Edinburgh Festival tips from a resident

Most Edinburgh residents are either gently resigned to the disruption of the festival or outright annoyed! We have lived here in Edinburgh now through three years of festival and I can honestly say that I love it and I’m sad when it’s over! However, we are fortunate to live to the north of the city which is definitely less affected by the crowds.

This year I went to a record number of shows (for me). 10 shows and 1 book festival talk. Compared to many that’s probably not a lot but I really got into it this year so I have some tips for you.

When to visit Edinburgh

 
Edinburgh Castle, photo by Gary Campbell-Hall

Edinburgh Castle, photo by Gary Campbell-Hall

 

The Edinburgh International Festival, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival all happen in August. In 2020 the Festival will be 7th until 31st August, the book festival will be 15th - 31st August.

Deciding when to come is difficult. Here are some of the pros and cons.

The first week of festival

Pros and cons

+ If you come in the first week of the festival you may benefit from more discounting - two for one tickets, free tickets etc. The shows are hoping for some good reviews and social media buzz so that audiences in later weeks will be attracted to them.

- However, coming in the first week means, of course, that you can’t benefit from these reviews so it’s a bit more pot luck.

+ One of the comedians I saw said they were best at the beginning of the festival run when they’d just finished rehearsals, were putting on their best show for the reviewers and still had some energy! The performers work really hard, often with very few days off during August and sometimes also performing in more than one show so perhaps this makes sense!

Middle of the festival

+ You can benefit from the great reviews (and the words of warning!) and pick good shows

End of the festival

+ You can benefit from the reviews

If a show is popular book your tickets online before you arrive in Edinburgh. The best will sell out, particularly once the awards are given out

+ You can watch the end of festival fireworks.

Usually, on the final day, there is a concert and fireworks show. You can get tickets or watch from another vantage point in the city for free. Calton Hill was really busy this year so you may want to give that a miss. Our top tip would be to watch from Inverleith Park. It’s next to the Botanic Gardens and you have a good view of the full firework display. You should also be able to listen to the concert on Radio Forth, although I found the time delay on that meant it didn’t quite match up with the fireworks! But that might have been because I was listening on the app.

Travelling with children 

If you are travelling with children you may want to attend before 19th August. This is when the majority of the Edinburgh schools go back. Shows and events for children tend to be scheduled for the beginning of the Festival.

However, if you aren’t travelling with children you may want to choose to visit after 19th August!

How to get cheap tickets

  • There are a lot of shows that are free or are ‘pay what you want’. These are often pretty hit and miss but if you’re on a budget it can be a fun way to discover something new. The majority of shows are about an hour-long so if it’s bad then you’re not stuck there forever!

  • Check out the half-price tickets at the hut by the National Gallery.

  • This year I became a friend of the fringe. It cost £35 (in 2019) but was worth it because a lot of the shows I wanted to see were on 2 for 1 for friends. Check out your shortlist of shows and see how many are on the 2 for 1 deal. If it’s 4 or more it’s probably worth it. 

  • I don’t think the shows at the fringe festival are really that expensive. I know performers that have worked here and, unless they have a really good festival, they are usually losing money to be at the fringe so if you can support them please do.

How to choose what to watch

Have you seen the Fringe programme? It’s like a phone book with really small text. I optimistically pick one up every year but put it down pretty quickly! It’s overwhelming. It’s only really this year that I have worked out my own way of choosing what to see. This is what it is in case it helps!

Famous/favourite performers

If there are any performers you love then check them out first to see if they are at Edinburgh this year. Many famous comedians, actors etc do come here. It is worth getting your tickets for these sorted out early because they will probably sell out.

My Dad and I now have a tradition to see a comedian called Myra Dubois every year. I actually don’t see much comedy myself at the fringe but Myra is a must.

I now always go to see whatever the Fat Rascal theatre company have on because they were my favourite shows of 2019. If you have a theatre company you love it’s a great place to start.

