Game of Thrones firmly put Northern Ireland on the map as a touristic destination when show bosses chose to film some of the fantasy series' most iconic scenes there. The country may only form the tip of the Emerald Isle, but thanks to its beautiful coastal roads, dramatic cliffs and spectacular glens, it's no wonder some 25 locations around Northern Ireland were used for filming.
Hiring a car and following your own self-guided tour is one of the best ways to explore the various filming sites. But first, I would recommend staying at the characterful and 'haunted' Ballygally Castle.
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The four-star hotel makes for a pleasant seaside staycation as well as being an ideal base for those wanting to explore the backdrop of the Seven Kingdoms. The castle, which dates back to 1625 and even has its own resident ghost, sits right on the beach at the head of Ballygally Bay. It's located just 26 miles from Belfast and is perfectly situated to start your Game of Thrones road trip.
Ballygally Castle is located right on the beach
Game of Thrones doors
Die-hard fans may have heard of the ten hidden Game of Thrones doors that are dotted around Northern Ireland. The doors depict the plotline of season six and are made of wood from trees from the Dark Hedges (also known as the King's Road) that fell during Storm Gertrude in 2016.
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Ballygally Castle is proud to house the ninth door, which guests will walk past every morning to access the restaurant for their full Irish breakfast. The scene on the door represents the Battle of the Bastards and features symbols of House Stark and House Bolton. The friendly staff at reception will be able to give you a souvenir 'Journey of Doors' passport which you can have stamped at all ten locations of the ten doors, including the hotel.
The hotel is home to one of the ten Game of Thrones doors
Game of Thrones filming locations
Once you've had your passport stamped, make sure to download the free 'Game of Thrones Locations' app, which points out the different filming locations on a map, tells you what scene or scenes were filmed there complete with set photos, plus pictures of what the location normally looks like. Just a stone's throw away from Ballygally Castle is Cairncastle and the windswept Antrim Plateau, the setting for where Sansa Stark learns she is to be married off to Ramsay Bolton. The landscape was also used in season one, where Ned Stark memorable executes a deserter of the Night's Watch.
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From Ballygally Castle, you can wind your way up the north coast and stop at sites such as Carnlough Harbour (where Arya Stark is attacked by the Waif), Cushendun Caves (where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow creature) and further along to Portstewart Strand (which acted as the coast of Dorne) – to name a few.
Further inland you'll find the dramatic Dark Hedges, as well as the picturesque Randalstown Forest, which set the iconic and final scene of Game of Thrones, when Jon Snow, Tormund and the Wildlings move through the trees. There's an abundance to discover on the app and you could easily spend a day or two road tripping around the beautiful Northern Irish countryside and coastal paths, stopping at the various filming locations and the ten doors.
The Dark Hedges is one of Game of Thrones' most iconic filming locations
Ballygally Castle's resident ghost
While Ballygally Castle may act as an ideal base for your Game of Thrones staycation, the other USP is that it is home to its very own resident ghost. That's right, Lady Isabella Shaw's spirit is said to haunt the hotel.
Legend has it that James Shaw, who built the castle in 1625, locked up his wife Isabella in the highest turret of the castle and left her there to starve after she failed to produce a male heir. She had given birth to a baby girl, and after being separated from her daughter for so long and desperate to see her, Isabella attempted to climb out of the tiny tower's window but fell to her death. Guests have been awakened in the night to find Isabella standing in the middle of their room or wandering the tower in search of her daughter.
Make sure you head up the winding staircase of the tower to The Ghost Room, where you can see Isabella's bedroom and window, as well as try on a black cloak that is left rather spookily sprawled on the bed. There's also an amusing noticeboard by reception where you can leave messages citing whether you've had an encounter with the spirit.
Lady Isabella's spirit is said to haunt The Ghost Room in the castle
Ballygally Castle's rooms and dining
The hotel is home to 54 rooms in total, making it one of the largest hotels along the Antrim Coast Road. The Antrim Suite as well as the new Coastal Deluxe Rooms offer panoramic views of the sea.
Our double room was extremely spacious and boasted a comfortable super king size bed. While the décor felt slightly outdated, much like the furnishings in the hotel lobby, and some amenities were lacking that you'd expect of a four-star hotel, such as a minibar or coffee machine, the size and price of the room, which includes a hearty breakfast, make it good value. Plus, we enjoyed beautiful views of the beach and pink sunsets. As mentioned, breakfast is included in the room rate.
Guests can tuck into a full Irish fry-up with potato bread that will leave you stuffed until lunch. There are also healthier options, such as cereals and yoghurts, for a lighter start to the day.
The double rooms boast super king size beds
If you're staying for a few nights, it's worth reserving a table for dinner as the dining options around Ballygally Castle are limited and the food at the restaurant really is delicious. Focusing on local and seasonal ingredients, you're guaranteed a wonderful meal that'll remind you of homecooked food. As long as you don't expect any fancy fare or Michelin-starred meals, you'll be more than content dining under the medieval-inspired chandelier and wooden beams or by the grand fireplace. Standouts from the menu include Carnbrooke's Mourne Black Gold sirloin steak, which was cooked to perfection, and the very tasty oven baked Atlantic salmon served on a sweet potato fondant.
Lunch and afternoon tea are also served at the hotel in the lounge and bar area. There's a special Game of Thrones-themed afternoon tea for fans, but the ordinary option is just as much of a treat. Tuck into fresh triangle sandwiches that will remind you of your childhood, unbelievably large scones with jam and cream, and a selection of desserts from tiffin to carrot cake, while admiring the sea view.
Tuck into a Game of Thrones-inspired afternoon tea
Ballygally Castle's grounds and beach
The location of the hotel is a winning point for those planning a UK coastal staycation. It couldn't be closer to the sea and is just steps away from a pleasant sandy beach. If you're brave enough, take a dip in the freezing Northern Irish sea that will guarantee a refreshing start to the day!
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While the interior of the hotel may feel slightly passé, the gardens and grounds of Ballygally Castle are just breathtaking and it's easy to see why it's a popular wedding venue. There was even a wedding taking place on a Tuesday during our stay. The gardens boast blossoming flowers, pristine lawns, quaint archways, a wooden bridge and even a pergola. Walk down to the trout stream to see if you can spot any resident ducks and fish, and meander along the babbling brook that leads directly out to sea.
The hotel grounds serve as a popular wedding venue
Other sites near Ballygally Castle
Apart from the Game of Thrones filming locations, the hotel is perfectly situated to explore other highlights that Northern Ireland has to offer, including plenty of family fun adventures. The infamous Giant's Causeway and daunting Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge are about an hour's drive away as is the Old Bushmills Distillery.
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But closer to home, the hotel concierge can organise archery, zip-lining, outdoor laser tag and a trip to Sheans Horse Farm. The Gobbins, which is a dramatic coastal walk that is like nothing you will have ever done before, is also just a 25-minute drive away and more off the beaten path.
Overnight Stay and Breakfast from £60 per room. For more information visit hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle or ring 028 2858 1066.