If Game of Thrones' bloodthirsty season four finale hadn't already cemented the show’s status as a cultural phenomenon, the Queen's tour of the show's studio in Belfast on Tuesday certainly added a stamp of royal approval.
For those fans not content to end their battle for the Iron Throne so soon, HELLO! Online took its own tour of Northern Ireland to find plenty more hidden gems of the Seven Kingdoms around the country's beatific Antrim coast.
And with so much of the show filmed on location across the coastline, it's not difficult to soak up the country's unique charm, rich history and modern movie-making credentials with a perfect weekend getaway beginning, like the Queen, in the country's capital, Belfast...
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The Titanic Quarter of Belfast has become a vibrant tourist attraction in recent years and is home to the Titanic Studios, where HBO films much of Game of Thrones' interior sequences. Although public tours aren't available while the show is filming, the Quarter is the obvious place to start any tour.
While there, get a flavour of the city's historical maritime industry by visiting the award-winning Titanic Museum in the famous Harland and Wolfe shipyard where it was originally built. Interactive activities and rides will give you a sense of what it was like to be onboard the doomed voyage, while families will be entertained by learning Morse code and discovering what lies on the ocean floors.
If your time is limited, a Black Cab tour of Belfast is a perfect, tailor-made way to see the sights. Paddy Campbell's renowned group of local guides can provide personal anecdotes about the last few decades of the remarkable city as you get a flavour of its troubled history, vibrant areas of new growth, and artistic legacy.
Visit famous locations like the botanical gardens, Crumlin Road Jail, and the stunning political murals either side of the Peaceline, as well as new boutique cafes and shops in emerging quarters of the city. The world famous Europa Hotel, located in the city centre, is a perfect spot for lunch – and don’t miss out on the cute "Causeway chips" recently added to their menú.
Causeway costal scenes:
While the Queen may be travelling south to County Down for her Thrones-themed trip, we headed north towards the Antrim coastline. Whether you're behind the wheel or opt for a guided tour, the causeway coastal route from Belfast to Londonderry was voted one of the world's most scenic drives and is littered with spots straight out of Seven Kingdoms, from the King's Road to Winterfell.
Traditional hotels such as Ballygally Castle are dotted along the coastal village and add to the area's charm. The castle was originally built in 1625 and boasts century turrets, idyllic gardens and a happily haunting ghost-room. Its easy 17th access to local attractions saw the castle used as a location base for cast and crew during the filming of GoT's first series. It is also a perfect centre for meandering walks to nearby glens, or you can cycle the coastal route used for the 2014 Giro D'Italia, which is still marked by pink-painted bikes and bunting decorating the roads and villages.
It's only a short drive from Ballygally to locations and attractions such as the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. A crossing not for the faint of heart, the famous 300-year-old rope bridge was originally constructed by salmon farmers in order to reach a small craggy island off the coast. Tourists can now cross the 30m chasm to explore the beautiful Carrick island, as well as the surrounding area used as the base for Stannos Barratheon’s camp.
Travel through picturesque glens and on to Glenarm castle, the seat of the Vicount Dunluce, Earl of Antrim, and home of the Highland Games each July. Compare the estate’s beautiful walled gardens to the medieval ruins of the family’s original seat, Dunluce Castle, which will be instantly recognisable to fans as Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) homeland, the Iron Islands. Nearby Ballintoy Harbour was also used as the Greyjoy's home.
A taste of Northern Ireland
As you travel west along the coastal road don't miss out on a visit to the Old Bushmills Distillery. Every drop of Bushmills whiskey worldwide comes from this plant, and with a licence going back to 1608 it is thought to be the oldest distillery in the world. Take a pull from the barrel and learn about their unique process and the importance of the "angel’s share" by opting for a behind-the-scenes tour. There's a kitchen and bar too, or tourists can dine in one of the lovely boutique restaurants – such as the French Rooms – in nearby Bushmills village.
Fed and watered, the only way to go is towards the Giant's Causeway, an UNESCO world heritage site that is widely considered the jewel in the Antrim coastline. The unique landscape, made up of 40,000 interlocking basalt column caused by intense volcanic activity millions of years ago, is explained in local folklore as having been built by the giant Fionn MacCool, who was challenged to fight a Scottish giant Benandonner.
If you have the time, the area is full of hiking paths along the cliffs that make the most of the abundant flora and fauna, and the visitors' centre features an award-winning gift shop full of unique local crafts and original items (we loved the handmade causeway candles).
For a final touch of Thrones, take advantage of the setting sun to cast an eerie glow on the Dark Hedges near Armoy, a ghostly area of woodland that saw Arya Stark escape from King's Landing with her lost friends Gendry and Hot Pie. If you beat the tourists to this location you’ll get an unforgettable picture in this area of haunting natural beauty.
Aer Lingus flights from London to Belfast from £25.99 one way. Rooms at Ballygally Castle, County Antrim, available from £110 per night, visit www.hastingshotels.com
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