There are a lot of special effects in the HBO blockbuster fantasy series Game of Thrones, but one thing that’s never faked is the spectacular scenery. If you’re looking at an elegant medieval port city, an endless expanse of frozen white wasteland, or an exotic oasis within a parched desert, you’re probably looking at the real deal, not some sort of green screen. Many destinations have worked with GOT producers to get this impressive cast/crew of hundreds over to their most unusual and beautiful corners for filming. Now, as fans get ready for the start of Season 3, here’s our guide to where your favorite scenes were shot in real life.
Photo credit: Reykjavik Travel
Iceland's otherworldly landscapes of ice and snow make it an ideal location for all the scenes that are supposed to take place North of the Wall. The producers shot for a month here in 2011, and decided to return for subsequent seasons. The official Game of Thrones behind-the-scenes blog from HBO calls it the "most intense of the shoot locations, with very short days, treacherous ice, and storms that a White Walker would feel right at home in."
Photo credit: Helen Sloan/HBO
Making GOT Season 3
Equipment and transportation had to be sturdy and outfitted for the weather, but as this picture shows, even a detachment of Iceland's customized Super-Jeeps sometimes couldn't prevail. For the Season 3 shoot, inclement weather was a major stress factor because the shoot schedule was only eight days, as opposed to one month the first time. For tourists who don't have to worry about getting scenes in the can, a Super-Jeep tour is one of the most fun and adrenaline-packed ways to experience Iceland...especially if you combine it with a hike across the ice or up the side of a mountain!
Photo credit: ALH
Hotel Bellevue in Dubrovnik, Croatia
This stunning view of King's Landing—er, sorry, Dubrovnik, is actually what many of the cast probably experienced after shooting the capital scenes by day. Adriatic Luxury Hotels hosted most of the cast and crew during their stay, and some staff were even lucky enough to party with them. Hotel Bellevue, a stylish luxury hotel just a short walk from Old Town Dubrovnik, just launched a "Discover King's Landing" package that includes oceanview accommodations, a welcome bottle of wine (Tyrion would approve!) and a replica of a "key to King's Landing" that doubles in real life as an attractions pass.
Photo credit: HBO
Qarth/Lokrum Island, Croatia
Fan sites have compared Qarth, as seen in this still image from the set, to Babylon many thousands of years ago. But in fact, the Qarth scenes were shot on a tiny island called Lokrum, just off the coast of Dubrovnik. It's a popular daytrip destination, easily accessible by ferry from the city. Its unique landscape, which includes a small salt lake and a thousand-year-old abandoned monastery, made it a perfect real-life setting for GOT's pagan oasis city.
Photo credit: Art of Backpacking
This disheveled yet charming port town in Morocco once was a backpacker's stopover; but when the GOT location scouts discovered it, it became one of the main backdrops for Daenerys Targaryen's journey from displaced child-bride to dragon queen. With its colorful bazaar and bustling harbor, Essaouira is ripe for cinematographic transformation into Astapor, or one of the other exotic cities of Essos where Dany comes into her power.
Photo credit: Mary O'Connell
What luck for fans worldwide that Game of Thrones enthusiast Mary O'Connell sought out this film site in a remote south-central Morocco region nicknamed "The Door of the Desert," snapped a pic, and posted it on Twitter. Were it not for the rigging and camera crane, the bristling spear brigades standing in front of ancient baked-brick facades would look like a scene from 1,000 years ago.
Photo credit: Northern Ireland Screen
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Though perhaps not quite as exotic as some of the other locations, Northern Ireland holds the distinction of being the primary film locale for Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-3. Its castles, quarries and woods served as the setting for most of the Winterfell story lines. As yet, there's no word whether Northern Ireland will remain the production's headquarters for Season 4 and beyond. Regardless, a bus tour of GOT locations is being set up for curious tourists.
Photo credit: Flickr/johmuk
Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland
This remote Northern Ireland harbor serves as the real-life counterpart to the Iron Islands, bleak and inhospitable home of the violent seafaring Greyjoys. It's no stretch of the imagination on a cloudy day, with gray cliffs rearing hundreds of feet above a vast and sullen ocean.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto
Azure Window, Gozo
And for the final slide, we go back to the beginning. This otherworldly natural arch in remote Southern Malta is where a young and naive Daenerys Targaryen married Khal Drogo in the very beginning of Game of Thrones, Season 1. Ah, the memories!