It’s the largest arts festival in the world. There are 50,000 performances of well over 3,000 shows across a whole month. Squillions of people visit Edinburgh every August for the Edinburgh Festival, Fringe Festival, Military Tattoo, Book Festival and all the other events.
Learn how you can skillfully navigate this mayhem like a local.
Where is the festival?
Every accommodation description will tell you its ‘near the festival’ but what does that mean?
Most events are in the town centre but they’re pretty spread out. With over 500 venues ranging from theatre halls to public bathrooms there’s no one central place. It’s more a series of smaller hubs and individual locations.
Make sure you know exactly which venue you’re going to. The names can be very similar and the locations not quite where you’d expect.
Assembly Mound is not at Assembly Halls. Pleasance Dome is not on the Pleasance!
Where to stay
Staying in the Old Town is best for the Fringe Festival as it’s near a large proportion of venues. The Grassmarket, Royal Mile and Cowgate are lively areas for bars, restaurants and a good concentration of the Festival venues.
New Town is more upmarket and will be a little quieter but still walking distance as long as you don’t mind a bit of a hill to get into the town centre.
Further afield we have places like Marchmont, Tollcross and Gorgie/Dalry to the south. These are all around 20-30 minutes bus ride from the centre.
Or to the north there’s the famous Leith. Some areas of Leith have a bit of a reputation but the main road into town, Leith Walk, is full of independent shops, multi cultural restaurants, and there’s a lively artistic community.
University halls of residence are hired out over the summer and can be much cheaper than big hotels. They’re clean but basic. Use the University Rooms website to search for a room. Just check the location on the map before booking.
There are camping and caravan sites around the edge of the city too which are cheaper but not as handy.
Use Google Maps to see how far your prospective accommodation is from St Giles Cathedral. That’s on the Royal Mile so a good proxy for the ‘centre’ of the Festival.
There are no e-tickets, you need to collect your physical tickets instead. The Royal Mile ticket office has reeaally long queues but there are loads of other collection locations.
Since you’ve got the map open check out where the other collection points are.
Getting around Edinburgh
Walking is easiest but it can get confusing as Edinburgh’s Old Town has roads that run underneath other roads and little wynds that cut between streets. Prepare for some steep hills and steps too.
The bus system is focused on going into and out from the centre of town along main arteries rather than round the houses (which can have its own drawbacks). Go to the Lothian Bus website for maps and timetables.
Single fares are £1.60 no matter how far you go. There are no transfers, you have to pay again if you swap busses. The bus driver doesn’t have change so have the exact change ready.
To make things easier you can get bus tickets on your phone. If you don’t want to use a lot of mobile data, or you’re staying a little longer you can get a prepaid citysmart card from one of the Lothian Bus Travel Shops.
Download the My Bus Edinburgh app before you go. You can see all the bus routes and stops, set your favourite stops, and it tells you how long there is to wait for any bus at any stop. Lothian Bus also have their own app but I find My Bus is better.
You can always ask the drivers for help… but if you’re the third person in a row to do that the locals will start tutting and rolling their eyes at you.
Where to eat
There are hundreds of superb restaurants in the city to suit any budget and taste. But eating out is a bit different when you’re on your own. If you don’t want a table service dinner or are pressed for time there are still lots of options.
- Mosque Kitchen: 31-33 Nicholson Square
The Mosque Kitchen offers cheap, hearty, delicious Indian food in the Old Town. It’s between The Pleasance and University areas which are both major hubs for shows.
It’s cafeteria style service so go up to the counter and pick up your food then just find an empty seat. It’s much easier for a solo traveller because everyone just slots in where there’s a free seat.
Note that it closes for a short time on Friday lunchtime for prayers.
- Waverley Mall: 3 Waverley Bridge
If it’s raining and you’re near Princes Street pop in to Waverley Mall. It’s right off the station too so very handy for transport. Plus you can do some shopping while you’re there.
The food court has a range of meals from sushi to pizza, fast food or baked potatoes. It’s open seating so it’s very easy to find a space for one.
- Marks and Spencer: 54 Princes Street
It doesn’t look like it but there’s actually an M&S supermarket underneath their Princes Street shop. They have packaged sandwiches and lunch items as well as ingredients for doing your own cooking.
