Built between 1829 and 1834, Victoria Street is the masterpiece of architect Thomas Hamilton, the man behind Edinburgh’s network of neo-classical wonders. The street was built to replace one of the city’s main thoroughfares, the West Bow — an inconvenient z-shaped slither of a frightfully steep lane providing access, albeit tricky, from the Grassmarket area to Castlehill. The majority of the West Bow was wiped out when Hamilton stepped in. Once more, Victoria Street was actually named Bow Street until 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne.
How could it not be? With JK Rowling crafting the Harry Potter books in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh is famed as a Potter pilgrimage site. With its higgledy piggledy array of vibrant buildings, shops of all sizes and descriptions, noteworthy arches, cobblestones and general air of eccentricity, it’s no surprise that Victoria Street is the inspiration for the ever-so fabulous Diagon Alley.
A magical emporium purveying official Harry Potter merchandise and fantastical finds by local artisans, Victoria Street now has its very own Ollivanders in the form of Diagon House. Before its Hogwarts days, 40 Victoria Street was quite the institution — Robert Cresser’s Brush Shop. From bagpipe cleaners to chimney dusters, and everything else in between, this Dickensian store was in operation from 1873 until 2004. A worthy achievement.
The eclectic mix of colourful buildings form a large part of its signature charm and distinct allure. When Thomas Hamilton gutted the old West Bow as part of the city’s 1827 Improvement Act, he did so to improve access across the Old Town. Unlike his usual neo-classical stamp, he received orders that the architecture of Victoria Street was to mimic the Old Flemish style. During construction, many of the medieval buildings were demolished, while the notable arches lining the new terrace transformed into shops.
Victoria Street’s stand-out charm is indebted to its arcade of independent shops. Think literary gold stacked upon high in the Old Town Bookshop, artisanal cheeses in I.J Mellis Cheesemonger, the trendy wares of Swish and local art prints lighting up the Red Door Gallery. Hours can be lost marveling at the bespoke goods from these head-turning local businesses.
A hotbed of hilarity and endless banter, Aha Ha Ha is an integral component of Victoria Street and an Edinburgh favourite. The shop’s red façade — complete with giant mustache, nose and glasses — sticks out like a sore thumb, adding an entirely new layer of character to the already bubbly area. Stocked to the brim with card tricks, magic props, costumes and masks, you name it, they have it.
Before Victoria Street was created, the Wizard of the West Bow was a well-known resident. Major Weir, affectionately referred to as Angelical Thomas, was adored as a godly man and pillar of society. But time soon let his intentions known and Major Weir was tried for hideous crimes like necromancy and dark supernatural activities. After admitting to the lot, the newly named Wizard of the West Bow was executed for witchcraft in 1670. His house, which was destroyed with the building of Victoria Street, went unoccupied for a whole century. Reports were that locals deemed it haunted.