You don’t have to know the name of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to appreciate the many charms of Harry Potter. Who doesn’t love funky bookstores, mysterious castles, fuzzy owls, and jelly beans? Indulge your sense of wonder with a self-styled tour of California’s Harry Potter sites and experiences. No sorcery is required—and you don’t have to wait for an owl to deliver your invitation letter.
Immerse yourself in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Get a behind-the-scenes peek into Hollywood’s inner workings at Universal Studios Hollywood. The theme park’s real and virtual film sets, dizzying special effects, and world-class action rides have placed it on every travel bucket list, especially after the 2016 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Inside the 200-foot-tall Hogwarts Castle, you’ll find Dumbledore’s office, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the labyrinthine corridors you know from the films. Watch a wand choose its owner at Ollivanders, sample treats fit for wizards at Honeydukes, or sip a mug of butterbeer or pumpkin juice at the fairy-tale tavern Three Broomsticks.
See the smash hit play in San Francisco
Since its world premiere at London’s Palace Theatre in July 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has won dozens of awards and left audiences spellbound. The two-part play—the eighth adventure in the Harry Potter saga and the first to be presented on stage—follows grown-ups Harry, Hermione, and Ron as their children begin their Hogwarts education. The play runs at San Francisco’s Curran Theater from December 2019 to June 2020. Get tickets at HarryPotterOnStage.com or in person at the Curran Theater box office.
Taste Potter-themed sweets in Fairfield
If you’ve ever wondered what chocolate frogs or jelly slugs taste like, the Jelly Belly Factory has you covered. The candymaker’s line of Potter-inspired sweets includes Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in crazy-creepy flavors such as Soap, Earthworm, Dirt, Sausage, and Earwax; solid chocolate wands packaged with spell-casting instructions; and milk chocolate frogs with collectible cards featuring famous witches and wizards, like the bumbling Gilderoy Lockhart. Unlike in the movies, the frogs don’t come to life and hop around. Taste and shop at the Jelly Belly Candy Store before or after a factory tour (free self-guided tours are offered 7 days a week).
Tour Warner Bros Studio in Burbank
See the costumes and props used by the cast of the Harry Potter films on a Warner Bros Studio tour. You’ll visit backlots, sets, and soundstages and learn how movie magic is made. Wizard-world fans will be starstruck by the authentic Potter paraphernalia—the Sorting Hat, Dobby the House Elf, Harry Potter’s broom, and Hogwarts students’ gowns. You’ll also get to see famous TV series sets, including Gilmore Girls, Big Bang Theory, and Friends. (Yes, Jennifer Aniston sat on that coffee shop couch, and you can, too.)
Watch a game of Quidditch
The San Francisco Bay Area has several official quidditch teams that are sanctioned by the U.S. Quidditch organization. Yes, that’s a thing. The game looks a lot like the magical competition from the Harry Potter films—a medley of handball, dodgeball, and aerial tricks on flying broomsticks. But since real-world quidditch players can’t fly, they run around the field with a plastic pipe between their legs. “Seekers” try to capture the Golden Snitch, but it’s not a flying ball zipping around on delicate wings, it’s a player carrying a tennis ball in a sock. Watch a match or team practice at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, or San Jose State University.
Visit an enchanting bookstore in L.A.
It’s not quite as magical as Flourish and Blotts in Chamber of Secrets, but The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles comes close. More book playground than book shop, this sprawling 22,000-square-foot-space contains a maze-like warren of old and new tomes, a rare books annex, and thousands of vinyl records. Browse through stacks of aging hardcovers arranged by color and gasp in wonder at the whimsical art installations, including book-lined arches and windows and a book tunnel you can walk through. If The Monster Book of Monsters really exists, you’ll find it here.
See the cast’s handprints in Hollywood
Take a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard to see the handprints of actors who starred in the Harry Potter film series. In the concrete slabs fronting the TCL Chinese Theatre, hundreds of Hollywood A-listers have left their marks—hands, feet, high heels, hoofs, and even ice skates, In 2007, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ronald Weasley), and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) joined the club. The trio left not just their hand prints but also their wand prints.
Tour the prison that inspired Azkaban
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling says that Azkaban prison, where law-breaking wizards often died from insanity and despair, was inspired by Alcatraz, an abandoned federal prison on an island in San Francisco Bay. In its 30 years as a civilian penitentiary, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious bad guys: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Bird Man” Robert Stroud. Even though the island wasn’t guarded by soul-sucking dementors, no Alcatraz prisoner was ever known to survive an escape attempt. Hop on an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 33 for a 20-minute boat ride to the island, then take a self-guided tour of the cell house delivered via audio headset or join a free, ranger-led guided tour.
Spend time with owls that don’t deliver mail
Every Harry Potter fan knows that if you’re looking for an owl around Hogsmeade, you go to Eeylops Owl Emporium. But seeing owls is even easier all over California. Visit Yosemite National Park and you could spot a great gray owl, the same species as the Weasley family’s clumsy pet, Errol. Redwood National Park is home to majestic great horned owls, which look a lot like Draco Malfoy’s owl. Visit the California Raptor Center at UC Davis to see barn owls up-close, or head to the Coachella Valley to find tiny burrowing owls. You can even admire an Arctic snowy owl (like Harry’s beloved Hedwig) at the Big Bear Alpine Zoo.
Wander through a real-life castle in San Simeon
If Hogwarts Castle seems a bit dark and spooky, visit its sun-drenched California cousin. In the 1920s, media magnate William Randolph Hearst built a Spanish Colonial castle on an ocean-view hilltop and filled it with antiques and art from around the world. Designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle’s main structure “La Casa Grande” boasts 115 rooms, including a movie theater, billiards room, two libraries, and 31 bathrooms. Take a daytime or evening guided tour to see its ornately carved ceilings, Norman fireplaces, Spanish choir stalls, and fine Belgian and French tapestries.
Craving more castle time? Visit winemaker Dario Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, a 107-room Italianate marvel complete with towers, moat, drawbridge, and dungeon. Or check out Sam’s Castle in Pacifica, an eclectically furnished stone fortress overlooking the rugged coast south of San Francisco.