How to make the most of your experience at the biggest arts festival around with my complete Edinburgh Fringe guide!
Fun fact: one of my first ever jobs was as a reviewer for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the summer after I graduated. Suffice to say I hold it pretty close to my heart, which is why I wanted to write this guide.
I’ve been to the festival more times than I can remember and what I can tell you about it is this: it’s a trip. It’s always fun, it’s always unexpected, and you never really know where you’re going to wind up at the end of the day.
I would highly recommend that everyone does the Edinburgh Festival at least once, because it’s a time when the city comes to life like no other. It’s a riot of noise, crowds, and a real carnival atmosphere. Expect to see posters stuck on every street corner, pubs open until long after their usual last orders (until 3am in fact), famous comedians strolling past you in the street, and more people crammed into every nook and cranny in the city than you’ve ever seen before. Honestly, where do they all go?
What is the Fringe Festival Edinburgh?
You might be wondering what I’m talking about, so before I go any further let me introduce you to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival properly. In short, it’s a pretty big deal. In fact, it’s actually the largest arts festival in the world. According to Wikipedia, in 2018 there was over 55,000 performances of over three and a half thousand shows over the course of the event. It’s also one of the most democratic festivals around. Why? Because anyone who can take part in the festival if they want to – isn’t that wild? However, it’s all part of the story of the Fringe, which dates all the way back to 1947…
History of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Let’s take a deeper dive into the history of the festival because, I’m not gonna lie, some elements of it are a little complicated. It goes a little bit like this. In 1947 there was an event created called the Edinburgh International Festival. It was was an initiative borne out of a post-WWII era to enrich people’s lives with European culture. As the story goes, eight theatre groups decided to go a bit rogue and crash the festival – despite not being invited – and perform on the fringes of the city. It was there on the outskirts of the city that, whisper it, people discovered some of the most exciting acts of the festival. The following year the name was officially coined by a journalist and, boom, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was born!
As part of this complete Edinburgh Fringe guide, I also want to draw your attention to the other festivals going on at the same time as the Fringe. You can also enjoy these during your trip to the capital.
- Edinburgh International Festival (the one I mentioned above)
- Edinburgh International Book Festival
- Edinburgh Art Festival
- The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
You might be wondering whether the film festival part of the Edinburgh festival? It’s not, at least not since 2008. The Edinburgh Film Festival is now held for a fortnight in June.
Venues for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
What I love about the festival is that you always ended up in different corners of the city than you’d do than when it’s business as usual. The city really opens itself up and unveils all its charming secrets. One example is the Caves on Niddry Street, just off the Cowgate, which is also the venue for one of my favourite shows at the festival. For the rest of the year, the Caves is a cool underground space you can hire out for weddings and private parties. At the festival, you can enjoy it for around £5 a pop.
The Pleasance is another example. The courtyard there is brilliant and is a great spot for hanging out as well as seeing some great shows. However, I’ve never been there at any other time of year other than during the festival.
There are also pop-up venues such as Underbelly, which is actually a series of venues, but which manifests itself most memorably as a giant upside down purple cow-shaped venue in Bristo Square. Yes, these two venues, the Pleasance and Underbelly, along with Assembly and the Gilded Balloon are all multi-room venues. As such, they make up what’s called the Big Four venues at the Fringe. Just like the Big Four in heavy metal, right?
But as I mentioned above, there are also a ton of other, smaller, quirky venues like the Caves located in numerous spots all around the city just waiting to be discovered. You can check out the full list of venues here.
Is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival free?
Yes and no. There are many shows in the Fringe that are completely free! Everyone has seen photographs of the carnival-style performers delighting the crowds on the Royal Mile, right? There are also plenty of sit-down shows that are totally free – and when I say plenty I mean hundreds – in a variety of pubs, bars and venues across the whole of the city.
There are also lots of shows are the Fringe that you have to pay for. Tickets at the festival vary in price, with some of the more well-known comedians in the bigger venues charging over £30 for tickets. However, in general everything is pretty cheap and cheerful with average ticket prices being around a tenner each. That’s £10 each. There are also a bunch of shows that are pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth, so you choose what to pay.
