Edinburgh: how to ‘do the Fringe’

by Paul.Wade

Book now for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (3 - 27 August 2012), with 40,000 performances of 2,500 shows taking place in 260 venues in three weeks.


The couple in front of us in the queue are enthusiastic about their recommendation. “You have to see the Croatian magicians,” they insist. “They are amazing!” In turn, my wife and I tell them that a quartet of Poles making music out of a table is equally amazing.

Nowhere is word of mouth more important than Edinburgh’s annual Fringe festival. The 2011 Fringe runs from August 5 to August 29. Do not confuse this with the city’s International Festival. Both take place in August, but where ‘the Festival’ offers theatre, opera, dance and classical music, ‘the Fringe’ offers, well, anything. And everything. After 60 years, the Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with theatre, comedy, music of all sorts, dance, exhibitions, magic and really weird stuff! Think 40,000 performances, 2,500 shows and 250 venues this year...in 3 frantic weeks!

First-timers can find it hard to decide what to see. Telegraph readers may not follow reviews in The Guardian; English visitors may be unfamiliar with The Scotsman. As for chatting to others in the queue, how do you know whether they share your tastes and standards? After the plaudits for the Croatians, for example, we rushed to book up... only to be disappointed.  

We have been going to Edinburgh every summer for six years. Some of our best entertainment experiences have been at the Fringe. But even the duds don’t last long and don’t cost much; most shows are under one hour and tickets are generally less than a tenner. One group from an American university wrote and performed a musical that was dreadful. The only consolation was the free coffee and muffin that went with the ticket.

Here are our top 10 tips on 'How to Fringe.'

1 Find a base
In August, Edinburgh is full, so book now! Half a million residents are joined by half a million tourists. Apart from the obvious hotels, there are B&Bs and student rooms in the suburbs, all easily reached by public transport. Staying out of the centre is less expensive, but after a late-night gig, you may need a taxi to get home.   

2 Become a Friend
Get the jump on everyone else by joining the Friends of the Fringe. For £25, you get: the programme in June, before everyone else; advance booking; a priority phone booking line; a dedicated box office in Edinburgh; and a range of ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’ tickets (www.edfringe.com).  

3 Book ahead
If there is a performance or a star that you really want to see, book early. We usually commit early to one performance a day, then add shows as the reviews come out.

4 Start a spreadsheet
Make a detailed plan. We have missed shows, turned up on the wrong night or at the wrong venue, bought tickets for shows whose times overlap and left ourselves too little time to get from one side of the city to another. The good old Excel file saves tears and money.
5 Have fun
Don’t try to cram in too much. Take time to relax in a pub and meet Fringers from around the world; talk to the actors, directors and musicians in the bar after a show – that’s part of the thrill. Stroll down the Royal Mile, where enthusiastic youngsters are touting their shows.

6 Look beyond the Fringe
Many major exhibitions are staged in August, so check what’s on at, for example, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. For green-fingered American friends, a highlight was exploring the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

7 Never sit at the front
If you have never been to a stand-up comedy show, be warned: comedians (male and female) are risqué, use rude words and love nothing more than to pick on innocents in the audience. However, if humiliation is your thing – be sure to sit in the first three rows, preferably in the middle.

8 Try a tattoo
The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a spectacle, with hundreds of musicians and marching bands from around the world performing in the spectacular setting of Edinburgh Castle. Other fun events in August include the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival and, of course, the big sister of the Fringe, the Edinburgh International Festival

9 Go for the unexpected
Go to a play in a restaurant: the shows at Valvona & Crolla, the popular deli-cum-restaurant, usually have an Italian theme. Listen to a concert in a church: the lunchtime concerts in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, and the choral concerts in St Mary’s Cathedral are consistently good. Climb aboard a comedy bus, go for a Literary Pub Crawl, sip whisky in ancient vaults, and watch free comedy, dance and theatre in the window of the John Lewis department store!

10 Bin the breakfast
And finally: be very wary of any morning show that promises free coffee and muffins.



Where to stay

Jurys Inn Edinburgh: just off the Royal Mile, close to many venues and attractions: large, practical, good base for the Fringe.  

Royal Garden Apartments: close to Princes Street; like having your own flat in the city.
The Balmoral Hotel: poshest hotel in town; Michelin-starred restaurant; Palm Court for proper afternoon tea; champagne bar; day spa.

The Knight Residence, 12 Lauriston Street: very comfortable serviced apartments below the Castle; near the Traverse Theatre.


Travel-mad ever since exploring Europe by train as a child. Has lived in the USA and Spain, as well as the UK. Speaks Spanish, French, some German, and good at waving arms enthusiastically. Reckons that local dishes and drinks are the best way to understand a country. Award-winning writer for national newspapers, magazines, as well as author/editor of some 30 books. Favourite places are in specialist areas such as New England, Canada, Austria, France and Italy: a Vermont village, eating lobster in New Brunswick, walking in vineyards in Styria, cycling along the Loire Valley, eating lunch on a terrace in Capri.