in to save his sister, Lyanna.
Lyanna’s husband, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, named the tower when it served as their home after they’d eloped. The name became ironic when Lyanna passed away there after giving birth to Aegon Targaryen, better known as Jon Snow. A 12th-century castle in Guadalajara, Spain named Castillo de Zafra was used for the Tower’s exterior scenes.
Doune Castle (Scotland) – Winterfell
Throughout the show’s run, few locations have been more iconic than Winterfell, deep in the North. It’s the ancestral home of House Stark, and one of the first locations we see in the show’s pilot episode. It passes through many hands as the seasons progress, but the show ends with Winterfell back to its rightful owners – House Stark.
It also serves as the grounds for the final battle between the living and the dead in season eight. While two castles in Northern Ireland were used to create Winterfell in later seasons, the first time we saw it the medieval Doune Castle in Scotland was used. Fittingly, it served a role in the Scottish wars for independence from the British crown.
Magheramorne Quarry (Northern Ireland) – Castle Black
If you pass Winterfell and keep going north, you’ll eventually reach the Wall. Stretching 300 miles, it’s manned by the Night’s Watch, whose men are often various criminals who took an oath to always protect the Seven Kingdoms from any threats north of the Wall – be they wildlings or white walkers. The Night’s Watch’s iconic base of operations is Castle Black, which is the first location we see in the show’s pilot.
To create the castle, an abandoned quarry near Magheramorne, Northern Ireland was used. An enormous set was built, including both exteriors like the courtyard and interiors like the mess hall. The quarry’s stone wall was then transformed into the Wall that protects Westeros, with the help of CGI.
Dubrovnik (Croatia) – King’s Landing
One of Game of Thrones’ main and most important locations is the city of King’s Landing. As its name suggests, it’s the seat of the monarch – both figuratively and literally, since it’s where the Iron Throne is located. King’s Landing is the Seven Kingdoms’ capital and largest city, and is home to the Red Keep and the Great Sept of Baelor (until Cersei blows it up, anyway).
Even though Ned Stark derisively calls the capital a “rat’s nest,” it’s quite magnificent to behold. Surprisingly, despite a few CGI flourishes it exists in the real world – in the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The city, and its famous 12th-century walls, served as basis not only for King’s Landing but also for Qarth.
Gozo (Malta) – Pentos (Essos)
Way back in season one, Daenerys Targaryen was married off by her own brother to Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo. Like the wild people that they are, a Dothraki wedding is more about cracking heads than it is about slow dances. In fact, we’re told that a Dothraki wedding without at least three casualties is considered dull!
Luckily, Dany’s wedding delivers, with several warriors offing each other in impromptu duels as the newlyweds sit and watch. The wedding took place in Pentos, one of the Free Cities in the eastern continent of Essos. You can sit exactly where Dany did if you visit the Azure Window in the Maltese island of Gozo, but we’re sorry to report that distinctive arch collapsed in 2017.
Minčeta Tower (Croatia) – The House of the Undying (Essos)
When Daenerys frantically searches for her three stolen dragon eggs in season two, she ends up in the House of the Undying in Qarth, on the eastern continent of Essos. Serving as headquarters to the city’s warlocks, Dany experiences several visions there, one of which only pays off in the show’s very last episode.
The base of Dubrovnik’s Minčeta Tower was used for exterior shots, and you can retrace Dany’s steps as she walked around it trying to find an entrance into the mysterious House of the Undying.
Dark Hedges (Northern Ireland) – Kingsroad
The Kingsroad is the longest road in all of the Seven Kingdoms, going from the castle of Storm’s End in the south of Westeros to Castle Black and the Wall in the north, with stops in King’s Landing and Winterfell for good measure.
It’s the continent’s main traffic route for both trade and travel, and we come across it many times throughout the show’s run. When Arya escapes King’s Landing for Castle Black in season one, Northern Ireland’s Dark Hedges was used. This avenue of beech trees is said to be haunted, because why not.
Klis Fortress (Croatia) – Meereen (Essos)
In season four, when Daenerys reaches Meereen, the largest of the city-states of Slaver’s Bay, she encounters a dire scene. The city’s slave masters rule over the majority of the population, which is held in check with an iron fist.
It was one of the first opportunities for Dany’s convictions to shine through, as she frees the city’s slaves and punishes their masters harshly. With some generous help from computer-generated graphics, this part of Meereen was created in Klis Fortress, a 9th-century fortress near Split, Croatia that served as seat for many Croatian kings.
