How-to guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
It’s the twelfth day of the Edinburgh Fringe, and I’ve just been mugged by a magic dragon.
The dragon (who looks suspiciously like a bloke in a bad costume) takes the £20 note triumphantly, asks me to sign it, and promptly sets it on fire. It crisps away into nothing. Producing a tin of dog food, he invites me to put my hand into the meaty mulch. I reluctantly do so, and find myself with a fist full of slime and my very own signed £20 note, intact.
Welcome to the world’s largest and most famous arts festival, where everything and anything goes. Everyone who is anyone is the world of comedy and performance has spent at least one summer taking to the stage in the Scottish capital.
Stepping off the train on our first day, we were immediately submerged into a riot of sound and colour. The streets were crammed with people singing, acting, dancing, and somersaulting. As we jostled our way down the main street, someone encased in a giant papier-mâché elephant costume lumbered slowly past. A sword juggler balanced precariously on a unicycle tells us he’s flown thousands of miles across the globe just to perform here.
The Fringe opens its stages to anyone. Peer into one doorway and you’ll see one of the comedic greats: Amy Schumer perhaps, or Al Murray. Peer into another and you’ll come face-to-face with a fellow wearing goggles made of baked bean tins and brandishing a cheese grater.
“Do you like cheesy jokes?” he asks the audience, who roar their assent.
“Grate!” he shouts, pointing to the grater. The audience groan.
In the space of several days, I found myself moved to tears by mute puppets (Teatro Delusio) and laughing myself silly at improvised murder mystery plays (Murder She Didn’t Write). One memorable showcase that took place around midnight contained both a surprise appearance by Russell Howard and two naked Irishmen beating each other with pool noodles (Best of the Fest).
There were performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where one cast member was made to perform while drunk (Shitfaced Shakespeare) and a musical where everything from the theme to the songs was completely improvised (Showstopper! The Musical).
Edinburgh Fringe is very, very weird, and very, very wonderful. If you want to laugh harder than you’ve ever laughed before, it is unequivocally the place to be.
Everything! Lots and lots of comedy gigs, but also theatre performances, improv, magicians, circuses, musicals, street performers …
When you first arrive in Edinburgh, head straight to the Royal Mile. This street becomes the central hub of the Fringe, where acts congregate to hand out flyers and perform teasers of their show. Not only will the carnival atmosphere get you straight into festival spirit, you’ll inevitably end up with plenty of inspiration for gigs and shows to see!
Another good starting point is one of the many variety showcases, where several acts perform five or ten-minute slots. Note down the names of the ones who made you giggle the most, and they’ll happily point you in the direction of their full show.
What about outside the fringe?
If you’ve never visited Edinburgh before, spare some time to check out this gorgeously gothic historical city.
The imposing Edinburgh Castle is well worth a visit, as is the captivating Mary King’s Close; a hidden underground street preserved in its 17th-century style. If the weather is nice, hike up Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano which offers stunning views of the city.
Edinburgh is a famously haunted city, and those brave enough can explore the darkness of the underground crypts and catacombs on one of the many Ghost Tours. Be warned that in almost every group several people have some uncomfortable experiences: unexplained footsteps echoing down empty corridors, or indescribable figures lurking the shadows…
If you need some fortification after a supernatural encounter, you’re in luck – Edinburgh is famous for its whisky. Step into one of the many charmingly crooked pubs which dot the streets and you can be assured of finding spirits of the much more enjoyable kind.
Do I need to book shows in advance?
If there is a show you’re particularly keen to see, book a few weeks in advance. Loads of big-name comedians and artists perform at the Fringe (often for a fraction of their regular ticket price) but these gigs tend to sell out quickly. For most shows, booking the evening before or even just a few hours in advance is enough to ensure you a seat.
However, avoid the temptation to pre-book your entire stay. Most of the fun of the Fringe is ducking into a show you’ve never heard of because a flyer caught your eye, or discovering a new favourite act at a variety showcase. There is an abundance of shows that work on a first-come, first-in basis, so you’ll never be caught short with nothing to see.
How much will it cost?
As much or little as you want! There is such a huge variety of shows, restaurants, and accommodation that your Fringe experience can be incredible on any budget.
Penny pinchers will have their pick from hundreds of free shows. (Performers will ask for donations at the end, so bring some loose change). Most gigs that charge fall within the £10-£20 range, and there are discounts for students, children, and senior citizens.
What should I bring?
Don’t leave home without warm clothing and an umbrella! Don’t be fooled by the summer dates; Edinburgh’s weather is notoriously chilly, wet and unpredictable. Pack layers and be prepared for all eventualities.
You’ll also want to invest in some comfy shoes for when you’re hotfooting it between venues – the best way to get around Edinburgh is on foot, but be warned that there are some seriously steep hills around!
When is it?
The Edinburgh Fringe runs for most of the month of August each year. For exact start and end dates, check the official website.
Getting to the Fringe
You can easily get to Edinburgh by rail, road or air.
Trains run regularly between London Euston and Edinburgh Waverly and take between four-five hours. Book up to three months in advance for cheaper fares.
For backpackers and the budget-conscious, the least expensive (but least comfortable!) way of getting to the city from elsewhere in the UK is via coach: try Megabus or National Express.
Edinburgh has a huge variety of accommodation available, from cheap-as-chips hostels to luxurious five-star hotels. However, the popularity of the Fringe means just about everywhere will get snapped up, so book well in advance.