A nerd-cation pilgrimage to the homeland of Harry Potter and Doctor Who

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It gets dark so early in London in November! This shot was taken at about 3pm.

Traveling companion(s): Holly and Sole
Type: Harry Potter Meets Doctor Who
Budget: Midrange ($1000-$5000)

Sole and I are both diehard Potterheads and Whovians. She contacted me last January to ask if I'd be interested in making a nerd-cation pilgrimage to the United Kingdom to visit the homeland of two of our favorite stories: Harry Potter and Doctor Who.

We cast a wide net at first, noting every possible location we could visit within a reasonable budget. Eventually we narrowed our travels to three cities: London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, as those cities had the biggest draws for our nerdy hearts while still being accessible by public transit.

What did you do?

London

We flew into London via Iceland (stunning!), late Saturday morning, and had only about 40 hours until our next leg (Edinburgh, Scotland). So we ended up taking one of those hop on, hop off bus tours of London just to feel like we were able to experience more of London; stopped by Platform 9 3/4; attended the Doctor Who Festival; visited the breathtaking studios where the Harry Potter movies were filmed, and saw the musical, Matilda.

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Our ever-faithful and oh-so-knowledgable muggle tour guide, Joseph Lockhart.

Then we started our first full day in London with a Muggle Tour. This was by far one of the best tours I've ever taken. We went to various places throughout London where scenes were filmed in all Harry Potter movies (including the original Diagon and Knockturn Alleys).

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This now defunct restaurant was used as the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! It can be seen when Harry's getting off of the Knight Bus (and when the bus hits the car in front of while trying to stop), and the store next door was a rare, used bookshop in the film. A separate location in Leadenhall Market was used for other films, but as that's an indoor location it would not accommodate the Knight Bus!
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Does this tiny alleyway look familiar with its bowed windows? This alleyway, built in the 1620s, was originally supposed to be used as the filming location for Knockturn Alley, Diagon Alley's seedy underbelly. However, once they were ready to film, they discovered the camera equipment wouldn't fit inside! Change of plans. Also of note, many of the offices in this courtyard are publishers- could they have been some of the 12 publishing companies that declined to publish Harry Potter when it was first written? And is that why Knockturn Alley turned so dark?

And then we landed in Edinburgh!

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Greyfriars Kirkyard

I'd heard through the grapevine known as "the Internet" that JK Rowling had found inspiration for a few character names in the local churchyard, and we set off to find them. But it got too dark, so I went back another day.

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The Elephant House, one of the cafes in which JK Rowling began writing Harry Potter! While it's just a standard cafe, it felt pretty magical to be there, wondering how many hours she must have been there and wondering which chapters she wrote.

When in Edinburgh, we ate lunch where J.K. Rowling worked on the first Harry Potter book, and saw the fan graffiti left behind in those restrooms…

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We took a Hairy Coo bus tour with a local Scot, who filled us in on his beliefs about Scottish independence, while showing us around his hometown in the Highlands. And he introduced us to his favorite local hairy coos (a breed of Scottish cattle known for its long, wavy hair).

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Hairy coooooooooooooo! I was a little sad that it had been raining this day so their bangs weren't as emo as they usually are.

We saw filming locations from Monty Python, Game of Thrones, and Outlander…

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Doune Castle. Doune means castle in Gaelic, so Doune Castle is so nice they named it twice! Used in Monty Python, Outlander as Castle Leoch, and Game of Thrones as Winterfell (pilot only).
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Loch Katrine, the fictional setting for Sir Walter Scott's the Lady of the Lake poem.

I finally had some time to explore Greyfriars Kirkyard in daylight in hopes of finding some names from Harry Potter…

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I found a gravestone connected to a Harry Potter character: William McGonagall! "William McGonagall is celebrated as the worst poet in British history. There was something irresistible to me about his name, and the idea that such a brilliant woman might be a distant relative of the buffoonish McGonagall." -JK Rowling
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Just under William McGonagall's stone, I found the Deathly Hallows symbol!
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Thomas Riddell, Esquire. (Tom Riddle = Lord Voldemort)

In Cardiff…

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We visited the Doctor Who Experience, which allows you to see the sets, props, and costumes used when filming the series, as well as participate in an interactive exhibit that includes flying the TARDIS!

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The Ninth and Tenth Doctors' TARDIS interior, used from 2005 to 2010, upgraded to look as if it was not only very old, but had somehow grown or was alive! Note David Tennant's notes to himself in Gallifreyan (on the Post-Its)!
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Did you know that the Fourth Doctor's iconic scarf was kind of an accident? The costume designer (James Acheson) didn't really know much about knitting, so he bought a bunch of yarn and gave it to his friend, Begonia Pope, and asked her to knit a scarf. She thought he meant to use ALL the yarn, and so the original scarf ended up being over 13 feet long! In various episodes, the scarf was modified, and sewn to its stunt duplicate, but at one point, it was about 24 feet!
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Did you know that Daleks are modeled after Nazis? The creator, Terry Nation, created them as faceless, authoritarian figures dedicated to conquest and complete conformity.

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The creepiest part of the Doctor Who Experience was having to walk through a garden of Weeping Angels! I almost grabbed Sole's hand just to survive.

The Cardiff Christmas Market where we saw Buddy the Elf and Sole had churros and chocolate that she liked almost as much as she liked the Madrileños that sold them to her!
The Cardiff Christmas Market where we saw Buddy the Elf and Sole had churros and chocolate that she liked almost as much as she liked the Madrileños that sold them to her!

