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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 101: A first-timer’s guide

Every August, Edinburgh transforms from being Scotland’s prim and proper capital to the eclectic, eccentric and downright crazy city that hosts the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the biggest arts festival in the world.

Before we get stuck into planning your trip to Edinburgh, a bit more about the festival that calls itself The Fringe…

What is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

Originally starting in 1947 as a slightly rebellious, alternative festival on ‘the fringe’ of the official Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Fringe has expanded every year, with plenty of household names like the Monty Python team, Stephen Fry and the League of Gentlemen performing there in their early careers. To the hoards of visitors who swarm the Scottish capital each year, it’s become the main attraction, although the summer months also see the Edinburgh International Book Festival (12-28 August 2017), the Edinburgh Art Festival (27 July—27 August 2017), as well as the world-class music and theatre of the original Edinburgh Festival. Confused? No matter: come to Edinburgh in August and you can dip into all three!

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe

Now for the planning tips…

When to book tickets for Festival Fringe shows

This year’s Edinburgh festival dates are 5th to 29th August 2016. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme comes out on June 8th this year. The full programme will be on sale at this point although many acts release their tickets at various points from as early as January. People will start booking the big name comedy acts and theatre shows as soon as the programme’s out, so it’s worth spending some time on the website or ordering a copy of the Fringe guide to be sent to you in the post, so that you can have a good look through in advance – although you can pick up a free copy at venues throughout the city once you arrive. Try to book a few unmissable shows throughout your trip itinerary to avoid disappointment and have a little structure to work around for everything else.

Tip: Don’t plan too much!

Yes we are contradicting ourselves, but to really get the full experience you have to be spontaneous. Don’t organise your trip on a tight schedule, leave yourself some gaps between shows to do something completely unplanned. Whether it be eating from an interesting looking fusion-cuisine van you find off the Royal Mile, or going to a show “that starts in five minutes round the corner”, it’s ll part of the fun. You may discover that the free-show was free for a reason, but these stories will become gold-dust when you’re swapping anecdotes with fellow Fringe-goers in the pub.

Where and how to book tickets for Fringe shows

The easiest way to book tickets for Edinburgh shows is to go on the Fringe website, where you can search by venue and artist or browse genres from comedy to dance and physical theatre. You can also ring up the Fringe Box Office from June 8th (0131 226 0000) or the venues themselves. If there are no longer tickets available for a show on edfringe.com, try the venue directly as there may be some available there. Note that booking fees apply if you pay by card over the phone or on the website, but you can avoid this by paying cash at one of the box offices in Edinburgh. You can have your Fringe tickets posted out to you to save time on the day, or simply collect them from the box offices and selected venues throughout the city. Be aware that the collection point will not always be the same venue where the show is, so double-check when you book!

Tip: Buy your Fringe tickets at off-peak times

Once you’ve arrived in Edinburgh, you can buy tickets in person at the Edinburgh Fringe box offices at 180 High Street (Royal Mile) Edinburgh, EH1 1QS, or from The University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre, 2 Charles Street, EH8 9AD. Avoid lunchtimes and evenings, as this is when the locals will be grabbing tickets outside of work, and go as early as you can. For a last-minute bargain, head down to the Half Price Hut at The Mound Precinct. Look for the scrolling board which will tell you which shows are selling half-price tickets for that day – another good reason for leaving windows in your schedule!

Artist outside the Fringe shop on the Royal Mile

Where to stay during Edinburgh Fringe

You’ve probably heard all about rocketing accommodation prices during August, as hotels make the most of visitors in need of convenient rooms. Don’t worry though, there are ways around the costs. Remember to check out our guide to Edinburgh’s hotels for some top recommendations!

Self-catering accommodation in Edinburgh

Renting a room or apartment is a good option for Edinburgh, as you can eat at home instead of pricey Royal Mile restaurants and often grab a place right near the centre of the action. Add the advantage of rooming with locals who’ll likely give you insider tips on the shows that everyone’s talking about this year, and you’ll be off to great start to experiencing all the festival has to offer. Look out for rooms in residential areas like Marchmont, near The Meadows park, or Bruntsfield, on the Southside of Edinburgh, for easy walking distance to venues like the Underbelly George Square, Gilded Balloon at Teviot Row House and the Assembly George Square Theatre. Check private listings websites like Air BnB and Gumtree, or go for something a bit more upmarket like Nicholson Apartments, on the same street as the Festival Theatre.

Hostels in Edinburgh

Hostels are are also likely to hike up their prices for the Edinburgh Festival, but with good locations near Waverley Train Station (St Christopher’s Edinburgh) and Leith Walk (Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel), it’s worth checking them out if you just want somewhere to throw your bag down at the end of the day.