How to plan your Fringe visit
OK, let’s continue with my Edinburgh Fringe guide. The festival is all about going with the flow and seeing where it will take you, correct? That said, you also want to do a certain amount of planning to ensure you have the best possible time. For example, you could have a day where you book four shows and go and see them over the course of the day… and then the next day you could not book anything and just wander around and see where it takes you. There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s completely up to you. If you do want to do a bit of planning ahead of your trip to the festival then definitely pay attention to the next couple of sections…
What are the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2021 dates?
With the 2020 event being cancelled there are definitely more eyes than EVER on the 2021 event. If you’re anything like me you probably have a few questions. When does the Edinburgh Fringe Festival start? How long is the Edinburgh Fringe on for? And most importantly, what are the dates of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
This is where my Edinburgh Fringe guide steps in.
The 2021 Edinburgh Fringe Festival begins on Friday, 6 August and ends on Monday, 30 August. That makes the Edinburgh Festival 2021 three weeks and three days long – or 24 days in total. Plenty of time to see lots of shows!
What’s on the Edinburgh Festival?
If you want to be the first in the know about the Edinburgh Festival 2021 then you need do the following things ahead of the festival…
- Sign up for their email list here
- Follow them on social media, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
- Download the programme (when available) for full listings
- Read reviews of shows ahead of and during the festival on ThreeWeeks
- Book your tickets in advance – popular shows will sell out!
How to get your tickets
There are three ways to get your Edinburgh Festival tickets…
- They’ll be posted out to you
- You can collect them at one of the Box Offices in the city
- You can scan and print them at one of the ticket collection points
Basically, it depends on what kind of show it is. I’m never organised enough to have had my tickets posted out for me. For me, I usually prefer to print off my tickets at one of the ticket collection points in the city. I always arrive at Waverley Station and there’s a ticket collection point directly in the station, just next to the bagel stand. It’s a pretty quick process. You usually just need your confirmation email and the card that you used to book the tickets. You can find more information on this right here!
How to get to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
As part of my Edinburgh Fringe guide I also wanted to cover travel. First up, you need to get to Edinburgh. Luckily, being the capital city it’s a pretty well-connected place. You can get to Edinburgh in a whole variety of ways…
Think Edinburgh is miles away from everywhere? It’s actually not – in fact it only takes four and a half hours to get to Edinburgh from London. When you travel from London you’ll arrive into Waverley station, which is the main railway station for the city. You may have even seen it pop up in Avengers: Infinity War. Just for information, there’s also another railway station, Haymarket station, on the other side of the city.
Head over to the Trainline for all the details
Looking to travel to Edinburgh on a budget? Then check out Megabus – in the UK doing a long-haul Megabus trip is something of a rite of passage! You can catch a Megabus to Edinburgh from a number of UK cities, including London, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Swansea. It might be a long journey but it’ll definitely be affordable.
Head over to their website for more details
Edinburgh has one airport, Edinburgh International Airport, which caters to both domestic and international flights. Located on the west side of the city, you can catch the bus or a tram outside the airport into the centre of town which takes around 30-40 minutes.
Find out more about flights to Edinburgh here
Where to stay during the Edinburgh Festival
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels in Edinburgh. There’s a hotel to suit everyone, from cute quirky places to accommodation that offers a real touch of luxury – and probably some respite from the busyness of the Fringe! Budget chain-wise, there’s the Holiday Inn Express and Premier Inn relatively close to the city centre. And if you want to blow the budget there’s The Scotsman and The Balmoral just five-minutes walk from the railway station. The Witchery by the Castle is outrageously expensive, although it also looks incredible. If you really want to visit Edinburgh in style then take a look at their opulent suites.
If you’re looking for something more budget-friendly then a hostel in Edinburgh might be more up your street! There are plenty of affordable hostels in Edinburgh. Plus a lot of them are right in the centre so you’ll never be too far away from the action.
