August is without a doubt the most exciting time of the 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. Get 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. Edinburgh Festival Fringe – an offshoot festival 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.
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, catalogs 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 4,000 shows spread across almost 328 venues. (There are over 80 different shows taking place at theSpace on the Mile, within the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh City Centre, 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.
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 on sale in the Fringe, as well as the daily offerings at the Virgin Money Half-Price Hut 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 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.