(AKA the real life Hogwarts Express!)
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The Harry Potter Train in Scotland
The Jacobite (pronounced Jack-O-Bite) steam train is an iconic scene in Scotland. It is sometimes referred to as the “Harry Potter train” because the famous train was used as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
You can ride the steam train from Fort William to Mallaig, or you can watch it go by across the stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct. I did both experiences, so I will compare them and explain what to expect and how to get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
One of my top 5 prettiest places in Scotland!
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The Jacobite Steam Train
The Jacobite steam train runs twice daily from Fort William to Mallaig and back. It also stops in Glenfinnan and Arisaig, so you can get on the train at any of these locations.
This is the train that was used as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies, and is thus a very popular activity among Harry Potter fans.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the train journey:
Are there bathrooms on the train?
Yes, there are bathrooms on the train. You cannot use the bathroom, however, when the train is in the station. The bathrooms will be locked until the train is out of the station. Then someone will come by to unlock them.
I was really worried about using the bathroom after we left the station because I didn’t want to miss the view of the viaduct! But it will be quite a ways till you get there, so you won’t miss it.
Can you get off the train in Glenfinnan?
Yes, the Jacobite steam train stops for roughly 20 minutes at the Glenfinnan Station, just after crossing the viaduct. You can get out and enjoy the views, get a snack in the cafe, or visit the museum/gift shop.
Is there food on the train?
Someone will come by with a trolley of snacks and drinks, or you can visit the cafe car to get a snack.
You can also order a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates to enjoy while you are on the train.
The people next to us on the train had a bottle of wine on the way to Mallaig, but they were not able to recork the bottle. So when we arrived in Mallaig at lunchtime, they had to chug it or throw it away…
There will also be a trolley of Harry Potter themed souvenirs you can buy. So when someone comes and says, “Anything off the trolley?” you can pull out your wallet and exclaim, “We’ll take the lot!”
Can you see the Glenfinnan Viaduct from the train?
Yes, you can see the Glenfinnan Viaduct from the Jacobite steam train. You will have a good view of it in the distance as you approach it, and then you’ll be able to see it as you cross it.
You will also be able to wave at all the people gathered at the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre to watch the steam train go by.
Which side of the train should I be on to see the viaduct?
You will get the best view from the left-hand side of the train. Because the train does not turn around, only the engine car moves from the front to the back (which then becomes the front), you will switch seats halfway through the journey.
On the way to Mallaig we were on the left side of the train, and then on the return journey we were on the right side of the train, so we could enjoy both views.
You can get up and walk to the windows in the area between rail cars to get a good view. You can also pull down the windows to get a better picture.
What do the train compartments look like?
(AKA: what is the difference between first class and standard?)
You do not get a roomy compartment like you see on the Harry Potter movies. The inside of the train is actually quite cramped. You will sit at a four person table, with two seats facing forward, and two seats facing back the other way. If you are only traveling in a party of two, you will be facing two strangers the whole time.
The only difference we could tell for first class (based on peeking in the windows when we were stopped…) is that their tables had pretty lamps on them…
In actuality, they do still have 4 people to a table, but the seats are much comfier and roomier than in the standard compartments (view pictures of the first class carriage).
If you really want to live out your dreams of riding the Hogwarts Express just like in the Harry Potter movies, you can book a whole compartment for up to 6 people! You could also book a private table for two if you would prefer. All the prices are listed on their website.
How long is the train ride?
The ride on the Jacobite steam train is approximately 2 hrs. to Mallaig (and 2 hrs. back). It may take longer if you have to stop and wait somewhere.
The train will stop in Glenfinnan on the way there (usually for 20 minutes, but this is variable, depending on the train schedule).
If another train is running behind schedule, you might have to wait for it, as there is nowhere between Glenfinnan and Arisaig for two trains to pass. We had to wait in Arisaig for half an hour on the way back for another train to pass.
Where to park for the Jacobite steam train?
There is a parking lot for the Jacobite steam train just across from the Fort William Train Station. You can pay at the meter for however long you are planning to be there. For the steam train we were parked there for about 7 hours.
You can pay with a credit card at the parking meter.
Other frequently asked questions
Click here for answers to frequently asked questions on the Jacobite website.
