If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you need to do a Harry Potter tour in Edinburgh, even though not one scene of the movie was filmed in the Scottish capital. J. K. Rowling wrote most of the books in Edinburgh and took her inspiration from many places around the city. Here are some of the key spots you should see in person when you visit Edinburgh.
I’ll get this started with the best attraction in the city, located in a graveyard of all places. Kirk is Scottish for a church, and Greyfriars Kirk is one of dozens (if not hundreds) of churches in Edinburgh. The church itself is beautiful, but it’s the graveyard that has particular interest for Harry Potter fans. If you walk through Flodden’s Wall behind the church (the wall that used to surround the City of Edinburgh in medieval times), there are three tombstones of note.
The first is located in the southwest corner of the graveyard near the gate to George Heriot’s School. It’s a plaque for William McGonagall, often referred to as Scotland’s worst poet. Rowling has stated she took the name of the poet as she liked the way it sounded, although she didn’t confirm that the tombstone directly influenced her use of the name. Another gravestone nearby which relates to Harry Potter is Elizabeth Moodie, but Rowling has never mentioned a connection between that stone and Mad-eye Moodie.
By far the most popular tombstone is located down the path from Moodie at the very end of the Graveyard – none other than Thomas Riddell Esquire. You can find the grave easily by following the much-overtrodden path. Various interpretations and reports have been uttered as to Rowling’s use of the name for Harry Potter’s antagonist, but it’s just too much of a coincidence, especially considering how close the graveyard is to the cafes where Rowling would write.
George Heriot’s School
As mentioned, next to William McGonagall’s plaque are the gates to George Heriot’s School. This elite school started in 1649 as an orphanage for boys (shades of Hogwarts). To strengthen the connection, the school sorts students into four houses depending on their academic strengths. Students dress in uniform, and the school itself has a distinctly fantastic 17th-century architecture (fantastic in the sense of fantasy). Legend has it that Rowling’s kids once asked her if they could attend George Heriot’s. Instead of telling her children that she could afford the tuition, she told them that the school was only for wizards. Later, when Rowling became affluent, she enrolled her kids there.
Elephant House Cafe
One cafe in Edinburgh which has capitalized on its Harry Potter fame is the Elephant House Cafe. They call themselves the birthplace of Harry Potter…which is untrue. Harry Potter was born as an idea on a train from Manchester to London in the early 1990s, and the first chapters were written in Portugal. Rowling said she has been writing the series for several years before she first stepped into the Elephant House Cafe. They’ve overpriced and you have to pay even if you just want to take a photo inside, but the views of Greyfriars Kirk are nice and Rowling once did an interview there.
A far better cafe to visit for Harry Potter fans would be Spoon Cafe, formerly known as Nicolson’s Cafe on Nicolson Street. Apparently, the cafe was owned by her brother-in-law and was spacious for Rowling to have her daughter in a stroller next to her. Her brother-in-law later sold the cafe and moved downstairs into better premises, renaming the cafe Black Medicine Coffee. Nicolson’s Cafe turned into a Chinese restaurant, and then Spoon Cafe. While Rowling never wrote in the cafe while it was called Spoon, she physically wrote on the premises. Funny note, there is a sign downstairs in Black Medicine Coffee that says “Rowling never wrote here,” which is technically true.
Victoria Street and Museum Context
Victoria Street, located next to Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, is quite often regarded as the inspiration of Diagon Alley. Although there are several other streets around the world that make the same claim (many of which are completely baseless), Victoria Street once had a stationery store next to a bank at one end, very similar to the stores in Diagon Alley. The winding street also has beautiful architecture with colored buildings and many quirky shops.
One of those shops is Museum Context. If you want to see lots of Harry Potter memorabilia and perhaps get your hands on a proper wand or cloak, this is your place. There’s just about every Harry Potter-themed item you can imagine, and the building itself is really cool too, built underneath the arches of the street near the castle.
Another building of interest is Balmoral Hotel at the end of Edinburgh’s New Town. The hotel is only related to Harry Potter in that it was where J.K. Rowling penned the final chapters in 2007. When she finished, she left her mark on a bust of Hermes. Beneath it, she wrote, “JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007.” You can stay a night in the room which still has the bust, which is now protected in a glass case.
Take a Harry Potter Tour in Edinburgh with Potter Trail
When you visit Edinburgh, you can see all the abovementioned landmarks and more on the official Potter Trail Harry Potter Tour. They’ve scraped together just about every Harry Potter fact available to give to you while they take you on a tour around Edinburgh’s Old Town. It’s a free tour and just relies on the tips of its guests. I’ve done the tour a couple times myself, and I highly recommend it.