A Guide to Finding Harry Potter in Edinburgh

You know this about me already, right? You know I’m a total Harry Potter nerd and that I have a thing about visiting the locations of movies, tv shows or the locations that inspired novels? Okay, then it should come as zero surprise that I had to do a little tour of Edinburgh in search of the best insider Harry Potter moments.

Harry Potter Edinburgh

J.K. Rowling’s Handprints – We Match!

It all started on my Iconic Edinburgh Photography Tour where Will took us to to City Chambers Square, just opposite St. Gile’s Cathedral. He gave me no indication of what we were about to see, and it’s fair to say that I nearly squealed (unattractively… I’ll admit) in delight at seeing J.K. Rowling’s handprints in cement on the stone walkway. The Edinburgh Awards were created in 2007 to recognize individuals that have made a significant contribution to the city, so Rowling fits the bill perfectly. I knelt down, placed my freezing cold palms against the frigid stone and… they fit! I like to think that we share writers’ hands… therefore one day I might also have a legion of fans for my books.

Hey, it’s my theory, leave me alone.

In Search of Tom Riddle

As a longtime resident of Edinburgh and a writer with a curious mind, I can only imagine that Rowling picked up tidbits throughout her years in the city. Greyfriar’s Kirk, known to locals and tourists alike, holds a couple of clues to Rowling’s character names. In the southwest corner of the kirkyard, near the gates that lead to George Heriot’s School is a stone wall with a placard reading “William McGonagall – Poet and Tragedian”. Very fitting, considering McGonagall was a Scot.

harry potter edinburgh

harry potter edinburgh

Tom Riddle? Well, Thomas Riddell Esquire is also hiding in the kirkyard. You have to look hard, but it’s along one of the walls with the large stone monuments. It faces southwest and the giveaway will be any other tourists in that direction or footprints in the mud. Beware, it can get quite slippy around the grave, thanks to rain, mud and regular tramping to this spot.

Stop for a Coffee in the Elephant House

Spoiler alert – It is unlikely that the Elephant House was the “birthplace” of Harry Potter as it likes to say that it is. I don’t even think Rowling has confirmed this. If you’ve watched as many interviews with her as I have *cough cough*, you’ll know that the story for Harry came to her on a train. She wrote in a variety of locations in Edinburgh, the Elephant House being one of them, but it’s not the “birthplace”. Rowling also wrote much of the first book at Nicholson’s Cafe, on Nicholson’s Street, which is sadly no longer in operation. The Elephant House is located at 21 George IV Bridge.

harry potter edinburgh

This is the face that’s trying to contain its uber-fandom. Look cool, Victoria, look cool. Failing.

Okay, now that I’ve dashed your dreams, you still need to visit the Elephant House. Go early and get a seat in the back of the cafe where the tall windows provide you a magical view. With the graveyard, George Heriot’s school for boys (coincidentally with four towers, *cough* Hogwarts!) and Edinburgh Castle in your view, you can get a sense of the inspiration that Edinburgh provided to Rowling. Were this book written anywhere else, it might not have had the same feel.

harry potter edinburgh

My other favourite part of the cafe is the bathrooms. Yes, the bathrooms. Go in there and you’ll see the fanaticism come to life in the form of Harry Potter loo-fiti. If you’ve read the books, you’ll understand why the graffiti above the toilets makes me giggle.

harry potter edinburgh

harry potter edinburgh

Toilet humour?

The Elephant House gets packed and they will move you along if you’re loitering, so make a meal of it and have breakfast or lunch, but come early! It’s a favourite with the locals as well.

Where the Last Words Were Written

I remember watching Rowling’s interview with Oprah, filmed in the Balmoral hotel, because that’s where she finished writing the final Harry Potter book. She was so human and relatable in that interview, explaining that she had to throw money at the problem and check herself into a hotel room to write in peace. How many fellow writers are overwhelmed by distractions in their home environments? The phone rings. You surf the internet. A delivery arrives. The fire alarms are being tested. Your kids are begging for your attention. Why do you think so many writers escape to cafes to write? Well, Rowling can’t just escape to a cafe like most other writers out there.

harry potter edinburgh

The Balmoral Hotel is one of the most luxurious hotels in Edinburgh. With it’s grand stonework overlooking Princes’ Street, it’s definitely a throwback to decadence and high society. If you’re hoping to feel a bit of the magic… be warned, it comes with a hefty price tag. Rooms can cost upwards of 240 pounds, which would definitely break my bank. Instead, why not splash out on afternoon tea in the palm court or a drink in the Balmoral bar?

There you go Potter-nerds! Anything that I’m missing? 

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8 Responses to A Guide to Finding Harry Potter in Edinburgh

  1. Rose1994 July 21, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    Actually george heriot’s school was a school for boys but now it a multi-gender school and the elephant cafe is where she would have written down about george heriot’s as Hogwarts was based on that school

    • Victoria Smith July 21, 2015 at 6:39 pm #

      Hi Rose, you’re right. I didn’t mention it in the post, but the school is now multi-gender, which is great. It does have four towers, which they say J.K. Rowling took inspiration from for the four houses of Hogwarts school. Have you been to Edinburgh? Are you one of the lucky ducks that lives there?

  2. Courtney April 3, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    Hi! Does it get really busy at the Elephant House, like on a weekend night? I’ve got a few hours to kill in Edinburgh and it’s on my bucket list to grab a coffee there.

    • Victoria Smith April 3, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

      I’ve never been on a weekend night, but I’d imagine it would be less busy with folks out at pubs. Give it a try! Worst case scenario you end up at one of the other gorgeous places on the bridge. Hard to go wrong in Edinburgh. Best of luck.

  3. Anna June 10, 2017 at 7:58 am #

    I love Harry Potter and I have read them all three times. This summer I am about to start the fourth run and I’m out reading up for inspiration. It’s not like spoilers are an issue after so many reads 😉
    Anna recently posted…Min bästa läsning – Harry PotterMy Profile

    • Victoria Smith June 10, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

      They’re epic books! Have you ever been to the Warner Brothers HP studios outside of London? We had such an incredible time there as you can see here https://www.girltrieslife.com/warner-brothers-harry-potter/

      I hope you enjoy your fourth read! I personally can’t wait until my son is old enough to enjoy them. It’s like I’ll get a second lease on my HP-loving childhood.

  4. Natasha Haley April 20, 2018 at 3:17 am #

    This is incredible! I keep telling my partner we need to check these places out since we aren’t far from Edinburgh, thanks for letting us know where to find some cool Harry Potter places nearby
    Natasha Haley recently posted…The Ultimate Guide to Travelling Scotland with KidsMy Profile

    • Victoria Smith April 20, 2018 at 8:40 am #

      That’s fantastic! So much to do in Edinburgh and if you’re a Harry Potter fan, it’s heaven!

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