It’s been 20 years since the first Harry Potter book was published.
I’ll just let that sink in for a minute…
Living in Edinburgh and travelling around Scotland has given me the opportunity to see things that look like they are straight out of Harry Potter almost everywhere I look. And it’s no surprise, given that J K Rowling calls Edinburgh home, and wrote many of the Harry Potter books here. A visit to Edinburgh almost wouldn’t be complete without taking a tour of Harry Potter locations. The sites that inspired Harry Potter in Edinburgh are found all over the city centre, but mostly within walking distance.
If you’re a fan, then this list of top Harry Potter sites will have you out on the streets feeling like you’re tracing the footsteps of J K Rowling as she wrote the series in Edinburgh, or stepping into the books themselves.
Read More: 9 Lesser Known Hidden Gems in Edinburgh
A Guide to the Top Harry Potter Sites in Edinburgh
The Elephant House
21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EN
This is likely the most popular Harry Potter location in Edinburgh. Consequently, it’s also the busiest! The Elephant House is a cosy cafe that doesn’t look like too much from the street but stretches back to give views over Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard (other Harry Potter sites I’ll mention soon).
It’s a well-known narrative that J K Rowling first wrote the Harry Potter series in cafes around Edinburgh because it was cheaper to buy a cup of coffee than pay for her heating bill. She was a newly single mother, scraping by on welfare, having moved back to the United Kingdom from Portugal after a failed marriage.
Although a sign in the window of The Elephant House states it is the birthplace of Harry Potter, J K Rowling actually imagined the idea of Harry Potter on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990, and had already begun writing the first book before moving to Edinburgh in 1993. The Philosophers Stone was finished in 1995, which is also the year the Elephant House opened. J K Rowling did write some of the series there, but it was more likely The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Elephant House is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so you can try your hand at visiting all day. Seats near the back window give the best views of Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard, and it’s not hard to imagine the inspiration for some of Harry Potter might have come from here. The cafe has kept its elephant theme and not turned too Harry Potter, but make sure you check out the bathrooms.
Nicholson’s Cafe (now Spoon)
6A Nicholson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DH
So where did J K Rowling write the first book in the Harry Potter series? Most likely at Nicholson’s Cafe in Edinburgh, now known as Spoon. At the time it was co-owned by her brother-in-law and would have been a space that she could feel comfortable spending time in.
Nicholson’s Cafe later became a Chinese buffet and then turned into Spoon, a cafe/restaurant. There is a plaque on the corner of Drummond Street which confirms that J K Rowling wrote Harry Potter on the first floor of the building.
If you take a look in many cafes around the world today you’ll see plenty of people typing away on laptops. However, J K Rowling actually wrote the first Harry Potter novel on paper in longhand and later typed it on a typewriter at home.
I actually finished and published this post on the 20th anniversary of the publishing date for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Spoon!
Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh EH1 2QQ
Greyfriars Kirkyard is just down the road from The Elephant Cafe and so another popular Harry Potter site in Edinburgh. William McGonagall was a Scottish poet and weaver, who has a gravestone here and is believed to have inspired the last name of Professor McGonagall. Some think that the gravestone of Mrs. Elizabeth Moodie may have inspired the name for Harry Potter character Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody.
While J K Rowling has never confirmed the gravestones at Greyfriars are a direct inspiration for some of the Harry Potter characters, she did mention that gravestones are a useful source of information in general, and has confirmed she took walks through the graveyard as it was close to both the Elephant Cafe and Nicholson’s Cafe.
I’ve never seen the graveyard closed, although it must be at times, but that doesn’t mean finding the graves of those who might have inspired Harry Potter characters is easy. Walk behind the church towards Flodden Wall, and you’ll find most of the graves behind here. The grave of Thomas Riddell Esquire, of Befsborough in Berwick, and his son, Thomas Riddell Esquire, is on the wall, and usually, a well-worn path on the grass will give it away.
Many prominent Scottish people are buried here, and it’s a point of interest to visit in Edinburgh even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan. The church is still active, and it’s also famous for being the burial site of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who is said to have held vigil by his owners grave for 14 years after his death.
George Heriot’s School
Lauriston Pl, Edinburgh EH3 9EQ
Behind Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of the most prestigious primary and secondary schools in Edinburgh. One look at this building, originally built in 1628, and it’s easy to see how it may have provided some inspiration for Harry Potter. The school has four obvious wings, and it actually has a house system similar to Hogwarts with the houses of Castle, Lauriston, Raeburn, and Greyfriars.
It’s easy to assume a connection given it’s proximity to other Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh, but there’s no concrete evidence to suggest this is a Harry Potter site. While it may seem inspiring to outside visitors, Edinburgh and the United Kingdom, in general, are full of grand historical buildings, especially universities and schools.
