The Jacobite steam train, better known to some as the Harry Potter train, is one of the top experiences in Scotland! While the train may be most famous amongst young people as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films, you don’t have to be a Potter aficionado to enjoy seeing the Jacobite steam train in Scotland.
So read on to find out how to see the Harry Potter train in Scotland from the Glenfinnan Viewpoint, and how to ride on it yourself! Taking a trip on the train was definitely one of the best things we did in Scotland and we highly recommend riding on the Jacobite if you can!
How to see the Hogwarts Express cross the Glenfinnan viaduct
There are two main ways to see the Harry Potter train in Scotland. You can watch the train pass along its route from Fort William to Mallaig – and the most scenic shot of it is of course when it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The other way is to take a trip on it!
In this post I’ll be going over how to see the Hogwarts Express cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, and also how to buy tickets for the Jacobite steam train journey between Fort William and Mallaig. And more importantly – where to park your car!
If you keep an eye on the time you can experience both in the same day; you can watch the train crossing the viaduct in the morning and then drive to Fort William to catch the afternoon departure.
This is what we’d planned to do, but the forecast for the day that we were riding the train was a real washout so we changed plans and saw the train from the Glenfinnan Viaduct the day before we took a trip on it.
So do keep an eye on the unpredictable Scottish weather when planning your trip to the viaduct.
How to get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct viewpoint
Glenfinnan lies just outside Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Surrounded by dramatic hillsides interspersed with lochs, the Scottish Highlands have some of the UK’s best scenery, and this is why the train journey from Fort William to Mallaig is often said to be one of the best in the world.
It’s about a 20 – 30 minute drive to Glenfinnan and its iconic viaduct from Fort William, which makes a good base for sightseeing in the area. I would highly recommend that you use a car when in Scotland otherwise reaching some of the best sights might be difficult.
What time does the Jacobite cross the Glenfinnan viaduct?
The train crosses the Glenfinnan viaduct twice a day – well, actually four times as it makes the return journey too – but it’s only on the outbound journey from Fort William that the steam train faces in the right direction for you to take photos.
You can catch the Jacobite crossing Glenfinnan viaduct at around 10.55am and 3pm during the summer months. I’d plan to get to the viewpoint at least 10 minutes before the train crosses.
In 2019 the Jacobite season runs from April to October. At the time of writing booking is not yet open for 2020 but the dates are likely to be very similar. Click here to book Jacobite train tickets.
The morning service runs from 22nd April to 25th October on weekdays and from 4th May to 29 September on the weekends.
Afternoon services are now finished for 2019. In the afternoon the train ran from 13th May to 13th September during the week and 15th June to 1st September on the weekends.
Walk from Glenfinnan Visitor Centre
There are two main walking routes to take to get to the Glenfinnan Viaduct viewpoint. The quickest and easiest route is to walk from the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre which is right on the road – you can’t miss it. At the visitor centre you’ll find some information on Glenfinnan and the Jacobite rising of 1745, and a nice little cafe so it’s a good place to come back to for some refreshment (and a loo break).
The walk from the visitor centre to the viewpoint only takes about 10 – 15 minutes, so it’s the best route for those with little kids.
Parking at the visitor centre may be an issue. There’s a large car park here but with the viewpoint’s increasing popularity you’ll need to arrive early; we arrived about an hour before the train was due and the car park was already full. There is a £3 parking charge at the visitor centre if you’re not a member of National Trust for Scotland.
Bear in mind that we visited Scotland in late August, so not quite peak season as Scottish children had already returned to school. However parking anywhere at the main tourist sights was a bit of a headache for us for our whole trip, so take this into account no matter when you visit and allow extra time to get parked.
Walk from Glenfinnan Station
If the Glenfinnan Visitor Centre’s car park is full then you can keep on driving up the road as there’s another car park by Glenfinnan Station, about a minute or two away by car. You can park here for free, but it’s a much smaller car park which holds only about a dozen cars. We were lucky to get a place.
If both of these car parks are full then you’ll probably have to park on the road. The roadside was half heartedly cordoned off by cones when we visited but that didn’t seem to stop anyone from parking there anyway!
You can walk to the viewpoint from Glenfinnan station but if you have small kids be aware that it’s a 30 minute uphill walk so allow plenty of time – you don’t want to miss the train.
There’s a small museum at the station which you could take a quick look in – entry is “free with donation.” There are a couple of interesting-ish exhibits here about how the viaduct was built, but if you’re pressed for time skip it and just grab a map of the route from the information desk.
