On the Fringe: Festive Suggestions for Exploring Edinburgh

City Travel, Cultural Travel, Food & Wine, Parties, Festivals & Events, Scotland, Tours & Attractions — By on December 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm
Great Scot! The annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracts crowds of theater-goers to Scotland’s capital for 25 days of stage and street performances. Plus, there is much more to this city than summer stage antics: an annual military exhibition, traditional dance, hillside views, and surprising city folklore. Lost Girl Carmi Louw offers six suggestions for exploring Edinburgh while enjoying the theatrics so you can plan ahead.

In 1947, eight theater companies decided to gate-crash the first Edinburgh International Festival. They performed in and around the city during the festival, hoping to attract some of the crowds. This group on the “fringe” grew each year until it became what it is today: the 25-day Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2010, nearly 2 million tickets were sold for more than 40,000 performances of 2,453 shows. It’s probably because the founders still stand by their original ethos: anybody is welcome! What’s more, it’s only one of a number of festivals and unofficial performances in Edinburgh every August.

I had to see this spectacle for myself, so I hopped on a train from London with some friends and we made our way to the Scottish capital. From the Castle on the Hill, the Royal Mile leads down to Holyrood Abbey, its cobbled passageway lined with 16th-century buildings housing fudge and tartan shops, cafes, and restaurants. In short, it’s beautiful. Not only did we get to experience the world’s largest arts festival, we also spent some time discovering what makes Edinburgh a great city to visit. Here are my top 6 picks for what to do while you’re at the Fringe:

1) Catch a festival show
The Fringe is overwhelming. The Royal Mile is throbbing with tourists clamoring to catch a glimpse of the street performers or dawdling past makeshift stages where drama students give a sneak peek of their show (which usually comes with at least one zombie). The program didn’t help much. It was as thick as a small town’s telephone book and had just as many entries. We had no idea where to start! There are also a number of outlets selling discounted tickets to shows you have never heard of before. It’s like ordering from an unlimited menu with completely unfamiliar dishes: you just have to pick one and hope for the best.

Performances include comedy, dance, music, theater, exhibitions, and children’s shows. We settled on a comedy duo called “Nerds of a Feather” for a bit of geek humor in a damp cave, and also scored discounted tickets to see Caroline Rhea (from TV’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”). The cheaper, less famous “Nerds” show turned out to be way funnier than “Caroline,” which goes to show that picking a show is mostly a shot in the dark. If you’re on a budget, there’s still plenty of world class (and not-so-world class) street performers dotted throughout the city streets. Both types are equally amusing.

2) Climb a hill with a view
Next to Edinburgh, there’s a big hill called Arthur’s Seat. If you’ve had enough of the thronging crowds, set aside a couple of hours to wander up the hillside for a lookout over the city and the harbor. Try to pick a warm, dry day, because being up there in the wind and rain is not a pleasant experience. For an easier walk with a closer view over the city, try Carlton Hill, just off Princes Street. You can get great photos of Edinburgh and the surroundings, as well as the tongue-twisting “Firth of Forth,” a fjord created by the Forth glacier thousands of years ago.

3) Dance your heart out at a Ceilidh
I got roped into my first Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) during the Robert Burns Weekend—held seven months before the festival—to celebrate the life of the 18th-century Scottish poet. I was told to expect “traditional Scottish dancing,” so I imagined a folk dancing performance by girls in tartan. It wasn’t until I was asked if I had comfortable shoes and a breathable dress that I realized it was more of an audience participation event. Lucky for me, I did have comfortable shoes because for three hours I was running, twirling, skipping, and being swung around like the blades of a helicopter in the most vigorous and sweaty dancing experience of my life.

