A Beginner’s Guide To The Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Every year in August, the eyes of the cultural world turn to Edinburgh, as the Scottish capital showcases the best of theatre, comedy, literature, cabaret and dance, but with the Fringe Brochure running to 461 pages, it can be overwhelming for a beginner or first-timer: Where do you start? How do you choose the must-see shows? How do you avoid the dreaded Festival FOMO? Our Beginner’s Guide to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will tell you everything you need to know, whether you’re visiting, performing or taking the family.
The careers of many household names have been launched here and culture fans flock to the city in the hopes of witnessing the ‘next big thing’ and enjoy the famous Scottish hospitality and appetite for a party. 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – so called as it was established as a more accessible alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival – and it’s bigger and bolder than ever with nearly 2.5 million tickets issued in 2016. So, if you’re planning to join the festivities this year, look no further, Citybase Apartments has done the hard work for you and picked the brains of the creme de la creme of Edinburgh Festival Fringe veterans. Our experts have been there, done that and lived to tell the tale.
For a more detailed look at how to make the most of the Festival, see full details from each of our experts below:
Heather Bagnall & Luke Tudball, Co-Founding Artistic Directors, Tasty Monster Productions
“If you’ve never been to Edinburgh before get ready for an amazing experience. There’s something for everyone in this wonderful historical city.”
“Bring good shoes. This is a city where you want to walk and most likely you’ll be pounding the pavement for the majority of your time either marketing your show or going to see other great performances. Be prepared for all weathers though – Edinburgh can be sunny one minute and you can be singing in the rain the next. Wear lots of layers that are easy to switch around and have a lightweight windbreaker or jacket to keep the rain off. Also, when you first arrive head on over to Fringe Central and pick up a map of the city. It’s a good idea to know where everything is so when you’re rushing to get somewhere you’re less likely to be diverted. Most of all, have fun. The Fringe is a uniquely challenging and exciting place. Go see shows, meet new people, challenge yourself, and have a blast in whatever you are doing. Happy Fringe!” @TastyMonster
Mark Fisher, The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide
“Edinburgh’s summer festivals can be overwhelming. Performances take place around the clock and, at any time of day, you’ll have a vast and bewildering choice. That’s part of the excitement, of course, but it can be hard to know where to start. The best advice would be to make some firm plans in advance but to give yourself the flexibility to go with the flow when you’re in town. Try booking for one or two things each day and with those events as your anchor, you’ll be free to take recommendations from newspaper reviews and people you meet (always talk to your neighbours when queuing for tickets) or simply to take a risk on a show you know nothing about. The thrill of discovery adds to the fun.” @MarkFFisher
Owen O’Leary, The Local’s Guide to Edinburgh
“I think the best thing about Edinburgh, year round, but especially at festival time, is that it’s a city that rewards a curious mind; there is usually a surprise around every corner. Avoid the main street and disappear down lanes and alleyways, you never know what you might find. The greatest thing about festival time is that anything goes, churches become venues, the streets become a stage, you can discover experiences that just don’t happen anywhere else.
“This year there is a show by Volcano that takes place in a disused church which is flooded mid-show. If you search for the weird and wonderful, it will always be waiting for you in Edinburgh” @OwenOhReally
Jessica Cheetham, Spun Glass Theatre
“If you’re here with a show – make that your top priority. It’s easy to get swept up in the massive FOMO of the festival. But all the best shows will be on again – you can catch them on tour. Dancing ’til three every night is definitely tempting, but a good dinner and early night can be the difference between a great experience and a total Fringe burn-out. Lastly – ask for help! Everyone is busy but mostly kind-hearted, especially the crew at Fringe Central“.
Gavin Robertson, Company Gavin Robertson
“First piece of advice – pick up the Fringe Brochure available from the Fringe Office in the Royal Mile. But don’t bother trying to decide what appeals by using it. It’s 450 pages long(ish) with 10-12 events on each page. Just use it for the map at the back that shows you where all the venues are!
