The Harry Potter Steam Train (Hogwarts Express) is not just something out of a fantasy movie – it’s a real-life experience that you can have in the Scottish Highlands!
The Jacobite train is on a portion of the West Highland Railway Line and is often considered to be one of, if not the most beautiful train journeys anywhere in the world! Not to mention it is also one of the few remaining steam trains still in operation.
Now, whenever I hear statements like this I automatically want to play devil’s advocate and find out if this is really the case. I wondered, is the Jacobite train only famous because it was in The Harry Potter series, or are the views actually epic too?
I got very lucky and found a train ticket just a few weeks before my trip so I headed to Scotland to find out for myself!
Considering the fact that I’ve also ridden the Bergensbanen train in Norway and am one of the few people not obsessed with Harry Potter I feel like I can speak on it without any bias!
That’s why in addition to this full guide to the Harry Potter steam train including important tips and booking information, I’ve also added my own personal review at the end so you can see if this is an experience you want to add to your UK bucket list!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.
History of the Harry Potter Steam Train
So of course we know the Jacobite’s movie history but what about the original purpose of the Jacobite steam train?
Long before the Jacobite gained its attention from being in the Harry Potter film series it was actually built as a way to navigate more easily to the more northern and remote parts of Scotland including the Scottish Atlantic Coast.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct (the 21 cement arch bridge) is the most iconic part of the railway that you often see featured in pictures of the Jacobite train. This section was constructed between the years 1897 to 1901 and at the time, a design like this was no easy feat!
Scottish civil engineer Robert McAlpine was the first person to use concrete on such a large scale (30 meters or 98 ft tall) and it is still the longest concrete bridge used for a railway anywhere in Scotland.
The design of the locomotive that is used in present-day was built by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow in 1949. It became fully operational as a scenic tourist train in the summer of 1984 and is currently managed by West Coast Railways.
Where is the Jacobite Train Located?
The Jacobite Harry Potter Steam Train’s main station is located in the small town of Fort William, Scotland.
You might be wondering, where in the world is Fort William? Well, for point of reference Glasgow is located 164 kilometers (102 miles) south, Edinburgh is 235 kilometers (146 miles) southeast, and Inverness is just 106 kilometers (66 miles) northeast.
There isn’t much pull to explore the town of Fort William so while you could drive there yourself like we did (more on that below) the most popular way is to book a guided tour with transportation from one of the bigger cities like this one from Edinburgh.
How to get to Fort William
There was lots of fog and rain on our drive from Glasgow to Fort William
There are three main ways to get to Fort William, by car, bus, or train. I’ll talk about each option below.
The most straightforward option to get to Fort William is by guided tour. There are tours that leave from Edinburgh, and Inverness that also includes a one-way ride on the Jacobite which is nice because you get to get up close to sights via road and then gain another perspective from the train.
There is also this tour that leaves from Glasgow but does not include a ride on the Jacobite but instead takes to you the viewpoint to watch the train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct along with showing you to many other sites in the highlands.
It is less than half the price of the other tours so it’s a great option if you still want to see the Harry Potter steam train but don’t want to spend that kind of money.
While the upfront cost of the tours that include Jacobite tickets seems like a lot (around 165 GBP) when you think about the cost of the tickets outside of a tour (57 GBP +) and then the cost to book return train tickets (between 20-100 + GBP) from Fort William back to the city it doesn’t end up costing much more and in some cases is even cheaper for a streamlined travel experience. Plus, even if you have a car you would still need to pay for gas and have to navigate difficult roads.
You can look through all of the Hogwarts Express Tours here.
One of my favorite views that I saw right outside of Fort William
While this wasn’t my first choice, driving was the option we went with because we had already gotten a rental car and road-tripped through the Cotswolds and then spend some time in Glasgow.
Let me just say, the scenery from the perspective of a car was insanely beautiful and dare I say more stunning than the views from the train? However, I have to mention that it was also the scariest drive of my life up to this point and I’m a confident driver.
I don’t say this to scare you because it is a generally safe and very well-maintained road but once you get into the Highlands the roads are extremely winding and narrow to the point where the traffic coming in the opposite direction would cross over into my lane.
