How to Take the Ultimate “Harry Potter” Fan Vacation – Part 1: London
by Brian D.
In December 2019, my boyfriend and I planned a summer 2020 vacation to London that included a visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter. For obvious reasons, we’d spend the next two years postponing and rescheduling the trip, adding more Harry Potter-themed activities each time we did. By the time we finally set off on our magical two-week journey from May into June 2022, it had become so decidedly Harry Potter-focused that it would prove to be our Ultimate Harry Potter Fan Vacation. In the UK, a robust “Harry Potter Economy” exists, and it’s impressive – at times even overwhelming – just how many ways you can satisfy your need for all things Potter. On our Ultimate Harry Potter Fan Vacation, we sought out movie filming locations all over London and Scotland and discovered spots in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling found her inspiration and put quill to parchment. We brewed bubbling cauldrons at wizard-themed afternoon teas and used magic to solve mysteries in wizarding-themed escape rooms. From traveling through the Highlands on the Hogwarts Express to exploring the West End, Covent Garden, and Soho, we followed Harry, Ron, and Hermione all over the UK for new adventures.
Our visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour (covered in depth in my full trip report) was the centerpiece of a day devoted entirely to our love of the Harry Potter films. We booked a full-day Harry Potter-themed tour with See More Taxi Tours, and it included picking us up from our hotel bright and early in the morning, driving us up to Watford for the studio tour time slot we’d booked separately, having our guide wait there as we spent four hours engrossed in and enthralled by a studio tour that exceeded all expectations, then taking us from the studio tour back into London to visit filming sites into the evening.
The first on-location filming spot we visited happens to be right across the street from the studio tour and a quick and easy detour for anyone already there. If you turn on to Dowding Way from the Aerodrome Way roundabout just outside the studio gates, you’ll see on your left the curb and playground where Harry first encountered the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The playground equipment was brought in for the movie, but the grassy field and curb are immediately recognizable as the spot where Harry pulls his trunk, sits down, first spots “The Grim,” and then encounters and boards the Knight Bus.
Once back in central London, the real-world filming locations just kept on coming. King’s Cross is an essential London destination for any Harry Potter fan. King’s Cross itself is a key location in the books and films, and many scenes were shot inside the station. The exterior shots of Kings Cross (notably in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Ron and Harry take off in the flying car, and the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 as the camera pans up on an exterior shot of the station) were of St. Pancras station next door. It’s not hard to see why St. Pancras, a remarkable red-brick Victorian edifice with turrets and towers and an imposing clock, was used for King’s Cross’ exterior shots – it looks the part of a grand, regal, and majestic building in which you’d find the hidden platform to board a magical train. With St. Pancras and King’s Cross sitting right next to one another, you can gaze in amazement at the outside of King’s Cross before heading into the actual station from which the Hogwarts Express departs. While movie fans will want to line up in front of the Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9 ¾ to get their photo pushing the luggage trolley through the wall, the actual filming location is between platforms 4 and 5 inside. In my full trip report, I point you to the archway with the actual column used in filming and into which Harry and the Weasleys run in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to get to Platform 9 ¾. Booking a private tour with a licensed guide was essential, as security restrictions mean you otherwise need a train ticket to access the platforms. We’d also get to those platforms by walking across the pedestrian bridge where Hagrid gives Harry his train ticket in Sorcerer’s Stone.
A stone’s throw from King’s Cross station, due east on Pentonville Road, is an attractive square lined with stoic Georgian townhomes. It’s at the south end of this square that Harry, Mad-Eye, Tonks, and other members of the Order of the Phoenix (in the movie of that name) emerge through a gate to stand before 12 Grimmauld Place.
As with King’s Cross’s exterior and interior and 12 Grimmauld Place, we were often able to visit filming locations for multiple scenes and even from multiple movies all at once or in quick succession – in Harry Potter, and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Mr. Weasley step into a red telephone box at the corner of Great Scotland Yard and Scotland Place that is the visitor’s entrance to the Ministry of Magic. Cast and crew would revisit a garage on that very same corner for the scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, when Harry, Hermione, and Ron seize some Ministry of Magic employees to assume their identities and break into the Ministry.
As a tourist in London, you’re likely to find yourself in Piccadilly Circus at some point amidst all the hustle and bustle into which Harry, Hermione, and Ron apparate after escaping the wedding in Deathly Hallows – Part 1. The circus, with its traffic, noise, video billboards, and crowded sidewalks will look familiar to any fan of the movies, as will a little covered shopping arcade on Great Windmill Street a block east of Piccadilly Circus that the trio is walking under when Hermione realizes they forgot to celebrate Harry’s birthday.
