Edinburgh, the Potterhead Way

A magical tour of the city where J.K. Rowling penned the Harry Potter series, with a spot of wand waving.  
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As Harry Potter turns a year older, here’s remembering ‘The Boy Who Lived’ through a Potter Trail of the city where he was brought to life—Edinburgh. Photo By: The Hollywood Archive/Dinodia; Noriokanisawa/iStock /Getty Images Plus/Getty Images (background)

“Rossio lumos,” says our guide, Will, pointing his wand at the traffic light, and sure enough, it changes from red to green. It is a variation of the spell I am familiar with from the books, but, hey, it works. “Just a bit of magic in the Muggle world,” Will smiles and walks ahead, while we follow him dutifully across the street. It’s mid-June and the first sunny day of our Scottish summer trip. My husband and I are in Edinburgh and we have just joined some 40-odd people for a Potter Trail (a walking tour of the same name) through the city. Will is appropriately decked out in a Hogwarts robe and carries a wand. With his round framed glasses and boyish looks the resemblance to Harry Potter/Daniel Radcliffe is uncanny, only the lightning scar is missing. I see a few young cloak-clad witches and wizards wearing their house colours in our motley group. I’m surprised to see so many Hufflepuffs; I’m a proud Gryffindor myself.

 

Grave Matters

For any Potterhead, Edinburgh is a Mecca of magic. It is in a café here that J.K. Rowling started penning the biggest pop culture phenomenon of our times. Being a Potterhead myself, the Harry Potter trail was naturally on my agenda when we visited the city last year. We arrive at the meeting point in front of the Greyfriar’s Bobby statue in the city centre to find several people milling about already. Will arrives promptly at noon and we set off towards Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk (church) where burials have been taking place since the late 16th century. With its sombre air and numerous monumental tombstones, the graveyard looks very much like the one where Harry Potter and Voldemort battle it out at the end of the Triwizard Tournament in book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “This is where Lord Voldemort is buried,” Will announces dramatically as he leads us to the far end of the graveyard and points out a tombstone. “Sacred to the memory of Thomas Riddell Esq. who died in Edinburgh on the 24th Novm. 1806, aged 72 years,” it reads. Did Rowling get her inspiration for Tom Riddle here? It’s debatable but, in the Potter universe, we take these coincidences very seriously.

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The gravestone of Thomas Riddell is a popular spot in Greyfriars Kirkyard (top-left); The 17th-century Gothic facade of George Heriot’s School was the likely inspiration for Hogwarts (top-right); J.K. Rowling frequented cafés in Edinburgh for their free heating when she wrote the Harry Potter series in the 1990s (bottom-left); Potterow Port conjures images of the Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley in book five (bottom-right). Photo Courtesy: Potter Trail (gravestone); Photo By: Rodolfo Contreras/dinodia photo library (George Heriot’s School); Featureflash Photo Agency/shutterstock (J.K. Rowling); Juraj Kamenicky/shutterstock (Potterow Port)

On its western end, the graveyard adjoins George Heriot’s School, a posh day school that possibly inspired the idea of Hogwarts (it very much reminds me of the wizarding school). It has a hulking sandstone facade, complete with a central tower and turrets. Will pulls out a Sorting Hat and some of the kids in the group line up to get sorted. He makes a quick judgement call, and declares the house each kid belongs to. The horror of a Hufflepuff finding out that she is, in fact, a Slytherin is very real! Before we leave the graveyard, Will points out another headstone. This one is dedicated to William McGonagall, ‘poet and tragedian.’ At this point, I’m convinced that if I look carefully I will even find a Dumbledore buried here.

 

Writer’s Block

Alohomora, Edinburgh

The Potter Trail takes you atop the terrace of Victoria Street which inspired Diagon Alley. Photo Courtesy: Potter Trail

From there, we make our way to The Elephant House, a cosy red-fronted café that proclaims itself to be the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” But Will gets the facts straight. “J.K. Rowling did write Harry Potter here, but it was the second book. She wrote the first book at Nicolson’s Café, which was then co-owned by her brother-in-law,” he explains. Nicolson’s Café is long gone, in its place is a bistro named Spoon (which incidentally serves a fantastic Sunday brunch). We meander along, making a stop at Potterow Port, a street by the University of Edinburgh. While there’s no Harry Potter connection here (not even in the name), Will points out a pedestrian underpass that looks exactly like the tunnel where Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors at the beginning of book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We end our tour at Victoria Street, a sweeping crescent street built in the early 19th century and flanked by colourful buildings with tall, arched windows. The street is lined with independent shops. My mind instantly conjures up an image of Diagon Alley—Victoria Street is said to have inspired Rowling to create the magical lane. Now, if only I could spot the Leaky Cauldron, I wouldn’t mind a drink. Or two.

We settle for a coffee at The Elephant House. Bidding goodbye to Will, we make our way back and get a table in the backroom. The window overlooks Greyfriars Kirkyard, and further in the distance I see Edinburgh Castle perched on a hilltop. Rowling probably sat right here as she wrote the books and it’s easy to see why Edinburgh inspired her so much. I head to the ladies’ restroom which is almost entirely graffitied by fans with ‘thank you’ messages and quotes from the books. I draw a small Deathly Hallows sign in a corner (it’s not vandalism!) and thank Rowling for bringing some magic into our world.

Essentials

The Potter Trail (pottertrail.com) is a free tour—tips appreciated—that typically lasts 90 minutes. Tours run daily at 12 noon & 4 p.m. from April to August and daily at 2 p.m. from September to March.

  • Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.

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