Is the Jacobite train ride worth it?
As a rather pricey excursion, when you can just watch the train go by for free(ish), I wasn’t sure if riding the Jacobite steam train was really worth it. So here is my personal opinion of it, and Jason’s, to give you two perspectives:
Julia’s opinion: I actually preferred watching the steam train go by at the viaduct, rather than riding it. Mallaig was fun to visit, but we didn’t have long there, and there are a lot of other cool places in Scotland to visit, so I don’t think Mallaig stands out. Additionally, there are a lot of beautiful routes to travel in Scotland, so while the train route was nice, it was hard to see at times because of the rain, and you can find equally gorgeous views elsewhere.
I thought the train moved so slowly! I honestly just got bored on it, and would rather have been out exploring somewhere at my own pace (of course, it didn’t help that we had to wait half an hour for another train to pass).
Jason’s opinion: I absolutely loved it, honestly! I loved the views out the windows of the mountains and white sand beaches, and I got some of my best photos there.
I didn’t like all the stops, and having to wait for such a long time, but I thought it was really fun to be able to ride an actual steam train.
Mallaig is a small fishing town on the western coast of Scotland. You can see the Isle of Skye across the loch.
If you’re traveling to Skye, you can take a ferry across from Mallaig. Just be sure to book the ferry ahead of time.
The Jacobite steam train will arrive in Mallaig at the end of the rail line, and then return to Fort William later in the day. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about visiting Mallaig.
How long do you spend in Mallaig?
You have just under 2 hrs. in Mallaig. It really is not too long of a time. Just enough to eat lunch and walk around a few of the shops (which is really all there is to do anyway…)
What to do in Mallaig?
There is really not much to do in Mallaig. It is a tiny fishing town with a busy harbor. It is the entry point to mainland Scotland if you are taking the ferry across from the Isle of Skye.
If you are just here for 2 hrs. from the steam train, then of course you will not be able to take the ferry to Skye. If you are here for longer, you can visit Skye, or some of the white sand beaches you will pass on the way up.
Here is what you can do:
Get lunch at a local restaurant
Get ice cream
Visit a few gift shops along the main road
Visit the Mallaig Heritage Center
Enjoy the beautiful views
Where to eat in Mallaig?
Our airbnb host suggested a fish and chips spot in Mallaig, but since they had no indoor seating, and it started raining as soon as we stepped off the train, we decided to try somewhere else. We ended up at a bakery, which also didn’t have indoor seating, but they had a large enough awning that we could stand under it and eat our sausage rolls.
There are not a ton of options, but you will find a few up and down the main street:
The Bakehouse & Crannog -where we ate
The Cabin Restaurant & Takeaway -recommended to us
Several other cafes along the main street
Where to go to the bathroom in Mallaig?
I would actually suggest going to the bathroom on the train if you can, before arriving in Mallaig. When we got off the train, the passengers flooded the train station’s one stall bathrooms, and the station attendants did not seem happy with us.
There are public toilets across the parking lot on the far side of the town. They are co-ed toilets, and you have to pay about 40 pence (on a credit card) to access them. These will do in a pinch, but otherwise, just wait until you’re back on the train and moving again and use their bathroom.
There is also a good sized bathroom at the train station in Fort William, for before and after your trip.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct
Visiting the Glenfinnan Viaduct and watching the steam train come by was one of the highlights of the trip for me. I actually really enjoyed this a lot more than riding the train. So if you only have time to do one, or you’re not sure if you want to do both, I would suggest this.
What is the Glenfinnan Viaduct?
The Glenfinnan Viaduct is a railway bridge that spans 380 meters across the River Finnan in Glenfinnan, Scotland. It was built in the late 1800’s, and is the longest concrete railway bridge in all of Scotland.
The area is famous as the site of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. A monument was built in 1815, that can be seen just across the road from the viaduct.
The bridge itself is also famous (and the train that crosses it) because it was used as the filming location for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
Whether or not you are into history or architecture (or Harry Potter), the Glenfinnan Viaduct is a worthwhile visit, with its massive arches and beautiful walking trails.
Read more about the history of the viaduct and the local area.
What time does the Jacobite steam train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct?
The morning steam train departs Fort William Station at 10:15. It is half an hour from the train station to the viaduct, but the steam train does move pretty slowly, so it will take a little longer than this.