Plus, many of the vehicles on these roads were massive semis and utility vehicles that hogged the road. What made things even worse was we were in a time crunch and there were clouds, fog, and rain which made visibility poor.
If I could do it over again I think I still would have chosen to go by car but I would have given myself more time because I loved being able to pull over wherever on the way back to take pictures or climb up to some of the roadside waterfalls. All that said, I definitely think paying a little more for a guided tour or train tickets would be worth it if you want to avoid driving.
Where to Park: Once you get to the Fort William Station you can park right in the attached lot. All-day parking for us didn’t cost more than 6 GBP (7 USD) which was a pleasant surprise!
You can take the train from Glasgow and Edinburgh. There are two options, ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper. The ScotRail is what most of the route options are through because the Caledonian Sleeper is an overnight train. If you have tickets for the AM journey you might be able to book the Caledonian Sleeper if you need to leave very early in the morning to arrive early in Fort William.
Prices for a return trip from Glasgow average around 64 GBP ($77 USD).
Prices for a return trip from Edinburgh average around 78 GBP ($94 USD).
Note: Journies from Edinburgh always go through Glasgow so if you are planning on both cities it would make more sense to book straight from Glasgow.
By coach or public bus
Taking a coach or public city bus is not a super popular method to get to Fort William from Glasgow or Edinburgh but it can be done. Especially for coaches as there aren’t always a lot of travel times to choose from depending on the day.
If you are looking for the cheapest option then you can take a public city bus for 10 – 30 GBP ($12-36 USD) per way with the help of Google Maps.
It is probably the most realistic if you’re coming from Inverness because it’s only a 1.5-2 hour ride and it shouldn’t cost much more than 15 GBR ($18 USD) for a return journey.
Taking the coach will be much more comfortable than taking the public bus but it also comes at a much higher price. Oftentimes it’s more expensive than taking the train!
What You Will See on The Jacobite
The eerie Loch Eilt
So you might be wondering what kind of views can you see onboard from the Jacobite steam train. The landscape here is quite unique because the route cuts through the Scottish Highlands so you will be surrounded by rugged mountains, moody lochs, Scottish Sea lookouts, and luscious glens (narrow valleys).
There are several notable Harry Potter filming locations on this route including Loch Shiel, Loch Eilt, and the most famous, the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The train also goes through a few different tunnels that cut into the mountains and at the end you can check out the cute fishing town of Mallaig.
Overall it’s a stunning region and riding the Jacobite is one of the most laidback ways you can see lots of views in a short amount of time!
How Long is the Jacobite Train Ride?
Sights from our walk around Mallaig!
The ride from Fort William to Mallaig is 68 km (42 mi) which takes 2 hours and 15 minutes each way.
Once in Mallaig, you will have 2 hours and 16 minutes to explore this little town and grab food or some Harry Potter souvenirs.
Make sure you get back to the train platform early or on time because they will NOT wait for you!
My Finding’s Tip: If booking the afternoon time slot and are driving back to Glasgow or Edinburgh the same night keep in mind that part of your drive will likely be in the dark. In this case, it might be best to spend one night in Fort William.
When is the best time to ride the Harry Potter Steam Train?
The first thing to know is that the Jacobite does NOT operate all year round. In 2023, rides are available from April 3rd to October 27th.
Personally, I went during the end of October, right as Scotland was starting to reach its peak for fall foliage. The golden and rust-colored grasses and orange leaves were beautiful and they really added some dimension to the green landscapes and hills! It was magical and cozy.
So while I highly recommend this timeframe it’s not to say that this is necessarily the best time of year to go because it can also tend to be windy, cold, and cloudy with frequent showers.
We got lucky that it was sunny on the to Mallaig because on the way back to Fort William it was mostly cloudy with some rain so the visibility wasn’t great.
For the best weather and visibility, you will want to come during summer which are the months from June to August. This is a dryer time of the year but keep in mind that this is when most people want to book their tickets so they will sell out many months in advance, sometimes even 9 or 10 months beforehand, so book as soon as possible!