You can’t visit George Heriot as it is still an active school, but you can see it from the gate, from Greyfriars Kirkyard, Lauriston Place, Geroge IV Bridge, and Edinburgh Castle.
Victoria Street (or, Diagon Alley?)
Victoria Street is a narrow curved street with high rise buildings, curling down from George IV Bridge to the the Grassmarket, a popular spot for eating, drinking, and taking in views of Edinburgh Castle from the cobbled streets below it. The whole area is a wonderful place for people to explore when they visit Edinburgh and given it’s in the vicinity of other Harry Potter locations, it’s easy to get to.
Some people think Victoria Street may be the real-life inspiration for Diagon Alley, with its colourful shops, many with pointed roofs. In the 1990s a bank and stationary shop were on the street, in locations similar to Gringotts and Flourish and Blotts are on Diagon Alley. While there’s nothing to confirm that Victoria Street is directly linked to Harry Potter, it’s a well-known spot in Edinburgh and highly likely that J K Rowling spent time here while she was writing the series. It may not be a direct Harry Potter location in Edinburgh, but it almost certainly provided some inspiration.
The Balmoral Hotel
1 Princes St, Edinburgh EH2 2EQ
This 5-star hotel located next to Waverley Station in the centre of Edinburgh is a more luxurious Harry Potter location than the rest. In January 2007, J.K. Rowling was in room 552 where she finished writing Harry Potter. A big difference from where she started, writing in Edinburgh’s cafes because it was cheaper to buy coffee than pay for heating, with her baby daughter at her side.
When she finished the book, she wrote on a gold bust of Hermes “JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007”. The bust is still in the room, and you can stay there for around £1000 a night.
After finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone J K Rowling returned to study at Edinburgh University. Potterrow is a street next to the Edinburgh University campus, filled with Edinburgh University buildings, university accommodation and places to eat. While some say Potterrow was the inspiration for the name of the main character of the series there is no evidence it did so.
J K Rowling has said that she used the name Harry because it was her favourite boys’ name, and Potter came from the last name of siblings she played with as a child. So while this isn’t exactly a Harry Potter location, it’s a fun place to visit in Edinburgh to see the signs that look to be Harry Potter related, and there are some great places to eat and drink in the area, and lots of things happening during Edinburgh Festivals in August.
JK Rowling’s Handprints
253 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1YJ
In front of the Edinburgh City Chambers just off the Royal Mile are the golden handprints of recipients of the Edinburgh Award. In 2008 J K Rowling added hers to others including Chris Hoy and Ian Rankin.
Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG
This possible Harry Potter location or inspiration is the most recognisable landmark of Edinburgh. J K Rowling has never confirmed Edinburgh Castle, or anywhere else, as inspiration for Hogwarts, although in the series it does mention it is located in Scotland. From certain perspectives, it’s easy to see how Edinburgh Castle, perched on top of a rock, could fit the Hogwarts description.
The Dog House
18-24 Clerk Street, Edinburgh EH8 9HX
This isn’t exactly a Harry Potter location, but it should now be on every Harry Potter fans (over 18) list when looking for Harry Potter places to visit in Edinburgh because they serve BUTTERBEER. It’s a combination of syrup and Fosters, which doesn’t sound terribly appealing but does have the taste of popcorn and beer. Butterbeer was a drink made up by J K Rowling and not based on anything in particular, but you can now find recipes all over the internet and several places selling it, although if you want butterbeer in Edinburgh then The Dog House is the place to go.
Should you take a Harry Potter Tour in Edinburgh?
If you want to take a tour you can join The Potter Trail, a free walking tour (but with tips strongly encouraged). To join the free Harry Potter walking tour you just need to meet them at the Greyfriars Bobby Statue before the tour time. There is also the two and a half hour Harry Potter Walking Tour of Edinburgh which is paid.
Taking a tour gives you the opportunity to hear all the information from a guide, which may remind you of things you’ve forgotten or you could learn things you didn’t know before. You’ll also get to meet other Harry Potter fans and enjoy the experience together. However, be aware that sometimes the line between fact and fiction can be a little blurred on tours, and some sites are touted as certain Harry Potter locations in Edinburgh when this may not be strictly true.
This guide to the top Harry Potter sites around Edinburgh should help you to find your way on your own, and here’s a map to help!
While much of Edinburgh might have inspired J K Rowling in writing Harry Potter, none of the films were actually shot here, although there are Harry Potter filming locations around the rest of Scotland, including the viaduct at Glenfinnan and Glen Coe.
Basically, if you want to visit some awesome locations and sites related to Harry Potter, then Edinburgh and Scotland are the places to go!
Have you ever visited a location or taken a tour because you loved a book or movie?
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