Great Britain is the ideal destination for renting a car for vacation. You can design your own road trip stops suited to please everyone, with flexibility to explore and linger. For my family, that meant mapping out film location sites of the Harry Potter movies, sprinkled with a few Dr. Who locations, Welsh castles, and other scenic areas of interest along the way. Join our adventure through England and Wales as we visit some of the more remote film sites from the Harry Potter movies.
Harry Potter Road Trip: Off the Beaten Path
Visiting Harry Potter film locations by self-drive road trip is the perfect family adventure. While London seems the logical starting point, London is best navigated using public transportation. There are plenty of tours to keep Harry Potter fans happy in and around the city, and resources for finding them on your own, so I don’t include London in this road trip itinerary. Instead, I want to guide you off the beaten path to some of the less visited Harry Potter sites that are no less magical.
From Heathrow, Head West
We rented our car at Heathrow airport and headed west, to Wiltshire, taking in Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as our first stop. It is just the right distance for a first drive from the airport. TIP: get tickets online well in advance – it is one of the most touristed sites in the world. We spent the night in nearby Salisbury, visiting the Salisbury Cathedral in the morning. Observing the choir procession and part of the Easter service was a spontaneous surprise we hadn’t anticipated in our planning, so we were glad to have the flexibility to stretch our morning in Salisbury before hitting the road.
Heading north through Wiltshire, our next destination, and first Harry Potter site, was Lacock Abbey, a National Trust property where various Hogwarts scenes of the Harry Potter films were shot. The cloisters were instantly recognizable, and Professor Snape’s Potions classroom lies here as well. TIP: Many of the sites mentioned in this article are managed by the National Trust or the CADW in Wales. At the first one you visit, pick up a guide and purchase a pass or membership if you expect to visit several. We found that an annual National Trust membership paid for itself, and in Wales, the CADW 7-day Family Explorer Pass was perfect.
There are a few routes going in to Wales to reach Cardiff, where we planned to spend the next two nights. With our timing, we opted for the more direct and fastest route, the M4, which crosses a long bridge spanning the Severn Estuary. The drive over the iconic toll bridge is beautiful and scenic, costing £6.60 (about US $10). TIP: credit and debit cards are accepted, just be sure you’re in the appropriate lane if you don’t have the cash.
Cardiff’s Claim to Television Fame
We arrived in Cardiff in time to enjoy dinner and a walk around. Though Cardiff is a major city and the capitol of Wales, it is not as big and intimidating as others; it was actually quite easy to navigate by car. TIP: have coins on hand for parking meters in some locations.
At the heart of Cardiff is the Wales Millenium Centre. This locale has made numerous appearances in the long-running Dr. Who television series. We spent the next morning visiting the Dr. Who Experience, an interactive guided studio tour and museum. It is an absolute MUST for Dr. Who fans, and it was thoroughly enjoyable for everyone in the family.
From Cardiff we drove north through the Brecon Beacons National Park to enjoy nature and stretch our legs with a scenic hike. We visited a few castles in southwest Wales, but we were eager to get to the Harry Potter film location that we actually planned our entire trip around seeing, Freshwater West.
Finding Dobby and More: Pembrokeshire, Wales
Freshwater West Beach in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was the setting for Shell Cottage in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and where the house elf, Dobby, was laid to rest in the nearby dunes. The actual cottage built for the film is no longer there, but the magic lingers in the shifting dunes and shifting tides. My daughter enjoyed hiking the dunes in search of Dobby’s burial site, and I enjoyed watching the local surfers make the best of the waves that day. There are “caravan parks” nearby, where camping is available. TIP: It is a popular summer camping destination, so make advance reservations if you have rented a camper van.
The Pembrokeshire Coast is worth spending time to explore by car and on foot, via the Pembrokeshire Coast National Trail. The trail explores 186 miles of the Welsh coast, from rugged cliff tops dotted with Neolithic ruins, to long stretches of sandy white beaches. Once you reach the coast, you’ll want to stay and wish for time to stand still.
Detour to Snowdonia
Breaking from our Harry Potter agenda, we drove north into the beautiful mountains and villages of Snowdonia National Park. We combined our mountain explorations with visits to UNESCO World Heritage castles of Caernarfon and Conwy. TIP: To experience the best of Snowdonia, you’ll want to stay in one of the mountain villages such as Bedgellert or Betws-y-Coed, where small inns and B&B’s are the way to go.
While Wales beckoned us to linger, we hadn’t forgotten about our beloved Harry Potter! Heading back toward London, we had a few more film locations to check out on the way.
Gloucester and Oxford
No Harry Potter itinerary would be complete without visiting the Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucester, England. The cloisters were the setting for many scenes, including where the Fat Lady picture hung outside the Gryffindor Common Room.
Next up, Oxford – probably the most visited location outside London for Harry Potter fans. There are plenty of guided Harry Potter themed walking tours, which I highly recommend doing here. However, if you’re wanting to visit independently, be sure your time in Oxford allows for Bodlean Library, setting for the Divinity School and Hogwarts Library, along with Christchurch College and New College.
Locals Know Best – Lesser Known Harry Potter Film Sites
We arrived in Hertfordshire, home of the Leaveseden Warner Brothers Studio and Tour. BUT, beyond the studio lie a few locations that locals know about, but which aren’t included on any tours and few visitors would think to seek them out. One is the Fourth Form Room at the Harrow Old Schools in Harrow on the Hill, where Hermoine mastered “Wingardium Leviosa” in Professor Flitwick’s Charms class.
Royal Connaught Park in Bushey is perhaps the most interesting yet under-stated film location. At one time it was the campus for US International University, and now it has been converted to luxury loft apartments. What few people know, is that the Dining Hall was the film location for the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! One of the towers also housed Professor Dumbledor’s office, and other parts were used as backdrops for several scenes in at least three of the films. Having lived on the campus when I was studying there, I can officially say that I lived and went to school at Hogwarts! But it gets better…
Want to Live at Hogwarts?
Now anyone, well anyone wealthy enough, can live at Hogwarts and throw parties in the Great Hall itself! The Dining Hall has been preserved, but the rest of the campus has been converted into luxury loft apartments, including one that occupies Dumbledore’s office in the tower. Even if you don’t make it past the front gates to poke around, it’s worth a drive by to see the classic Victorian Gothic architecture. You may also recognize it as the setting for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Pink Floyd’s The Wall video, and almost 400 other films and television shows.
The Grand Finish: Warner Brothers Studio Tour, Leavesden
We spent our last day at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in Leavesden (north of London), which really tied it all together nicely. There is simply too much to recount here, so I’ll just share a screen shot of my instagram feed that day! TIP: Allow plenty of time to linger in the museum after the guided tour.
From Leavesden, it is an easy motorway drive back to Heathrow, avoiding London traffic altogether.
Plenty has been written about the studio tour and London sites that are easily researched online. But my family and I really wanted to explore beyond the well-trodden King’s Cross Station and London Zoo Reptile House. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our self-driven Harry Potter road trip adventure through England and Wales!
Disclosure: This post contains a sponsored link, but all opinions are my own.