Belfast has seen so much rejuvenation in the last two decades, even its long-time residents have trouble recognizing it sometimes. In the early 1900s, the Northern Ireland capital thrived thanks to its shipyards, which built the world’s most luxurious ocean liners (including the RMS Titanic), but the city’s growth stuttered in the late 1960s, when a three-decade-long conflict over the region’s constitutional status began. Since “the Troubles” ended in the late 1990s, Belfast has recuperated, and its compact city centre now hosts world-class museums (don’t miss the Titanic Belfast Museum), Michelin-starred restaurants, repurposed heritage buildings… and dragons.
The city, which lies on the northeastern coast of Ireland, but is part of the United Kingdom, has hosted HBO’s award-winning fantasy drama Game of Thrones (GOT) since it began seven seasons ago. In addition to being the TV show’s main production headquarters, Northern Ireland stands in for Westerosi locales like the Iron Islands, Winterfell and more. With the show’s final season set to air in 2019, this is the year to visit its magical landscapes.
Katrina Doran is a native Northern Irelander and has been part of the show’s makeup team for the past three seasons. She’s travelled around Belfast and the Northern Ireland countryside applying prosthetics to stuntmen, checking extras’ beard lengths and even colour-matching makeup to the mud found near the town of Saintfield, where an epic Season 6 battle was filmed.
Following are a few of the reasons Doran thinks this is the year to visit Belfast:
The allure of the city
“There’s just something about Belfast. [Most] people who live here are actually from Northern Ireland, so there’s a real sense of home. No matter where you’re from, the people here will make you feel welcome. They love showing off the city because it has come so far.”
GOT filming sites
“Mostly, anything that’s interior in the series is shot in Titanic Studios in Belfast; outdoor scenes are filmed all over Northern Ireland. The most famous location is the Dark Hedges [a.k.a. the Kingsroad], which is about 40 minutes outside Belfast. It’s an unusual location where the trees all bend across the road.”
GOT cast hangouts
“You could be sitting having an amazing five-course meal at OX [restaurant] and there could be a table of GOT cast sitting beside you. And [cast members] also hang out in Victoria Square, but it can be hard to recognize them out of costume.”
A memorable pub
“The Crown Bar is a National Trust property and they do a really good Irish stew. You’ll get an amazing pint of Guinness there, too, because they serve lots of it and it has to be flowing from the keg constantly to get the best pint.”
“Avoca, which is an Irish brand, does beautiful woollen blankets, giftware, little books and knick-knacks. And Northern Ireland’s original Primark—we pronounce it Pre-mark here—is in an old bank building, so you can shop for clothes amid this stunning architecture.”
“Walk up the side of Cave Hill, past Belfast Castle, which is a historical building. When you get to the top, you can see all over Belfast, the shipyards and the two big iconic yellow cranes from Harland & Wolff and the whole way across the Belfast Lough.”
“Co Couture is a chocolate shop on Chichester Street. They make everything on the premises, so the smell of chocolate as soon as you walk in is just incredible. It’s my literal happy place. You can have a hot chocolate served with cream and freshly made marshmallows.”
Getting there: WestJet flies to Dublin once a day from St. John’s starting April 29.