The Dark Hedges are not easy to find. You must follow a serpentine road along a bucolic stretch of Northern Ireland, past sheep, and glens and yellow fields of rapeseed until somewhere between the sleepy towns of Ballycastle and Ballymoney -- if you keep your eyes peeled and your foot off the gas pedal -- you spot a shadowy lane flanked by centuries-old beech trees. These are the Dark Hedges. Their sinewy branches twist toward the sky like the many arms of the Indian goddess Durga. The highest boughs stretch across the lane to the trees on the opposite side, their leaves overlapping, eclipsing the sun. Locals say this place is haunted by a solitary ghost known as the Grey Lady.
But lately she's had company.
"No one ever used to come here," said David McAnirn, a tour guide, on a rare balmy June morning. "Now hundreds come each day."
The reason for the deluge? It was written on the T-shirts of a handful of tourists snapping photos amid the Hedges: "Game of Thrones."
Chronicling a war among dynasties for an Iron Throne in the imaginary land of Westeros, the HBO fantasy series is a cult hit suffused with intrigue, sex and moody landscapes. The latter is making Northern Ireland a magnet for fans who want to visit places like the Dark Hedges, which appear in the premiere of Season 2 when Arya Stark, a noble girl masquerading as a boy, flees in a cart from her enemies. Or Cushendun, the rocky beach where, later in that season, the priestess Melisandre gives birth in a cave to a supernatural assassin.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has been enticing viewers to visit these and other splendors with a "Game of Thrones" filming locations guide on its blog ("Explore the real world of Westeros") and promotions for "Game of Thrones" exhibitions last spring at the Ulster Museum and at Titanic Belfast. After all, a film or television series can raise a country's profile. New Zealand has "Lord of the Rings." Sweden has "Wallander" and "Millennium." But the success of "Game of Thrones," which begins filming Season 4 this month in Northern Ireland, is particularly welcome and poignant in the capital, Belfast, which for decades had been synonymous with strife.
More than 3,500 people were killed in the sectarian fighting between British loyalists (mainly Protestants) and Irish nationalists (mostly Roman Catholics) between 1969 and the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. The rest of the world, including people in other parts of Ireland, stayed away.
"For most of my life I was in a film set," said Mr. McAnirn, who was a teenager in Belfast during those years. "And it was a horror movie."
In the mid-1990s, tourism industry pioneers like Caroline McComb, who along with her husband operates McComb's tours and coaches, were scratching their heads trying to figure out how to convince tourists that there was more to Belfast than the Troubles, as the 30-year period of fighting is known. "New York has its skyline," Ms. McComb said. "Sydney has its opera house. Everybody was deflated and was like, 'What do we have here?' "
These days, a lot. There's the year-old Titanic Belfast museum, which tells the story of how Belfast once built the biggest ship in the world; the recently restored S. S. Nomadic, an original tender ship to the Titanic that transported the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor; and the new visitor center at the Giant's Causeway, a Unesco world heritage site. Belfast has also been courting the world with high-profile events like the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011, the summit of Group of 8 industrial nations this year and, in 2014, the Giro d'Italia, one of professional cycling's three Grand Tour races.
"It's a real breath of fresh air to be able to look forward instead of back," said Ms. McComb, who recently began proffering a private nine-hour "Game of Thrones" locations tour (about $516 a person), available through Viator.com. "People in Northern Ireland are all so eager to make tourism work for us."
That's not to say the past is buried. This is a country of ghosts. And there are still sporadic clashes. In December, violence erupted for weeks when the Belfast council decided to cut back on the flying of the Union Jack, prompting protests from some British loyalists. The fences and walls (some 30 feet tall) that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods outside the city center remain. And gates that allow passage between the neighborhoods are still sealed at certain hours.
Last month, I went to Belfast to see how the city is evolving: to visit those tinderbox neighborhoods, tour Titanic Belfast and, yes, see some of the locations in one of my guilty pleasures, "Game of Thrones." Never did I feel that I was in danger, especially in Belfast's tourist-friendly center. On a recent spate of warm nights, couples and klatches of students on the cobblestone streets of the artsy Cathedral Quarter had about them the carefree air of summer.
As the city looks to the future, there is less reticence about its painful history. "When we first started doing tours," Mr. McAnirn explained, "people said, 'Don't mention the Troubles.' 'Don't mention Crumlin Road jail,' " he said, referring to the prison that held both loyalists and nationalists during that time.
Now tours of the neighborhoods at the epicenter of the Troubles are as common as rain. And not only can you take a guided tour of Crumlin Road Gaol, but there are "paranormal tours" of its supposedly ghostly hot spots, like a condemned man's cell and the flogging room. The prison's corridors and exercise yards can also be rented for parties, concerts and wedding receptions (for lovers with a sense of irony).
