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On the Game of Thrones Trail: in Belfast and Beyond

24th August 2017

With the seventh season of Game of Thrones out in July (have you seen it yet?), it's a great time to head to Northern Ireland, the spiritual heart of this HBO sensation. Thronies - as fans are nicknamed - will find plenty to excite them both in Belfast (where the show is produced) and in the gorgeous green countryside that surrounds the city and hides a slew of filming locations that double up as Westeros. Here are six of the best places to get your Thrones fix.

Titanic Quarter

Tourists tend to flock to this regenerated waterfront zone - set in the once-booming shipyards of east Belfast - to visit Titanic Belfast, a huge exhibition that traces the rise and fall of the doomed liner that was built here. Thronies, however, may be more intrigued by the quarter's Titanic Studios. While this production facility, which contains key sets and props, including the Iron Throne room, is not usually open to the public, it's a magnet for the show's stars, and you can keep an eye out for them from the terrace of Cast and Crew, a cool nearby diner. Order the Ulster Fry - a Northern Irish version of the English breakfast - or the Titanic Burger, a hearty melange of Irish beef, bacon, salad and onion ring.

Cathedral Quarter

The likes of Kit Harington (who plays Jon Snow), Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) are regularly seen milling around central Belfast (the latter even posed for selfies with traders and punters at St George's Market). But it's in the bars and pubs of the Cathedral Quarter, a hip and happening district near St Anne's Cathedral, that you may find yourself ordering a pint next to one of the actors (try The Spaniard, a snug affair that Emilia Clarke - Daenerys 'Mother of Dragons' Targaryen - has said is her favourite Belfast pub). The Dark Horse is another buzzing neighbourhood joint, and in its courtyard, there's a dazzling display of murals that depict all things Northern Ireland, including a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Game of Thrones. 

Castle Ward

Of all the historic Irish properties to appear in the show, it's this 18th century estate, located 50km south of Belfast in County Down, that lures the most Thronies. It was Winterfell - the realm of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) - in the show's first season, and visitors can don medieval-style cloaks and furs and recreate some of the scenes filmed here. In the farmyard, you can fire arrows from the very same spot where Jon Snow and Robb and Bran Stark honed their archery skills in the pilot episode. Castle Ward also stages occasional banquet nights - a bit like the one the Starks treated King Robert Baratheon and his royal party to. As a band plays folksy live music, guests can wash down their hog roasts with pitchers of wine or locally-brewed Winterfell Ale.

Antrim Coast

This jaw-dropping chunk of coastline north of Belfast has long been a popular touring route thanks to its picturesque villages, vertiginous cliffs and surreal rock formations like Giant's Causeway, and the region is now a hive of Thrones-themed 'set-jetting' tours. Don't be surprised to see fans kitted out in costumes, wielding plastic swords and shields, at Cushendun Caves, a wave-lashed natural landmark where the sorceress, Melisandre, gave birth to Stannis Baratheon's shadow creature. Other filming locations-cum-pit stops are the harbours of Ballintoy, which stood in for Pyke and the Iron Islands (stronghold of the Greyjoys), and Carnlough, where Arya Stark crawled from after being stabbed and chased in Braavos in season six.

Dark Hedges

Frequently voted one of the planet's most Instagrammable streets, the Dark Hedges - 15km inland from Ballintoy - is the show's Kingsroad. Lined with 300-year-old beech trees whose twisting branches form an eerie tunnel-like arch, it sweeps down to Gracehill House, a lavish 18th century mansion that boasts a smart contemporary restaurant (with golf course on the side). Inside you'll find an intricately-carved wooden door - one of ten in Northern Ireland. Made from two Dark Hedges trees felled in last year's Storm Gertrude, each door tells a story of an episode from Thrones' season six. There are also special doors in Mary McBride's pub in Cushendun and Ballintoy's Fullerton Arms.

Portstewart Strand

Remember the scene in season five (episode four: Sons of the Harpy) when Jaime Lannister and his sellsword companion, Bronn, clamber onto the rolling dunes of Dorne? You'd be forgiven for thinking this was Morocco - another hotspot of Thrones filming - but it was actually shot at this beach in County Londonderry. Licked by the North Atlantic Ocean, it's a 20-minute drive west of Bushmills, the oldest whisky distillery on the Emerald Isle. You can enjoy walks along the 3km-long strip of sand, or in the wildflower-strewn dunes above, and if you're brave - the water temperature peaks at 16C in August (summer) - join the locals swimming or surfing. You can refuel at Harry's Shack, a trendy beach-side shed-restaurant renowned for its fresh fish and seafood dishes.

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