I love staying in a quirky Airbnb, albeit usually out in the country and with a log burner! However, if you like to have more of your own space or would prefer to do some of your own cooking during your stay then an Airbnb in Edinburgh could be an option!
If you’re looking for something more upmarket check out the New Town, Stockbridge and Dean Village. For more affordable options look for Tollcross, Leith or Newington. Mid-range options would include the Old Town and Marchmont – where I lived as a student!
What to pack for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Well, the first question is what’s the weather like during the Edinburgh Festival? The festival is in August, so you may be thinking you should expect glorious sunshine, the light kiss of a breeze, and blue skies all round. Well, you could be right. On the other hand, this is Scotland! We tend to have four seasons in a day so even when it’s the middle of summer you might have to deal with rain, wind, storms, and who knows what else!
Average temperatures in August in Scotland
|Average high temperature||18.9° C||66° F|
|Average low temperature||11.4° C||52.5° F|
Your Edinburgh Festival packing list
I couldn’t write a complete Edinburgh Fringe guide without a packing list, could I? As with most things to related to the Edinburgh festival: expect the unexpected. So with that in mind, here’s my suggested packing list for your trip to the Edinburgh Festival…
1) Comfortable walking shoes
Every blogger worth their salt recommends simply walking the streets of Edinburgh during the festival, as that’s the best way to soak up the atmosphere. With that in mind, forget heels or breaking in a new pair of boots. You’ll need your tried-and-tested most comfortable shoes you can find for pounding all those beautiful cobbled streets in the capital, and stumbling though all those compact and decidedly dimly-lit venues as you try to find your seat. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this one.
2) A zip-up bag
If you’re going to see a lot of shows over the course of the day you’re going to have at least two things in your bag: a decent amount of money and a whole lot of tickets. You don’t want to lose either of these. There’s nothing worse than showing up to a show, not being able to find your ticket, and not being able to get in! Keep everything safe with a bag with a zip.
3) A pack of tissues
In my Edinburgh Fringe guide, a pack of tissues is a non-negotiable item. As you would expect with any kind of festival the proportion of toilets to people isn’t always ideal. They’re going to be busy, crowded, and not necessarily a five-star affair. You might as well know that right now! So with that in mind, definitely make sure you pack a pack of tissues in your bad to get you out of any sticky spots. And while we’re on the subject, a small bottle of hand sanitiser wouldn’t go amiss either.
Yes, it’s August and it could be really warm… but it might not be. All of the venues are their own ecosystem and you really don’t know if you’ll be sweaty and sticky by the time you emerge from them… or feeling a bit chilly. Some shows are held in the venues underneath the city after all, which don’t come with their own central heating. I would definitely recommend packing a jumper or a cardigan just to be on the safe side.
5) Snacks and water
There are plenty of food stalls dotted around the capital during the festival… but where there’s delicious food there’s also usually massive queues to boot. I also find that when you’re packing in lots of shows in a day or two you often don’t have a lot of time to faff around. Often it’s a pretty tight itinerary slash panic to get to the next venue! With that in mind I would definitely recommend packing some light but filling snacks – a cereal bar or two, a packet of peanuts, and a bottle of water or juice.
6) An open mind
Yes, I’m going a bit more conceptual for this final point. It is the complete Edinburgh Fringe guide after all! Let me explain: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is an experience like no other and it really is brilliant – I can’t stress that enough. However, it can also be crowded, sweaty, grimy, smelly, noisy, and everything else in between. I’ve had enough journeys on the train back to Dundee at 1am trying to drown out everyone singing and screaming to pay testament to that. That said, even that’s usually balanced out by the amount of fun I’ve had. It’s all part of the experience.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is the Fringe accessible?
There’s a whole lot of work that’s done to make that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is an inclusive as possible – including accessible performances, sensory backpacks, and changing places toilets. There’s also access tickets service you can use if you have any specific accessibility requirements, such as extra assistance or seat requirements. There’s also a great website called Euan’s Guide that I would highly recommend for more information.
