Edinburgh has a lot to show off when it comes to Harry Potter as J.K Rowling moved there in the late 90’s and still lives there today. She wrote a lot of the Harry Potter books there and it seems that she was heavily influenced by this historic city.
If you are planning on going to Edinburgh and you’re a Potterhead, here’s a list of things to do and see to make the most out of your trip!
The Elephant House Café
This is an absolute must for any and every Harry Potter fan when visiting Edinburgh! It markets itself as the “birthplace of Harry Potter” and whilst this isn’t true in the slightest, J.K Rowling did actually write some parts of some Harry Potter books here. It’s easily walkable from Edinburgh Waverly train station or anywhere in the city centre. The views are great and include Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.
Now please be aware, this is not a Harry Potter themed café. Despite its fame and increased customer number due to the success of Harry Potter, The Elephant House has stayed true to what it was when J.K was writing there. They do sell merchandise, but it’s Elephant House merchandise only. There is a framed picture of J.K Rowling writing hanging up on the wall but that’s all there is when it comes to Harry Potter décor (except for the toilets, I’ll tell you about that in a minute).
This café is still used by locals for food and drink, which is fantastic and well-priced for a Capital City and the portions are quite generous. If you want to have something to eat or drink here I’d highly recommend booking ahead – this café can get very, very busy at times and I’ve seen queues out of the door just to get in. I would also recommend starting your day here – often if I’m in Edinburgh early I’ll head here for some breakfast.
Now on to the main event for The Elephant House! Other than the picture mentioned earlier, there’s no indication of Harry Potter anywhere in the café – except for the toilets. When you walk in there you are immediately met by years upon years of graffiti left by fans and visitors. Seriously, it’s everywhere! All the walls, toilets, sinks, mirrors, and ceilings – they are all covered in thousands of multi-coloured messages layered over each other from visitors from all over the world! It’s beautiful in its chaos and it’s a must to add to the wall on your visit! So remember to take a marker pen with you!
I left my own mark on my third visit when I took my mum here when she visited me! If you’ve left your mark show me in the comments section!
Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (churchyard) is a very short walk from The Elephant House and is rumoured to be the place where J.K took inspiration for a lot of her characters names. Whether or not this is true, it is still a ‘to-do’ for Harry Potter fans on the off chance that the rumours turn out to have an element of truth in them!
The most popular graves to visit are those of William McGonagall and Thomas Riddell – supposed inspirations for Professor McGonagall and Voldemort. I’ve heard that occasionally people leave letters or notes at the grave of Thomas Riddell – if you do choose to do this please keep any left items respectful*, as (obviously) this isn’t actually the grave of Voldemort.
George Herriot’s School
George Herriot’s School is rumoured to be the inspiration for the structure of Hogwarts itself. The building has been standing since 1628 and it is incredibly castle-like in appearance. I personally don’t see too much of a resemblance but there is a slight ‘familial’ resemblance in a third-cousin kind of way.
This is still an active school and thus is not open to the public, but you can take pictures of it from outside the gates and it can also be seen from Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.
This is another location based on rumour but this one is much easier to see some truth in than George Herriot’s. Victoria Street is a historic street on a hill that is split-levelled and sits on a cobbled road.
Its shops are quite thin and very colourful and contrast each other not only in colour but in what they sell. It’s a strange collection of shops that strongly resembles everyone’s favourite high street, Diagon Alley! There’s even a joke shop! Whilst it’s never been confirmed that this was the inspiration for Diagon Alley, it’s never been denied either!
Spoon is a popular café and was previously known as Nicholson’s Café. When it was Nicholson’s it was owned and run by J.K’s brother-in-law who let her spend as much time as she wanted there to write the Harry Potter books.
This is another writing spot of J.K’s but I honestly wasn’t that impressed with it. I’ve put it on this list for the super-fans but in all honesty, you could leave this out completely and you wouldn’t have any less of an experience. Like The Elephant House there is no Harry Potter memorabilia, it’s just a café but there’s no fan-made magic in the toilets here.
Edinburgh City Chambers
This is a Harry Potter gem that fans would love that is very often overlooked or missed completely by fans and tourists. The City Chambers is a huge building on the Royal Mile that’s used by Edinburgh City Council.
On the floor leading up to the main doors are several plaques that contain handprints (yes, it’s very Hollywood) of all of the winners of the esteemed Edinburgh Award. The Edinburgh Award is given to “outstanding” residents and J.K won in 2008.
J.K’s hands are immortalised in the concrete and you can go and place your hands in hers if you can find this hidden gem!
The Balmoral Hotel
The Balmoral is a behemoth of a building very close to Edinburgh Waverly train station. Its sheer size and gorgeous architecture help is stand out from the surrounding buildings. But for Potterheads it is known as the place where it all ended.
J.K Rowling checked herself in to room 552 (now renamed to The Rowling Suite) so that she could concentrate on finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If that wasn’t enough, she actually did finish the book here and left her own mark on the room** by leaving her own graffiti style tag on the wall behind a bust.
Waterstones on Princes Street
I know what you’re thinking, “Really, V? Why would you suggest this as a place to visit as part of your guide? There isn’t even any significant Harry Potter reference here…is there?” – well, no – there’s no significant Harry Potter-ness about this bookstore.
But (asides from being a massive bookshop that’s worth checking out for any bookish person) this particular branch of Waterstones has a great Harry Potter section that’s full of several editions of the books, toys, notebooks and lots of other memorabilia from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Plus, they have hosted great Harry Potter themed events in the past that I have thoroughly enjoyed!
If you have any questions about any of these places, or would like some more information (even if it’s just Edinburgh related), feel free to contact me and I’ll do my very best to help you!
Also, if you’ve visited any of these places and taken photos let me know in the comments below!
*Whilst we’re on the subject of respect, I’d just like to let you know that this is still an ‘in use’ graveyard, and Greyfriar’s Kirk is still routinely used by locals as their local church. Please behave accordingly on the grounds. Also, a statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby sits near the entrance of the Kirkyard – please do not rub his nose. Many tourists do this, seemingly for ‘good luck’, but this superstition is completely unfounded and it damages the statue.
**Naturally I couldn’t afford to see this in person by booking the suite (I felt like I couldn’t even afford to breathe the air around the building!) and I like to use all of my own images, so there is no photo of this. But you can Google it if you like.