For devoted Harry Potter fans, Edinburgh holds the key to a magical experience.
Edinburgh is a city with a story to tell. It has a literary history that spans from Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson to contemporary authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith. But no local writer is as beloved around the world as J.K. Rowling, who created The Boy Who Lived in the Scottish capital.
In each chapter of the Harry Potter series, Rowling weaved the sights of Edinburgh into the fabric of the wizarding world. From the towering tofts (tall medieval buildings) and narrow wynds (lanes) of the Old Town to the soaring spires of local schools, this cityscape plays a role in every book.
Harry Potter fans should plan a visit to Edinburgh's cobbled neighborhoods to soak in the charm—there's a reminder of the magic of the series around every corner.
This cheerful, second-floor cafe (previously called Nicolson's Cafe, now under new ownership) is where J.K. Rowling first penned Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (also known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). A struggling single mother living on welfare, Rowling chose this writing spot as an affordable reprieve from her frigid apartment. The former owners gave Rowling the space to write all day for the cost of one espresso. On a walk into Old Town, stop at Spoon for lunch—their soup of the day is the perfect balm for dreary Scottish weather.
Greyfriars Kirkyard ("kirk" is Scots for "church") is an unorthodox landmark with an extra draw for Harry Potter fans. An eerie graveyard at the Southern edge of the Old Town, the cemetery is famous for an unlikely four-legged resident, Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier that spent 14 years at the grave of its owner in the 19th century.
This spooky setting is also the rumored home of a poltergeist and houses the grave of Thomas Riddell—whose name bears a similarity to Voldemort's birth name. While writing the series at Spoon and the Elephant House (another local coffee shop), Rowling often took short strolls between the graves in Greyfriars. The names on the tombstones seeped into the narrative of the series. Harry Potter fans can find Ridell's 211-year-old tombstone here, as well as a tomb labeled McGonagall.
To get to Greyfriars Kirkyard, visitors need to cross an adjacent street that winds down to the Grassmarket. This simple, narrow lane—dotted with offbeat shops, small student pubs, and worn signs—is supposedly the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Add an Ollivander's wand shop, and it could easily pass for the wizarding world.
Candlemaker Row isn't without controversy. Some local Potterheads argue that neighboring Victoria Street is a closer approximation of Rowling's imagery. Fans should check out Victoria Street too—it's right around the corner.
George Heriot's School
Located in the same neighborhood as Candlemaker Row and Greyfriars Kirkyard, the exterior of this imposing school resembles a well-fortified castle. Built in the Renaissance style and adorned with a coat of arms carved into its stone facade, George Heriot's School is the likely muse for Hogwarts castle. From Rowling's perch at local coffee shops and jaunts around the neighborhood, she could see this towering school. Tourists are only allowed on site for select events during the Edinburgh Arts Festival, but it's easy to sneak a glimpse of this magnificent building from Greyfriars Kirkyard or through its iron gate on Lauriston Place.
The Balmoral Hotel
There are a few gorgeous hotels in Edinburgh, but the Balmoral Hotel is the crown jewel of this city. With sweeping views of Princes Street, Calton Hill, and Arthur's Seat, it stands out as the epitome of Scottish luxury. When Rowling needed a place to finish the seventh book of the series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), she chose a suite in one of the hotel's high turrets. Rowling left her mark by signing—or vandalizing—a bust in the space. Now aptly named the J.K. Rowling suite, the space has a steep price tag.
If you can't splurge on a one-night stay, spend the night in a charming apartment in the heart of the Old Town, and make a reservation for high tea at the Balmoral Hotel's Palm Court. Book afternoon tea a few weeks in advance, and soak up the grandeur that surrounded Rowling during her final push to complete the series.
The rocky cliffs in Holyrood Park evoke the wild, untamed landscape that serves as the fictional setting for Hogwarts Castle in the Scottish Highlands. A brisk walk up the steep slope of the highest peak, Arthur's Seat, yields panoramic views of the park's lochs (lakes), medieval ruins, and windswept hills.
This landscape is so akin to the setting Rowling describes in the books that it's easy to imagine the seven-story-high Hogwarts towering over a valley in the park. Visitors can finish their trek down the back of the mountain in the quaint village of Duddingston, home to Scotland's oldest pub, the Sheep Heid Inn ("heid" is Scots for "head"). Although the name of this pub resembles Rowling's Hogs Head in Hogsmeade, it more closely resembles the Three Broomsticks—but without the Butterbeer.