Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A tour of the new JK Rowling movie’s New York

The Harry Potter author’s latest film is set in the NYC of the Roaring Twenties. We joined a tour based on the movie in search of some Big Apple magic

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The Independent Travel

On 23 June, the day Britain voted to leave the European Union, JK Rowling tweeted: “I don't think I've ever wanted magic more.” It’s a feeling many can relate to given the turbulent events of 2016 so far. Fantasy is all about escaping whatever unsavoury reality has been placed in front of us. It’s about sinking, happily, into a version of the universe that is, well, more enchanting. 

Which is why, I suspect, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the Harry Potter author’s new film, and her first ever screenplay – will prove popular with audiences, keen as many are right now to tumble into a world less complicated than their own. (Obviously Potter fanatics will account for a good portion of box office takings, too.) The film, which is released on Friday and stars Eddie Redmayne, is a prequel to the Harry Potter series, although at first glance it features no plot overlaps and none of the same cast. It’s simply another tale which takes place in the same magical world. 

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Manhattan’s skyline has changed somewhat since the 1920s

The story is set in New York in 1926. The film’s protagonist, Newt Scamander (played by Redmayne), arrives in Manhattan having just completed a global excursion documenting an extraordinary array of magical creatures. (As die-hard Potter fans will know, his research will later be turned into a book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which will appear on Harry Potter’s Hogwarts reading list many years in the future.) In typical Rowling fashion, chaos ensues after Scamander’s magical suitcase is misplaced and his collection of curious creatures is unleashed on post-war New York. 

New York or Watford?

It might come as a surprise to some that Rowling decided to set her new story in the US. Harry Potter, after all, has always been a quintessentially British beast. In fact, the film was mostly shot at Leavesden Studios in Watford. But Roaring Twenties Manhattan – though actually played by Watford and, in parts, Liverpool – looks stunning in the film; dripping with decadence and old-school glamour. It’s the height of the Jazz Age and the boom years of the Broadway musical. 

Keen to see for myself, I decide to follow in Scamander’s footsteps, visiting New York in desperate hope of discovering magic is real. It’s a surreal time to visit the city (I arrive on election day) but, with the rest of the country in turmoil, there seems to me no better encouragement to lose myself in a wondrous world of witchcraft and wizardry. To echo Rowling: I, too, have never wanted magic more. 

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The Woolworth Building doubles up as the Magical Congress of the United States of America in the film

I start my exploration with an On Location Tour specifically designed around the new film. As I clamber aboard the bus, it’s obvious everyone around me is as big a Potter nut as I am. No muggles allowed, apparently. Our tour guide introduces herself and explains that the tour of New York sites represented in the film will be interspersed with historical tit-bits about the city, quiz questions about the new movie, and short clips from Fantastic Beasts. A quick word of warning here: do not go on the tour before seeing the film. Not only will you, on a very basic level, get more out of it if you recognise the locations and characters, but you also won’t spend the entire three hours with your hands over your ears desperately trying to avoid spoilers. 

An education in immigration

The bus tour takes us past the Woolworth Building, one of New York’s first skyscrapers. It was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, opened in 1913, and for 17 years was the tallest building in the world. It’s been recreated on screen as the headquarters for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (Macusa), the American version of the British Ministry of Magic. As we cruise past its imposing stature, I can’t help but wonder what the Macusa would make of the United States’ new President-elect. In the film, in fact, the stark and often threatening divide between the wizarding and No-Maj world (No-Maj, by the way, is short for “no magic” and is American for “muggle”) rings horribly familiar. 

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On Location Tours offer a variety of different excursions to explore the city’s cinematic heritage 

But enough of all that pesky reality – back to the film. The bus takes us past the impressive brownstone which inspired the front of new characters Tina and Queenie Goldstein’s house. The Goldsteins are witches who befriend our hero Scamander when he arrives in Manhattan. Brownstones, common across the city, get their name from the Triassic-Jurassic sandstone which clad the buildings. And, with their instantly recognisable stoops flanked by iron-cast banisters, they scream old New York. 

Also on the tour is a decrepit underground speakeasy which inspired the wizarding version, The Blind Pig, featured in the film. Guests are invited to step off the coach and explore further, as well as capture some obligatory selfies. I was disappointed, though, that shots of “giggle water”, an American wizarding alcoholic drink, weren’t served up as refreshments.

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The Tenement Museum recreates Manhattan homes as they would have been in the 1920s (Lower East Side Tenement Museum)

If I’m honest, there’s only so much you can appreciate from a bus – particularly if, as is often the case in busy Manhattan, you find yourself sat in screeching, honking traffic. If you want to delve deeper into some of the film’s sets, I highly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum, which is where Fantastic Beasts’ director David Yates visited, apparently undercover, to suss out the design for one of the character’s apartments. 

The museum tells the story of American immigration from the perspective of the families who lived in the Tenement buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – the city’s most famous immigrant neighbourhood. Located at 97 Orchard Street, the museum – a five-storey brick building – was home to an estimated 7,000 people from more than 20 nations, between 1863 and 1935. Today, the house has been set up to show visitors what life would have been like for the people living there at the time. Even just walking up the steep staircases, with their creaking floorboards and peeling wallpaper, is enough to spark the imagination. 

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The Fowler & Wells bar evokes the Roaring Twenties

My final stop, though, is Fowler & Wells at the Beekman Hotel, a Manhattan bar which immediately transports patrons back to the glittering 1920s. With tinkling piano playing in the background, velvet-cushioned chairs to settle gently into, and a cocktail list to rival any in The Blind Pig, it’s not hard to lose oneself in the opulence of it all. 

And it’s in this, the most elegant of bars, that I finally feel it. Outside, the real world might seem to be tearing itself apart but here… well, I’ve found my own little bit of magic. 

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0344 8747 747; virginatlantic.com) flies six times daily from Heathrow to New York City, with direct flights between Manchester and JFK beginning May 2017. Return fares from £393 per person on selected departures during 2016/17. 

Seeing there

The New York CityPASS costs $114 (approximately £90) and provides free (and often priority) entry to six of the city’s most iconic attractions and museums (citypass.com/new-york).

Staying there

Located in the heart of Lower Manhattan, the Conrad New York (conradnewyork.com) is within walking distance of One World Trade Centre. The One World Observatory, a viewing platform at the top of the skyscraper, opened last year and boasts an impressive view of the city. 

More information

To learn more about the NYC as seen in the film, visit nycgo.com/FantasticNYC

Click here to view tours of New York, with Independent Holidays.

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