Where HBO's hit 'Game of Thrones' was filmed

ByABC News
April 1, 2012, 6:40 AM

— -- When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. When you watch the Game of Thrones on HBO, you just plain win. The hit series, based on George R.R. Martin's massively popular A Song of Ice and Fire novels, is that good. To celebrate its second-season premiere, we're taking you behind the scenes for a look at the filming locations used to bring this fantasy epic to life.

If the Azure Window, Tollymore Forest, and the Mourne Mountains sound like fictional places from Thrones' Seven Kingdoms, it may be time to brush up on your real-world geography: These fascinating places—and others spanning four countries and thousands of miles—were used by the production team to give the show's fantasy world its vivid lived-in feel.

Northern Ireland

Primary filming for seasons one and two occurred on a soundstage at Paint Hall Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But just as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy used numerous locations in New Zealand to stand in for everything from Mordor to the Shire, the Game of Thrones team took advantage of Belfast and its environs to double for many different locations within Thrones' vast fantasy world.

In the first season of Game of Thrones, the nomadic Dothraki horse riders gather at a city called Vaes Dothrak, which is marked by two gigantic bronze stallions whose hooves meet midair to form an arch above its windswept entryway. The HBO production team "used a place called Sandy Brae in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland to stand in for Vaes Dothrak," says Phil Bicking of the popular Game of Thrones website WinterIsComing.Net. Interestingly, the Mourne Mountains were once an inspiration for another famed fantasy epic, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Another central location from season one is Winterfell, the seat of power in the North. The 18th-century exterior of Castle Ward in County Down, Northern Ireland, may be unrecognizable from the outside as Ned Stark's ancestral home, but it was used for all shots of the castle's courtyard—such as the scene where King Robert Baratheon arrives in the North. Saintfield Estates doubled as Winterfell's godswood.

You'll also spot hints of the North in Tollymore Forest, which is featured prominently in the prologue portion of the show's pilot episode and the pivotal scene where the Starks first find the direwolves. Cairncastle, meanwhile, served as the location where Ned Stark beheads the deserter Will south of the Wall.

Speaking of the Wall (a towering 700-foot barrier of ice meant to keep out the dangers beyond), Bicking says, "They built a huge Castle Black set in the abandoned Magheramorne Quarry, complete with working winch cage." Just don't expect to find much Beyond the Wall if you visit and reach the top of the quarry. The impressive scenes shot atop the wall were filmed inside Paint Hall Studios.

Some of the action in season two shifts to the Iron Islands, which are the ancestral home of the seafaring Greyjoys. "Because our story reached out toward seagoing adventures [and] featured the Iron Islands and Pyke, [we] needed something brand-new and spectacular," says Location Manager Robert Boake. The production team found it near Ballintoy Harbour—and more specifically, Lordsport Harbour—where many of the Iron Islands scenes were filmed.

"There are also reports of filming at Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge," adds Bicking. Those are likely for the Iron Islands sequences as well.