Not so far, far away: Star Wars location shrines around the world

On May 4th, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives on Disney+ – completing a four decade, nine-film saga. These 11 locations offer Jedi pilgrims a chance to set foot on another world – without leaving this one.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019,
By Simon Ingram
Rey (Daisy Ridley) in a scene from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Many of the ...
Rey (Daisy Ridley) in a scene from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Many of the desert scenes from the final film in the current Star Wars series were shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
Photograph by Lucasfilm / Disney

Few film franchises – with the possible exception of James Bond – have spread themselves over such a diversity of locations as Star Wars. You can gauge this simply by the on-screen colour palette throughout the linear nine-film space saga – 43 years after being kicked off by Star Wars:A New Hope – closes the circle as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives on Disney+ on May 4th.

This planetary Pantone has ranged from the burnt orange of an arid planet, to the bright white of a frozen one, to the equally icy interiors of spacecraft and baddie lairs, via swampy, woody, watery worlds of every kind. And absolutely none of them are real places – meaning that before the advent of CGI technology, producers had to find a suitable substitute here on Earth.

(In pictures: the northern landscape that inspires fantasy worlds.)

Iconic Star Wars robots C-3PO and R2-D2 approach the palace of Jabba the Hutt on the planet of Tatooine in Return of the Jedi. In reality, the scene was shot in California's Death Valley.
Photograph by AF archive / Alamy

Even in today’s anything-goes age of on-screen visual capabilities, authentic organic scenery often forms the basis upon which to grow fantastical environments; a kind of real-world anchor that engages audiences with relatable environments.

(The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

And so, while in the Star Wars universe, our planet and its civilisations are, to paraphrase that famous opening, a long time in the future in a galaxy far, far away – many of the locations are more than a little reminiscent of landscapes both exotic and surprisingly close to home. So if you were to build the ultimate Star Wars pilgrimage, where would you go? 

Tunisia

A New Hope (1977) and The Phantom Menace (1999)

Possibly the only Star Wars locale to take its name from the Earth location on which it’s based (the name for the planet Tatooine was based on the Tunisian town of Tataouine) – the deserts of this North African country formed much of the baked, barren aesthetic of the original Star Wars film, subtitled A New Hope– as well as the prequel, The Phantom Menace

Some of the structures for the original film still stand around the port towns of Ajim and the island of Djerba. Many of the more remote film sets commissioned by George Lucas are now crumbling and being slowly engulfed by desert sands – though most have been maintained by committed locals aware of the value of buildings to tourism. Sadly, Tunisia’s tourist industry was hit hard by the terrorist attacks of 2015 and the unrest that followed – and many of the destinations see a fraction of their former footfall. Some businesses remain, however, such as Sidi El Driss Hotel, a traditional Berber subterranean house which was used as Luke Skywalker’s childhood home in A New Hope.  

A set near Nefta in the Tunisian Sahara desert was built for the original Star Wars film, with others built in the late 1990s for the prequel trilogy. Many of the structures still stand, despite the encroaching desert.
Photograph by Acceptphoto / Alamy

Skellig Michael, Ireland

The Last Jedi (2017)

This duo of rock islands 8 miles off the coast of south-west Ireland are built of steep cliffs rising over 2,000ft out of the north Atlantic. The largest, Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl in Irish) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its importance as a bird habitat – and also for the isolated monastery there. This, St. Fionan's, was founded between the 6thand 8thcenturies and was one of Ireland’s earliest. Populated by monks who lived in beehive houses and fished for food, the monastery was Isolated from the mainland, and a place for the monks to practice their beliefs free from persecution. In The Last Jedi, the island and its ruinous monastery was the recluse of the ageing Luke Skywalker.

Skellig Michael, the larger of two ragged islands of sandstone and slate in the Atlantic of the coast of south-west Ireland, as seen from the air.

Hardangervidda, Norway

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Doubling for the wastes of the ice planet Hoth, this region of Norway provided some genuine blizzard conditions for the production crew – who in some cases only had to step out of the back door or their hotel in the village of Finse to film.

Much of the wider scenes were filmed on the nearby Hardangerjøkulen glacier, onto which tours are run by the Finse 1222 hotel – the establishment which also hosted the crew. 

Read: Why space fans flock to this eerie landscape.

The Hardangervidda plateau in Norway was the location used to simulate the ice planet of Hoth. Conditions were so authentic, for small scenes the crew needed only to stand outside their hotel in Finse.
Photograph by shoults / Alamy

Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean

The Force Awakens (2015)

The murky environs of Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean provided a key set piece for one of the most eagerly awaited films of the series, The Force Awakens. The ancient woodland is a curiosity of rock outcrops, age-gnarled and lichen-clad branches, caves and roots – and is said to have got its name by mystifying locals as to the origin of its charismatic features. 

The atmospheric Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire was the location for a battle scene in The Force Awakens.
Photograph by travelib / Alamy

Death Valley, California

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Two continents doubled for different areas of the arid, orange-hued environments of the planet Tatooine: Africa, and North America – in the latter case, California’s Death Valley, which was recruited when a storm curtailed filming in Tunisia.

The valleys of Golden Canyon, Desolation Canyon and 20 Mule Team Canyon doubled for several wider scenes pivotal to A New Hope, and also the path the droids take to Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi.