Kaštel Gomilica (Croatia) – Braavos (Essos)
Arya Stark first arrives in Braavos, one of the Free Cities to the east of Westeros, in season five. Also home to the Iron Bank, Arya trains at the Braavosi House of Black and White to become a Faceless Man.
We see her first reach Braavos by boat, in a shot that also shows the city’s infamous Titan. While the Titan is entirely computer generated, Braavos isn’t. Both scenes outside the city of Braavos and some interior shots were filmed in Kaštel Gomilica, a fortified 16th-century town near Split, Croatia.
Girona (Spain) – Braavos (Essos)
We see Braavos again in season six, when a blind Arya is reduced to begging for scraps on the streets of Braavos. She goes blind after drinking milk given to her by Jaqen H’ghar, as she was found to have not distanced herself enough from her previous identity as a member of House Stark.
While on the streets of Braavos, she suffers daily attacks from a fellow acolyte called the Waif. This particular part of Braavos was filmed in Girona, Spain, particularly the historic quarter of Barri Vell where you can find that staircase.
Murlough Bay (Northern Ireland) – Pyke (the Iron Islands)
Jorah Mormont, ever the lovesick puppy, abducts Tyrion Lannister in season five planning to take him to Daenerys. It turns out to be pretty fortunate, as Tyrion had actually planned on seeking Dany out so he can join her side.
As Jorah and Tyrion travel to Meereen, where Dany is at the time, they’re beset by slavers who take them captive. You can recreate the scene in Northern Ireland’s Murlough Bay, known equally for its beauty and remoteness and also used as the location of Ser Davos’ rescue after the Battle of the Blackwater.
Itzurun beach (Spain) – Dragonstone (Blackwater Bay)
The Queen’s Justice, the third episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, is notable for being the first time Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen ever meet. Jon, not yet aware that he’s actually Dany’s nephew, plans to appeal to her to help him fight the White Walker threat.
They meet in Dragonstone, House Targaryen’s ancestral home. Jon and his entourage first make landfall in a very distinctive beach, which is actually Itzurun beach in Zumaia, Spain. While you won’t encounter any dragons there, it’s still safer to visit with a tour guide.
Itálica (Spain) – King’s Landing dragonpit
In the past, the Dragonpit in King’s Landing was used by House Targaryen as a stable for its dragons but was now in disrepair. Nevertheless, it serves as backdrop to two pivotal moments. First, in season seven, Daenerys and Jon Snow go there to try and reason with Cersei and convince her to help them fight the White Walkers.
The second comes in the final season, where (spoiler warning!) a great council elects Bran king. Surprisingly, the Dragonpit exists almost exactly in real-life – it’s a ruined Roman amphitheater in Itálica, Spain.
Dubrovnik (Croatia) – Cersei’s walk of atonement
While Dubrovnik was used to film many scenes taking place in King’s Landing, it’s worth zeroing in on one particular location. In fact, it was the backdrop of one of the most memorable scenes in the entire show – Cersei’s walk of atonement.
When the Sparrows, an extremist religious faction she initially nurtures, inevitably turns on her, Cersei is made to remove her clothes and walk through King’s Landing while Septa Unella rings a bell and cries, “Shame!” repeatedly. This unforgettable scene began on a staircase, in reality the Jesuit (Spanish) steps by Dubrovnik’s Saint Ignatius Church.
Thorufoss (Iceland) – Near Meereen (Essos)
Since Game of Thrones used multiple countries for its shoots, production could travel around a bit and find a spot that was just perfect. A lot of the shooting for events taking place in the North was done in Iceland, for example, which created one particularly memorable scene from season four.
Drogon, Daenerys’ beloved dragon, is a growing boy and was feeling quite peckish so he makes one poor goat his lunch as he rises over a waterfall. The goatherd – and goat – were not happy. That’s Iceland’s Thorufoss waterfall, which actually completely freezes in wintertime.
Aït Benhaddou (Morocco) – Yunkai (Essos)
When Daenerys reaches the city of Yunkai in Slaver’s Bay in season three, she lays siege to the city, then controlled by vicious slave masters. Yunkai eventually falls to the combined forces of Dany’s Dothraki troops, the Second Sons mercenary band, and her newly-purchased Unsullied soldiers.
As the season ends, the freed slaves of Yunkai surround Dany and call her “mhysa” – “mother.” Filming for Yunkai, as well as some scenes in Pentos, was done in Morocco’s Aït Benhaddou, an ancient fortified village and UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as backdrop to multiple movies.