The visitor center posts the arrival time at the viaduct as 10:45, but this is to make sure that you don’t miss it. The train passed by at about 10:53 when we were there.
Morning train departs Fort William: 10:15 am —> passes viaduct: 10:45 am
Afternoon train departs Fort William: 12:50 pm —> passes viaduct: 1:30 pm
Morning train returns to Fort William: 4 pm —> passes viaduct: 3:20 pm
Afternoon train returns to Fort William: 6:50 pm —> passes viaduct: 6:05 pm
Please note: All these times are approximate. Saturday times might differ from the regular schedule.
Click here for the Jacobite steam train timetable.
How early should you get to the viaduct before the train goes by?
Be sure to arrive at the Glenfinnan Viaduct by at least 10:30 am for the morning train. We arrived at 10:30, and it was the perfect amount of time to walk up the hill to the viewpoint, and then wait another 10 minutes for the train to go by.
There were already a lot of people there staking out their spots when we got there, so if you want a good photo op spot, be sure to get there ahead of time. I was lucky enough to find a spot where no one was standing yet… then I realized that was because I was standing in a puddle…
If you are coming in the summer during peak season, make sure to arrive even earlier.
What direction does the steam train go by on the Glenfinnan Viaduct?
My poor Jason was looking the wrong way when the train first started crossing the viaduct…. so I figured it was good to point out from which direction it will be coming.
The first two trains, coming from Fort William to Mallaig come from right to left (as you are facing the viaduct from the parking lot).
The two later trains, going from Malliag back to Fort William, cross from left to right.
Is it better to watch the train coming from, or returning to Fort William?
You wouldn’t think there was much of a difference, but actually there is! When the steam train returns to Fort William, the train doesn’t actually turn around. Just the front car moves to what used to be the back of the train, which then becomes the front.
But the front car doesn’t actually turn around either, so the front engine appears to be backwards as it returns to Fort William. For the best photos, be sure to be at one of the first two passings, when the train is heading toward Mallaig.
Are there bathrooms at the Glenfinnan Viaduct Visitor Centre?
I feel like I ask this question a lot… But if I don’t know where I can go to the bathroom, then I’m always going to have to go! So it’s always good to know!
And yes, there are bathrooms at the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre, and no, you do not have to pay to use them.
How to Get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct
By public transportation:
You can get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct by public transportation if you don’t have a car or you don’t want to drive in Scotland. If you’re in Fort William (easily accessible by train from any of the major cities), you can take a train to the Glenfinnan Train Station. This is the station that the Jacobite steam train stops at for 20 minutes after it crosses the viaduct.
There are signs to follow the walking trail from the station down to the viaduct viewpoints. It’s about a 20 minute walk to the viaduct.
It is simple to get to the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre by car from Fort William. You will just follow the A830 from Fort William. The entrance to the parking lot is right off of this road.
You will see the brown road sign indicating the Visitor Centre directly across from the parking lot entrance. The first parking lot was rather small, and already filled up, but there is a second parking lot just past this which had plenty of room.
When you get in the parking lot, you will first go over to the kiosk to pay for parking. You can pay with a card or with cash. Cost is 3.50 pounds for a car. And in exchange, you don’t have to pay for the bathrooms at the visitor center!
Glenfinnan Viaduct Trail
There are actually several different trails you can take to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The most popular trail will be just ahead of you, under the giant “footpath to viaduct” sign. There is also a map of all the trails there, if you want to explore more of the area.
From here you will follow the crowds and the path to the lower viewing point. You can get a great view of the train from here if you don’t want to climb up the hill to the higher viewpoint.
If you want to get the classic view of the train coming around the bend on the viaduct from above, just keep walking straight ahead. The path will cross with another path, which would be great to explore after the train goes by.
But to get to your spot for watching the train, keep going straight, and then you will go up the hill to the left. There is a big gate to walk through, and then the path keeps going up the hill. It is a little bit steep, but it’s not a long hike, so you don’t need to be in good shape to get there.
There will probably already be quite a few people staked out along the hillside, so just go up as high as you would like, and find an area where no one else is standing. You will have to wait up there a few minutes for the train to come, because all the good spots will fill up ahead of time.