Our exploration of London’s Harry Potter filming sites, as well as our own aimless wanderings on foot and via the underground throughout our time in London, also included the Leaky Cauldron’s filming locations in Sorcerer’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban at Leadenhall and Borough Markets, respectively. We walked across the Millennium Bridge, destroyed by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and stared ahead at St. Paul’s Cathedral (which is the filming location for the spiral staircase leading to Trelawney’s Divination classroom in Prisoner of Azkaban). We visited several places said to resemble or be a possible inspiration for Diagon Alley in the books, as well as the split-second filming location for Diagon Alley in Half-Blood Prince (open up Google Maps and zoom in on the northeast corner of Charing Cross Road and Great Newport Street in London and you’ll see the Diagon Alley into which the Death Eaters fly at the beginning of the movie labeled “Diagon Alley” on Google Maps.).
Warner Bros. and Wizarding World had more to offer than just the studio tour as we sought to immerse ourselves in the world of Harry Potter – there’s also the Harry Potter Photographic Exhibition in Covent Garden. While this photographic exhibition does showcase some authentic props and costumes from the films, its true draw are the production stills and behind-the-scenes images and video presentations that give you an in-depth look into the making of the movies. I’m an obsessed fan who’s seen the movies countless times, but I still learned all manner of things about the films at the photographic exhibition. We read every word of every label and caption on every photo and display, and by the time we left the exhibition, we had not only gained a great deal more appreciation for all that went into the production of the movies but also managed to learn so much about each of the movies and the stories behind their production. Further, conveniently for us, the photographic exhibition and Covent Garden were just a leisurely walk from Soho and a magical afternoon tea at Cutter & Squidge.
Cutter & Squidge, a bakery and café that cooks up all manner of delicious pastries and cakes, offers the Afternoon Tea at the Potion Room experience, which combines a bit of wizarding role-playing, bubbling cauldrons, and tasty treats, all while sporting a name that’d go well next to Flourish and Blotts and Slug and Jiggers in Diagon Alley. They’ve turned their basement into a charmingly decorated potion room where you don robes, take up wands, mix and brew some tea and drinks, and chow down on sandwiches, sweets, and scones.
A wizarding-themed escape room was another awesome way for us to immerse ourselves into the magic, and we discovered all-new mysteries as wizarding school students with Breakin’ Escape Rooms’ “Fang of the Serpent” room. The escape room was challenging, tremendously fun, marvelously decorated and assembled, and deeply engaging and entertaining. Our magical abilities had us escape the Chamber of Secrets-inspired room with zero hints and over a minute to spare, leaving me certain we’d have easily survived our second year at Hogwarts as well.
An undetectable extension charm for your luggage is a must on a Harry Potter-themed trip to the UK, as there are countless stores tempting you with endless merchandise and souvenir options, and it was all we could do to not break the bank at each one. My self-control disapparated disappeared when I stepped into the House of MinaLima in Soho, though. Thankfully, I’d set aside some space in my suitcase on the trip for the prints, books, and other souvenirs I knew I’d be getting from here. Their shop and gallery are must-visits for fans of Harry Potter and the wonderful aesthetic of the graphic universe MinaLima created for the films.
Our last big London activity on our Ultimate Harry Potter Fan vacation was seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We’d held out for so long in adding this to our plans as the play is presented in two parts, each lasting about 2.5 hours and with a couple of hours between them. Seeing Cursed Child has you taking your seat around 1:30 pm and not finishing your day at the theatre until well past 9 pm. Ultimately, though, we decided to take the plunge on getting tickets – each time we delayed and rescheduled the trip, it grew a day or two in length, so we ended up with the time to spare and going all-in on a Harry Potter-themed vacation meant we may as well go over the top with it.
Frankly, I can see why many fans don’t consider Cursed Child canon and can understand why its story receives some criticism. At the same time, I’m glad we went and thoroughly enjoyed it. The production was incredibly well done, with set and stage design most impressive. The actors were wonderful, and I found myself developing a fondness for the characters of Albus Severus and Scorpius and was invested in their friendship. It was clear our fellow theatergoers enjoyed Cursed Child as well – at the end of each act and part, the applause was raucous and enthusiastic. I’d absolutely recommend it if you’re embarking on your own Harry Potter Fan Vacation, but if you’re on the fence, perhaps let fate decide – register for the TodayTix lottery for cheap tickets and go if you win, or do something else with your day if not.
Just as Harry did in Sorcerer’s Stone as he embarked on his own magical adventure, we made our way to King’s Cross to catch a train to Scotland for the next part of our journey – following in the author’s footsteps through a medieval Edinburgh that inspired so much of the books, then taking a trip on the Hogwarts Express through the Scottish Highlands. Read all about it in the next installment of my Ultimate Harry Potter Fan Vacation.