We strolled through the Cardiff Christmas Market, explored Cardiff Castle and its air raid shelters; and visited Millennium Centre and Ianto's Shrine — two key filming locations from Torchwood, a Doctor Who spinoff…

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We found the entrance to Torchwood!
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TORCHWOOD SPOILER ALERT: There's a shrine to Ianto Jones, beloved Torchwood character.
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Among the massive collection of tributes, there is… a giant pair of granny panties. And not just a pair of granny panties, but a pair with two Torchwood actors and two fans!

At the end of our trip, we stayed in the Georgian House Hotel in their Harry Potter-theme wizard chambers. They were supposedly haunted and I didn't sleep a wink!

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What would you have done differently?

We made the mistake of booking a party hostel for our first two days in London and ended up awake almost the whole night due to the booming music (and young couple enthusiastically partaking in adult activities in the bunk next to us). We would have only booked one night in Cardiff, as we discovered that apart from visiting the sites we planned on seeing, there wasn't much that interested us.

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This way for parking, buses, boats… and Daleks.

What's your best travel advice for other offbeat travelers?

Pack light! We were both able to fit all of our items in carry-ons, which made it easy for us to carry our luggage as well as store it in our hostel lockers.

Don't be afraid to travel creatively from place to place. We got to Cardiff from Edinburgh almost for pennies by combining a flight to Bristol, and then taking the train the rest of the way. But almost had to pay nearly $100 because we didn't realize we would need to pay to have both a purse and a carry-on.

Search blogs, Pinterest, and travel guides for tips on how to save money and find off-the-beaten-path sights to see. We met up with one of my favorite bloggers in Edinburgh, and she gave us some great tips, including how to find two tombstones in a local graveyard that inspired the names of two Harry Potter characters.

Don't be afraid to travel in the off-season. we went to the UK in November, which meant it was a little chilly. Thankfully, we're from Minnesota, so the amount of money we saved by being a bit chilly was more than worth it.

We used Oyster cards in London, like locals, to be able to use the tube system quickly and efficiently.

We stayed in hostels every night except for one night when we splurged on the Wizard Chambers.

We kept a Google spreadsheet of ideas at first, then eventually shifted our ideas into blocks of time and determined what was and wasn't going to fit into our itinerary. Once we determined our final options, we booked things, then tracked confirmation numbers and contact information in our spreadsheet. We then converted it into one printable page to keep with us on our trip as well as share it with our families. The spreadsheet also helped us keep track of our budget so we made sure we split costs evenly.

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  1. You have no idea how jealous i am of your trip! On the plus side, thanks a bunch for sharing.
    I'm totally stealing this for when i get to go on my muggle trip (well i am a witch, but can't deny I'm muggle born).
    A friend and I wanted to go on a long weekend to London this summer for exactly this purpose, but she couldn't get days off work. We are hoping to go in November or December. And we also wanted to stay at that themed hotel!
    I'm a pro at packing light but my friend is totally not… Let's hope I can convince her! Waiting for/having to carry/having to find a place to store/worrying about losing luggage is not something i enjoy during a vacation…
    I know next to nothing about Doctor Who but i got to see part of the first series during a very long flight and i really enjoyed it, i should find a way to watch more of it 🙂
    Really, thanks for sharing!

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  2. I love this! More nerd-cation pilgrimages please. <3

    The research and careful planning was so evident in your write up. I can't believe how many sites you were able to see! Thank you for the organization and other tips! Off peak travel is a favorite tip for smaller crowds and can save so much money!

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  3. The hubs and I went to Alnwick, Platform 9 3/4 (I mean, we were travelling through King's Cross anyway, we kind of had to), and the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff way back in 2009 while we were backpacking through England, Wales, and Scotland on our honeymoon! I want to go back so much! This post makes my heart happy. <3

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  4. Dang, between this post and all Megan's photos of Scotland on Instagram I'm getting itchy feet to head back to the British Isles. Such a beautiful place!

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  5. <33333 This is bringing back memories of my honeymoon to London and Cardiff that we also took in November a few years ago. 😀

  6. Looks like you had an amazig trip! I love Cardiff, you're right about there being not much to do, i stayed in a lovely Eco hostel there called NosDa, stayed there twice and loved it, though it's been a few years!
    And Oh London, the place where i live and love, the Harry Potter studios in Watford are a must see, so brilliant. Don't be afraid to find hidden gems, rather than the usual tourist hotspots, use websites like 'the nudge' and the usual Timeout to see what's currently going on. We have some incredible hidden bars themed like fairytales or 50s diners 🙂 Also, we have a cinema called the Prince Charles that does geeky all nighters of films for cheap prices with dressup and such. We also have fantastic immersive theatres in London, there's the Gingerline and recently there was a Alice in Wonderland themed experience under Waterloo. Last tip: there's an amazing Harry Potter themed escape the room that made me feel like i was in Hogwarts, robes and all, by Enigma Quests. Enjoy this riduclous town and don't let the grumpy locals get you down. 😉

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  7. Found myself stifling a fresh shriek of excitement/jealousy/awe/I-don't-even-know-what-emotion-this-is-but-AHHHH! every time I got to the next paragraph or photo. What a kickass trip! I'm feeling all inspired now…

  8. This is über-cool and your trip seems like so much fun! I've never done a nerdgrimage per se but I always make sure to check local filming locations, if any (the church/museum from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade while in Venice, Italy, Harry Potter's Trinity College while in Oxford…).
    Next time I'll visit London I'll probably do a proper nerdgrimage too, being a Potterheard and rabid Sherlockian.

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