“With no way of telling if a show is amateur or professional, it’s overwhelming. However, and at the risk of elitism, do get the individual brochures from Summerhall (edgy issue-based work) and ‘the big four’ (Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon combined), and Zoo Venues (Dance & Physical Theatre). If you have limited time, that’s plenty enough.
“Second tip – don’t read reviews. In days of yore, when the national papers still sent critics, they were a good guide to the timbre of a show. But now they don’t come, and the internet is rife with reviews from ‘I’m a student dot com’ and ‘I get a free ticket this way dot co dot uk’. Sadly a review these days says more about the critic than the show. Even The Scotsman can send a TV critic to a theatre show! There are exceptions, but that’s a different article.
“Lastly – don’t be fooled by marketing. Big posters and glossy adverts for specific shows aren’t a guarantee of quality, they just mean the event concerned has some money to spend.
With those tips in mind, go with the flow. Take a chance? There are discoveries to be made. And with a plethora of good eateries from George Street to Leith, a bad experience can be laughed about over a convivial meal (or a fried Scots breakfast!) Or haggis with mash and a whisky sauce in The Edinburgh City Restaurant at 35 Nicolson Street. Or Hendersons in Hanover Street for great veggie food. Or… yes you get the idea? You’re spoilt for choice!” Watch Gavin’s performance, Slooshy Wordshow, at Edinburgh Fringe.
Laura Crichton, Edinburgh life with kids
“I have been to the festival every year with my kids – including when Thomas was just a week or so old! It’s definitely possible and enjoyable. My ‘top tip’ has to be get to venues early – this really removes the stress of trying to arrive on time, you get in the queue early and are assured of good seats, but you also get to feel a little cool for hanging out at the festival!”
“My personal favourite is George Square – for the last few years there’s always been people handing out balloons, things for the kids to clamber on, and a great source of coffee.
“The Pleasance usually has activities for the kids to get involved with before shows. In fact, there’s loads of great stuff geared towards kids at the festival and no one should feel like there’s no point in going. We’ve been to some amazing shows and made some great memories with the kids.
“Some of the shows are really expensive but free events definitely shouldn’t be discounted. Also, don’t hold back from approaching other families at venues to ask what they’ve seen already. Honest reviews are priceless.” @edinburghwithkids: A Scottish Lifestyle and Parenting blog.
Jolie Booth, Kriya Arts
“My top 5 tips for first timers in Edinburgh…
“1. Try and get into a good venue – This is my biggest tip. If you can get into one of the top five venues it will make your life so much easier. Especially Pleasance Courtyard or Summerhall. The reason for this is because you have a contained area of people you can flyer to. If you can avoid the Royal Mile it conserves some much needed energy. When flyering, stop and talk to the people and have a proper chat. That’s why it helps to have a venue where you can sit down and have a good ten minutes with the people you’re flyering. This genuinely gets bums on seats.
“2. If you can afford a PR person then do it. Normally they cost around £1,500, but they are well worth it as they will get you the reviews you need for future marketing.
“3. Spread your marketing techniques – If you can afford some of the big posters you see outdoors on the boards around the city then these are the best form of marketing. The basic package starts at around £1,000 and you book this through a company called Out of Hand. Don’t go crazy with printing posters and flyers. You only need between 200-300 posters and up to 3,000 flyers. Don’t waste paper by getting too many. A good, reliable, quick and cheap online printers is Solopress. It’s worth paying a distribution company to get some of these out around the city, on top of your team going out and putting some up themselves. Out of Hand charge £420 for 3 weeks of poster and flyer distribution. Definitely utilise all of the free social media tricks – Follow the other acts at your venue on Twitter and try to find ways to cross promote, set up a Hootsuite account and create a proper campaign of tweets that are scheduled in so you don’t have to worry about them, then top these up with regular fun tweets, instagram photos, etc. Make an event on Facebook. Invite theatre bloggers to see your show and link up with them online.