Jacobite Guided Tours
As I eluded to at the beginning of the blog, a guided tour is one of the most popular ways to ride the train because they included transport, some sightseeing in a shuttle, and a one-way ride on the Jacobite.
If you think you might be missing out if you only get to ride the train once I won’t worry about that. Coming from someone who has driven to Fort William and booked round-trip tickets outside of a tour I can tell you that the ride home isn’t nearly as exciting because you have already seen everything.
My fiance and I were actually pretty tired during this point and we ended up napping for a lot of it.
If you are booking a guided tour with transport you can browse all of your options here or choose from the most popular tours and departure points listed below:
Tours that include the Jacobite train admission
Scottish Highlands + Hogwarts Express from Edinburgh – 156 GBP ($191 USD)
Hogwarts Express + Scenic Highlands from Inverness – 156 GBP ($191 USD)
Tours to the train viewing vantage point
If you would rather photograph the train from the viewpoint, want to save some money, or prefer to spend a full day seeing a wide range of sights then these types of tours are the better option for you. They all include a visit to the Harry Potter steam train viewpoint.
Glenfinnan, Mallaig and Glencoe from Glasgow – 62 GBP ($76 USD)
Glenfinnan, Glencoe and Fort William from Edinburgh – 57 GBP ($70 USD)
The Great Glen 8 Seater Tour from Inverness – 79 GBP ($97 USD)
How Much do Jacobite Train Tickets Cost?
In 2023, the Jacobite operates from April 3rd to October 27th every day, departing at 10:15 in the morning. Between the dates of May 1st to September 29th, there is also an additional afternoon time slot. Outside of these dates, you can only book the morning train. You can check the timetable here for more information.
Jacobite Train Ticket Prices for 2023
All tickets are for return trips. You cannot book one-way trips, that is only possible on a tour.
First Class Adult: 89 GBP ($107 USD)
First Class Child (16 and under): 63 GBP ($76 USD)
Coach Adult: 57 GBP ($68.50 USD)
Coach Child (16 and under): 33 GBP ($40 USD)
Optional ticket add-ons
All of the options below can be added on before or after the time of booking if done at least 7 working days before your reservation.
We chose to add on the Jacobite High Tea and I must say I was shocked at how much stuff was inside! We definitely got our money’s worth and since we were full after eating in Mallaig we took it back to our hotel and ate it for dinner. I even think it’s enough for two people to share one box as more of a snack.
Jacobite High Tea: 27 GBP ($32 USD) – Includes several types of freshly made deli sandwiches with local ingredients, scones with clotted cream, and a variety of cakes. The Jacobite High Tea boxes are only available for first-class passengers. There are vegan and gluten-free options available. It is served on the return trip back to Fort William.
Bottle of Champagne: 32.99 GBP ($40 USD)
Box of Chocolates: 19.99 GBP ($24 USD)
Bouquet of Flowers: 39.99 GBP ($48 USD)
How to Book Train Tickets for the Jacobite
If you are not taking a guided tour then you can purchase your tickets directly from West Coast Railway’s website or over the phone at 0333 996 6720.
Once you’ve completed your booking you will receive your confirmation immediately in your email and the tickets will be sent to you just a few days leading up to your reservation.
If you can, aim to try and book no less than 3 months in advance or you will probably need to get lucky or keep checking for cancelations. I lucked out majorly and was able to snag 2 first-class tickets to fit perfectly into my travel plans just a few weeks out so it’s definitely worth it to keep checking the website!
Is first class worth it?
In the Class A Carriage there are private tables for 2 and for 4 people. If you don’t have 4 people in your group you can still book for 2 people and share with two others.
In general, the train is not the most up to date but the first class seats were definitely more spacious and comfortable looking that the standard class. Plus, the tables are bigger and you get served complimentary tea or coffee with biscuits.
I sat in first class and I was definitely happy that we choose to pay more for these tickets! We did have to share with two other people facing across from us as the private 2 seater table was not available.
At first, I thought was going to be weird but the father and daughter were super nice and it didn’t even feel like we were right on top of them so we didn’t mind.
