A Muggle's Guide to the Magical World

January 29, 2019

Like many bookworm millennials, I grew up with my nose buried in the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling.  One of my first real literary memories takes me back to cozying up with my mom in our big arm chair as she read The Sorcerers Stone (or Philosopher's Stone), to me when I was in first grade. From that day forward, I joined the ever-growing list of children waiting for their own Hogwarts Acceptance letter. I've read the series more than once, dressed up for the midnight premiers with my friends, and have long dreamed of being Hermione.


When you truly love HP, you never stop waiting for that letter. Mine came in the form of my acceptance to the University of Glasgow in 2015, which I gladly accepted and planned my move to Scotland to pursue my Masters Degree. While U of G was not used in the filming of Harry Potter, its castle for a main building, cloisters right out of the Chamber of Secrets and spiraling staircases will have you looking for the Sorting Hat Ceremony at orientation. I promise this is not why I chose Glasgow for graduate school, but it is a fun bonus. My time in living the United Kingdom took me on an intimate journey into the Wizarding World and its real time surroundings. While I hope to make it to even more locations someday, I've compiled a list of where I've been so far and what you can do in the surrounding areas.



Harry Potter Studios - Watford 

We should start our journey where I started mine in 2014 - Warner Bro. Studios, the Harry Potter Set!

Tickets are not cheap (currently coming in at 43 British Pounds), but it's well worth it.

Direct bus tours from London can be booked. I however, do not have advice on that as I went with a Brit, and we took the train to Watford, so this is an option as well if you prefer more autonomy. Once we got to the studios, we paid the entrance fee and emerged into the Great Hall. I was so happy I almost wept (maybe I did? It's been a few years). Once out of the Great Hall, we made our way through smaller sets including the potions room, Dumbledore's Office, the dormitories, etc. There are costumes and props on display throughout. Eventually there is a brief break before Privet Drive where we stopped for a snack and a butter beer (which is really just some pricey cream soda but hey, do it for the gram). After Privet Drive and a climb onto the night bus, we entered Diagon Alley and passed a towering Gringotts. Finally, the tour ends with a replica of Hogwarts Castle.  I was completely enthralled throughout the entire tour and I could have stayed all day. However, due to the number of visitors there are time constraints. While I wasn't excited to rejoin the Muggle World, I was enchanted by the small town of Watford. This made my travel partner and English native chuckle, because apparently Watford is not that adorable.. but it was my first time in England outside of London. Now that I've seen my fair share of all sizes of cities, towns and villages in the UK, I don't think I'd use the word enchanted. However, if you are only visiting London and get the chance to go out to the studios, I would certainly suggest a brief visit to Watford. Grab a quick Nando's while you're at it.



Platform 9 3/4 - Kings Cross Station, London



Before settling into my new digs in Glasgow, my college roommate Marissa and I did a backpacking trip which included 12 hours in London. We managed to accomplish way too much in that time frame (you can read about it on my post, No Sleep for the Newbs). One of these accomplishments included walking way too far out of the way and risking missing our bus to visit Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station.  We even remarkably visited on 8/31, the day before Hogwarts students would have been catching the Hogwarts Express for the new school year (better known as September 1 or my birthday). When entering the train station, it will become quite obvious where Platform 9 3/4's is because there will be a very long queue to take a picture. An assistant literally hands you props and stands behind you to toss up the scarf to make it look like it has some wind beneath it. What a time to be alive. 




