I’m a HUGE Harry Potter nerd, so I was majorly excited to explore the Harry Potter connections in Edinburgh this summer. I was actually just as excited about the HP stuff as the royal history there, which gives you an idea of my enthusiasm level!
Although we weren’t able to make it out to the Glenfinnan Viaduct to see the steam train they show in the movies during the Hogwarts Express scenes (it was way too far for a day trip), we saw quite a lot of Harry Potter things in Edinburgh proper and I would definitely recommend a visit if you’re a fan of the franchise.
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J.K. Rowling’s handprints
Tucked back from The Royal Mile in front of the City Chambers building you’ll find a series of golden handprints on the pavement. These are handprints of people who received The Edinburgh Award, which Rowling was given in 2008.
We stopped here to take some photos in front of the arches of the building during my family photoshoot so it was a nice surprise to find the handprints, too. As a writer, this was definitely a cool moment for me!
Elephant House Cafe
“Writing and cafes are strongly linked in my brain,” J.K. Rowling once said in The Telegraph. “I still write in longhand; I like physically shuffling around with papers; and you don’t have to break off and go in the kitchen to make coffee.”
There are several cafes in Edinburgh where Rowling used to sit and write the Harry Potter novels, but Elephant House is the most famous. The first time we walked by it was late in the afternoon and we’d already eaten, so just stopped for a photo (my husband stood in the middle of the street to get this shot – major props for #instagramhusband dedication).
I really wanted to have lunch there, so on our last day we stood in line for about 30 minutes to get a lunch table. I was thrilled when they seated us in the back room, right near the table where Rowling used to sit.
Unfortunately, it was raining that day and the window in front of our table was all fogged up, so you couldn’t enjoy the views of Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard that had inspired Rowling while she wrote (I stood in front of her old table and snapped the below picture on the way out). But the atmosphere is great nonetheless, with little touches like a stuffed owl on the windowsill, a Harry Funko Pop figure, and beautiful carved elephants.
For some not-so-subtle HP atmosphere, head to the bathroom, even if you don’t need to use it. The walls are covered in graffiti and some of it is actually pretty moving (people thanking JK for their childhood memories, etc.). I always have crayons in my bag so my son wrote his name and I added a little lightning bolt doodle.
As for the actual cafe, we had some delicious hot chocolates and a really nice meal (honestly, I forget what I ordered but I remember it was good!). I would definitely go back for breakfast or lunch if I’m in Edinburgh again. Maybe I’ll bring my laptop for some inspiration next time.
I mentioned Greyfriars in my top five Edinburgh post but was waiting to go more in-depth on the Harry Potter connection here. It’s just down the road from Elephant House, so it’s convenient to head here before or after your stop at the cafe. We enjoyed walking through the kirkyard so much we went on our first full day in Edinburgh and a second time on our last day.
First off, wandering around here you totally can see why Rowling was inspired to write the graveyard scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The kirkyard has quite a spooky feel, even during the day, but it’s very calm and peaceful at the same time. You can easily picture any of the Harry Potter characters here, and it felt almost fake, like walking around inside of a novel or a film … which probably sounds weird but I can’t think of how else to describe it.
As you walk through the kirkyard you’ll probably see a few Harry Potter tour groups, as there is another special connection to the books. Some of the gravestones will show you some familiar names, like a gentleman named Thomas Riddell, or the poet William McGonagall. There’s even a Potter family buried there.
You also can spot another Harry-related site just through the gates in the back of the kirkyard. George Heriot’s School is an exclusive private school in Edinburgh, and also happens to have four houses just like Hogwarts: Lauriston, Greyfriars, Raeburn, and Castle.
Although Rowling has never admitted whether the connection is true or not, the turreted building definitely looks Hogwarts-esque and is located near other sites that inspired her. As you would imagine, since it’s a working school George Heriot’s School isn’t open to the public … a peep through the ornate gates is all you’re going to get here!
If you’re looking for a real-life Diagon Alley, take a short walk from Greyfriars Kirkyard over to Victoria Street. The windy street full of shops with colorful facades does remind you of a certain alley, does it not? There’s even a joke shop a la Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and several Harry Potter-themed stores.
The Boy Wizard has a few branches around Scotland, including Victoria Street. But my favorite Harry Potter store is called Museum Context. This store is a treasure trove of Harry Potter merch, but also has a really immersive experience inside. The theming is fantastic, although the store – like many buildings in Edinburgh – is very old and narrow with a windy staircase. Since it was a rainy day, lots of people were ducking inside stores for cover so Museum Context was packed and stuffy which made for a less enjoyable visit.
I did buy my sister a hilarious print with Hermione as a cat and they had some unique merchandise I haven’t seen in other places like Universal Studios Orlando or the London studio tour.
An interesting fact I didn’t learn until I got home was that a real-life wizard (well, probably not) once lived on Victoria Street. Major Thomas Weir was known as “The Wizard of the West Bow” and was executed for witchcraft in 1670. The only wizardry going on these days involves price gauging for souvenirs, but it’s interesting to think what this street looked like in the 1600s!
Red Bus Bistro Wonderful Wizarding Tour
I booked this tour for my wedding anniversary and was beyond excited. They serve you a Harry Potter-themed afternoon tea aboard a vintage double-decker bus as you drive around the city seeing Harry-related sites … what could be better?
We almost had the bus to ourselves as there was just one other table occupied, and they even decorated the bus with a ‘Happy Anniversary’ banner and a birthday one for the table next to us.
Now I have to say, we’d already seen most of the places the guide talked about by this point in our trip since we’d already been there for a week by then. But we drove by Spoon, another cafe where Rowling used to write (it had a different name at the time) so that was fun to see, and it was enjoyable hearing some of the little stories that the guide told.
The tea itself ended up being the highlight, and my kid loved riding on the bus. The food was all pretty good, especially the AMAZING scones, although it was slightly awkward drinking hot tea out of the travel mugs they gave us and trying to keep them in the little cupholders without flying out!
The tour is £35 a person but apparently, kids are free now (they definitely weren’t when I booked this tour months ago!). I thought it was worth it to celebrate a special event, or it would be great for one of the first days of your trip to give you a lay of the land and then you can go to all of the Harry places on your own after that. Want to check it out for yourself? Book on the Red Bus Bistro website.
The Balmoral Hotel
And now we end our tour where Harry Potter ended, too. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to spend over a grand per night on a hotel suite. But if you can, go ahead and book room 552 at the posh Balmoral Hotel. Now known as “The J.K. Rowling Suite,” this is the room where the author checked in and finished the final HP book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
She actually moved into the suite for six months (can you imagine the cost!?) in order to have peace and quiet to finish the last novel in the series.
The suite now sports an owl doorknocker and the desk where she wrote is still in the room, along with a marble bust of Hermes she signed. It says “J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007.”
As for me, I settled for a photo outside the hotel.
Well, that’s it for my Edinburgh Harry Potter highlights! We did visit a Harry Potter filming location at Alnwick Castle, but that was actually a short train ride away in England. I’ll save that for a separate post as we spent an entire day in Alnwick and there’s a lot to cover! Until then …