When I was planning my return to Ireland with Tourism Ireland, there was one experience I knew that I didn’t want to miss, a day living out my Game of Thrones fantasies in Northern Ireland. I’d seen photos of the special tour for quite a while, but it wasn’t until I found myself in County Down, Northern Ireland when I finally had the chance to participate. Even if you have just a passing interest in Game of Thrones, you’ll want to read on because the experience is about so much more than just a TV show.
Getting to County Down, one of Northern Ireland’s six counties, from the Republic of Ireland couldn’t have been easier. I spent the night in the scenic coastal town of Carlingford where I took the 10-minute ferry ride over to Northern Ireland. That’s it; a simple and scenic way to get cross the water. I left early that morning because, honestly, I couldn’t wait to start my day exploring historic County Down through a Game of Thrones lens.
I met my guide for the day, Jamie from Winterfell Tours, at a seaside restaurant in Newcastle, one of the county’s most popular seaside cities. It was the perfect place to start the tour for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the impressive history of the county. Down comes from the ancient Irish word for castle, and there are castles littered all about the region making it the ideal back drop for Game of Thrones taping.
Winterfell Tours offers a number of different ways to learn more about the Game of Thrones filming locations, from spending a few hours at Winterfell, Castle Ward, to exploring more sites around the county. Jamie was taking me around to a variety of spots that day, not only so I could see the filming locations but so I could learn more about beautiful County Down itself, starting at Tollymore Forest.
Tollymore has a long history, mostly as part of the estate of the local nobility. It was also Northern Ireland’s first state forest park and for decades it has been a fun natural getaway for millions of people seeking some pastoral calm. The massive forest with its river and unusual formations also make the ideal filming location for certain scenes in Game of Thrones. In this post I’m not going to divulge all of the scenes and where you can find them, instead I want to share some photos and examples of what you’ll discover along the way. Aside from the show though, it was fantastic to strap on my hiking shoes and get out into nature. Just a few minutes from the car park I felt as if I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by massive trees, the sound of the rushing river and little else. While the coastal beauty of Northern Ireland gets a lot of attention, I learned that inland is just as amazing as those rocky cliffs.
Winterfell and the Direwolves
The heart of the experience though for any visitor is at Winterfell Castle itself, the real-life Castle Ward. The Castle and surrounding estate had been in the Ward family for centuries until, in the mid-20th century, it was given over to the National Trust for safekeeping. Since then it has become one of the region’s most popular spots to visit, even before HBO arrived to start their extensive taping for Game of Thrones. Used in the show are old towers, stables, riverside scenes and forest paths, all transformed into many of the show’s more famous scenes that we would all recognize.
Spending the day though with Winterfell Tours is so much more than just looking at filming spots, which is why I wanted to join their tour in the first place. It’s an immersive experience that puts the visitor right into the thick of the action. As soon as I arrived I was outfitted in my own medieval garb, cape flowing as I grabbed my sword and sauntered across the courtyard. Each visit can be tailored to what you want to do, from biking and boating to archery lessons and more. There was one extra feature though that had me the most excited, meeting the direwolves themselves.
Brothers Odin and Thor are Northern Inuit dogs and played Summer and Grey Wind in Game of Thrones. Always wanting big dogs, the dogs’ owner responded to a casting call for “wolf-like” puppies and the rest very quickly became history. Today their main jobs are to nap and hang out with tourists with me, and I couldn’t wait. As the owner of huskies myself, I love northern breed dogs and true to form, Odin and Thor are two of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met. They came over quickly to say hi and then, just as quickly, laid down for an afternoon nap. For a dog lover like me, this was easily one of the highlights of my own personal Game of Thrones experience.
That was only the start though, from there I was trained in the skills needed for archery, which I am terrible at, as well as ax-throwing, which I am oddly not terrible at doing. Jamie and I then sauntered down to the riverfront to see some of the show’s more iconic scenes and to just enjoy being outside on what was a particularly nice March afternoon in Northern Ireland.
I had built this experience up mentally for the last two years, which is always dangerous in the travel experience. I ran the real risk of being disappointed, which thankfully never happened. If anything, I had more fun that day than I thought I would ever have, thanks in large part to the kind hospitality of the folks living in Northern Ireland. Aside from embracing my inner geek and living out a day in the world of Game of Thrones, it was a great way to see more of County Down, a must for any visitor in my opinion.
A Few Details
Getting to Castle Ward is easy, even if you’re staying in Belfast or Dublin. Winterfell Tours picks up visitors every day from both cities and neither is a long drive. If you want to stay locally though like I did, I strongly recommend staying in the nearby village of Strangford and The Cuan; a 4-star hotel part of a larger restaurant and pub in the heart of the village. It’s just a 5-minute drive from Castle Ward and the perfect spot to enjoy the quieter side to life in the county. The restaurant is also acclaimed and, as I learned after a delicious dinner, that praise is well earned. It’s also the final part of the Game of Thrones experience since one of the famous Game of Thrones doors is located in the pub portion of The Cuan. Around Northern Ireland is a set of ten intricately carved wooden doors that each tell the story of a Season 6 episode. They’re beautiful works of art, and visiting all ten has become an obsession for many. Even if you don’t stay at The Cuan, be sure to stop by to see the door and to grab a pint of their Hodor beer.
Game of Thrones isn’t for everyone, I get that. But this experience in Northern Ireland is so much more than visiting spots where they filmed the fantasy series. It’s about learning the history of the county and experiencing its gorgeous natural landscapes. If, along the way, you happen to meet a direwolf and throw an ax, then all the better.