Edinburgh is known as the birthplace of Harry Potter. While it wasn’t where JK Rowling had the first spark of the idea, it’s where she lived while she was writing the books. Walking through the streets of the Old Town, it’s not hard to see why this of all cities would inspire her to create the Wizarding World.
A Harry Potter Atmosphere – FREE
Walking through the Old Town, which is pretty much the city centre, the tall sandstone buildings, with spindly towers, and the tiny alleys (also known as closes) between them, does make one feel like you’re walking through Hogsmead. From the city centre, you can see Edinburgh Castle loom above the town on top of a cliff-faced hill, much like Hogwarts Castle in the books. If you’re just enjoying the atmosphere and walking around isn’t Harry Potter enough for you, there’s a few more things you can do.
Tom Riddle’s Grave – FREE
JK Rowling likes walking through graveyards for inspiration and to collect names for her stories. One of those places is Greyfriars Kirkyard. The graveyard rose to literary fame long before because of Bobby, a dog who kept vigil at his owner’s grave for 14 years after he had died. His story was turned into books and films, drawing crowds to the graveyard since the 19th century. For this reason, and its popularity with Harry Potter fans, the graveyard can get quite crowded, even during the off season. Therefore, it’s advised to arrive early if you would like to enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the graveyard.
In those quiet moments, when you’re in a corner of the graveyard without other tourists, you can easily imagine JK Rowling walking around and finding inspiration. Especially, in early October, as heavy breezes swirled autumn leaves on the ground, there certainly is a kind of magic to the atmosphere. If you look closer, you’ll also notice some symbolism seen in the books or films hidden in the Victorian gravestones. For example, on some graves and walls you’ll find two bones crossed with a skull on top, a symbol which immediately reminded us of the Dark Mark. As you turn towards the center, you’ll notice the church looks a bit like it was made by the same architect who came up with Hogwarts’s Great Hall. Beyond the walls of the graveyard, you can spot the tall towers of the city’s old sandstone buildings with high towers, reminding one even more of Hogwarts. Reading some of the stories engraved on these ancient gravestones, the wind howling around us, I was reminded of Harry and Hermione walking into an empty graveyard on Christmas Eve in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Using my Hufflepuff powers, it was not hard to locate the grave which loans Voldemort the name Tom Riddle. Once you walk into the Flooded Wall section, simply keep right. At the bottom of this small section, you’ll notice metal gates set up like on the sides of streets for parades. I shudder to imagine the crowds that grave draws in summer to require such measures for crowd control. Even with a lot less tourists in the city in October, we had to queue for a moment to rush a picture with the grave. Curiously, we found out Tom Riddell died in Trinidad in the West Indies.
JK’s Writing Spot
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was famously finished at the Balmoral Hotel, when JK needed some peace and quiet. As one of the most luxurious hotels in the cities, that ones is probably out of budget for many travellers. But going back in time, you can visit the café where some of the first books were written. The Elephant House is located, just outside Greyfriars’ Kirkyard. However, be prepared to queue. We walked past twice and each time the queue reached so far out in the street, we decided not to wait. However, when the Wine visited Edinburgh several years ago, she was able to get a spot at a table after a few minutes of waiting. While the café is still very much a café, (albeit noisier with all the people if you’re looking for a quiet spot to write), the bathrooms were the most interesting place. Harry Potter fans from all over the world have left their marks by writing quotes, jokes or drawing little pieces of art all over the stalls.
Walk down Diagon Alley – FREE
Close to the two above-mentioned spots is Victoria Street, which winds itself around a long bend. As the writing at the top of the street, explains it’s rumoured Diagon Alley is based on this short street with quirky shops in tall, narrow buildings on each sides. There you might find books, curiosities and in recent years, of course also Harry Potter merchandise. At the bottom of the street, there’s even a joke shop. Perhaps the inspiration for Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes?
Buying Harry Potter souvenirs
You’ll find many a souvenir shop selling all kinds of Harry Potter merchandise. If you want an officially licensed shop, there is The Boy Wizard on the Royal Mile and on Victoria Street. However, those shops can be quite pricey. We saw Hogwarts pullovers that went up to £140. If you’re travelling and buying souvenirs on a budget, you might want to try one of the Primark branches, especially a larger one like the on Prince’s Street. There, they have all kinds of Harry Potter souvenirs in different sections. I got my Hufflepuff knitted pullover for £14. But they also have socks, pillows and even Christmas baubels, if you just keep an open eye as you walk around the shop. If you’re travelling from outside the EU, you can also ask at the cash register how to get tax back on your purchase.
Defeat the Dark Lord…or join him
Last but definitely not least, this was one of our favourite parts of our trip to Scotland. There are two Harry Potter-themed escape rooms, one where your goal is to stop the Dark Lord and the other where you have to resurrect him. We played the first one, which is titled Prophecies Quest. This escape room is made up of several connected rooms. You have one hour to solve all the puzzles in the room. Throughout, there is a wizard guide who may give you a little hint, if you get stuck. Admittedly, we did need his help quite a bit in the beginning as escape room newbies. We also found that, while two people is the minimum of players, it’s probably best to play with 3-5 people as there are some mysteries which can or even have to be solved simultaneously. We did, however, manage to defeat the Dark Lord, literally within the last few seconds and we’re very proud. Even our guide was laughing with us since he was just as surprised we had defeated the Dark Lord in the last second after all. To celebrate we had some magic cocktails in the adjacent Tavern. According to Sam, the Dark Lord cocktail was one of the best ones he’s had outside the Caribbean.
Of course, since it’s not an officially licensed venture, there’s no direct mention of Harry Potter or the characters. However, you can see where the riddles and the quest based of gathering prophecies to stop the Dark Lord are based in the books. To me, it felt as close to Harry’s, Ron’s and Hermione’s shenanigans around Hogwarts, as we’ll ever be. It had all the aesthetics of it, down to wearing a robe. We also loved how at times the Dark Lord would speak to you, taunt you, enhancing the sense that you were playing in order to stop him. Some solutions to riddles also amazed us with the engineering’s ingenuity, sometimes making things happen as if it were magic.
We might not have been naturals like Harry, Ron and Hermione but this Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw still defeated the Dark Lord on the first try, while having a lot of fun along the way.