Is the Fringe suitable for kids?
Yes, that Edinburgh Festival is perfect for families and young uns. As you’ll see in my story below, you might even end up rocking up at a kids’ show by accident! In all seriousness though there’s a whole section dedicated to family friendly shows – there’s also plenty of fantastically entertaining street shows going on in the Royal Mile that kids will love.
Can you do Edinburgh Fringe on a budget?
You can. As I mentioned earlier there are plenty of free shows, street shows, and even pay what you think it’s worth shows at the festival. You can bring your own snacks and steer clear of the expensive bars and street foods. You can stay at a hostel to make the most out of your money, or you could consider staying a little bit further afield to get even more for your money. As someone whose homeland is the beautiful Kingdom of Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh, I would highly recommend it as a destination.
Can I take part in the Edinburgh Festival?
Want to put on your own show at the Fringe? You can! Find out more here!
Your complete Edinburgh Fringe guide: 11 ways to make the most out of the festival
1) Eat the street food
What’s an Edinburgh Fringe guide without food, right? It is ALL about the street food. One of my favourite moments from the festival last year was grabbing a tub of mac ‘n’ cheese from one of the food stands in Bristo Square, near Potterow. It came topped with crunchy caramelised onions and just perfectly hit the spot. I also have fond memories of shovelling down a delicious grilled cheese sandwich five minutes before a show!
As I mentioned in the packing list, you’re always going to be rushing around from place to place around the city. You’re never going to have lots of time to play with and, as the city is jam-packed with tourists, finding a seat anywhere is tricky. Basically, eating on the move is the solution – which isn’t an issue as there’s lots of great things to try!
2) Go and see a show you don’t like
I remember going to see a kind of pick and mix cabaret show last year. I’m not a massive fan of cabaret, but it was the only thing we could get into at the time because it was 11pm on a Saturday and we hadn’t booked anything. Don’t be like me folks, book your tickets in advance!
I didn’t love of the acts in the show unfortunately, however, I really liked the comedian who was compering it. He did a ten-minute stand-up routine at the beginning of the show and then came on for two or three minutes in between each act, and he was the best part of the show. We actually ended up going to see him in his own show the next year! So there you go, even if you see a show that you don’t love you can still take a positive from it.
If you’re interested, the comedian was Rhys Nicholson and he’s brilliant!
3) Go and see some freestyle rap
Yes, really. One show I make a point of seeing when I’m at the festival is Chris Turner’s show. It may be because it’s located at the Caves, which is just opposite a dive bar my friends always like to hang out at called Bannermans, which always serves as a great kicking off location for the day.
But actually, I just love his show. I don’t want to ruin the surprise too much but… actually I will. His USP is freestyle rap. He asks each corner of the audience to come up with a word and then he’ll come up with a genuinely funny rap about that word. It’s so clever and I don’t know how he does it The show is usually super affordable – I think it’s usually less than a tenner – and it’s also in a really cool location at the Caves. Definitely go and see it!
4) Step out of your comfort zone
One of my favourite stories is the one my sister tells me about the time she and one of my other friends rocked up to what they thought was a circus -type show. It was a circus show, however, it was very much aimed at kids… and possibly even toddlers. As two people in their twenties they were instantly mortified. She always tells me about this “push the button” phrase they kept repeating pantomime-style throughout the show, which always makes me laugh. But it makes a good story, right?
5) Go and see a one star show
So as I mentioned earlier, literally anyone can put on a show at the Edinburgh festival. That means that while there’s a whole lot of brilliance… there’s also a whole lot of bang average shows that can fall flat. However, you haven’t really experienced the festival properly unless you’ve gone through the awkward, don’t know where to look, total cringe experience of gag after gag falling flat without a hint of a chuckle.
