The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a magnet for global arts and culture. It features a range of performances that span far beyond comedy, including drama, music, dance, and more. Both artists and attendees converge from all corners of the world, and if you do it right, it has the potential to be one of your most cherished travel experiences.
The Legacy and Evolution of the Fringe
The Fringe began all the way back in 1947. The Edinburgh International Festival program was underway, and eight theatre companies who weren’t part of the festival’s program decided that they were going to perform anyway. It’s said that this act of rebellion bred the belief that anyone with creativity and passion is able to take part, and this has made the Fringe what it is today.
Over time, the platform has grown massively in scale and scope. Today, it stands as the world’s largest arts festival, and each August, thousands of performers step up onto hundreds of stages all over the city of Edinburgh to present shows for every taste.
The significance of the Fringe extends far beyond Scotland’s borders, too. It provides artists across a number of different disciplines with a unique platform where they can experiment with new work or ideas with wholesome support from the wider artistic community. This has resulted in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival becoming an incubator for talent and innovation of sorts, with the star shows and performers often going on to become influential on the international stage.
Planning Your Stay in Edinburgh
Planning your stay in Edinburgh involves several key considerations, starting with how you’re going to get there.
For those already in the UK, luckily most regional airports right across the country serve direct routes to Edinburgh, which means you have plenty of options options.
These days, AI-powered search engines mean that you can find cheap flights to Edinburgh with relative ease. All you have to do is put in a few details about where you’d like to fly from, how long you’re planning to stay and how many passengers you’re making bookings for. Then the tech will crack on with quickly scanning hundreds of different airlines to identify the best deals. Personally, I would say that August is the high season in Scotland, so try to make sure you book sooner rather than later if you want to avoid disappointment with prices.
In terms of accommodation, there are many options in the city that cater specifically to Fringe attendees. Some even offer special packages that include tickets or shuttle services to venues. Staying central is definitely a good idea, as it gives you easy access to performances and workshops, but that’s not the only option. Staying somewhere more on the outskirts gives you the chance to retreat and relax somewhere quieter at the end of each day, and it also offers a chance to discover lesser-known parts of the city.
Next, let’s tackle logistics. Public transport is probably the best way to navigate Edinburgh during the festival month. Both buses and trams are frequent, affordable, and cover most areas where events take place. Walking tours are another fantastic option if you’d prefer a more intimate look at the city while moving between venues.
Budgeting is another important consideration. Ticketing costs can vary wildly depending on the specific shows you’re planning to see, so it’s a good idea to try and map things out a little bit ahead of time. It’s also important to note that there are plenty of free or Pay What You Want shows available, too.
Comedy at the Heart of the Fringe
It’s fair to say that comedy is the beating heart of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At practically any corner of the Fringe, you’ll find a number of comedic styles vying for your attention. There’ll be everything from traditional stand-up shows to improv performances where unpredictability is the only guarantee. You’ll also find comedy sketches, comedic theatre productions and likely something that matches everyone’s taste.
As well as seasoned professionals and big names, you’ll even find those taking their first steps on stage. To emphasise this point, some of the biggest names in comedy got their start at Fringe. For example, the likes of Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson, Robin Williams, and Mike Myers all performed at Fringe long before they were household names.
Navigating the Different Performances
Given the sheer size of the event, festival-goers are frequently overwhelmed with choices. The best way to get around this is to pick out your non-negotiables first aka the shows that you definitely don’t want to miss. From there, you can build around them with your other interests.
If you’re travelling as a family or group, or require additional accessibility measures, you’ll obviously need to keep in mind that pre-booking is a necessity, especially with several tickets required for each production you see. Depending on the stature of the shows, tickets may sell very quickly owing to popular demand and critical acclaim.
That said, if possible, the best way to experience Fringe is spontaneously. You’ll likely find that your plans will change and new recommendations will come along once you’re there.
Walking into completely random shows can enhance the spontaneity even further. This is a good way to be introduced to artists or shows that you would have otherwise overlooked. I’d suggest leaving slots ‘free’ in your calendar and then randomly picking from the variety of shows available during that window, on a whim.
Ultimately, the key to making the most of the festival is to embrace variety. Be as open-minded as possible to the splendid range of genres, venues and styles on offer. You may start the festival as an avid comedy fan and walk out with a newfound appreciation for opera – you never know what you’ll find!
Iconic Fringe Venues
To put the scale of Fringe into context, back in 2019, there were over 50,000 performances spread across over 300 different venues. While a huge number of different venues are used each year, some are much better known than others.
One iconic place to mention here is the Royal Mile. While not a venue per se, this street is transformed during Fringe. It’s known for its grandeur during the festival and serves as both a stage for performances and a marketplace. You’ll definitely find yourself spending time on the lively cobblestone pathways of Royal Mile during your Fringe experience.