Because the train moves so slowly, you will have plenty of time to get a good picture, and also enjoy actually watching it go by.
Be sure to wait for the steam to make a big cloud for your picture! The amount of steam that comes out varies, so if only a little is coming, just wait a minute and it will get better.
Then enjoy the view as the Hogwarts Express… er… the Jacobite steam train chugs by on its way to Hog… I mean...Mallaig!
Staying in Fort William
Fort William is the best place to base yourself for viewing the Glenfinnan Viaduct and riding the Jacobite steam train. We stayed here two nights.
How to get to Fort William:
You can take a train or a bus to Fort William from any major city in Scotland, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.
You can also rent a car and drive to Fort William. The route from Glasgow or Edinburgh will take you through Glencoe, one of the most beautiful spots in all of Scotland (more info on that below).
Read more about renting a car in Scotland.
Where to stay in Fort William:
There are a lot of guesthouses in the area right around downtown Fort William that would be very close to the train station. I personally did not find any hotels that I was excited to stay in, so I went with an Airbnb (you can also check out Vrbo).
Premier Inn - Premier Inn is a large hotel chain in the UK. We stayed at one in Edinburgh, and it was really great. So if you’re looking for a hotel rather than an Airbnb, I would recommend this one.
Solmar Bed & Breakfast - This is the airbnb where we stayed. We had a private room and our own bathroom in Paula & Aidan’s house. I was a little nervous about sharing a house with strangers, but Paula does not consider you a stranger! They are incredibly friendly, and went out every night so we had the house to ourselves. Paula also cooked us breakfast every morning, and set out lots of snacks for us. We felt so welcomed and comfortable at this airbnb. We even had a view of the steam train right in front of the house!
Where to eat in Fort William
We did not find too many places to eat by the time we returned late from our train trip, and then drove out to Glencoe, since it had been raining the night before. We actually ended up going to the grocery store, Morrisons, and buying our dinner there.
I always think a trip to the local grocery store is a good choice, but if you want to eat out, here are some recommendations from our Airbnb hosts:
Other Things to Do
Glencoe is my number one recommendation of things to do near Fort William. You will pass through this area on your way to Fort William from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
It is famed as one of the prettiest parts of Scotland, and honestly, I think it lives up to the hype. Even with our view obstructed by pouring rain, this area was incredible.
There are a lot of pull off spots where you can just park the car and take in the grand view, if you’re not a hiker. There are also paths that lead down from here if you want to leave the busloads of tourists behind and walk around a little.
Check out the Glencoe Visitor Centre for more information on hiking, and visit their cafe and gift shop (and bathrooms!).
Loch Linnhe Cruise
This recommendation comes from our Airbnb hosts, as all we had time for in our two days were Glencoe, the steam train and the viaduct.
Enjoy the beautiful scenery on a cruise around Loch Linnhe, and maybe even see some seals too!
There are lots of beautiful places to go hiking around Fort William. Glencoe is a good place to start, but there are many other trails where you can “bag a munro.”
What to Read & Watch
I love reading books and watching movies that take place somewhere before I visit!. Then I can point to scenery I recognize, or (more importantly) appreciate the history that took place there.
I also love watching movies after I visit a place, so I can jump up and down pointing and yelling “I’ve been there!!”
Check out my full list of what to read and watch before visiting the UK, but here are a couple entries specific to the Glenfinnan Viaduct:
Harry Potter is a read AND watch entry, but most important is to watch the 2nd movie: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which very prominently features the Jacobite Steam Train posing as the Hogwarts Express.
Waverley is the original historical novel, penned by the venerable Sir Walter Scott. The novel is so important to Scotland, that Waverley Station in Edinburgh is actually named after it!
While I must warn you, the first third of the book is especially difficult to get through, establishing the background history and setting up the story. But once the action finally gets started, it is a fantastic book.
I regret having read this book only after we visited the Glenfinnan Viaduct and the monument to the Jacobite Rebellion, as I had no idea what the Jacobite Rebellion was. I highly recommend this book if you are at all interested in the history of Scotland and the Jacobites.
So there you have my full review of both riding the Jacobite steam train (AKA the Harry Potter train), and watching the train go by at the Glenfinnan Viaduct!
Any more questions?
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