“4. Order a food shop online for your arrival – When you get there you have to hit the floor running and you can easily find it is suddenly week two and you have spent a fortune and eaten badly. Arrange an online food shop to arrive for when you do. Then you can make sure you’ve budgeted properly and have some healthy food available for you to just grab in a hurry. Take tupperware with you so you can make yourself pack lunches.”
“5. Don’t forget your walking boots, wellies and raincoat… It often rains.” @kriyaarts
Donald C Stewart, CommuneArts FringeReview.co.uk
“A dozen things to remember about the Fringe
1. Take risks – people spend a lot of time and invest a lot to get here and perform – they are to be treasured, pitied, helped, applauded, supported and reviewed!
2. Money guarantees nothing – The hottest ticket, the most expensive ticket is no sure-fire way of finding the next big hit.
3. Try the free stuff – lots of tomorrow’s stars are slumming it today so try as many of the Free Festivals Fayre as possible, spend the afternoon down the High Street seeing the mini adverts for each of the shows that get a slot and watch the street performers – they are highly skilled at it – and please pay them if they are good.
4. Long lie ins – unless you want to catch the Traverse Breakfast Plays, or have kids who need to be entertained, things do not usually hot up until lunchtime onwards and then stay late because some of the streets get busy with entertainment.
5. Make the Half Price Hut and Fringe App your friend – or join the Fringe Society – for about £30 you get 2 for 1 and half price offers aplenty and now you can pick up bargains from more than one ticket outlet.
6. Support the wee guys – and gals – and non-gender specific artists! – plenty of really good stuff done by young people, the LGBT community, the disabled artists and the minorities that gladden your heart.
7. Don’t limit yourself to one place – the Fringe spreads over the entire city and you can end up too long in the Pleasance or on the High Street or over the way near The Stand so… take a walk.
8. Wrap up well – it may be summer but it is Scotland.
9. Hike – Edinburgh is filled with hills and cobbles – think Coronation Street with cappuccinos. It can take it out of you.
10. Eat local – plenty of smaller restaurants and brilliant coffee shops that are reasonable and not part of a big chain – exploration and risks is the key.
11. Do your homework – read reviews/ignore the star ratings – plenty online including mine! – and free papers from Broadway Baby and The List and the like. Watch out for star ratings, as venues will only push things that have been reviewed and it is hard to get around them all so some treasures remain buried.
12. Finally don’t: count on seeing a star on the street; take too many flyers; be surprised if the £20 show is rotten but the free one was superb; take on too much in one day; and jump when the fireworks go off as part of the Tattoo…” @CommuneArts
Mike Lewis, Edinburgh Festival Voluntary Guides
“One thing that many first-timers don’t realise is just how expensive the Festival and Fringe can be. With most Fringe shows costing between £10 and £15 (for a performance typically lasting little more than an hour), the price tab can soon mount up. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways of cutting the cost.
“The best place to pick up a bargain is the Half-Price Hut at the foot of the Mound. As its name suggests, it sells half-price tickets for shows the same day or the following morning. It is open daily between 10:00 and 21:00. Better still, some venues will actually give away tickets at the last minute. But, for obvious reasons, they don’t advertise the fact, so be prepared to ask.
“With most performances, there are reduced prices for students, under-18s, seniors, people with disabilities and the unemployed. Some venues also offer family tickets, a “family” being any group of four with at least two children. And if you are visiting with a larger party, you can take advantage of the ten percent discount offered for groups of ten or more. But that group discount only applies to full-price tickets; it cannot be combined with the reductions for students, families, etc.
“There are also many free shows on offer. Of the 3,600 shows listed in this year’s official Fringe brochure, around 400 are free (although some still require advanced booking). And of course it costs nothing to hang out around the main Fringe sites, taking in the free street entertainment and soaking up the marvellous atmosphere. The best places to do that are the Mound Precinct and the High Street.”
