Wednesday, March 9, 2022

11 Edinburgh Festival tips to make your Fringe fabulous

There is an ideal cultural marriage – a sort of yin-yang combo of outrageous comedy, emotive theatre and Scottish tomfoolery – which makes the world’s largest arts festival irresistible. 


But with so much to see, knowing where to begin can leave the mind boggling. Here’s how to get your head around the greatest show on Earth.

1. Get smart to see the best shows

Buying festival tickets is a minefield, let no one tell you different. With 50,000-plus shows to consider (many free, most not), the Festival is so ludicrously over-the-top it could have been dreamt-up by Dr Seuss. 

Box Office, Edinburgh FestivalsLudovic Farine/Shutterstock

To make things more digestible, 2-for-1 previews are the norm over the first weekend, while it pays to contend with flyer-touting students, who pounce like dogs in heat if you make eye-contact. If you can survive the sales pitch – “It’s Mad Max-meets-Monty Python for Millennials, yeah?” – you’ll likely score a handful of free tickets.

By the second and third week, however, the critics’ picks are often sold out, so consider the Virgin Money Half Price Hut on The Mound Precinct for last-minute seats.

2. Earn bragging rights with lunch in Leith

If Edinburgh is hallowed ground for festival-goers, the regenerated port area is ground zero for Scots’ cuisine. Ever since chefs and TV regulars Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart opened their eponymous restaurants on the dockside, Leith has been reborn as Edinburgh’s place to see-and-be-seen.

To discover the next star-in-waiting, beeline to Norn, Leith’s latest destination restaurant, where chef Scott Smith’s ever-evolving menu is exquisite. What he can do with just the bread (made with Orcadian beremeal) is worth a festival show in itself.

3. Play Fringe roulette at The Pleasance

Before the Udderbelly (the unmistakeable purple cow-shaped venue on George Square) and The Caves (the series of dingy vaults in the Cowgate’s underbelly), there was The Pleasance Courtyard. Now in its 32nd year, the ever-dependable venue is a long-time champion of new talent and an enduring favourite with performers.

For the quintessential Fringe afternoon, turn up by lunchtime, sink a few beers in the cloisters, then gamble on an unknown. In previous years, you could have seen the unheard-of Stephen Fry, Mike Myers or Flight of the Conchords for less than a fiver.

4. Break from the crowds in the New Town

If locals haven’t escaped the city during festival time, you’ll find them ensconced in the New Town. The world’s first example of a grid-layout city (take that, New York), the neighbourhood celebrates 250 years of Georgian grandeur this year.

Join those-in-the-know over a wow-factor brunch at Jérôme Henry’s bijou Swiss bistro Le Roi Fou, or hunker down with a Deuchars in The Cumberland Bar. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it has a starring role in the works of Edinburgh-based author Alexander McCall Smith.

5. Celebrate 20 years of Edinburgh’s most unusual son

Everyone knows JK Rowling used Edinburgh’s fairy tale backdrop as a blueprint for the Harry Potter saga. But they don’t always know by how much. You can sense it during a nighttime stroll around spooky Greyfriars Kirkyard (look for the headstones with names such as McGonagall and Thomas Riddell), or detect it in the medieval wynds that funnel down from the High Street (an inspiration for Diagon Alley).

Better still, you can stay in Suite 552¾ at The Balmoral, the newly-revamped JK Rowling suite where the author wrote the final chapters of the series.

6. Know where to get the best beer

The Old Town smells of damp anoraks for most of the year, but come August the city takes on a different aroma. The whiff of malt and hops drifts across the Grassmarket from the Caledonian Brewery, and in all the Fringe venues and beer tents the scent of local brews such as Innis & Gunn and Barney’s Beer is overwhelming.

Make time for an IPA at The Pleasance Courtyard (for celeb-spotting), take a picnic blanket to Assembly at George Square (for ace street food), or shelter from the (inevitable) rain at the creaky Library Bar at Bristo Place.

7. Drink gin, not whisky

It’s a banner year for the juniper-infused spirit and thanks to the likes of local labels Pickering’s, Hendrick’s, Eden Mill, Rock Rose and The Botanist, Scotland can rightly claim to be the world capital of craft gin.

For a crash course, meet the makers of small-batch Edinburgh Gin on a sublime distillery tour in the West End, or continue on a tram down Shandwick Place to The Jolly Botanist, an A-grade cocktail bar where gin is king.

8. Splash-out on tickets for the Tattoo

Ask a local and they’ll tell you the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is no better than a tacky tartan shortbread tin. But when savoured from the Castle Esplanade, the union of kilts, pipe bands and Highland jigs is enough to make even a cynic claim Scottish ancestry. If one thousand and one dragoons piping in unison doesn’t tingle your imagination, best see your GP right away.

Edinburgh Military TattooThe Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

9. See a cult comedian with the critics

Two words: The Stand. The closest Edinburgh comes to the classic New York schtick, this New Town stalwart is a don’t-miss basement affair, with a regular roster of the buzziest names on the circuit.

If you like your comedy with a side of soapbox liberalism (Stewart Lee, Bridget Christie and Daniel Kitson are regulars), you’d best start here. Needless to say, it’s often standing room only.

10. Stumble upon a show in an unexpected place

Breathe in that sweet fresh air. Edinburgh is the greenest city in the UK, with almost half its area made-up of parkland, wilderness and gardens, with many recast as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them venues throughout festival month.

On a sunny day, you’ll be hard-pressed to forget a spot of impromptu Shakespeare in Princes Street Gardens, or an off-beat ballet in the Royal Botanics. Wilder still, get lucky and you may see a one-off play atop Arthur’s Seat, the city’s knuckle-shaped volcano.

Street Performer, Edinburgh FestivalDavid Monteith Hodge

11. Discover your inner circus acrobat

Nothing makes you feel more in tune with the festival vibe than a stroll around The Meadows. Like all proverbial hipster areas, the student neighbourhood has the beards, coffee shops and bike lanes, but during August it becomes a gigantic rehearsal ground for acrobats, buskers, trapeze walkers and street performers.

Sign up for a course with Circus Alba at the nearby Summerhall venue, or stretch out on the grass and plan your return to Edinburgh next year.

1 comment:

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