Burly men in tartan skirts with long ginger hair performed their moves with delicate precision, but my shameful ignorance of the basic Ceilidh moves was washed over by the furious pace and sense of unity. For one night, these strangers are your fellow Scotsmen. With glowing cheeks, and a mouthful of Scottish shortbread, we all joined hands in a circle around the dance floor for the night’s finale: singing Auld Lang Syne, penned by Burns himself. I couldn’t even make this up. The Edinburgh University organizes a regular series of Ceilidhs for the city’s 30,000 students. Expect to see a number of tartan-donning experts who are kind enough to help you along, and pick you up off the ground if need be.

4) Take a city tour
A great way to orientate yourself around the different parts of the city is to take a tour. Edinburgh is widely acknowledged as one of the most haunted cities in the world, the reputation bringing with it a swathe of ghost tours. Having no stomach for ghost stories, I opted for the Sandeman’s free walking tour of Edinburgh. Sandeman’s tours are great because they operate solely on tips and usually last a good two or three hours. Not only did I get to brush up on my very sparse knowledge of Scottish history, I was entertained and educated with colorful stories behind the city’s buildings, pubs, and cemeteries.

I will never forget the story of Burke and Hare, who found it profitable to sell cadavers for the purpose of medical training even if they had to find “creative” ways of making them appear. They murdered and sold 17 victims’ bodies until one was discovered under a bed! I also found out why the locals spit on the cobblestone heart of Midlothian on the Royal Mile, but I won’t spoil the secret here. You’ll have to find out for yourself!

5) Witness the world-famous military tattoo
You don’t have to be a fan of the armed forces to enjoy the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. What started as a bit of drumming to signal last orders for soldiers at the pub has become an annual display of military musical abilities that runs six days a week through August. The British Army and armed forces from around the world take part to raise funds for charity. And it’s a pretty big deal. It’s been going for about 60 years–more than 200,000 tickets are sold every year–and it’s televised to 100 million people. If you’re keen on going, book your tickets in advance. This year, the event sold out a week before the first performance. Try to make it on a Saturday, when the second performance ends with a fireworks display. If you missed out on your Tattoo tickets, you can still get that military feel by keeping an ear out for the canon that fires at 1o’clock on the dot from the castle, every day but Sunday.

6) Eat out with a twist
Edinburgh’s cafes and restaurants are quirky and full of character. Chocolate Soup has a range of hot chocolates, soups, and sandwiches for a reasonably-priced lunch, while Brass Monkey is the perfect place for a quiet drink with friends.  At first glance it seems like a very intimate pub, but head to the back and you will find a pillow-lined lounge area which doubles as a cinema for classic cult films. For a dose of quirk and character, head to Hula for a great smoothie or bagel. And finally, don’t miss The Elephant House, the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book.

All in all, the Fringe (and Edinburgh) is a great city break with loads of options. Edinburgh is compact and pedestrian-friendly, so there’s no need for a car. There’s so much character to this town that the longer you stay, the more there is to discover, especially during August!  Hey, all those people can’t be wrong!

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  • Amy says:

    Oh this post makes me miss Scotland sooo badly! I spent more time in the Highlands, and only one day in Edinburgh, but now I HAVE to go back and spend more time in this wonderful city. I will be printing this post for when I do so that I can check out some of these really cool sounding places!

  • Garreth Lodge says:

    I love people writing about my hometown. I don’t know what it is but yeah you girls pretty much cracked it. Edinburgh during the month of August and the festival is just electric. The place has a buzz that is unbelievable. A lot of Edinburgh people get annoyed at the amount of tourists that are here but I think it’s great.

    If I could offer any advice. It would be to WORK the Edinburgh festival. It’s one month it truly is a great experience. I worked for E4 Udderbelly last year on one of their bars and it was the most fun I’ve ever had working! You can make a bit of money whilst being able to see all your venues shows for free aswell! I saw 5 guys named moe, John Bishop, Danny Bhoy, Jim Jefferies and loads more for free with my staff pass. I would truly recommend it to anyone.

    Also if you’re looking for pubs definately try the Sheep Heid Inn. It’s over 650 years old (oldest pub in Scotland) and a travellers dream pub!

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