If you’re as obsessed with traveling as I am, you’ve probably heard a lot about Northern Ireland lately, which likely has something to do with the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. 80% of the scenes in GOT are filmed in Northern Ireland – though many of them are filmed in Paint Hall Studio in Belfast, and are therefore not open to visitors. I wouldn’t normally advise traveling somewhere just because it’s on television, but the scenery in Game of Thrones is truly stunning. Since returning home from my latest trip and catching up on what I missed on GOT, I’ve found myself paying even more attention to the scenery and wondering if I’ve been to more of these backdrops myself. Even if you haven’t seen the show (which, like, WHY), you’ll get a lot out of these dramatic sights and even more along the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland. Read on.
(1) The Enchanting Seaside Town of Ballycastle
For our first overnight of this trip, my sister chose the town of Ballycastle (and, let’s be clear, she chose everything else, too – the only thing I did on this trip is say, “let’s go to Ireland”). We arrived late in the evening after a full day of exploring Newgrange and Knowth closer to Dublin and dinner in Loughbrickland nearby at the Seven Stars Restaurant. We stayed at the Marine Hotel, though there were several other options in town, including the Ballycastle Backpackers Hostel right next door.
In the morning, the marina and the beaches, were ours to explore, with views of Fair Head Cliffs in the distance and dogs running loose ahead of their owners. We had our first Irish breakfasts of the trip at the Bay Cafe with an awesome view of the harbor and a black (three-eyed?) raven who wouldn’t leave the window sill. If we hadn’t had the rest of Ireland to see, we would have all liked to spend more time in this town, but there’s no reason why we can’t return one day for longer. After all, there are two ice cream spots (Maud’s and Ice Cream Happiness) that I need to try out on a sunnier day. Given extra time, we may have taken the ferry to Rathlin Island, visible from the marina, a birder’s paradise.
(2) An Unexpected Adventure at Kinbane
“Maybe we should turn around,” my mother said, not for the first time after we’d turned right down a winding, narrow, grass-covered two-way road that would have been one-way if anywhere else in the world. My dad either ignored her in the pursuit of adventure or was too focused on driving to hear her, but either way, I’m happy about it. We’d turned right about halfway down the road on the way to Ballintoy Harbor from Ballycastle. When we arrived at the end of the road, we found a parking lot and a glorious view. It started to rain, because that’s what it does on this island – bring a windbreaker.
My dad, sister, and I decided to walk down a path without knowing what awaited us while my mother opted to head back to the car. She wouldn’t have liked what was to come anyway. I’m glad I’d randomly changed into my sneakers before we got in the car because we had a full-on hike ahead of us. Each corner we turned was a more incredible view – the sea, a waterfall, cliffs, and finally a castle. We later learned this was Kinbane Castle, built in 1547 by the MacDonnell family. It only took four years for it to be besieged by England, which happened again four years later. So in terms of being a castle, it didn’t do a very good job, but in terms of being a ruin with gorgeous surrounding views, it’s kinda killing it.
Warning! During this hike you may lose your footing a few times, especially if it’s raining. Don’t put your hands in the grass to stop your fall or you will get little needles in them which will make your hands tingle and make you think they’re going to fall off for the next 24 hours.
(3) The Rope Bridge (or the View) at Carrick-a-Rede
Carrick-a-Rede is a 98-foot-high and 68-feet-long rope bridge, strung precariously from tiny island of Carrickarede to the mainland. Salmon fisherman have used a rope bridge like this for hundreds of years, though now it’s a recreated tourist attraction that you can pay to cross. The operators of the bridge kept saying, “Well, it’s too windy now to do it, but they’ll open it again in 5 minutes” which we couldn’t wrap our heads around. If something was too dangerous 5 minutes ago, how is it suddenly safe now? We skipped the walk across the bridge but still got a heck of a view as we strolled along the sea toward it. I got a kick out of the views of the islands: Rathlin again, super tiny islands with nothing on them, and some isles of Scotland, which I didn’t realize would be visible from there.
It’s in the parking lot for this attraction where we came across our first known GOT-filming location. A sign pointed out that it was within the high walls of the lot where we were introduced to Brienne of Tarth for the first time in season 2. Even the parking lots in Northern Ireland are beautiful.
