How to visit the Edinburgh Festival
A guide to getting the best from the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe
This article is from 2012.
Plan your schedule
The phrase 'planned itinerary' might be at odds with the spirit of chaos and wild abandon you associated with your visit to the Edinburgh Festival. The brutal truth is that shows do sell out, so book tickets to things you definitely want to see. The programmes are announced months in advance, meaning you can buy tickets before you arrive in Edinburgh, but even once you are in the thick of it, organising your schedule can stretch to planning several days ahead and might take an hour or two per day. It might seem abhorrent to postpone leaping out onto the buzzing streets and soaking it all in for one moment longer, but you’ll be thanking yourself later in the day when you’ve got a full evening of shows scheduled, a handful of tickets in one hand, a pint of Hoegaarden in the other and are having the time of your life. People are going to ask what you're doing later, and this way, you can give them an answer and they can plan around you - not the other way round. You can browse full festival listings and plan your schedule at The Edinburgh Festival Guide - which also works on your smartphone.
Embrace the chaos and say 'Yes' to things
Be prepared for encounters with people leading you on to unscheduled experiences. Say 'yes' to things. Any decent festival schedule should also feature occasional periods allocated to spontaneity and chaos where unplanned fun can happen. Be prepared for short-notice changes of plan, drinking, further drinking and eating - more on that below.
As convenient as it might appear to be, do not attempt to sustain yourself purely on sandwiches scoffed inside a dark venue while waiting for the show to start. The venue does not need you littering the floor with your crumbs and stray drips of mayo, and your fellow audience members at the world’s largest arts festival don’t need the sound of you masticating and rustling behind them. Most importantly, your body - which you are about to put through the cultural equivalent of a triathlon - won’t tolerate this kind of poor maintenance. Establish some ground rules, however arbitrary - e.g. eat a green thing every day. Edinburgh is full of great places to eat, and there’s loads of great Edinburgh festival street food to be enjoyed, including gourmet burgers, Indian food, seafood and wood-fired pizza. The List's Eating & Drinking Guide is a good place to start. Also, let us point this out to you: you are in Scotland. Have a deep-fried Mars Bar, have salt 'n' sauce on some chips, eat a venison burger and drink some West Beer. Eat some porridge for breakfast. Try some single malt whisky - (you could do worse than starting with an Ardbeg, Glenmorangie or a Bowmore and you should be able to find all three in most decent bars.)
Wear appropriate clothing
You will experience several types of weather during your festival - often in the same day. In your bag, carry a dry pair of socks, a stylish compact waterproof and some kind of jumper/cardi number for alfresco drinking later in the evening. Install a weather app on your phone. Edinburgh is on a similar latitude to Copenhagen and Moscow. Having said that, sandals and shorts are entirely possible, and a pretty sensible option. You will do a lot of walking, much of it on cobbles, cobbles on steep hills, so wear shoes that can deal with this.
If you’re new to the city, get familiar with the basic geography of Edinburgh. You probably have Google Maps on your phone and there are free paper maps in many festival publications. The festival action takes place in clusters - many of these, such at Underbelly and The Pleasance are all within walking distance of each other in the southside of the city - so figure out the best way between these, as you might need to make these journeys in a hurry. Other key sites such as Assembly Rooms and Traverse are a bit further. If you have access to a bike, Edinburgh is easy to cycle round. Bring one, hire one or buy a cheap second-hand to sell at the end of your visit. Edinburgh has a great bus service - although some routes are subject to tramworks-related disruption and the usual congestion during peak times. A single journey of any distance is £1.40 and a day ticket is £3.50. Taxis are plentiful in Edinburgh and nowhere is very far away. There are additional late-night train services to Glasgow, Perth, Dundee and North Berwick.
Stay up late/go to bed early
Edinburgh is a fairly late-night city most of the year, with plenty of 3am bars, and the August festival licensing pushes these to 5am and there are also many late-night food options. Plenty of shows start after 1am. In short - lots of the fun you will have will be had late on into the night. We’ll leave it to you to manage your sleep patterns, but bear in mind that the calzone and bottle of wine you ordered at 3a.m may impact on your enjoyment of Shakespeare for Breakfast.
