Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland and one of the UK’s most populous cities, is a place that feels slightly otherworldly. It’s a student city, a business hub, and a place that is fanatical about sports. In addition to all of this, it may be the most picturesque city in all of the UK, overlooked as it is by a castle on a hill. Every August, it adds to these attractions by hosting the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – seen by many as a comedy festival but packed with attractions that include theatre, dance, music, and street performances. In short, it is an explosion of culture – and there’s something for all tastes.
1. Get serious at the Summerhall Theatre
While for many people, the Edinburgh Festival is inextricably linked with comedy, there is always a lot more than that going on in the city in August. The Summerhall is an excellent place to start if your tastes are avant-garde and rarely catered to by mainstream media. Whether it’s garage-punk concerts or innovative, thought-provoking plays, there’s going to be something here for you. The theatre’s tagline is “Open Doors, Open Minds”; that sums it up pretty well.
Address: 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL
Website: Summerhall Theatre
2. Laugh it all off at the Gilded Balloon
Edinburgh is a city that takes comedy seriously – well, you know what I mean! So, when a venue gets a reputation for being the most prestigious comedy venue here, you know you’re talking something impressive. The Gilded Balloon runs the festival’s “So You Think You’re Funny?” award, which since the 1980s has been launching comedians to careers in the highest comic echelons of TV and stand-up. Luminaries such as Ed Byrne and Johnny Vegas got early breaks here; or rather, at its old home on Cowgate. The original Gilded Balloon was destroyed by fire in 2002, and its base has now moved to Bristo Square (where, fortunately, the magic keeps happening!).
Address: 13 Bristo Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9AJ
Website: Gilded Balloon
3. Meet Fringe fans and comedians alike at the Pleasance
It’s no exaggeration to say that, for the duration of the Fringe, Edinburgh becomes the centre of comedy in the UK. Popular panel shows go on hiatus during this time to allow their stars to decamp to Scotland’s first city. When they do, they are likely to end up spending some time in the general area of the Pleasance, a performing arts theatre complex which hosts influential shows and, equally importantly, a beer garden. Spend awhile here, and you will meet comedy royalty. You’ll also pick up a lot of flyers, but it’s the Fringe, so indulge this – go see a show; chances are you’re seeing the first steps of a future legend.
Address: Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9TJ
Website: The Pleasance
4. See something different: the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
If you have joined the masses pouring into Edinburgh for the festival, chances are that military bands did not feature anywhere in your thinking. That’s fair enough. The thing about Edinburgh, though, is that doing it right means doing at least one thing you didn’t expect. Hence, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It’s really not like most marching band events, anyway – and regular guest stints from overseas performers give it a real cultural depth.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Address: The Tattoo Office, 1-3 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1QB,
Website: Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
5. A whole wide world, Edinburgh-style: visit the Edinburgh Mela
First, a small language lesson. “Mela” is a Sanskrit word meaning “gathering” and that’s what takes place at Leith Links as part of the festival. The Edinburgh Mela has been running and growing since 1995, and involves stages for world music and dance, market stalls including fashion and art and, not least importantly, a culinary tour of the world that alone is worth the journey. Although strongly Asian-influenced, it’s very much a “come one, come all” affair, and you are guaranteed to find something here that is to your taste.
Address: Leith Links, Edinburgh
Website: Edinburgh Mela
6. Wallet starting to empty? See a show for free
Those used to paying London prices may have a look around Edinburgh and wonder how traders and venues make any money at all, but for other tourists, “doing Edinburgh” can start to get expensive after a few days. In that light, it’s not a bad idea to avail of some of the free shows taking place during the month. As with the main festival, there are music, comedy, dance and theatre shows among others with the blessed advantage that you won’t need to buy tickets. It’s no indicator of low quality – the Free Festival is a chance for some performers who are just starting out to work in front of an audience. Take the opportunity – they may be back next year playing to sold-out arenas.
Edinburgh Free Festival
Address: Various locations
Website: Edinburgh Free Festival
7. Give it a try yourself: try an open mic night!
The ultimate sign that a performer is sinking without trace is when they look out into the heckling, jeering crowd and in a fit of pique, shout “I bet you couldn’t do any better!”. And yet, if we were the ones staring down the barrel of those lights, could we?
If you’re a comedy or music connoisseur, you may well have found yourself idly daydreaming that you’re up there, holding an audience in the palm of your hand. Performing at an open mic evening in Edinburgh during the festival is a white-knuckle ride up there with anything the world’s theme parks can offer. However, a few days into your trip, having seen the weird and wonderful attractions of the Fringe, maybe you’ll find yourself wanting to try? If so, there will be no shortage of opportunities – maybe you’ll be discovered here? Espionage club is just one of many venues that hosts open mic nights during the festival – keep in touch with the free festival providers to find out more.
Open Mic Nights
Address: Espionage, 4, India Buildings, Victoria St, Edinburgh EH1 2EX
Website: Open Mic
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be back in Edinburgh next year...
Make no mistake, not everything you see in Edinburgh will have your sides splitting nor your heart soaring. There’s no editing suite with live comedy, music, and theatre. But when you see it in the raw, at the most famous fringe festival of it all, you really appreciate the craft of these performers. When you’ve done one Edinburgh Festival, you’ll want to come back every year.
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