Chris Hislop, Freelance Theatre Publicist
“The Edinburgh Fringe is a behemoth – there’s so much to do, so many different places to go, and it can feel a little overwhelming! A couple of top tips:
“1) Ignore the Mile: Edinburgh’s largely pedestrianised Royal Mile stretches from the Castle down to North Bridge, and is tourist central – there are stages, flyering teams, and it exemplifies the hubbub of the Fringe – worth walking past, maybe even experiencing once, but absolutely avoidable and should be if you’re in any rush or want to do something other than be jostled, have flyers thrust at you and be surrounded by noise. Plan accordingly!
“2) Get used to the hills: Edinburgh is very hilly, with lots of of steep incline/declines, often up/down steps or cobbled streets. Wear appropriate footwear (sneakers/boots), and be aware that maps don’t show this well, and you might find yourself 2-3 floors above where you want to be. Always give yourself extra time for travel!
“3) Pleasance Courtyard, Bristo and George Squares: these three hotspots are the real heart of the fringe – Pleasance Courtyard is a venue in-and-of-itself, whilst Bristo Square has the Pleasance Dome and Gilded Balloon, with a less than a minute walk down Charles Street taking you to the heart of Assembly’s venues and Underbelly’s outdoor tent. Bristo/George Square are good places to hang out – lots of places to sit, eat, drink and plan your next move, and you’re 5 minutes from the really big venues, 10 minutes from a lot of others… It can get very crowded, especially on the weekends and evenings, but it is so much more the Fringe than the Mile.
“4) Use the Fringe App: the official fringe app has a wonderful feature – it tells you what’s on soon and nearby. If you’re looking for something to do, it can give you instant suggestions – incredibly handy and useful. Its search and ticket retail functions also mean you can search by the most obscure of terms and find something niche just for you, buy tickets immediately, and plan your day. The Fringe has made a big effort to upgrade and work with new technology, and it’s worth engaging with.
“5) Don’t be afraid to explore: Edinburgh is not that big, and the Fringe is HUGE – over 3500 shows at last count, featuring work from all over the world at various stages of professional through to the utterly shambolic. Reviews are a good way to gauge if something is worth your time, so don’t be afraid to Google something you like the look of. But don’t be afraid to give things a punt – a random venue, a free show, a comedian a friend recommended, something immersive and peculiar… the Fringe is full of gems, and the hardy explorer should adventure to find them!” @chrishislop
Louise Brown, Travel and Lifestyle writer, The Little Things blog
“Living in Edinburgh definitely has its perks. From the beautiful surroundings of the city, to the vibrant atmosphere of the world renowned Fringe Festival. What’s not to love? It’s a well known local fact that the population of Edinburgh nearly triples in size for the festival in August into a hive of activity. Needless to say, if you’re looking to visit – be sure to book accommodation in advance” Citybase says: “Luckily, you can check out our Edinburgh Apartments here, and, if you’ve left it a bit late, don’t forget Glasgow is only 45 minutes away!”
“The Fringe means big business, and everyone wants a piece of it, so be sure to be organised. There is a whole host of great information on the Fringe Festival website for shows and getting to venues. If there’s something you really want to see, be sure to book your tickets online before you go, as they do sell out. If you’d rather take a more leisurely approach and soak in the atmosphere in a less structured way, you’re immediately spoilt for choice over free shows to enjoy. Head down the Cowgate or the Royal Mile to be in the heart of everything, where you’re bound to have an abundance of flyers thrust upon you!
“There is always something happening. You’ll find most of the shows come alive around 1pm onwards, so take the morning to do some sightseeing. Or if you have children, all the family friendly shows and activities tend to start from 11am onwards.” @littlethings_lb
So there you have it, the best of the Fringe served up to you courtesy of our Edinburgh Festival experts and Citybase Apartments. We would love to see your Edinburgh Festival photos and stories, connect with us on Instagram and Facebook and share your citybreak experiences. If you’re in need of any further inspiration, why not check out our Free things to do in Edinburgh, Edinburgh with the kids come rain or shine and our pick of the best vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Scotland, or give our team a call on 01524 544 244 to discuss your trip.
If you fancy sharing our guide, we’ve put the top tips together as a handy infographic:
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