Some other unconventional locations include churches that have been converted into theatres and makeshift tents that are pitched out on open fields. Pop-up venues also appear, including intimate shows in cafes and larger productions hosted in temporary structures, built solely for the event. This kind of uniqueness perfectly embodies the culture of Fringe and is something that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
Notable venues like Greenside @ Infirmary Street and Summerhall are iconic and have been home to countless productions like Order From Chaos and Sad Eyes To Smile With, over the decades. Pleasance Courtyard is another outdoor venue that you’ll likely find yourself at some point, as are the hidden alleyways off Princes Street.
Given the huge number of venues, it’s a good idea to at least vaguely map out hotspot locations on a map. Spontaneity is great but ultimately there should be some method to the chaos – as a tourist briefly stopping by, having at least a basic understanding of the city’s geography is a must.
Beyond Performances: Workshops, Talks, and Events
Another important component of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the exclusive peek into ‘behind-the-scenes’ action. There are many interactive sessions and artist meet-and-greets, which is ideal for spectators with an affinity for the creative arts – these are the opportune events to ask away with all questions about the craft and maybe even get an autograph or photo.
Just as interesting are the expert talks on different art forms. Whether it’s theatre production, dance choreography, or comedic writing, you can gain valuable insights into how the performances are created. These talks are especially useful for those just starting out their careers in the industry.
Other non-performance events to attend are art installations and exhibitions that are aligned with the festival. They aim to complement the Fringe experience and serve as a means of deepening your understanding of the performances.
You might also find that some of your favourite experiences are those that you didn’t pre-plan or even know about before making your way to Edinburgh. For instance, you might find a local busker whose music you fall in love with or an improv comedy sketch on a street corner that has you in stitches. The key thing to understand is that Fringe isn’t just simply an event you attend at a venue. It permeates all throughout the city, and you’re never quite sure exactly what you’ll find.
Edinburgh Beyond the Fringe
It’s easy to get lost in the frenzy of the Fringe Fest, particularly if you’re in a bubble with back-to-back shows on the itinerary. However, it’s important to remember that Edinburgh itself is just a small pocket of a beautiful country. Whether it’s before the festivities begin, in between shows or even after your festival experience has come to an end, I’d highly recommend making some time to explore Scotland beyond the capital.
One way to really engage with Scottish culture is to try the local cuisine, so let’s start there. You’ll find many authentic Scottish dishes readily available at local bistros and pubs. Haggis, Cullen Skink, and neeps and tatties are all good choices. Wash it down with some traditional Irn-Bru!
If you want even more art than what you’ll find at Fringe, there’s plenty to go around in Edinburgh. Whether it’s galleries that house works by widely-known artists like Sir Henry Raeburn’s ‘The Reverend Robert Walker Skating On Duddingston Loch’, or street art and murals that reflect a more contemporary vibe, there’s plenty to see. For a whistle-stop tour, it’s probably worth enquiring with local tourist guides who can give you a rundown of the main art attractions.
Given that Fringe takes over the entire city, you’ll be able to authentically see how locals live amidst all these festivities. Whether it’s through striking up a conversation with stall owners at bustling markets or overhearing baristas in cafes discussing the previous night’s performances, it’s wonderful to see how the wider community embraces the bold and daring Fringe Festival every year.
Embrace The Unexpected
The topic of spontaneity has been mentioned a couple of times already, but let’s lean into it a little bit more. Embracing the unexpected is part of the magic at Fringe, and chance encounters with artists or fellow attendees can lead to stories you’ll think back on for years.
You could find yourself sharing a coffee with an up-and-coming comedian or exchanging ideas about a performance with a seasoned critic from the other side of the world. When you find yourself in these serendipitous moments, don’t shy away from engaging in conversation. You might find these interactions can deepen your appreciation for different art forms.
Last-minute show changes are another inevitable aspect of the Fringe. Sudden schedule alterations or cancellations may be frustrating initially but try to view them as opportunities instead. Maybe a cancellation will give you a chance to see a different show that initially clashed, or maybe you’ll wander aimlessly and stumble upon a show that was even better than the one you were going to see in the first place.
Even if that latter point sounds unlikely, it’s not. Often it’s those unscheduled, impromptu performances that become festival highlights. They’re a constant theme, and you’re never quite sure where they’re going to go. It could be an incredible street performer who captivates you or an unannounced gig at one of the previously mentioned iconic venues that ends up being your favourite night of Fringe.
If you see a group of people suddenly converge on a public location, don’t fret, it’s not an invasion. It’s probably just a flash mob. You might notice strange, cryptic graffiti around the streets, too. These are just some of the innovative ways that performers like to promote their shows, and it all adds to the importance of embracing the unexpected at Fringe.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s evolution over the years is nothing short of impressive. From humble beginnings into a global phenomenon, it’s perhaps no surprise that people legitimately flock from all over the world to see the magic up close. Do some planning (but not too much), live in the moment, and buy into what Fringe has to offer. You won’t regret it.