This August, Edinburgh celebrates 70 years of its international arts festival.
Back in 1947, Austrian opera impresario Rudolf Bing founded the Edinburgh International Festival in the hope of reuniting post-war Europe through culture. The main programme was opera and classical music, but eight theatre companies turned up uninvited and the Fringe was born. Now the Fringe sideshow has turned into the main attraction, with more than 3,000 events across the city.
1. Book it and busk it
The full International Festival programme is available online (eif.co.uk) and booking opens on 25 March. Fringe shows can be booked via the website edfringe.com, but with over 1,000 shows a day, the choice can be overwhelming. Pick up a copy of the free Fringe bible, the The Wee Blue Book, or go later in August so you can read the early reviews. Last year there were over 600 free events and over 150 pay-what-you-want shows. Ask anyone and everyone for tips and try something new – ever been to an immersive theatre show or an Aussie cabaret?
While it’s good to plan ahead so that you can be sure of seeing the bigger names, some of the best moments are unplanned: a virtuoso busker on the Royal Mile, perhaps, or an improvised stand-up set in a pub.
2. Look beyond the comedy
Miranda Hart, Hugh Laurie, Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson are just a few of the famous alumni who cut their teeth at the Fringe, but it’s not just comedy; there’s tons of theatre, opera, dance, circus, cabaret, variety, spoken word and children’s shows.
The International Festival still puts on a first-class programme in upmarket venues such as Usher Hall and The Lyceum. This year’s line-up is putting more emphasis on classical and contemporary music. The big names include Bryn Terfel, Riccardo Chailly, Nicola Benedetti, American soprano Christine Goerke, PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker and cabaret chanteuse Meow Meow. There’ll be a new play from Alan Ayckbourn and nine operas including Verdi’s Macbeth – the first opera staged at the inaugural festival.
3. Let the train take the strain
The best way to get to Edinburgh is by train, with services from the rest of the UK dropping you right into the centre of the city. It’s near impossible to drive or park in the city when the festival is on. Flights to Edinburgh can also be competitively priced and there are trams and buses to take you into the city centre.
Book your accommodation early. Rooms at Edinburgh’s finest hotel, The Caledonian, double in price in August, but there are plenty of inexpensive options such as self-catering student flats. Edlets (edlets.com) can help you too, from luxury hotels to bed and breakfast accommodation in private homes.
4. Try a Tattoo
As night falls, the sound of pipes and drums wafts from Edinburgh Castle and echoes around the Old Town. Every evening the castle’s esplanade becomes a stage for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which brings together musicians, precision drill teams and dance troupes from around the world. With the floodlit castle as a backdrop it’s a magnificent and humbling spectacle. Book the Tattoo early because it always sells out. Wrap up warm on the night: no performance has ever been cancelled come rain or storm.
5. Be prepared
You’ll do plenty of walking in Edinburgh so wear comfortable shoes. Ignore the weather forecast. Carry sun cream and an umbrella at all times – chances are you’ll need them both on the same afternoon. If it’s your first timenavigating the Old Town, pay close attention to the map: some streets look like they connect, but one is actually 15m below the other.
Don’t forget to eat! Edinburgh caters for every taste and price range and you’ll only need to book ahead for the most high-end or popular restaurants. Even if one place is full, there will be another eatery nearby. Pubs are often good places to pick up a quick snack.
6. Take a break
The Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place during the last three weeks of August in Charlotte Square Gardens, one of the genteel 18th century squares in the New Town. After the frenetic Fringe, this leafy tented village is an oasis of calm, although it’s no parochial tea party: last year’s welcomed nearly 900 authors from 53 countries, including literary lions, showbiz authors and children’s favourites. The programme for 2017 will be unveiled in June.
Frazzled Fringe-goers would also do well to drop in on one of the 40 free art exhibitions in galleries, museums and less conventional venues. The Edinburgh Art Festival (27 July to 27 August) is a pick ’n’ mix of established and emerging artists, international and home-grown talent, and it’s a great way to explore some of the city’s lesser known sights – 2016’s exhibits included a new statue in an abandoned neo-Greek temple and a painted ship in a Victorian dock.
7. Do it again — and again
Did you know Edinburgh holds 12 festivals a year, including a science festival in April, a film festival in June (which also turns 70 this year) and a jazz and blues festival in July? Find out more at edinburghfestivalcity.com