Skogafoss (Iceland) – Dragonstone (Blackwater Bay)
Just before everything goes down the drain in Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season, Jon Snow and Daenerys get to steal a few moments together. And none of those moments is more memorable than their impromptu dragon flight – Dany atop Drogon and Jon atop Rhaegal.
They touch down near a breathtaking waterfall in a frozen wilderness, and kiss. If you want to do the same with your own Khaleesi, visit Iceland’s Skogafoss waterfall – one of the country’s most famous landmarks even before their smooch. Just keep in mind the waterfalls above have been added digitally.
Mesquita Square (Malta) – King’s Landing
While most of the King’s Landing scenes were indeed filmed in and around Dubrovnik in Croatia, some scenes took place in other locations. Case in point, the scene in which Ned Stark faces off against Jaime Lannister in a brutal fight all the way back in season one, after Ned arrests Tyrion.
Not only did this scene not take place in Dubrovnik, it didn’t take place in Croatia at all. Instead, it was filmed in Mesquita Square, which is located in the ancient Maltese fortified city of Mdina, constructed in the 8th century BCE.
Alcázar (Spain) – Sunspear (Essos)
In season five, we get to see a bit more of the world. It’s our first glimpse of Dorne, all the way in the southernmost part of Westeros, where House Martell rules supreme (for a time, anyway).
The Dornish capital is called Sunspear, and it boasts a large fortified castle where the various Martell princes – and Ellaria Sand and her Sand Snakes – reside. Dornish scenes were filmed in Spain, and Sunspear and its famed Water Gardens were created in the Alcázar of Seville, the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
Carnlough Harbor (Northern Ireland) – Braavos (Essos)
Having had enough of her time training with the Faceless Men in Braavos in season six, Arya secures passage back to Westeros. However, before she can sail away, she’s once again attacked by the Waif and stabbed.
To get away from her, she jumps off a bridge and resurfaces away from her, climbing back aboard the dock. This scene was filmed in the small Northern Irish fishing village of Carnlough, and Maisie Williams spoke about how much fun it was to jump into the Irish sea after she’d spent the previous weekend at a music festival.
Trsteno Arboretum (Croatia) – King’s Landing gardens
Throughout seasons three and four, we got to see the magnificent gardens of the Red Keep, the royal palace of King’s Landing. Several scenes take place there, most of them involving the Tyrell clan – Margaery, Loras, and Olenna.
The Tyrells scheme and plot, as they do, on the backdrop of one of the most beautiful gardens we’ve ever seen. These scenes were filmed in the Trsteno Arboretum, located in the Croatian city of the same name. It’s the oldest arboretum – a botanical garden devoted to trees – in that part of the world.
The Roman Bridge (Spain) – the Long Bridge (Essos)
In season five, as they slowly make their way towards Daenerys, Tyrion and Varys explore Volantis, the oldest of Essos’ Free Cities. During their time there, they pay a visit to the city’s Long Bridge, which is so enormous it’s able to house multiple levels of stores and the kind of diversions Tyrion really loves.
Though far less impressive in real life, the Roman bridge of Córdoba served as the Long Bridge. However, none of the actors ever actually visited the bridge. They shot their scenes in a studio, and a drone took aerial photos of the bridge that were then used to reconstruct it digitally.
Thingvellir National Park (Iceland) – The Bloody Gate (the Vale)
We see the Bloody Gate twice in season four. The gate is actually a small fortification in the Vale of Arryn, and travelers have to pass through it to reach the Eyrie, the seat of House Arryn.
We first see it when Sansa and Petyr Baelish escape there after King Joffrey’s assassination, and then again when Arya and the Hound come in as well, only to realize they missed all the fun. Though the Gate itself is entirely a CGI creation, the mountainous road leading up to it may be found in Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park.
Dyrhólaey (Iceland) – Eastwatch-by-the-Sea (the Wall)
Eastwatch-by-the-Sea is a castle located at the far eastern end of the Wall where it drops into the sea. It was one of only three castles manned by the Night’s Watch due to its importance as a port through which the men of the Watch received both goods and news.
Though mentioned multiple times, we don’t get to see Eastwatch until Jon gets there in season seven, and the White Walkers pass into Westeros when the Night King destroys the Wall there. Scenes taking place there were filmed near Dyrhólaey, a natural rock formation in Iceland.