(4) Picturesque Ballintoy Harbour
It’s Ballintoy Harbour where, on Game of Thrones, Theon Greyjoy sailed into the harbor of the Iron Islands and met his sister Yara. Instead of Theon, we came across a Game of Thrones tourbus, with dozens of
nerds tourists dressed in costumes with shields and swords. My dad and I got to chatting with one of them and I borrowed a shield and a sword for a photo all while my mom and sister were waiting impatiently for us to sit down at nearby Roark’s Kitchen.
Our panini sandwiches and oddly-flavored crisps hit the spot after not having eaten since breakfast. With what we thought must be one of the best views in Northern Ireland from the windows, we could not stop staring at the dessert table, with dozens of tall cakes, various flavors of scones, and huge chocolate cookies that were stolen from right under our noses by another customer. We settled for raspberry scones in the end which made an awesome snack later in the car, but I’m still thinking about those cookies.
(5) The Legends and Legendary Views of Giant’s Causeway
I have a thing for myths and legends, ghosts and lore. While Giant’s Causeway was the main reason we put Northern Ireland on our list, I didn’t know too much about it. I was delighted to find out that Giant’s Causeway was explained as a bridge across the water from Northern Ireland to Scotland that an Irish giant (Finn McCool) had built to spy on a giant in the Outer Hebrides (where my friend Katie is from). When he saw how much bigger the Scottish giant was, he came back over to Ireland. He knew the Scottish giant had seen him and was coming to get him, so he asked his wife to dress him like a baby. When the Scottish giant saw the Irish giant, thinking he was that large as a baby, he was terrified of how big his father must be. The Scottish giant raced back over the bridge, as the bridge crashed into the sea. Talk about a tall tale.
The less exciting explanation is that Giant’s Causeway was built by volcanoes 60 million years ago. The result is 40,000 strange basalt columns, most of them hexagonal in shape, wedged next to each other tightly. Some are just a few inches above the sea and some tower over us as humans, but would have still been low for the giants. I don’t normally take audio tours, but this one (free with admission) was well done. It describes the story of Finn McCool and points out other geological marvels that are attributed to his legends – like his grandmother keeping watch on top of a mountain, his pet camel, or a large rock shaped like a shoe.
It can get quite crowded once you reach the basalt columns, but if you’re lucky like us, it will start to pour again and the other tourists will flee, leaving you and your family alone on the causeway.
(6) Dunlace Castle
This castle from the 1500s is one of the largest castles in Northern Ireland. It’s famous for the kitchen falling into the ocean one night during dinner, though, just as that story about giants above, that story may be just a legend, as the kitchen area is still intact. We arrived too late to explore the inside, but as it’s just ruins, I think we got the gist. One of the best things about visiting old castles in Europe is that their locations, similar to those filming locations for Game of Thrones, are chosen for their beauty.
While We Ran Out of Time, You Might Also Enjoy:
(7) A visit to Old Bushmill’s Distillery, the oldest working distillery in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It’s recommended that you call ahead to reserve a time and go early, as long as you don’t mind sampling whiskey before you’ve had lunch. There are yearly maintenance periods for the distillery so be aware before making your plans that all areas of the tour may not be available to you.
(8) A stay in Portrush, another seaside resort town, seemingly larger than Ballycastle, still walkable, and bustling with students when the University of Ulster is in session.
(9) The Dark Hedges, a little more inland but still in Antrim County, is another GOT filming location perfect for Instagram. On the show it is a road leaving King’s Landing that Arya has been seen on, in this clip from season 2.
(10) A visit to Derry, the last walled city built in Europe and one of the most impressive, with powerful murals and decent Chinese food.
Whether you’re visiting for the magnificent views, the lore and legend, or just to brag about standing where Brienne of Tarth battled Ser Lorus Tyrell (even if you are surrounded by rental cars with suitcases piled high in the backseats) you won’t be disappointed by Northern Ireland’s Antrim Coast.
On Game of Thrones, “The North remembers,” and in real life, you’ll remember the North.