When you think of Edinburgh, you might picture the dominance of Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock. Or streets lined with grand Medieval architecture or the view along The Royal Mile. And 11 times out of 12 you’d be right. But for one month a year, Edinburgh changes. Its voice rises, its heartbeat soars and its crowds multiply.
That’s the effect of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Now in its 68th year, the ‘Fringe’ is the largest arts festival in the world. Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors over the three week period, it’s a far cry from the eight theatre groups that arrived – uninvited – to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. And while the Fringe has enjoyed enormous success, so too have many artists whose careers were launched on one of its 299 venues. But when you look at the history and the numbers, the Fringe can seem a daunting prospect – where to go? Who to see? Where to begin?
Luckily, James Ley (Airbnb host, Edinburgh local and someone who’s written and produced plays for the Fringe before) helps to guide visitors through the crowds, tents and cobbled streets.
James: I was actually born in Edinburgh. Then I spent a number of years living in London before I eventually moved back up to Leith, which is just 2 miles out of the city centre.
There’s something wonderful about Edinburgh. It’s a small city but it’s also very cultural when it comes to its history and traditions, but also on its foodie scene. There are plenty of restaurants and really good places to eat and have a drink, both in the city and further out towards the suburbs.
When it’s out of season (November – January) the area is a lot quieter which means it’s perfect for a relaxing city break and for people who like to take their time and make their own entertainment.
Then in August, the city transforms. It comes alive and everywhere becomes a venue. When it comes to August in Edinburgh, there’s an explosion of everything – it gets wild!
There are stalls selling street food pop-up throughout the city and pretty much every pub and bar gets a late license. So instead of closing at midnight or 1am, they stay open until 3am or even 5am which gives festival goers and locals a chance to really soak up the atmosphere.
But before you focus on the nightlife you need to work up a thirst and that’s exactly what you’ll do by spending a day watching some of the festival’s 50,000 performances.
James: Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre lies just to the West of Edinburgh Castle and both are a must-see for visitors. The Traverse is where a lot of the major uk companies go so it’s perfect for theatre lovers. If it’s comedy you’re after, then you should look into checking out venues like the Gilded Balloon, Underbelly and the Pleasance Theatre. These three venues are less than a mile apart and will give you plenty of laughs. You might also be able to see a handful of comedians at the start of their career.
That’s the beauty of the Fringe – you get to see established favourites alongside performers who could be the next big thing. In fact my advice would be don’t just go for the big, headlining shows. Use the opportunity to explore the uncovered talent as well. Part of that for the first-time Fringe-goers is to recognise that free tickets doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. Remember that there are 3,000 shows going on so it can be hard to get an audience, even for the well known shows. Some of my favourite festival shows have been to free ticket events.
And after a day of that, you’ll probably be in for a drink, and when it comes to nightlife, there’s no shortage of venues to relax in and talk about the day’s performances.
James: Edinburgh’s got a great selection of food and drink venues.
For food, The Dogs is a brilliant restaurant. It does really good food with lots of funky twists on traditional dishes and it’s not that expensive for the city centre. Then there’s Mother India cafe in the city. They do tapas sized portions of indian food at pretty good prices. Or if you’re after something that you can get your teeth into. the Cambridge bar does amazing burgers! Although everyone knows about them so you’ll probably have to book beforehand.
Then for drinks there’s ‘Bramble’ which is a cool cocktail bar on Queen St between Holyrood Park and the Royal Botanic Garden. It’s got an interesting selection of cocktails and the staff are really friendly too. And if cocktails are what you’re after, Bon Vivant is on nearby Thistle St. The staff keep the menu fresh with regular changes and they focus on sourcing regional and local produce.
If you’re after something a little more traditional, there’s always the Cafe Royal. It’s a really old fashioned bar in the city centre, just off Princes St. It was actually built in 1863 so it offers a taste of traditional Edinburgh. It was designed by local architect, Robert Paterson, and the interior and the stained glass windows make for a spectacular setting for a quiet drink.
And if it’s a quieter, relaxing evening you’re after, you can jump on a bus and head out of the city centre to escape the crowds. The outer neighbourhoods like Leith or Stockbridge are quieter than the city but still have pubs and restaurants so they’re a nice ‘escape route’. Portobello is only 20 minutes on the bus from the city centre and sits on Edinburgh’s east coast and is incredibly peaceful. It’s the perfect remedy for winding down after a day of exploring all Edinburgh has to offer.