Use the daytime
It’s not just about having a night out and partying on into the wee small hours - although there's a place for that - some of the best shows are on during the day. If you have a free morning or afternoon, use it to explore the programme. You can filter by time-of-day at the Edinburgh Festival Guide website. For example, if you have a window between 2pm and 5pm, select ‘Today’ from beneath the search box set ‘starts after’ to 2pm and 'starts before' to 4pm. Sort the results by star rating, date or perhaps narrow your search by selecting an artform (comedy, theatre, dance etc). Pay attention to the URL and have a play around with it to suit your needs exactly. eg: for http://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/events/when:11-Aug-2012/after:1400/before:1700/, to display shows starting at 2.30pm rather than 2pm just manually edit the text in the URL from 1400 to 1430 - so it now reads http://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/events/when:11-Aug-2012/after:1430/before:1700/ and hit return.
Talk to people
Common sense, this one. Like most things, the best way to find out about what’s good is to talk to people. Talk to strangers - they hold valuable information about what’s worth seeing and what isn’t. Tickets aren’t cheap, so this can also save you spending money on something average - or below average. The festival is great for meeting people - many friendships and romances were forged at the Edinburgh festivals. Talk to random people in bars. They may be on holiday too. If you find yourself talking to a like-minded stranger, get their show recommendations from them. Talk to venue staff. Ask taxi drivers what people are going home raving about.
Ignore the hype
The show with the biggest poster may be rubbish. That shoddily-designed flyer handed to you by the same person as the face on it may be one of the best things you ever see. Similarly, that £28 show playing to a full house of hundreds may be outshined in every way by that free show you saw with nine people in the audience in the back room of a pub. The spirit of the Fringe is that all of these shows take place at the same time and that all are competing for you as an audience member and all have equal chance of reaching you.
Look out for bargains
If you’re in Edinburgh early in the festival, keep a look out for free tickets being handed out by shows who aren’t yet selling out who are looking for word-of-mouth recommendations. If you are accosted by someone flyering a show, chance your arm and ask for free tickets - they can only say no. The previews at the beginning of the runs are also cheaper. Later in the festival, look out for the Half Price Hut, 2-for-1 deals, ticket offers, competitions and extra shows being announced.
Loiter with intent
Shows may be billed as ‘sold-out’, but they will have a returns queue. There’s every chance ‘new’ tickets are mysteriously found right before showtime due to cancellations, unclaimed guest tickets or other complex reasons. If it’s not inconvenient to loiter around the venue bar and box office for 30 minutes before the show, give this a go. Members of the public also regularly give tickets away that they can no longer use - often for free.
The power of free
There are hundreds of free shows taking in talks, comedy, music, and theatre. Some of these are by high-profile performers exploring other models and looking for a change, others are free because nobody in their right mind would pay for them. Most of the Edinburgh Art Festival is free. There’s a whole Free Fringe. You can also search only free shows on the Edinburgh Festival website.
Walk out of shows
There's absolutely nothing sacred about the performing arts. Take the same approach to customer service as you would to a bad meal or a poor train journey. Some of the shows with the highest ticket prices, highest production values and taking place inside some of the most respected venues, are complete rubbish. If you find yourself thinking this, please walk out. Walking out of bad shows is a long-standing Edinburgh tradition. Yes, tickets are expensive, but your time is valuable too. Don't be afraid of damaging a performer's ego either. Not walking out is even more damaging - it just encourages them to come back next year with more of the same. A healthy dose of honest feedback might prompt that appalling and deluded writer and performer to retrain as a really great town planner or optician. Voting with your feet in this way is your chance to benefit mankind.
Get outside the comfort zone
Do you hate musicals? Go and see a crazy musical. Never been to see contemporary dance? There is always a strong dance programme at Dance Base. Mime virgin? Sign yourself up to see a bit of mime. The agencies behind the big name comedians might have the marketing clout to cover half your street with images of their new contender's face, but it doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. There’s a massive variety of culture on offer - try something new, find something interesting and learn something about yourself.
Get out of the festival zone
See some shows, but explore some of Edinburgh as well. Both Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill are well-worth walking to the top of. You’ll know when the right moment to do this arrives. Take a walk out to the Modern Art Gallery along the from Stockbridge, visit the pubs of Tollcross, go drinking on the shore at Leith or take a walk around the cobbles of Victoria Street. Take the 26 or 44 bus to Portobello beach or the train to North Berwick beach. Visit Glasgow for the day - it’s only 50 minutes by train.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Think of it as a month-long stag do. There will be peaks and troughs. Keep your wits about you, immerse yourself in it and enjoy the ride. You can sleep in September.