Misc. London Attractions

Between the 8 movies there are bound to be fleeting moments of film captured in hundreds of locations across the UK. The research you can do on this is seemingly limit-less. A few more places in London that I personally passed over and through are Millennium Bridge and Leadenhall Market. Millennium Bridge is a sleak, modern bridge that connects London over the River Thames. It is featured in the epic scene at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when the sky gets dark (even for London) and dementors go absolutely wild in, obliterating the bridge as it twists and turns with muggle pedestrians presumably falling to their death. It is also a beautiful piece of architecture and provides a stunning view of St. Pauls Cathedral. The bridge is included in the first - timer London walk I map out in my post No Sleep for the Newbs. The second spot, Leadenhall Market, is briefly used to portray Diagon Alley in the first movie. The entrance to the Leaky Cauldren is actually an optician in Bull's Head Passage. There is plenty more to see and do walking around this area. And finally, of course there is Picccadilly Circus, where we see Hermione, Harry and Ron narrowly miss getting hit by a bus in in the Deathly Hallows.



Alnwick Castle - Alnwick, England

During my time in Scotland, I was lucky enough to work for ISUK tours, an international student tour company run by my dear friends Ola and Hoji. This is ultimately how I got to experience a few extra HP sights while on the clock (best job ever?) Alnwick was the first trip during which I lead my own bus group... I learned many things on that trip, primarily that my political jokes are typically not funny. Alnwick is not too far over the border from Scotland, in Northern England, but the Brexit vote had just happend (Scotland had overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU), so I made a joke about needing our passports to get into England. This poorly phrased joke made a girl cry because she hadn't brought her passport and thought we were going to leave her on the side of the road at the mostly indistinguishable border.... lesson learned. ANYWAY. Alnwick Castle is absolutely stunning and full of its own Medieval history. However, for the sake of this article it was used on multiple occasions to portray parts of Hogwarts in the first two movies and costs roughly 14 British pounds to get in, or 23 for the combined gardens and castle ticket. The Outer Bailey of the Castle is easily recognizable as the place where Harry and Co. learned how to fly broomsticks with Madam Hooch and where he then learned to play Quidditch. Once again, because we live in the age of Instagram, you can grab a broomstick on site and take an almost identical photo to the film. The courtyards were used for general sauntering of students and faculty around Hogwarts. The Lion Arch was used as an entrance in and out of Hogwarts when one would want to take an unsavory adventure to the Forbidden Forest or meet some creatures at Hagrid's Cabin. There is so much more to see surrounding the castle. The TreeHouse restaurant on site is as it sounds, a massive tree house with little bridges connecting its various wooden rooms. The town of Alnwick is also so very cute and quaint. It's worth popping out for a tea, some lunch, a browse around some shops, and then walking back over the Lions Bridge to get an excellent view of the castle. Just a half hour drive away in Northumberland is Bamburgh Castle. We stopped on the way home and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a gorgeous castle sitting on the beach, dating back to 411 AD. It is however, a steep, sandy walk down to the shoreline so watch yourself, or in my case watch 50 students fall on their face in totally inappropriate beach garb. 







Edinburgh - The Home of J.K. Rowling

Although our beloved author originally hails from England, she moved to the beautiful Scottish Capital of Edinburgh to live near her sister following her divorce. She supposedly carried three chapters of what would evolve into the HP series in her suitcase, and it is here that her story came alive. The first and probably most famous stop on the Edinburgh HP trail would have to be the Elephant House. This is the now famous, and still very cozy coffee shop where J.K Rowling began to dive into writing her masterpiece and it is right off of the Royal Mile. They have preserved and blocked off her favorite table, overlooking the ever-so-magical Edinburgh Castle. However, if you do go in for a peek, don't be a jerk and buy a coffee. It's quite good or I presume she would have found somewhere else to go.


Close-by is Victoria Street, which served as her inspiration for Diagon Alley. It is one of the most photographed locations in Edinburgh (yet somehow after many trips here I do have not one of my own to show - google it, I'm sure they've got a better shot), and is a dual level street with various mixed Mediaeval, Gothic, Victorian and Georgian architecture. It is absolutely whimsical. It's also a great place to browse shops that are less touristy than those on the Royal Mile. My favorite to no one's surprise, being The Old Town Book Shop. 