From the station you cross the road and walk in between the former railway carriages (one had a restaurant in it but we didn’t look inside). You then follow a boarded path through the woods which takes you under the railway tracks and up across the hillside above the station.
Cue some spectacular views (if you’re lucky with the weather) of Loch Shiel, which was also used in the filming of some Harry Potter films. I think the scene from The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry flies on Buckbeak was shot over this loch but correct me if I’m wrong! Loch Shiel was also featured in The Goblet of Fire when it stood in for Hogwarts Lake.
The views on the trail from the Visitor Centre are nowhere near as pretty as this route so if you’ve got the time and inclination I’d recommend this walk. Although the advantage of walking from the Visitor Centre is that you can walk under the viaduct itself and see it up close.
Watching the Harry Potter train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Continue on past the Loch Shiel viewpoint and very soon the viaduct itself will come into view. Even if you’re not in time to see the Jacobite cross, it’s still worth seeing. It’s quite spectacular. Glenfinnan viaduct has 21 arches and was built at the same time as the Fort William to Mallaig train line itself, which opened in 1901.
When you arrive at the viewpoint there’s a good spot just off the path to the left, where we stood, which gives quite a high but full view of the viaduct. If you keep going on the path there’s a slightly lower, closer but busier viewpoint which is where everyone who walks up from the visitor centre ends up.
You’ll hear the steam train before you see it – the driver is kind enough to give you a heads up just as the train swings into view by tooting the train’s horn several times. It does slow down slightly to cross the viaduct to give everyone a good view, but you still have to be quick with the camera!
It’s definitely a fun thing for the kids to see although they did get a bit fidgety waiting for the train to turn up!
How to photograph the Jacobite steam train
Both the aforementioned spots offer good views; our viewpoint was slightly further away from the train but if you have a DSLR or camera with a decent lens it shouldn’t matter too much. If you take photos on your phone’s camera you might find the closer viewpoint is better unless your phone has a quality zoom.
Plan out your shots before the train arrives. I found my 18-55mm DSLR lens was fine for the shots I wanted, and unless you have two cameras you won’t have time to swap lenses – I didn’t have time to change to my 70-300mm zoom lens as the train goes over the viaduct relatively fast.
If you want pictures of the view without anyone else in them consider using the higher spot, or frame your photo using vegetation if you can. As with anything like this, try to enjoy the moment as well as taking pictures or filming!
Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan Monument
After you’ve watched the train cross the Glenfinnan viaduct, why not walk down to Loch Shiel to enjoy the views and take a look at the Glenfinnan Monument? If you walked from Glenfinnan Station like us, you might like to walk back under the viaduct to see it up close and personal.
The scenery in this area is wonderful and it’s well worth spending a bit more time enjoying it. Although we didn’t, you could walk up the hills behind the viaduct for a view showing both Loch Shiel and the viaduct itself.
The Glenfinnan Monument is a tower on the banks of Loch Shiel and it has an exceptionally pretty outlook. It’s dedicated to the Jacobite uprising and there’s a large exhibit in the visitor centre about this and Bonnie Prince Charlie which history buffs will be interested in.
You’re able to climb the tower if you like, and I expect the views from the top are fantastic on a good day. Climbing the tower and visiting the exhibit costs £4 per adult, £3 for concessions or £10 for a family ticket.
Unfortunately for us the heavens opened just as we reached the monument, low cloud rolled in to cover the view of the loch and we had to beat a hasty retreat back to the visitor centre (the husband was dispatched back up the road on foot to fetch the car while the kids and I sheltered in the cafe!).
How to actually ride the Harry Potter train
About the Jacobite steam train
Although steam train services on the Fort William to Mallaig line were terminated by the 1970s, this didn’t last long. After a break of 15 years or so the steam trains were back to draw in tourists. The Jacobite has been known by a few different names in its time, but it’s now been running along this route for a hundred years in one guise or another.
You can take a journey in first class where you have your own table with large, comfortable seats; or you might want to ride in a Harry Potter style compartment that seats six – just like on the Hogwarts Express. Alternatively there are standard carriages for the trip too.
The steam train has always been popular but thanks to appearances on film and TV, tickets for the journey are more sought after than ever – so plan your journey as far in advance as possible!
