Celebrate 20 Years Of Harry Potter In Edinburgh

In 2004, Edinburgh was the first city to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Home to such famed writers as Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the world’s biggest monument to a writer (Sir Walter Scott) and the birthplace of Trainspotting, the city is well known for its strong literary heritage.

For some, however, the Scottish capital is better known for just one author, and as the homeland of a certain wizard. This year marks the 20th anniversary of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published in the U.K in June 1997 and renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when it arrived in the U.S. the following year. Rowling wrote the book while living in Edinburgh, where she still resides. Ahead, we're exploring her old haunts, and the hallowed places that appear in the book.
1 of 11
Photo: via @daniel.ke.
The Elephant House

The first stop on many a Potter pilgrim's visit to Edinburgh, the Elephant House displays a handy sign in its window advising visitors that it is the “Birthplace of Harry Potter.”

The backroom of the café, where Rowling worked while her small daughter slept, is decorated with hundreds of elephant figures and images. With big tables and inspiring views over the Old Town, you can see how this spot provided inspiration not only to Rowling but also to other local authors including Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith. Forget about Instagramming your visit, though, there’s no Wi-Fi: a sign at the entrance advises patrons to "pretend it’s 1995.”

Chocolate frogs are not on the menu, but the café does a good hot chocolate topped with cream and marshmallows. Don’t leave without taking a peek at the bathrooms, where messages from devoted fans cover every surface. Staff used to paint over them but have long since given up.
2 of 11
Photo: Courtesy of Spoon Café.
Spoon Café

The Elephant House was not the only café where a then-broke Rowling spent hours lingering over a single cup of coffee as she worked to bring Harry Potter to life. She also spent significant writing time in what was then called Nicholson’s Café in Edinburgh’s Southside. There’s even a plaque outside to prove it.

The café has since changed hands, transfiguring, wizard-style, first into a Chinese buffet, then into another café named Spoon. The interiors of the current incarnation are inviting and roomy enough to gather friends — or settle in for a few hours while you work on your novel.
3 of 11
Photo: John Lawson/Belhaven/Getty Images.
Victoria Street

Squeezed between George IV Bridge and the Grassmarket, the curving cobblestoned Victoria Street, with its colorful building facades and curious passageways, is an obvious inspiration for the magical shopping area of Diagon Alley.

The street is home to a few of Edinburgh’s quirkiest shops and, while it lacks an Ollivanders store from where to buy your wands, the long-running joke shop Aha Ha Ha on the West Bow, at the lower end of the street, is a suitable stand-in for Weasley’s World of Wheezes. If you've worked up an appetite, stop into Oink for one of their famous hog roast rolls, or, for something lighter, try the tropical surroundings of Hula Juice Bar.
4 of 11
Photo: Joas Souza Photographer/Getty Images.
George Heriot’s School

Unconfirmed rumors place the magnificent building of George Heriot’s School as the inspiration for Hogwarts. Looking at the school’s turreted roof and sandstone façade, it’s easy to see how it may have provided literary inspiration.

Located in the Old Town, the school was established in 1698 with money bequeathed by the philanthropist George Heriot to care for "puir, faitherless bairns" (poor, fatherless children). It is a private school for children aged 3 to 18 and, like Hogwarts, is split into four different houses: Lauriston, Greyfriars, Raeburn, and Castle. While the school is not open to the public, you can get a good view of it from Greyfriars Kirkyard.
5 of 11
Photo: John Lawson/Belhaven/Getty Images.
Greyfriars Kirkyard

Between writing sessions at the Elephant House, Rowling is said to have taken strolls through Greyfriars Kirkyard. The 16th-century graveyard is overlooked by the café and was previously best known for its association with Greyfriars Bobby, a loyal Skye Terrier who guarded his master’s grave for 14 years until his own death.

Take a wander through the graveyard for yourself and see if you can find the headstone marking the burial place of a real life Thomas Riddell, who died in 1806 aged 72, as well as his son and two daughters It is a name that obviously — though Rowling has said, subconsciously — inspired the Dark Lord’s birth name, leading fans to leave notes and flowers.
6 of 11
Photo: Hans Georg Eiben/Getty Images.
The Balmoral Hotel

By the end of the Harry Potter series, Rowling had gone from scratching out stories in local cafes to completing a manuscript in a luxury hotel suite. On January 11, 2007 in room 552, which has since been renamed the JK Rowling Suite and has had a brass owl doorknocker added in her honor, Rowling finished the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Cheekily she then vandalized a marble bust of Hermes in the room, an act she owned up to just last year with a Twitter post advising future guests: “Never do this. It’s wrong.”

A night in the suite will cost you about $900.
7 of 11
Photo: Courtesy of The Potter Trail.
City Chambers

In 2008 J.K Rowling was presented with the Edinburgh Award, dedicated to Edinburgh folk "whose outstanding achievements have brought honor to the city." Rowling described the award as "an absolute honor… as Edinburgh is very much home for me and is the place where Harry evolved over seven books and many, many hours of writing in its cafes.”

Rowling’s handprints were set in stone and you can see those very hands that brought Harry to life outside the City Chambers on the High Street, alongside those of fellow author Ian Rankin and Olympian cyclist Sir Chris Hoy. "I am deeply honored to have my keyboard-chipped fingernails, not to mention my pen-induced friction callous, commemorated in the place where I produced Harry Potter," she said at the time.
8 of 11
Photo: John Lawson/Getty Images.
The Meadows

Take a stroll through the lovely Meadows — an expansive grassy space utilized by locals to walk their dogs, drink al fresco, and go “taps aff” (tops off) on Edinburgh’s scarce warm days — and you might be surprised to come across a game of quidditch in action.

The Edinburgh Holyrood Hippogriffs, who are, in fact, a real team, practice on the Meadows on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The team started at Edinburgh University but has since expanded to accept as members anyone living in Edinburgh. The team originally practiced their own version of quidditch, which involved space hoppers in lieu of broomsticks, but have since adopted the official International Quidditch Association rules in order to compete against other teams in the U.K. They have had some success, placing third in the Highlander Cup IV last year.
9 of 11
Photo: Courtesy of The Potter Trail.
The Potter Trail

You can visit all of the above Potter landmarks easily on your own, but if you would prefer to tour the city in the company of a grown man wearing a wizard cape, you can book a place on The Potter Trail. While the tour operators point out that the trail is not endorsed by or affiliated with Rowling, they describe it as “a magical walking tour of Edinburgh’s Old Town.”

Tours run every day in the summer — four days a week the rest of the year — and last just over an hour. The tour is free but you are expected to tip your guide.
10 of 11
Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images.
The Highlands

Scotland’s Highlands, easily reached from Edinburgh (though technically outside it), appear frequently throughout the Harry Potter series. The region is home to Hogsmeade and Hagrid’s Hut, and the Hogwarts Express is depicted traveling over the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct — on the West Highland Way train line — in several of the movie adaptations. It’s a journey you can recreate on the Jacobite steam train.

In the movie version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Glen Nevis provides the backdrop to the quidditch match and special effects place Hogwarts in a ridge of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. To get there, you have to first go to Glasgow (an hour from Edinburgh) then get a bus or train to Fort William (around four hours). It’s a fairly long journey, so best to spend the night.
11 of 11

More from Travel


R29 Original Series