The Royal Mile, to me, is one of the most layered places on earth. With the castle at the top, the Scottish Parliament at the bottom, endless modern tourist stops or seemingly ancient closes in between, all sitting atop millennia of rock formations, there is so much to take in. On the Royal Mile near the City Chambers,  J.K. Rowling's Gold Handprints sit somewhat similar to Hollywood Stars in LA. What I recently learned you cannot find on the Royal Mile, is Voldemorts grave. I attended the wedding festivities of one of my closest friends in Scotland for a week back in November, and we held her Hen Do (Bachelorette Party) in Edinburgh. Part of the day included a scavenger hunt on the royal mile. We spent a good 30 minutes in a graveyard looking for Tom Riddle's grave stone, only to learn that the correct graveyard was about a mile away with an almost identical church, and well, we had beer to drink so we didn't go. But the character Tom Riddle is based off of a gravestone in Greyfriars Kirkyard, so maybe you'll find it before I do.  


The Highlands - Glen Coe, Jacobite Steam Train, & Loch Shiel 

I visited all of the sites listed here at different times, but you can do the Highlands in one fell swoop. The incredible thing about the filming locations in this region is that they are some of the most visually stunning locations in one of the visually stunning countries, so it becomes very clear why they were chosen to portray the lands surrounding Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Glen Coe is one of the most famous glens in Scotland for both it's Jacobite Massacre history and it's scenery... and perhaps it's feature in the Daniel Craig Bond film SkyFall. I won't judge you if you blast Adele as you drive through the region. It's great for hiking, but if you're not much of a hiker, you can still find plenty of spots to pull over and enjoy the view. Glen Coe was used for the first time in Prisoner of Azkaban, and revisited several times throughout the following films.


After driving through Glen Coe, Fort Williams, one of the largest settlements in the Highlands and one of my favorite places, is not too far. This town sits beneath Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland. This makes it a gateway for all things outdoors. The Fort William Backpackers Hostel is one of my favorites to spend a night or two in the region. As in the rest of Scotland, there is rich history to be explored, but more importantly, it is from this town, not Kings Cross, that one can catch the Hogwarts Express. The Jacobite Steam Train was the train used to film the Hogwarts Express. The train only runs from April to October and tickets should be booked quite far in advance. I took a solo trip up to Fort William by train and then embarked on my Jacobite journey the following day. A return ticket is around 37 pounds and is worth every penny. On the train, you will find HP fanatics, steam engine fanatics, and a few people just looking for a nice ride. The carriages were used in the filming of HP and I'd make sure to get a window seat if you can. It has not only been rated one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, but it will takes the rider through a real life HP scene as it passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The train stops in the small coastal town of Mallaig for a few hours before making its return. I was lucky enough to have gorgeous weather... on certain days in the summer the West Coast of Scotland looks exactly like the Caribbean and it was one of those days. The fish and chip shop there is class. 


Finally, if you have a car, you can drive to both Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct which are right next to each other about thirty minutes from Fort William. There is a visitor center which marks a very obvious and very steep trail up the hillside. The summit provides  stunning panoramic views iof the Viaduct and of Loch Shiel. Loch Shiel or the Black Lake, was used as the backdrop for the epic scene in Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry and Buckbeak take flight. It is also used in the filming of the underwater task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. After climbing down the hill, there are other trails that go beneath the Viaduct, over the loch, up another hill to an abandoned kirk, or over to the Bonnie Prince Charlie monument to commemorate the Jacobite clansman who lost their lives in the region.




In Conclusion....


This post was a few years in the making and I am so happy to share it on the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter series debut. When traveling through these destinations, it is not hard to imagine where J.K. Rowling got so much of her inspiration from. Many of these places are enchanting in their own right, and to think we Muggles can hop on a plane or train to experience their magic.











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About Me

Relentlessly curious traveler, learner, reader, writer, in constant search of the next grand (or tiny) adventure. 


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© 2017 by Erika Firestone.