How to book a trip from Fort William to Mallaig on the Jacobite steam train
The first thing you need to know about riding the train from Fort William to Mallaig is that it books up really, really far in advance. We booked our first class table about 8 or 9 months in advance and there was only one date left that we could fit into our schedule. The Harry Potter style carriages were already fully booked, and are only available on the morning service.
If you don’t want a first class seat or the Harry Potter carriage then you’ll find the train easier to book. We thought that we may as well go the whole hog though and we were glad we spent the extra money on going first class – we usually don’t do many luxurious things so this was a bit of a treat!
The standard carriages are exactly the same as other normal train carriages in the UK – nothing special at all about them so do try to book first class or a Harry Potter carriage if you want something a bit different.
There are a very limited number of seats available at the station each day – turn up early to book them in person!
Departure from Fort William
The Jacobite steam train departs from the main train station at Fort William. We were a little worried about where to park as everywhere we visited in Scotland was so busy, so we arrived early. The station car park itself was full but we followed the signs for long term parking and found that there were plenty of spaces at the far end about 100m from the station.
We arrived at Fort William station just as the Jacobite was pulling in and so we had some time to look at the train before the departure. You’re allowed up in the driver’s cab to see the mechanisms and if you’re not travelling in first or the Harry Potter carriages then you can look around them. Kids will also be delighted to find a Harry Potter merchandise shop on board too!
First class is a fantastic experience. The seats are actual chairs (with feet!) and they’re very wide and comfortable with arm rests and a thick jacquard fabric, which is very pretty too. Each table has a small lamp on it.
The seats in first class all have tables and are arranged in groups of four on the right hand side and pairs on the left. The best views were from the left hand side, but pretty good from the right, too!
You get a choice of drink as the train departs, and then more later on if you’ve chosen afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea abroad the Jacobite
We also added an afternoon tea to our booking at a much later date and we were glad we did. The weather on the outbound journey to Mallaig was pouring rain and fog so we enjoyed our late lunch as we couldn’t enjoy the views!
The afternoon tea was served in a large wooden box and you can choose from tea or coffee to have with it, or upgrade to a glass of champagne if you like. There are vegetarian options and while there wasn’t a child’s option we ordered one tea for the kids to share and this turned out to be plenty for them.
I’d get on the train hungry as the afternoon tea was huge, with delicious filled sandwiches, two scones (one sweet, one savoury) and several different cakes (chocolate, Victoria sponge, carrot cake and a peanut butter tart). We didn’t need dinner!
Mallaig and the return to Fort William
The journey to Mallaig takes a couple of hours, and the train stops at Glenfinnan station and Arisaig by request. Mallaig is a pretty little fishing village that also serves as a jumping point to the Isle of Skye with regular ferry services (you must book in advance). I’ve already mentioned we were unlucky with the weather the day of our trip and Mallaig was absolutely sodden.
If you’re taking a return journey, then there’s a break of a couple of hours in Mallaig. We spent the first hour darting between different souvenir shops (there is a Harry Potter shop that kids might be interested in), and the second hour sat back on the train as all the cafes were completely full of people sheltering from the relentless rain.
I’d planned to walk up the hill behind Mallaig for the views over the harbour, but that didn’t happen! You could also take an hour’s boat trip to spot wildlife which gets you back in time for the train – book here. Pack a full set of waterproofs in case you get torrential rain like we did!
Fortunately the rain cleared as the Jacobite left Mallaig and so we were able to enjoy the views on the way back. The scenery is as good as they say and we thought that the Jacobite was a highlight of our summer holiday in Scotland.
Interested in more Potter?
Elsewhere in Scotland, there are Harry Potter shops and walking tours in Edinburgh. While none of the films were shot here, JK Rowling lived in Edinburgh and drew much of her inspiration from the city. You can take a Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh while you’re there – click here to book.
In England, you should definitely visit the Warner Bros Studio Tour near London – check out our review here. You could take a walking tour of the capital as some of the London locations are tricky to find. Click here to find out more.
The village of Lacock in Wiltshire was the setting for several films. Some of the village houses were used for exterior shots, like the Muggle house Professor Slughorn hides out in, and the village of Godric’s Hollow where Harry’s parents lived. Lacock Abbey’s cloisters were used to film scenes with the Mirror of Erised. Lacock’s preserved good looks make it a go-to filming location for many costume dramas and period shows – read more about a visit to Lacock here.
Have you been on the Jacobite, and what did you think of it? Is it something your kids would love to do? Let us know in the comments!