On one of those recent mild evenings, beyond the drab rock walls that surround the jail, there were flaming torches and a Hollywood-style red carpet.
I followed it inside.
Crumlin Road Gaol sits like a mausoleum across the street from a derelict courthouse not far from Shankill Road, the main artery through a loyalist, predominantly Protestant working-class neighborhood that was at the center of the Troubles.
Flash forward to June 2013. Women in stilettos are gabbing in front of the former parcel office where prisoners used to collect their mail. There are men in suit jackets where a "movement officer" once logged the whereabouts of prisoners. Waiters weave through the crowd offering finger food with names designed to make a "Game of Thrones" fan grin ("Ned Stark's venison burgers," "Joffrey's cheese and onion tarts"). Through an iron gate, a candlelit table offers "Khalessi's mini blood sausages" and "Red Wedding fish with butter sauce." At the far end of the table: a pig on a spit.
This smorgasbord, for journalists and die-hard fans of the series, was arranged by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Northern Ireland Screen, a government-backed agency for the film and television industry. It was a celebration of the opening of the final leg of a traveling exhibition of "Game of Thrones" props: swords, crowns, costumes, a severed head (sorry, Stark devotees), petrified dragon eggs (only two eggs were on display because HBO gave the third as a wedding gift to George R. R. Martin, author of the novels that inspired the series), and the Iron Throne, upon which no fan could resist posing for a photograph.
Standing before the crowd -- including "Game of Thrones" actors like Maisie Williams (who plays Arya Stark), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark) and John Bradley (Samwell Tarly) -- Peter D. Robinson, the province's unionist first minister, said of Northern Ireland: "This is Westeros!"
It was said with pride. To many here, interest in the backdrop of "Game of Thrones" signifies, as Mr. Robinson put it, an emergence from "the dark days of the past into a new era."
"It means we're normal," he said, acknowledging with a wink that "normal" isn't exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of "Game of Thrones." But he said the filming of the series in and around Belfast "lets people see what it can be like if we have a peaceful, prosperous future."
As I would learn the next day while driving north from Belfast on the Causeway Coastal Route, the fairy-tale quality of the landscape alone is worth a visit, whether you know the difference between Wildlings and White Walkers or not. A good chunk of the series is filmed on or near this route and the landscape is startling, as if it ought not to exist outside a child's imagination. The greens are so vibrant you suddenly find yourself questioning whether you ever really saw green before. The white horses in the fields seem like escapees from a Mary Poppins-style carousel.
For actors, the environment can be a boon. "If you're going to play a part," Mr. Bradley (the lovable Samwell Tarly) told me on the aforementioned red carpet, "especially a part as complicated as the parts you get in 'Game of Thrones,' I think you need to flush everything away. You need to get yourself into a neutral state. And then paint the character onto that blank canvas. And nothing does that more effectively than being around natural elements."
Among the most idyllic spots shown in the series is Ballintoy Harbour, built in the 1700s and still a working harbor, located 60 miles north of Belfast. You won't see obvious vestiges of the show, but this is where in Season 2 Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands. It is also where he meets the surly crew of his ship, the Sea Bitch. I arrived one Saturday afternoon with some "Game of Thrones" fans, winners of a contest who were spending the day walking in the footsteps of favorite characters.
Off a bus and down a steep hill we trudged, past a graveyard, to Ballintoy Harbour, where fishing boats bobbed, their bells clanging softly. Fog made it impossible to separate ocean and sky. If a boat were to become unmoored, you might believe it could sail to Neverland.
"It's one of the most beautiful places in Northern Ireland," said Naomi Liston, who works in the locations department for "Game of Thrones," during a panel discussion in Belfast about the show.
When I asked her why HBO chose Northern Ireland, Ms. Liston said there were many considerations: Is it cost effective? Does the area offer evocative filming locations? Does it have studio space?
"Northern Ireland," she said, "ticked all the boxes."
Even the most dedicated "Game of Thrones" tourist will find that Northern Ireland is more than a film set. Belfast, for instance, was once renown for shipbuilding, which becomes obvious whenever you glance toward the River Lagan and see the hulking yellow gantry cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyards. A hundred years ago, workers built the Titanic there. The cranes, more than 300 feet tall and affectionately known as Samson and Goliath, have become a memorial to the city's industrial heyday.
In homage to its shipbuilding prowess, Belfast has spent the last few years erecting an entire quarter dedicated to its maritime history. At the center of it all is Titanic Belfast, billed as "the world's largest Titanic visitor experience." That experience includes nine galleries that follow the life of the Titanic from its construction to its demise in 1912. "Game of Thrones" uses the nearby Titanic Studios, which consists of Paint Hall studio as well as two new 24,000-square-foot sound stages that were used in Season 3. While visitors can't freely tour them, they can easily see the studios from the Titanic Belfast grounds.
