Game of Thrones tourism has become big business at locations all over Europe — in Croatia, Spain, Iceland, and Northern Ireland — where curious travelers from around the world come to walk in the footsteps of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and the Stark kids. I’ve enjoyed watching this phenomenon take hold in a sleepy town I’ve known since long before it became synonymous with Westeros: Dubrovnik, Croatia…or, as GoT fans know it, King’s Landing.
On my last visit to Dubrovnik, I stayed in a delightful B&B in an old stone house, buried deep in the heart of the Old Town. Like a swallow’s nest in the rafters of a busy cathedral, I was central to everything, yet just removed from the hustle and bustle. On my first evening, enjoying the peace and quiet and the cool of dusk in my B&B’s private garden, I heard the distant clang of a handbell. A few minutes later, I heard it again. It was simply mysterious: Over many years of visits, I’d never heard this before. But that occasional toll of a handbell quickly became the soundtrack of this visit to Dubrovnik.
On my third day in Dubrovnik, I finally figured it out: As I was descending the grand, steep staircase that leads from the Jesuit church down to the main drag, I heard the bell clang again — this time followed by chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Glancing over, I saw a Game of Thrones walking tour, beaming with giddy delight at re-creating the most humiliating experience of Cersei Lannister’s life.
Game of Thrones Locations in Dubrovnik
Fans of the HBO television series Game of Thrones may feel the tingle of déjà vu during their visit to Dubrovnik. On the show, Dubrovnik and the surrounding coastline and islands provided the setting for two main storylines: the royal family intrigue at King’s Landing; and Daenerys Targaryen’s conquest of the continent of Essos, from idyllic Qarth to the cities of Slaver’s Bay. Of course, in most cases, the real-life Croatian locations are dressed up with special effects — the sea, rocks, and bottoms of the buildings are real, while the fanciful towers and spires (and the dragons) are pure fantasy. If you digitally plop the Sept of Baelor in the middle of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, presto! King’s Landing. (The series stopped actually filming in Dubrovnik a few years back, and yet, the town’s real-life landmarks continued to appear on the series even through its final episode — re-created using a combination of archival footage and digital reconstructions.)
The chance to visit the “real King’s Landing” and other important sites has begun to attract a new breed of traveler: “set jetters” whose passion for the show attracts them here from around the globe. For die-hard GoT geeks, here are some specifics (mild spoilers ahead for early seasons of Game of Thrones):
The real-life Fort of St. Lawrence (Tvrđava Lovrijenac) — the Red Keep of Westerosi royalty — looks over a pleasant cove that stands in for Blackwater Bay, the site of a calamitous naval battle in season two, and some poignant Stark family goodbyes in the series finale.
The City Walls, which wrap entirely around Dubrovnik’s Old Town, have seen frequent airtime as the mighty fortifications of King’s Landing — the site of many strategic (and scenic) conversations between the royals and their advisors. And in the epic Battle of King’s Landing, Drogon strafed these walls and bastions with dragon fire.
Several of the streets in Dubrovnik’s Old Town — especially St. Dominic’s Street (ulica Svetog Dominika), connecting the main drag to the PločeGate — become the crowded market streets of King’s Landing. The real-life “Rupe” Ethnographic Museum, in the upper reaches of the Old Town, served as the exterior of Littlefinger’s brothel.
The greater Dubrovnik area features more locations: The eventful “Purple Wedding” of Joffrey and Margaery was filmed in Gradac Park, just outside the Pile Gate. The epic duel between Oberyn Martell and The Mountain was filmed at the amphitheater below Hotel Belvedere, facing Dubrovnik’s Old Port. And the island of Lokrum played host to the Qarth garden party. Today, a monastery on Lokrum hosts a very modest exhibit about the Game of Thrones filming.
The fortress where Daenerys’ young dragons were held captive was Minčeta Tower (the highest point in Dubrovnik’s City Walls). Later, when her dragons got bigger, they were chained up in a dungeon that was filmed deep inside the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, just up the coast in Split.
Trsteno Arboretum, just north of Dubrovnik, is where Sansa Stark had many heart-to-hearts with Olenna and Margaery Tyrell. And the fortified town of Klis, just north of Split, was the slaving town of Meereen.
While it’s easy enough to find these locations on your own, various companies in Dubrovnik offer Game of Thrones sightseeing tours (two well-established local outfits are Dubrovnik Walks and Dubrovnik Walking Tours).
When Your Hometown Becomes King’s Landing
For their part, the people of Dubrovnik recognize that it’s an honor to play a major role in history’s most epic television series. And they’ve enjoyed the ride. For years, locals have been excitedly telling me about their brushes with Game of Thrones greatness: Seeing Peter Dinklage, in full Tyrion Lannister regalia, strolling down the main street. Or sitting down for dinner at a neighborhood konoba and spotting Joffrey at the next table. One of my Dubrovnik friends was an extra — dressed as a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him nobleman at a royal wedding.