Excerpt: Carrie Fisher, a rebel before and after Star Wars

Death Valley's many canyons – such as Golden Canyon, pictured – stood in for the planet of Tatooine in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.
Photograph by Gary Whitton / Alamy

Tikal, Guatemala

A New Hope (1977)

Thick rainforest, with ancient installations built by the Mayans, formed a key visual for the climax of the original Star Wars film. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Tikal was a ceremonial city occupied for over 1,500 years and remained mysterious until relatively modern times – despite some of the ruinous pyramids extending out of the treeline up to 213ft, in the case of Pyramid IV. In its heyday, the settlement was effectively a city, and remains an absorbing glimpse at the ingenuity of the Mayans. According to UNESCO, Tikal’s ‘wealth of architectural and artistic expressions also contains important symbolic elements, such as the concept of pyramid-as mountains that define a universe where human beings coexisted with their environment.’ 

The Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal, Guatemala. The pyramids of this UNESCO-recognised site are to tall they protrude from the jungle canopy – an image used to visualise a hidden rebel base in the climatic scenes of A New Hope.
Photograph by Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy

Mount Etna, Sicily

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

While many locations for the prequel trilogy were computer-generated, some were augmented with real footage and locations – or, in one case, lava. An eruption on this Sicilian volcano in 2002 was filmed and integrated into a climactic, lava-spattered lightsabre duel between the characters Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker.

Mount Etna in eruption. When the Sicilian volcano erupted in 2002, a crew from Revenge of the Sith was dispatched to film the lava flows, which augmented a largely computer-generated scene involving Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi.
Photograph by tom pfeiffer / Alamy
The lightsaber duel at the climax of Revenge of the Sith (2005) was a largely digitally-rendered scene – but augmented with authentic lava from Mt Etna.
Photograph by Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

Cheatham Grove, California

Return of the Jedi (1983)

The Forest Moon of Endor – home of teddy-bears-with-spears the Ewoks – used a number of old-growth redwood stands in California as its seamless stand-in. Speeder sequences were filmed at Cheatham Grove inland from Crescent City, with nearby Redwood National Park used as a backdrop. The latter is home to the tallest trees on Earth, with some reaching the height of a 35-storey building. The tallest of all is said to be a 379ft redwood nicknamed Hyperion – the precise location of which is kept secret. 

The Cheatham Grove of ancient redwood trees near Crescent City, California, which were used as the set for the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi. Other old grove trees in Redwood State park were also used as backdrops.
Photograph by scott sady/tahoelight.com

Thirlmere and Derwent Water, The Lake District

The Force Awakens (2015)

Raising eyebrows in the UK when the first trailer for The Force Awakens debuted in 2015 was a scene in which a fleet of X-Wing fighters scudded the surface of a strangely familiar lake. Many speculated the location lay in the English Lake District – and they were right. Several of the Cumbrian national park's lakes were used as the basis for backdrops, which were subject to varying degrees of computer enhancement – but still inarguably evoke the aesthetic of one of the UK’s most beloved backyards. Several well-known Lakeland fells remain identifiable in the finished film, including the highpoints of Raven Crag and Blencathra.

Thirlmere in the Lake District, Cumbria, was – along with neighbouring Derwent Water – used for several aerial scenes in The Force Awakens (2015).
Photograph by Stewart Smith / Alamy
The wooded Lake District peak of Raven crag is visible upper right in this still from The Force Awakens (2015).

Lake Como, Italy 

Attack of the Clones (2002)

An opulent royal retreat on the planet Naboo was evoked by Villa del Balbianello on the shores of Lake Como, in the Italian Lake District. The lake itself is Europe's deepest, at 410m, and the grand building on its shore was built in the 18thcentury as a literary retreat. It was later bought by Count Guido Monzino, a traveller and adventurer who counted the first Italian ascent of Mount Everest as one of his many exploits. Many of these are today memorialised in the on-site Museum of Expeditions. Since the Count’s death in 1988 it has been managed by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Italian National Trust.

The Villa del Balbianello on the shores of Lake Como, Lombardy. Once home to an aristocratic adventurer, the villa was used as the set piece for a galactic wedding in Attack of the Clones. Today the villa is used for real-life nuptials.
Photograph by Stefano Valeri / Alamy

Tesco, Elstree 

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Spiritual home of Star Wars – amongst much else – is this venerable studio complex just north of London. Many of the stages on site were monopolised by the production of the original trilogy, but the giant Stage 6 completed in 1979 was built specifically to house The Empire Strikes Back– and would become known as the ‘Star Wars stage’. In 1989 it was dismantled, and the land sold to a supermarket chain. Which is why visitors to the superstore in Elstree are today walking on the same ground where major interior sequences from The Empire Strikes Backand Return of the Jedi – amongst much else – were filmed. The car park has a view of the George Lucas Stage, designated Stage 6 and named in honour of the Star Wars creator, whose Indiana Jones franchise was also filmed here.

Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the Elstree set of The Empire Strikes Back. A stage was built to house the large sets required for the film's production. Today the site is covered by a superstore.
Photograph by AF archive / Alamy

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is streaming on Disney+ from May 4th. All other Star Wars titles are streaming now.

This article was updated in May 2020.

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