Edinburgh's Legendary Fringe Festival
The famed festival turns 70 this year, with 9000 performances on 50 stages--and 90,000 people
By Chris Atkin
You’re traveling to the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe. So what should you expect? Entertainment, crowds, variety, energy and flyering.
If that sounds exhausting – it is. But there are plenty of beautiful places to escape the heaving masses for when you need to come up for air.
This year the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is celebrating its 70th birthday. While the Fringe has long been the largest arts festival in the world, the wider event also includes five other festivals in August.
More than 90,000 people visit the festival each year and collectively purchase more than 2 million tickets to see shows.
With so much going on and so much to see, visiting Scotland's capital can appear daunting for first-time visitors, so it’s helpful to work out how you want to prioritize your time at the event before you arrive.
Two months before the Fringe Festival begins every year, the program is published in Edinburgh and online at www.edfringe.com . It’s well worth taking a look at the range of genres, from comedy, to dance, to music and everything in between.
Many first-time visitors to the festival will focus their time on seeing star performers who they know they will enjoy seeing. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t give you a taste of the true essence of the Fringe Festival.
After all, if you just wanted to see the big names, you could have saved on the train fare and waited until they performed in your hometown.
A far better plan would be to read some of the program notes for a variety of performers you haven’t heard of, decide whose spiel strikes a chord with you, and take a chance on them, before going to see one ‘headline’ act each night, such as a famous performer in the prime-time evening slots.
In vaunted venues such as The Pleasance, The Gilded Balloon, The Underbelly and The Assembly Rooms, tickets for household names are around £17, with smaller acts priced at around £11. Faced with such a smorgasbord of entertainment around every corner, it’s easy to overspend.
Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid this.
The Free Fringe
Since 1995 the Free Fringe has existed to help acts avoid having to pay thousands of pounds to venues in order to perform. The shows are all free to watch and are performed in a variety of pubs, in the basement of restaurants and in large storage units. The quality will vary wildly from the simply superb to the anodyne.
The Free Fringe represents the beating heart of the festival. Traditionally relied upon by youthful cash-strapped performers, several well-known acts are now harnessing the popularity of the Free Fringe to perform to large, appreciative crowds.
For all the performances, while the shows are free and you are under no obligation to pay, the acts will usually hold a bucket at the end of the show and ask for you to contribute some change, depending on how much you enjoyed their performance.
Although it’s not part of the Free Fringe, another place to catch a free show is at the BBC’s festival base.
This has several free music and comedy shows every day and records many shows live from Edinburgh during the festival.
If you’re lucky one of your friends might spot you in the crowd on television!
The BBC’s location has changed in recent years, but for the past two years has been at George Heriot’s School on Lauriston Place.
Another key point to remember is when you’re planning your itinerary each day, don’t be too ambitious. Although you’re sitting down (usually!) for the shows, seeing more than four shows a day will tire you out and cause you to miss much of the festival atmosphere. This reaches its peak along the Royal Mile where crowds watch street performers, singers and dancers compete for the tourists’ attention.
If you do plan a busy itinerary (good for you – there’s a lot to see) make sure you leave enough time between one show finishing and another starting to get to the next show.
As venues are spread across the city, trying to move through the thronging crowds to navigate across Edinburgh’s labyrinthine cobbled streets takes a deceptive amount of time.
There’s no joy to be had getting stressed about being late for a show or fretting that the act may pick on you if you walk in mid-way through a show (if indeed you are allowed in at all).
Where to Eat
Almost all of the shows begin after midday and where you’ll end up eating will often be influenced by where the last show you saw was, or where the next one will be. Fortunately, Edinburgh is littered with cheap places to eat.
During the festival there is a range of hot dog, burger and pizza stands along the Royal Mile and near several of the major venues.
If you fancy eating some traditional Scottish food while you’re in the country, try The Piemaker on South Bridge road. As well as the haggis pies, they also have a greasy tattie dog (a frankfurter style pork sausage wrapped in a crispy potato rosti).
Alternatively, you could go to Auld Jock’s Pie Shoppe on the corner of Grassmarket to enjoy a jacket potato filled with haggis. Indulge your sweet tooth by trying the Scottish specialty of a fried Mars Bar from a fish and chip shop. They’re delicious, but you won’t want two of them!
For something a little more wholesome, enjoy a guilt-free homemade cake at the charity-run Serenity Café on Chrichton’s Close which is staffed by people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. Or visit the Elephant House café on George IV Street where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.
If you fancy something a little stronger, the Edinburgh Cocktail Festival runs throughout August and is a great place to relax near the bottom of the Royal Mile, with live bands playing throughout the day.
Edinburgh is a marvelous city to visit outside of the festival season too. There are few cities that offer the sense of escapism that Arthur’s Seat provides. Formed by an extinct volcano, the hill can be seen across the capital and has been immortalized in film and literature – in recent years by David Nicholl’s book ‘One Day’. Walking up the short, steep ascent, invariably reinvigorates both mind and body.
And if it doesn’t, there’s plenty of space in the surrounding countryside to enjoy a picnic or a nap. From the summit, you can see the columns on Carlton Hill in the distance and it’s well worth visiting the Dugald Stewart Monument to see for yourself the view printed on so many of Edinburgh’s postcards.
Beneath Arthur’s Seat lies the Scottish Parliament, which frequently holds exhibitions and runs tours for those interested in learning more about Scotland’s devolved government. More about Scotland’s history can be discovered by visiting the tourist-magnet of Edinburgh Castle.
In the event of rain, the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street and the Scottish National Gallery are two excellent places to spend a few hours for free.
Also on in August
Edinburgh International Festival (for classical music, drama, and dance) www.eif.co.uk
Edinburgh International Film Festival (the world's longest continually-running film festival) www.edfilmfest.org.uk
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (includes outdoor military display teams, bands, and dancers)
Edinburgh International Book Festival (Europe’s largest book festival, featuring readings and debates) www.edbookfest.co.uk/
Where to Sleep
Finding accommodation during August is notoriously difficult, but if you are looking for a cheaper alternative to hotels, university dormitory rooms (which are vacant during the summer holidays) are a good option.
Edinburgh University www.ed.ac.uk/home
Heriot-Watt University www.edinburgh-conference.com/
Napier University www.napier.ac.uk/
Chris Atkin is a freelance broadcast journalist, sports fanatic, and stand-up comic. He lives in London. Find him on Twitter @Chrisjat.