August is without doubt the most exciting time of year in Edinburgh: the city erupts with festival fever, and it feels as if the entire world has come to take part. With more than half a dozen different festivals held across the city throughout the month, there’s a seemingly endless array of performances, exhibitions, tours and other activities taking place in every bit of free space across the Scottish capital – from theater and dance, to comedy, music, spoken word and more.
It’s exciting, colorful and chaotic in equal measure – and sometimes overwhelming, especially if you’re attending for the first time. To make sure you get the most out of the experience, we’ve put together our top insider tips to help you navigate the festival madness like a pro – from insight on this year’s top acts and where the busiest festival venues are likely to be, to local advice on breezing through the crowds, and where to escape if it all becomes too much.
Edinburgh’s festivals – a quick introduction
Edinburgh first gained its status as a festival city in 1947, when the world-renowned Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was founded – a carefully curated program featuring the world’s leading arts organisations. This year also saw the birth of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – an offshoot created to provide a space for acts who weren’t accepted to perform in the original festival, and which has over the years expanded to become the world’s largest arts festival. In 2017, these 2 core festivals are celebrating their 70th anniversary.
Other festivals now staged in Edinburgh during June, July and August include the Edinburgh International Film Festival; the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival; the Edinburgh International Book Festival; the Edinburgh Art Festival; and the Edinburgh Mela. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is also staged in August on the Castle Esplanade. There’s truly something for every taste!
How do I decide what to see?
You can pick up brochures, catalogues and flyers for Edinburgh’s various festivals and individual shows at locations throughout the city, as well as online. Most program information is available from June, so start planning early and book quickly if you want tickets for well-known or popular performers.
But what if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of choice, and really don’t know which acts to see? The Fringe in particular can be difficult to get a handle on, with over 3,000 shows spread across almost 300 venues. (There are 71 different shows taking place at theSpace on the Mile, within the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh, alone.) You can simply take a risk on a couple of shows – if you like the poster, perhaps, or you’re persuaded by an enthusiastic leafleteer you meet on the Royal Mile. This approach can sometimes reveal hidden gold, with surprisingly good performers you might never otherwise have seen. However, there’s also the chance you’ll see some real duds – but most seasoned Fringe-goers will tell you this is all part of the authentic experience.
For locals, the most common approach is to keep an eye on the reviews right from the start, or listen out for word-of-mouth endorsements – the best way to narrow down the festival field. Do a bit of research to find out which acts were popular in previous years, or are already generating advance buzz – for example, the comedians we’ve identified below…
The top comedy acts at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe
Comedy is one of the most popular genres at the Edinburgh Fringe, with many big-name acts getting their start at the festival. Our analysis of online search trends shows that in 2017, prospective Fringe-goers are already searching for a number of comedians online – making them a pretty safe bet if you’re looking for a laugh. You can see the top 5 below, then read on to discover the full top 10 and the venues where they’ll be performing.
Frankie Boyle: The sometimes controversial Scottish comedian is a local favorite and will be familiar to many audiences from his appearances on TV shows such as Mock the Week. He seems to be popular amongst fans of Jimmy Carr and Kevin Bridges, so if they make you chuckle, check him out.
Venue 150@EICC, August 5th-9th, 20th-24th
James Acaster: A 5-time nominee for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, James Acaster is often searched for alongside names like Ed Gamble and Josh Widdicombe. You might know him from shows like Room 101 and Russell Howard’s Stand Up Central.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 2nd-27th
Lee Nelson: A popular alter-ego of comedian Simon Brodkin (hence the many searches for the question, “Is Lee Nelson real?”), this cheery character’s Serious Joker tour is already a hot ticket at the 2017 festival. Also popular with fans of Al Murray.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 2nd-13th, 17th-27th
Al Murray: One of Britain’s best-known comedians, Al Murray returns as his popular character The Pub Landlord to invite festival-goers to his lively saloon. Tag along if you also enjoy the likes of Richard Hill and Richard Henry.
Assembly George Square Gardens (Venue 3), August 17th-27th
Tim Vine: This 2-time winner of the “Best Joke of the Fringe” award is known for his punchy one-liners and multiple TV appearances. He’s frequently searched for alongside his journalist brother, Jeremy Vine.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 2nd27th (not 9th or 16th)
Sara Pascoe: The stand-up and best-selling author of Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body is back at the Fringe with a new show. Fans also search for Katherine Ryan and Pascoe’s ex-boyfriend, John Robins.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 2nd - 27th (not 14th)
Nina Conti: An award-winning comedian and ventriloquist who will be familiar to fans of Live at the Apollo and Russell Howard’s Good News, Conti has 2 shows at this year’s Fringe.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 23rd-27th; and Pleasance at EICC (Venue 150), August 17th - 24th
Simon Amstell: The previous host of TV shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Popworld is previewing his tour at the Fringe. He’s frequently searched for alongside Mark Lamar, and former colleague Noel Fielding.
