Photo by Ivica Drusany/Shutterstock
Photo by Lou Armor/Shutterstock
One of the Royal Mile entrances to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Here’s how to make the most of the biggest arts festival in the world.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of the Edinburgh International Festival announced on April 1 that the city's annual August festivals, including the Fringe, would be cancelled in 2020.
Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, is one of the few cities in the United Kingdom left untouched by the bombs of World War II, making it a beautiful juxtaposition of medieval buildings and modern skyscrapers. At any time of the year in Edinburgh, you can visit Holyroodhouse, one of the Queen’s official residences, take tea in the Elephant House, a café once frequented by J. K. Rowling, and learn about the history of the Scottish people at the National Museum of Scotland. But the city comes alive in August when the astoundingly diverse annual arts festival called the Fringe takes place.
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Begun in 1947 as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe was conceived as the casual cousin to that prestigious and expensive event. Many cities have Fringe Festivals now, but Edinburgh’s was the first. It’s unjuried, meaning that anyone can participate as an artist. The Fringe is principally a theatrical festival, offering everything from one-person shows to fully staged classic musicals, from stand-up to opera to spoken word. In 2018, the Fringe offered 55,000 performances of 3,548 shows, with many venues presenting multiple shows throughout the day and into the night. Thousands of people flock to the city to perform, many hoping to be the next Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Rachel Weisz, or one of the other celebrities who got their start at the Fringe.
Performances take place all over—visiting theater companies rent spaces from restaurants and churches, pubs and schools, or even perform outdoors–but the center of the Fringe is along High Street, particularly in front of St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile (the Old Town’s main thoroughfare). The Fringe Office is located nearby, and theater companies often perform short scenes in the pedestrian area throughout the day to try to draw in theater-goers.
There’s even a Fringe Market that sells items like woven shawls, watercolor prints of Scotland, handcrafted beauty products, farmers’ produce, and locally made small-batch spirits.
The Fringe takes place every August, running from the first Friday through the next 25 days of the month. Plenty of artists arrive before the festival begins to rehearse, and lots stay to enjoy a break after the grueling three weeks of performing, so the feel of the Fringe starts and ends before the actual festival. [Editor's note: The Fringe Festival has been cancelled for 2020, due to coronavirus concerns.]
Tickets are available online or through the Fringe app. Prices range from free to about 40 pounds, less than half the price of a ticket for a most West End or Broadway shows. The majority of tickets are in the range of 5 to 15 pounds. You can book tickets in person at a Fringe office location in Edinburgh as well, but some shows start selling tickets online as early as January, so we recommend checking the official Fringe program in advance. (You can also get a physical copy of the program mailed to you for the price of postage.) The program is the handbook for the Fringe, listing every single one of the thousands of official shows and performances. Note that not all shows run for the entire length of the festival.
Try to book at least one show at one of the “big four” venues—the Assembly, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance, or the Underbelly. They’re the most famous and professional venues, although even there, shows change every 90 minutes or so, keeping the tech elements simple. For a change of pace, wander into a show that’s desperate for an audience; if nothing else, you’ll have a great story to tell!
Don’t overbook yourself, though. One of the joys of the Fringe is taking a chance on a show you stumble upon, buy a last-minute ticket for, and eventually can brag about seeing years later.
As you can imagine, space is at a premium during the Fringe. But the city is also determined to welcome and house as many people as possible. Hotel rooms are actually relatively easy to book because most Fringe performers bunk in rented private houses or apartments. You can also try Airbnb or the Fringe’s official accommodation partner, Edlets.
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An alternative for the adventurous is to stay outside of the city; public transportation in Scotland is extensive and easy to use. You could even book a stay in Glasgow, Scotland’s other major city, which is only an hour’s high-speed train ride away.
The Fringe now runs concurrently with the festival it was meant to be an alternative to, the Edinburgh International Festival. The Edinburgh Book Festival also takes place during the Fringe.
As you might imagine, the festival takes over Edinburgh, a city of about 500,000 people. It’s inescapable in the heart of the city so there’s not much point in heading to the Royal Mile during the Fringe if you’re not excited about watching street performers (so many bagpipers!) and generally enjoying the cheerful buzz that takes over.
Because so many of Edinburgh’s tourist attractions are centrally located, it’s easy to combine attending shows with seeing the sights. In fact, because shows take place in so many venues, you could easily end up catching one very near to the castles, the Scottish Parliament, Greyfriars Bobby, the Elephant House, the Princes Street Gardens, and Arthur’s Seat.
Keep in mind that Fringe shows run nearly all day and night. It’s perfectly possible to watch a show at 9 a.m., then climb Arthur’s Seat for a lunchtime picnic, visit the Edinburgh Book Festival for a panel discussion in the afternoon, and attend another show in the evening. Bring your walking shoes, and plan to spend time wandering down the Royal Mile and through the many lovely parks in the city.
This article originally appeared online on April 23, 2019;; it was updated on April 2, 2020, to include current information.
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