At times, the filming could be frustrating. The route of Cersei’s “Walk of Shame! Shame! Shame!” — which traversed essentially the entire historic town center of Dubrovnik — was walled off with high privacy fences. And in this vertical town, that meant that locals who were caught unawares had to circle up a steep stepped lane, then all the way around town, just to cross the street. But one elderly woman — a local fixture famous for her incredibly slow gait — reached the fence and asked very kindly if she might be able to take a shortcut. The crew took pity on her, halted production, opened the gate…and proceeded to hemorrhage money as they watched her hobble through the middle of their set for several excruciating minutes.
For the first few years of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, Dubrovnik remained oblivious to the touristic gold mine they had stumbled into. I recall one visit, around season three, wondering why there was not one Game of Thrones attraction, tour, or brochure in town. For a city whose lifeblood is tourism, it seemed clueless.
But soon Dubrovnik caught on, and fast. By the time of my next visit, just a year or two later, Dubrovnik was awash in Game of Thrones-themed attractions: walking tours, souvenir stores, a sunset cruise where passengers are invited to dress up in Game of Thrones costumes, and a shop with a replica of the Iron Throne. If you buy an overpriced souvenir, you can take a picture of yourself seated as the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. (The cheapest trinkets I saw were $6 lighters and refrigerator magnets, making this one expensive photo op.)
This sudden fame requires adjusting to a new clientele. I asked a local guide how she felt about adding Game of Thrones locations to her walking tours. She said she didn’t mind. But some customers are asking her, “Can you just do Game of Thrones locations, without all of that boring Dubrovnik history?” That’s where she draws the line: If you want GoT, you’re gonna get some Dubrovnik, too. (Respect!)
Game of Thrones has helped put Dubrovnik on Hollywood’s map for other projects, too. The town stood in for the casino city of Canto Bight in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and 2018’s Robin Hood was shot in the Old Town. (My local friends were impressed by the construction of wood-frame castle extensions to the City Walls at the Old Port — and then were disappointed when everything was burned down for the film’s finale.) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was filmed on the nearby “Greek Island” of Vis, Croatia. And persistent rumors suggest that the upcoming 25th James Bond film (featuring Daniel Craig’s final appearance as 007) may use Dubrovnik as one of its primary settings.
[Update after Season 8: Watching the final two episodes of the series — with the horrifying events of the Battle of King’s Landing and its aftermath — it was painful to see the fine old buildings of Dubrovnik destroyed by dragon fire. It felt like witnessing a place I actually know being wiped from existence — and even more poignant when you consider that the real Dubrovnik was badly damaged in a military siege during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession in the mid-1990s. I imagine watching those scenes hit a little close to home — perhaps literally — for the residents of Dubrovnik.]
More European Game of Thrones Locations
Other European destinations have played major roles in Game of Thrones. Beyond Croatia, the warmer-weather, tropical areas of Westeros and Essos have been filmed mostly in Spain — where, for example, the Alcazar Gardens of Sevilla appeared as the lavish and lush backyard of the Martell clan, and the bullring in Osuna was the site of an epic battle in Meereen. If you want to hike up the vertiginous, rocky trail to Dragonstone Castle, you’ll find it at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the Basque Country.
The frigid areas North of The Wall were mostly filmed in Iceland. Major tourist areas — such as Þingvellir, the dramatic and historic gorge on the Golden Circle tour route — were used as locations for some of this rugged scenery, as were far more remote areas that are all but inaccessible to casual tourists. In the North of Iceland (near Lake Mývatn), one popular stop is Grjótagjá, the hot-water spring grotto where Jon Snow and Ygritte, ahem, violated the oath of the Knights’ Watch.
And the temperate landscapes of the North near Winterfell, plus many of the jagged coastline scenes (and lots more), were shot in Northern Ireland — also the site of the primary studio for interior filming (Belfast’s Titanic Studios, which recently opened a GoT exhibition).
For honorable mention, consider Wester Ros, an area in the northern Scottish Highlands; while it hasn’t appeared on screen, its rugged, cinematic scenery inspired George R. R. Martin to name his fictional land “Westeros.”
Of course, there’s so much more to see and do in Croatia, Iceland, Ireland, and Spain than hunt down Game of Thrones locations. But if that’s what it takes to draw visitors to these wonderful corners of Europe, I’m all for it…especially if those “set jetters” are willing to put up with some real local stories alongside the fantasy lore. I’m not against using trojan horses to get people traveling. And I have to admit: It’s fun to see some of my favorite spots in Croatia popping up on one of my favorite TV shows.
Have you enjoyed visiting the filming locations of famous movies and TV shows? I’d love to hear about it — please share your favorite experiences in the comments.