Especially when there’s only about ten people in the room at the time and it’s deathly, awkwardly silent. Just thinking about this is making my toes curl at some memories. You might not know that you’re walking into a bad show, of course, but I guess what I’m saying is don’t just go and see the big names or the five star shows – it’s not a complete Edinburgh Fringe guide without going to see the one and two star shows too!
6) Go celebrity spotting
One thing a lot of people might not realise is that some well-known comedians like to come to the Edinburgh Festival to road test their new material. Basically, they see what gets the laughs and what needs reworked before the take it around the country as an arena tour.
Myself and my twin sister went to see Joel Dommett doing this at the Fringe in 2019, who you might know as the presenter of The Masked Singer show in the UK, and it was brilliant. There were less than a hundred people in the room and it felt cool to see someone I’d seen on the telly up close! We even got our photograph with him afterwards, being such fangirls and all.
While we’re on the subject of celebrities, my sister and I also went to see Iain Stirling at the festival a year or so ago, who you’ll recognise as the voice of Love Island. We headed up to Lebowskis after the show to get white Russians, as you do, and who did we spy drinking in the corner? Iain Stirling! Of course we asked for a photo and he happily obliged.
Want to some of the best White Russians in town for yourself? Go to Lebowksis.
7) Hang out in the beer gardens
Ah, some of my best memories of the festival are hanging out in the beer gardens in the sunshine and just soaking up that carnival atmosphere. Everyone’s in a good mood, there’s always a ton of bars so you can pick exactly what you’re looking for – beer, cider, gin, prosecco – and you can just relax and unwind until it’s time to head to your next show.
The huge Bristo Square beer garden is a particular favourite. Definitely don’t overpack your day and stress yourself out jumping from show to show to show without a breather. Having a drink and a debrief between the shows is all part of the fun!
8) Join the crowds of a silent disco flash mob
Lol, who I am kidding? I would never do that! In case you don’t know what I’m talking about these are large groups of people, all wearing headsets, who appear out of nowhere dancing away to whatever they happen to be listening to. There were tons of them during the last Edinburgh Festival and I distinctly remember being surrounded by a group them, all dancing away, when I was munching on the mac and cheese I speak about above.
I’m not joking when I say that being part of a silent disco flash mob is truly my worst nightmare. I’m far too shy and reserved for all of that, and I’m also a really terrible dancer. However, I also know for lots of people this sounds like a whole lot of fun and a great way to connect with other people. I guess what I’m saying is make the festival your own!
Sound like fun? Here’s one you can do all year round:
9) Sit in the front row of a comedy show
If you’re anything like me sitting in the front row of a comedy show gives me the heebie jeebies… especially if you know there’s a chance you’ll get picked on! However, in some ways it’s all part of the experience. I’ve done it once when my very extroverted friend strode to the front without a second thought, as if that was just the done thing. Suffice to say I spent the whole time cowering, but he was the one who ended up getting picked on. Definitely give it a go if you’re brave enough!
10) Pick a show at random
There are so many shows that you can get fatigued reading blurbs, reviews, and trying to make a decision about what to go and see. Sometimes you just have to make a choice at random. There are tons of people flyering all the time so allow yourself to be persuaded or just pick something out of the brochure at random. Some of the best shows I’ve seen are the ones I didn’t necessarily expect to like.
11) Don’t just hit the comedy shows
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to see comedy shows at the Edinburgh Festival, but it’s not the only thing going on. One of my favourite shows I ever went to see is the theatre performance of Trainspotting Live. If you haven’t seen the film it’s one of the most iconic Scottish films EVER and it’s set in Edinburgh, so it could also be a great way to prepare for your trip!
Anyway, so when I went to see Trainspotting Live it was set in a dingy and dark location somewhere up near Edinburgh University, which definitely has crack den vibes all over it. There’s also no stage and, while we’re on the subject, no fourth wall. The seats are set up around the side and there’s no divide between the audience and the actors, and that’s just the start.
If I remember correctly the actors actually go and sit amongst the audience throughout the show, and that’s before you get to the infamous scene with the worst toilet in Scotland. It’s visceral, immersive stuff. Go see it!