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The Short Version: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling drew inspiration for the novels from her adopted city of Edinburgh, Scotland. While writing the books, she’d visit many of the city’s cafés and admire its dramatic architecture. As her novels grew more popular, individuals, couples, and families began to flock to Edinburgh to learn about Rowling’s history. That interest inspired The Potter Trail, which takes participants on a tour of the places where Rowling worked and the real-life locations that made their way into her wizarding world.
J.K. Rowling moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1993, and it was in the city’s coffee shops and cafés where she brought Harry Potter and her other famous characters to life. Rowling conceived of the seven-book saga on a train ride from Manchester to London in 1990, but it wasn’t until she moved to Edinburgh that she finished the first book in the series.
She wrote the first installment at Nicolson’s Café, working for hours over a cup of coffee with her daughter sleeping in a chair next to her. That café still exists but has since changed its name to Spoon.
Rowling wrote much of the second and third books at a coffee shop called The Elephant House, which now bears a sign outside touting it as the “Birthplace of Harry Potter.” She also worked on books in the Traverse Theatre Café, a decades-old working theater with an attached café.
Those sites have become cultural landmarks in Scotland’s capital city. The Potter Trail tour was launched to allow individuals, couples, and families to visit those spots — and many other landmarks — to learn more about the famous series. The popular tour guides Harry Potter fans around the city and highlights Rowling’s favorite haunts as well as the places that inspired her novels.
“Our guests are generally the people who grew up with the books — and the books never left them,” said Richard Duffy, a Tour Guide for The Potter Trail.
After the series started to garner widespread acclaim, Rowling found it challenging to write undisturbed in public cafés, but she found ways to continue her tradition. She even wrote the ending to the final book of the series in a room at a luxurious Edinburgh hotel.
In addition to finding comfortable spaces to write in Edinburgh, Rowling also based many of the settings in her novels on locations throughout the city — including graveyards and castles.
Nearly three decades after working on her first novel in a local café, the world-famous Rowling is still an impactful literary figure in Edinburgh, and The Potter Trail helps fans connect with her history in the city.
Some of the biggest attractions on The Potter Trail are the places where Rowling wrote her books. Couples can explore The Elephant House and the five-star Balmoral Hotel, where she finished the series.
The tour not only takes guests to some of Rowling’s favorite writing spots but also to parts of the city that inspired the books. Those locations include Victoria Street, which is the inspiration for Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter and his friends purchase their wands and other school supplies.
Tour-goers also visit George Heriot School, which inspired Hogwarts. Greyfriars Kirkyard — one of Scotland’s most famous cemeteries — is another notable stop on the tour.
Richard said guides also talk about how different parts of the city impacted other elements of the Harry Potter books, including the characters.
“William McGonagall was known as the world’s worst poet, and that inspired the name for Professor McGonagall,” he said.
Notably, Rowling’s McGonagall wasn’t a terrible professor or even a poet; instead, she was a respected, highly knowledgeable wizard.
Tours depart from the city’s statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a Terrier famous for guarding the grave of his deceased owner for 14 years. In the spring and summer, the tour leaves twice a day, at noon and 4 p.m. The rest of the year, one tour each day embarks from the statue at 2 p.m. If groups are large enough, guides may divide them in two so that everyone has a more intimate experience.
“And we run every day except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day,” Richard said.
Public tours are free and require no booking. There is also the option to donate what you thought the tour was worth at the end. Private tours need to be booked in advance on the website and do have a price per head.
Even though the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, and the series has been a global sensation for more than 20 years, Edinburgh didn’t have a Harry Potter tour until 2012. But there had been such a longstanding interest in visiting the notable places with a connection to Rowling that some cafés put up signs declaring “Harry Potter wasn’t written here” to ward off tourists.
Then, in 2012, a tour guide named Stuart recognized how popular a well-researched Harry Potter tour could be.
“He was working as a ghost tour guide at the time, and he saw a huge opportunity in the market for a guided Harry Potter tour,” says Richard.
Stuart learned all he could about J.K. Rowling’s connections to the city and then brought on some of his friends as tour guides. His friends all came from performance backgrounds, so they were trained to entertain the large crowds that immediately began booking the tour.
“We have some comedians, and we have a poet. We haven’t hired anybody that we don’t already know yet. We were friends first and Harry Potter tour guides second,” Richard said.
Though the guides are experts on Rowling and her history, they’re also interested in keeping guests entertained.
“The performance aspect of this job is what gets us excited,” Richard told us.
Couples interested in a more magical experience can book an Extended Magic Tour with a magician named Magus Negus. Magus is available for private tours and sometimes even adds his trademark whimsy to the public tours.
As the website notes, Magus presents “a mixture of classical illusions with a unique Potter twist, he has over 10 years’ experience performing for families, international audiences, and even Hollywood film directors.”
The Potter Trail tour is immensely popular and has attracted large crowds of fans since it launched. In fact, the tour was so popular from the outset that the company never had to do much advertising.
“We didn’t have to do too much work selling ourselves to people because it spread through word of mouth. We didn’t even advertise too much. We don’t even do offline advertising and don’t have brochures or anything like that,” said Richard.
He also noted that most of the people who take the tour are around 30 years old, and those are the adults who grew up reading the Harry Potter books as they were released. However, the Potter Trail also sees a lot of families in attendance, suggesting that original readers of Harry Potter are now sharing the novels with their children.
Notably, Richard says that there is a significant gender imbalance on these tours, with more than three-quarters of guests being women. He and the other guides aren’t quite sure how to account for this imbalance, as he doesn’t remember such a significant gender divide when he was a child.
“Perhaps women are just a bit more passionate about the books,” he said. “There are also strong female characters in them.”
One satisfied attendee summed up the tour in a glowing online review.
“For every person that has ever read a single chapter of the Harry Potter books or seen any of the eight movies, this tour is a must do if you are in Edinburgh.”