Hotels in Edinburgh

The rules are the same for accommodation in any big city – the further you’re willing to travel, the lower the cost. However, with Edinburgh’s good value bus service, it’s worth considering staying outside the city bounds – you’ll also get the bonus of getting a good night’s sleep with no Fringe revellers outside your window at 4am! Try Minto Street for affordable B&Bs, which is actually the same long road that eventually becomes Nicholson Street and then North Bridge in the city centre. Also consider staying in Leith: this rapidly gentrifying area by Edinburgh’s docks has a plethora of hotels from two starred guesthouses like A-haven Townhouse Hotel to plush harbourside hotels like Malmaison Edinburgh. The area that once inspired Trainspotting is now home to a growing selection of craft ale pubs, Michelin-starred restaurants and brilliant brunch places like Mimi’s Bakehouse where you can recover from the previous day’s Fringing – and fuel up before hitting the city streets again!

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Here are a few Edinburgh Fringe survival tips for you…

1. Be prepared for the weather

Scotland has a funny way of showcasing all its seasons in one day. You can leave the house in shorts and shades, only for the heavens to open two hours later and then the sun reappears once you’ve been soaked to skin and forced to buy a tartan umbrella from the gift shop. Our tips? Wear layers. Keep a waterproof rolled up in your bag, and leave the stilettos and winkle-pickers at home in favour of those oh so comfy trainers. You’ll thank us later when you’re dashing up and down those windy, cobbled streets to get to the next venue.

2. Get around Edinburgh the smart way

Venues all across the city take part in the festival and plenty are lurking out of sight in pub basements and community theatres, so don’t try and find them ten minutes before your show is due to start. Get yourself a Venue Map (there are Festival maps available at the edfringe shop and at venues throughout the city) mark out the places you need to be and find out how long it takes to get between them. It is also worth noting that certain venue names can cause confusion. The Assembly rooms on George Street share a similar name to the Assembly Production Company that operate in the venues on George Square. To make matters more confusing, George Square is a good 20 minute walk away from George Street – not ideal if you realise you’re at the wrong venue just before your show is due to start. When in doubt, ask a local – they’re the ones in work clothes looking grumpy.

3. Download the Fringe app

Gone are the days when you had to keep a copy of the (rather hefty) Fringe guide about your person at all times; you can now check show times, book tickets and even browse the Half Price Hut discount shows on the Edinburgh Fringe app for smartphones. It’s also brilliant for on-the-go planning, as you can keep a diary of your upcoming shows. Available to download from July.

4. Get flyered

Remember we mentioned not to book yourself up with too many shows in the planning stages? Walk up the main section of the Royal Mile between the two bridges (North and George IV) in August and you’ll soon see why. Hundreds of acts are out in force to show you a preview of their show, from comedy sketch troupes to bizarre performance artists and serious luvvies. You’ll get well and truly ‘flyered’ on this manic stretch of road, but go with it, the atmosphere’s worth experiencing, even if you have to go lie down in a darkened room afterwards. Collect a handful of promos, watch a man do a skit with a Doc Marten boot strapped to his face, then tuck yourself away in a nearby pub to sift through your haul and Google the show’s reviews on your phone.

Edinburgh Fringe on the Royal Mile

5. Find a good place to eat

Don’t forget to eat. Sounds obvious, but when you are dashing between shows, being bombarded by flyers and street performers, and enjoying another pint, you may forget to get a decent meal in. During the day you’ll have plenty of choice, from greasy burger vans, to quirky cafés, or full slap-up meals in one of the city’s many restaurants. There are still some great options late into the night; stop by the chippy for a fish supper with Edinburgh favourite ‘salt n’ sauce’ or head to Bar Napoli in the New Town for the best pizza you’ve ever had at 3 o’clock in the morning. For more on Edinburgh’s finest cafés, pubs and restaurants, take a look at our full round-up.

6. Stop off in an old Edinburgh pub

You won’t go thirsty here! Edinburgh has the most pubs per square mile in the world, from historic drinking dens such as Greyfriars Bobby and Deacon Brodie’s, to modern cocktail bars such as Tiger Lily and Amicus Apple. Then there are the delightfully dingy but cheap student haunts, like The Hive – you can’t say you’ve gone drinking in Edinburgh during the Fringe without experiencing ‘the Hive ’til 5′! Many beer gardens also pop up around the city that offer the best atmosphere for the festival goer. The Spiegeltent in George Square, Underbelly (a giant floating purple cow!) and the Gilded Balloon are the best spots to get a true feel for the Fringe spirit, all around the University and the Bristo Square area of the city centre. Want to escape with the locals? Try pubs tucked away in the closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, like The Jolly Judge off the Royal Mile, or walk out of the city up to the Golf Tavern on Bruntsfield Links. For more tips, read this and discover Edinburgh’s best unknown pubs and watering holes.

7. Escape the crowds once in a while

Criss-crossing the city centre from 11am ‘til midnight is exhausting stuff. No matter how much you’d like to squeeze in that amazing Argentinian drag show, a healthy Fringe diet should consist of no more than three to four shows a day we reckon, for the sake of your own sanity if not your wallet! Besides, Edinburgh has a lot of beauty to show off outwith the Fringe, from the seaside at Portobello to the city’s famous hills. Holyrood Park is big enough to lose the crowds, even during Festival time, and volcanic peak Arthur’s Seat is worth the sweaty hour-long climb for spectacular views across to the Pentlands National Park.

View over Edinburgh

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