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), August 17th - 19th
Paul Zerdin: A past winner of America’s Got Talent, the British comedian and ventriloquist is doing a short run at this year’s Fringe. If you’re also interested in the likes of Terry Fator and Mat Franco, don’t miss out!
Assembly Hall (Venue 35), August 22nd-24th
Henning Wehn: Known as “The German Comedy Ambassador to the United Kingdom”, this unlikely stand-up star has many TV appearances and awards to his name. Fans of Stewart Lee should check him out.
The Queen's Hall (Venue 72), August 3rd-6th, 10th-13th, 17th-20th
You can view performance times and book tickets for all shows on the Edinburgh Fringe website.
Heatmap of Edinburgh’s busiest Fringe venues
Remember, if you’re aiming to avoid the densest crowds, the venues where these popular comedy acts are performing will likely be amongst the busiest at the time of their shows. Check out the heatmap below to find out where to avoid, when:
Other festival buzz
Our research provided a bit more insight into the minds of festival goers – including some of the slightly odd questions people have thought to pose about their favorite comedy acts. Brush up on the following (and find the answer if you can) if you’re keen get in on those lively festival pub conversations and burning debate:
• How tall is James Acaster?
• Is Ruby Wax still alive?
• Is Jason Byrne related to Ed Byrne?
• Is Al Murray related to David Cameron?
• Is Frankie Boyle, Sara Pascoe, Henning Wehn or Simon Amstell vegan?
• What height is Richard Herring?
Our top tips for the Edinburgh festivals
A few more pointers to help you cruise through Edinburgh’s August crowds with ease and get the most from your festival experience:
• Remember you can buy festival tickets at many individual venues, as well as the main box offices – useful to know when the lines are particularly daunting.
• Take advantage of the cheap preview tickets and 2-for-1 deals available early in the Fringe, as well as the daily offerings at the Half-Price Ticket Booth located at the foot of The Mound (beside the National Gallery of Scotland).
• Checking out Edinburgh’s fabulous and unique venues is all part of the fun. Some of the more unusual spaces being used this year include a bathroom at Assembly Hall, a flooded abandoned church in Leith, Hibernian Football Club and the Commonwealth Pool.
• Allow plenty of time to get to your venue, especially if you don’t know the city well – remember that many streets will be filled with slow-moving crowds.
• Every festival has some free shows, exhibitions or events, which are ideal if you have a limited budget or simply want a commitment-free taster of what’s available. Be sure to check out the talented street performers, too!
• Dress sensibly – Scotland’s weather is famously changeable, so be prepared for both rain and sun. Even if the day is warm, temperatures drop once the sun goes down and the breeze picks up.
• Wear good walking shoes. Edinburgh’s streets are steep and cobbled, and although the city has an excellent public transportation system, with August traffic it’s often faster to get around on foot. Plus you’ll get to soak up more of the atmosphere!
The best places to escape the crowds
No matter how much you’re enjoying the non-stop action of the Edinburgh festival, at some point you may find yourself in need of a little time out. There’s no shame in stopping to recharge your batteries, and there are plenty of ways you can temporarily escape the August mob.
For starters, remember that the Fringe Festival takes place all over Edinburgh: there are a number of venues that are outside the city center, and consequently quieter. For example, you can catch opera at Musselburgh Racecourse; children’s shows in the Duddingston Kirk Manse Gardens; or dance at Dalkeith Country Park. Another popular choice is to take in the Fringe by the Sea program (7th-13th August) in picturesque North Berwick, just a half-hour from Edinburgh on the train. The Book Festival tends to have a more laid-back tone as well – its tranquil, grassy site in Charlotte Square Gardens is the perfect place to laze in the sun with your next read.
If you need a proper timeout and are craving a bit of green space, try the Princes Street Gardens or the Meadows, or go for a stroll along the Water of Leith, a tranquil river that runs through the city center. Feeling energetic? Climb Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat to clear your head and admire the dazzling views. The Royal Botanic Garden in the New Town even hosts a selection of shows and exhibitions within its peaceful grounds, so you can still get a bit of culture alongside the natural beauty.