- Food stalls: Everywhere
A lot of the Festival venue hubs have food and drink stalls. So George Square, The Pleasance Courtyard, the Udderbelly will all have burgers, noodles, crepes, that kind of quick fix.
Queues aren’t normally too long either.
Is it safe?
Edinburgh is a pretty safe city and there’s a bigger police presence during the festival to keep things in line.
The biggest issue will be the crowds. Especially around the Royal Mile or the festival hubs where there could be thousands of people at any one time. It’s an inviting place for pick pockets and opportunists.
Keep your belongings secure. Keep your bag close to your body and properly zipped up.
The street performers can be amazing but don’t get so absorbed that you don’t notice someone dipping into your bag.
If you’ll be out late remember some venues don’t normally have so much footfall and the area might be dead at night. Plan your onward travel in advance and take taxi phone numbers with you.
What shows should you see
With so many shows to choose from use the website rather than scouring the 450 page printed brochure to find something to see. You can specify timeslots, locations, genre and key word to drill down into something you’d like.
Reviews are helpful but the official fringe website only allows the person who booked the ticket to review the show online, and some performers don’t allow reviews on there.
Look in the free specially published guides and in newspapers for recommendations, or ask the people you meet while you’re there.
Lots of places use a chalk board to write up the names of that day’s sold out shows. They’ll show you what’s popular so you can get a ticket for another day.
Scheduling – not just for organisation lovers
You’ll need to be organised if you want to pack in a number of shows in one day. Most are 1 hour long but they could be longer or shorter. They don’t have nice organised half-hourly start times, it’s every 5 minutes.
- Start by making a short list of shows you like
- Transfer the key information to a spreadsheet or time planner app.
(I’m old school and do this by hand, writing times down the side of a grid and each show in a different column along the top. Then I shade in the timeslots so I can see the overlaps at a glance)
- Pick out which shows would fit together into one day. Leave at least 1 hour between one show finishing and the next one starting.
- Transfer your finished schedule to your planner!
Get the EdFringe app to see what’s on near your current location, what’s at the half price hut, your calendar and maps. It’s really handy if you’re rushing from one place to another and you want to check the map for the exact place.
What’s that? You want some more advice?
- Queue up early
Give it half an hour if you can. It takes some logistics to get everyone into and out of the rooms. Plus seating is not assigned so if you want a good seat you need to get there early.
- Keep cool
Edinburgh isn’t known for its heat but most venues don’t have air conditioning, windows and other such luxuries. Add 50 people and some bright lights into that room and it can get very stuffy.
Take water and a paper fan with you. Flyers make a good fan, there’s no shortage of those!
- Take snacks
Save money by bringing a packed lunch, or just have a snack bar in your pocket for emergencies. If you’re in a long queue you won’t want to lose your place to hunt for food
- Half price hut
The hut is by the galleries at Princes Street. They sell half price tickets for shows later that day.
- Free tickets
If you’re willing to take a gamble you can sometimes get free tickets from promoters on the street. (I once saw an utterly terrible show set in the inside of Celine Dion’s mind that way.)
Or if you’d rather choose for yourself there’s hundreds of free shows in the listings. Just be prepared to give a donation at the end. Be a good person.
- Prepare for all weather
Bring a light rain coat instead of an umbrella. Unless you want it to join the umbrella graveyards that build up around every bin on a windy day. Edinburgh can get VERY windy.
Layer up your clothes so you can adjust as the weather changes every ten minutes.
- Escape the crowds and explore
It’s not all about the shows. Go and see the castle and galleries. Take a walk up Arthur’s Seat or Calton Hill. The Royal Botanic Gardens is a beautiful escape from the noise and crowds.
- Forgive the locals
For a few years I had to walk along the Royal Mile to get to and from work every day. After 9 hours in the office, an IT failure and a 3-hour meeting I’m not going to be in the mood to wait for tourists to take pictures.
Locals have busy lives to lead as well as the festival to contend with. Please forgive us if we’re not as welcoming as we could be sometimes. We’re sorry!
Do you have any other gems to share? Pop them in the comments below…