Book festival

Then also look at any authors coming to the book festival. That might suggest when you should visit. Tickets for the popular authors sell out quickly so you need to be on it as soon as they are released. Don’t worry if you don’t get a ticket though. It’s likely that you’ll be able to pop along to Charlotte Square for a book signing. My Mum is on it with this! We both love crime fiction so saw Val McDermid this year and Ann Cleeves last year. Mum prefers book events to the fringe so tends to go to them instead. If that’s you too then look at getting a Book Festival Friends membership as you get booking ahead of general release.

Who are you going with?

I mostly go to shows with my Dad. Gary is working during the festival and as my hours are flexible I am much more able to get to shows than him. And, frankly, more interested! My Dad had a few shows that he wanted to see and I picked ones that I found interesting to go along. That was how I got to see Blizzard, an amazing circus show.

Pick a genre

This was what really worked for me this year! Firstly, I ditched the programme and looked online. It’s much easier to narrow down your choices that way.

Secondly, I picked a genre. In 2018 I saw the musical Six at the festival. It is now a bit of a phenomenon playing all over the world. I adore musicals (on my Dad’s 60th we went to 3 musicals in 3 days!) so I decided to focus my search down to musicals to start with. 

As I am fortunate enough to be here for the whole of the festival I was able to check the descriptions and reviews from the first week. This year I saw Unfortunate, Vulverine, Scream Phone, Piramania, Choir of Man and the Alexandria Harmonizers. 

Concerts

If you like live music check out who is performing summer sessions in the Princes Street Gardens. The venue is quite small and they tend to have some good acts. In 2019 they had Florence + the Machine, Primal Scream, CHVRCHES, James, Courteeners, Lewis Capaldi and Madness. In 2018 they had Tom Jones, Bastille, Rag'n'Bone Man, Paloma Faith, Kasabian and Brian Wilson.

Ask people in the queue!
When you are queuing for a show start a conversation with the people around you. If you’ve chosen to see that particular show you will have something in common. You can often get good recommendations or shows to avoid!

Ask on social media!

I asked for recommendations on social media and got some interesting suggestions. Some weren’t very me but a friend recommended Choir of Man which I did go to and really enjoyed.

Ask the staff

I found out about the musical Six from someone who had been working at the box office. Box office staff know which shows are the most popular so see what they have to say!

Planning your fringe

There are shows on all day and into the night. It can be tough to work out which you can fit in so I used a whiteboard this year to write down the tickets we’d already got in order to fit the rest of the shows in around it. We then had the whiteboard up in the house so we all knew where we were going that day! You may not have that and I’ve no doubt there’s some app you could use!

One tool I did find useful this year was that on the Fringe website you could search for shows that were nearby. So if you had a show at Bristo Square, for example, you could search to find out which other shows were near that you could get to.

Food

We’re not a big city; the population of Edinburgh is under 500,000, so when the festival starts and the tourists arrive everything gets very busy! 

I would definitely suggest you book a table for dinner to ensure you don’t spend hours wandering about looking for somewhere to eat.

Lunchtime may be easier. When I travel outside of the UK I realise how completely obsessed we are with the sandwich! There are lots of meal deals to be had including at M&S, Boots, the Co-Op and other supermarkets. There are also lots of food stalls, particularly around George Square so take a wander around there.

Queuing

Fringe shows don’t have allocated seats. If you want a good seat at the front you need to be in the queue about 30 minutes before the start time. However, most venues are pretty small so it may not really be an issue.

Most venues are used for a lot of different shows. I counted 11 shows in a day in one venue and I’m sure that’s not unusual. That means that some shows can start to run a bit behind as it gets later in the day. The staff and performers do try not to let this happen but it is inevitable if they haven’t had much time between shows to change over so do be patient.

But try not to walk in late to a comedy gig! 

Navigating Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a small city and if you’re mobile you’ll have no problem walking between venues. It is hilly though so if you have mobility issues it can be worth getting a bus pass that allows you to hop on and off the buses and tram when you need. You can buy a pass at the TravelHub at Shandwick Place or Waverley Bridge. Luckily the bus app and the majority of the stops have notifications about how long you will wait and they’re pretty accurate.

Edinburgh is an amazing city to visit at any time and is brilliant in August. If you enjoy shows then do give it a try. Don’t forget to see some of the city while you’re here!

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