About a seven-minute walk away is Titanic's Dock and Pump-House, where visitors can descend 44 feet into the Titanic dry dock (unchanged since 1912), and stroll the original gangway balconies in the pump-well. Nearby, you can roam the recently restored S. S. Nomadic, a former tender ship to the Titanic.
You can explore these and other Belfast gems like St George's Market, the Ulster Museum, Queen's University Belfast and the Botanic Gardens. The glass dome of the Victoria Square shopping center provides unexpected bird's eye views of city landmarks like the 1860s Albert Memorial Clock -- the clock leans, inspiring a local joke about it having both the time and the inclination. A few blocks away is Linen Hall Library, which was founded in 1788 and is the oldest library in Belfast. On wooden shelves labeled Irish Fiction you'll find works by George Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats, a reminder of how much literature has been wrung out of the little emerald isle.
At night in the Cathedral Quarter, everything spills into the streets: beer; the sound of live jazz; merrymakers at the Spaniard tapas bar (a favorite of some "Game of Thrones" cast members); young people at Duke of York pub on tiny Commercial Court where beneath cafe string lights they drink standing or crowded onto bright red benches. An adjoining alley painted with murals connects to what looks like an old parking lot where I found a few dozen people leaning against yet another mural. This one had a familiar sight: the yellow Harland and Wolff cranes.
But these are not the murals for which Belfast is known. Those are in the Protestant and Catholic ghettos, and no trip would be complete without visiting them. On a Sunday morning I met up with Paddy Kane of Cabtoursni.com, a 65-year-old taxi driver born in West Belfast. "I'm going to take you into what would have been known as the most dangerous spot," he said.
I climbed into the passenger seat.
"This wall is the longest, the highest and the oldest," said Mr. Kane as we stood beside a barricade that has divided Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods for more than 40 years. "It's been up longer than the Berlin Wall."
Belfast is trying to move on, yet a visit to these neighborhoods broadcasts separateness with its fences and gates known as "peace lines." Some are made of brick. Some of steel. All of them make the dreaded Wall in "Game of Thrones" look welcoming.
Guidebooks will tell you to take a "black taxi" tour to see these neighborhoods and the political murals on the gables of the red brick houses. What they don't tell you is that not all of the "black taxis" are black, and that the quality of the tours varies greatly from driver to driver. Most are drivers who either worked in a Protestant neighborhood or a Catholic neighborhood during the Troubles.
Mr. Kane, who lost a brother, an uncle and a nephew in the fighting, was one of them. Speaking with a spare, Hemingway-like elegance, he showed me a flour mill with two entrances:one on the Protestant side of a wall, the other on the Catholic side. As we walked the stark streets looking at gates and walls, I said the word "unbelievable."
"Unbelievable?" said Mr. Kane, his pale blue eyes meeting mine. "I lived it."
In a Catholic neighborhood we stopped on Bombay Street, which in 1969 had been burned by a loyalist mob and has since been rebuilt. Names of the dead, as young as 4, are inscribed in the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden. "On the gates is the mythical bird the Phoenix," Mr. Kane said, pointing to a red-and-black-winged bird, "that rose from the ashes as Bombay Street rose from the ashes."
Next to the garden was a house with a metal grate at its back, there to protect it from any bombs that might be thrown over the wall. Mr. Kane said that at one point he saw the grating being taken down, something he took as progress. But it reappeared. Turns out the old one was just being replaced.
Change is slow. When Mr. Kane meets one of his friends, a Protestant taxi driver, they are careful to go where each is safe. "I won't drink on his side of the fence," Mr. Kane said. "And he won't drink on mine. We meet in city center." He, along with most people there, want to keep the peace that was brokered in 1998. "We don't want our children and grandchildren to go through what we went through," said Mr. Kane, who has five sons.
He took me to a spot in a Protestant neighborhood where he said a political mural had been painted over. In its place were three pillars, each with a word: Remember. Respect. Resolution. "A hell of a big step forward," he said. I asked if there is talk anymore about taking the walls down. He thinks it will be another 18 years or so before that happens. But he hopes he's wrong.
While "Game of Thrones" may be good for Northern Ireland, there are other, lesser-known, measures of progress. For instance, the more than 60 integrated schools. "It's a small percentage," Mr. Kane said. "But it's a start. Working together, going to school together and socializing together. That's how that wall will come down."
I came to Belfast to look beyond the walls. To explore the mythic landscape of "Game of Thrones" and to glimpse the future -- slick museums and visitor centers, attractions that bring new life to the region's shipbuilding achievements. Everything in Northern Ireland -- past, present, future, fantasy -- overlaps like the leaves of the Dark Hedges. The past casts a long shadow. But, here and there, light is coming through.
Mr. Kane helped me back into the passenger seat of his car and gently closed the door.
Stephanie Rosenbloom writes the Getaway column for Travel.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.