Can you choose which side you sit on?
Yes and no, let me explain.
If you sit in the Mark I or Mark II cars (standard ticket) it is all random as to which side you will be seated on as all the tables are the same size. You could try asking to be seated on the left side in your booking notes and see what happens.
However, I noticed how the seats were laid out when I sat in first class. If you are able to book the private 2 seater table in first class they are all on the left side!
Otherwise, if you are at the first class 4 seater table you will be seated on the right side.
The last car opinion is the Compartment Carriages which seat 6 people in a private compartment and all of these are to one side but I am not sure if it is to the right or left as I didn’t walk past them.
The question you have probably thought at one point or another is how do you take those famous out-the-window photos? And how do get a picture of the viaduct?
Well, it’s actually quite easy if you know where to look. The first option can be done right from your seat. Now, taking pictures through the window is never ideal but you can actually open the smaller window that is right above the main large window. It’s big enough to fit your lens through or your phone if you’re willing to take that risk.
If you were unlucky and got seated on the right-hand side you won’t get the view of the viaduct but not to worry, if you head to the gangway in between each car, there are also windows that can be opened too! I did notice that not all of the gangways had windows that can be opened you might need to do a little bit of exploring.
On the intercom, they will make an announcement when you are around 30 minutes away from the viaduct so you will have time to get into position to get “the shot”!
My Review of the Harry Potter Steam Train
By this point, you know where the Jacobite is, how to get there, what you will see, and the cost involved.
But is the experience worth the price?
If you are in any way a fan of Harry Potter I think that reason alone is good enough for you to enjoy your time! Everything about the journey really does embody the spirit of the movie!
If you aren’t much of a fan like me I still say yes! It is a one-of-a-kind experience with really amazing views that you can’t replicate anywhere else in the world and for that reason, I wouldn’t miss it.
Plus, stopping in Mallaig for a couple of hours was a great added highlight! You must eat the fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding at the Chlachain Inn!
My Finding’s Tip: Days before your tour make a lunch reservation in Mallaig or rush to one of the restaurants immediately after the train arrives. We didn’t do this and all of the popular restaurants were booked up. We got lucky with a spot off the beaten path that didn’t have a wait time but we had to eat fast!
No lie, the fish and chips at the Chlachain Inn in Mallaig were SO fresh!
The experience didn’t come without a few flaws though so I do have a few things to share from my own experience that I think will be good to know beforehand.
- If you are driving to Fort William stay the night before or give yourself lots of extra time. In my experience, getting there was the worst part. I made the mistake of thinking this would be a normal 2.5-3-hour drive when it was not because I needed to take caution for the weather and the narrow roads. I didn’t give myself enough extra time to allow for error, to make stops for gas, or to enjoy the abundance of scenery. My biggest regret was that we couldn’t stop to enjoy the views alongside the road. If I could go back in time I would have driven to Fort William the night before so we could have enjoyed the scenic views and then wake up the next more and hop right onto the train.
- While there are many stunning viewpoints there are also a lot of “normal” views. This isn’t a con, but I say this just to bring your expectations back to reality. While the journey as a whole was very scenic it wasn’t like my jaw was dropping the whole time. Some sections were amazing and others not so much.
- The windows can get foggy – Now this definitely could be an issue. Thankfully our window never really fogged up but a couple of other people’s did and they were frustrated. I would recommend bringing a small towel or some napkins with you in case this happens.
Again, if you don’t want to spend so much money you can always drive yourself to the Jacobite steam train viewpoint and photograph it as it goes by or join a day tour from either Glasgow, Edinburg, or Inverness. These tours all include sightseeing too so it’s still sure to be a fun afternoon.
My Final Word on the Jacobite Steam Train
I hope after reading this guide you are feeling the magic of Scotland’s most scenic train journey through your screens! It was such a cool experience to be able to have in the Scottish Highlands and seriously if you also want to ride the Harry Potter train for yourself this is your sign to book it now because tickets aren’t easy to come by!
If you are exploring more of the UK I have more guides you can check out below!