Friday, 19 July 2013

The Edinburgh Etiquette Guide to Enjoying the Fringe

Summer's here, the sun is out and August is just around the corner.  Edinburgh is getting ready for the multitude of festivals that are about to hit next month and here's our top tips for making the most of the busiest and most exciting month of the year in our fair city.

Festival Newbie?  Our Top Scene Hang Outs
The Pleasance Courtyard is at the heart of the festival comedy scene.  It has indoor bars but the real draw is a fine day sitting outside in this historic setting, enjoying a cold bevvy and starspotting.  The Assembly at George Square is one of the big hitters of the Edinburgh Festival scene, with tented bars surrounded by a variety of venues.  Potterrow Dome is also a well placed drinking hub nearby, which is a good option for rainy days and later nights.  Further afield is the Spiegel Tent, located by the Assembly Rooms on George Street.  It's a venue in itself as well as an excellent outdoor drinking spot (expect to queue for entry on a weekend).  If you're over in the West End, the Traverse Theatre Bar is open until late and serves a good pulled pork sandwich too, should you feel the need.  This could be your idea of hell but if you have a bit of time and a lot of patience, a walk down the Royal Mile to watch street performers is a great way to take in the atmosphere and you'll certainly get some inspiration on catching shows as someone will be forcing a flyer into your hand approximately every 20 seconds.  It's a good way to enjoy the madness of the festival and you will definitely see some weird shit there.

The Shows and Economy Vs. Quality
The Fringe guide is a pleasure to look through but can be slightly overwhelming.  Our advice would be to book your favourites and keep an eye on reviews and previews for some hot tips - websites like Edinburgh Spotlight have huge numbers of reviews coming in every day.  It can be hard to go and see shows without spending a fortune so keep an eye out for two-for-one shows and free fringe events.  Having said that it is worth picking wisely and paying a bit to see something you really want to as you might end up having to watch some kind of Hungarian expressive dance theatre, with audience participation mandatory (though it does make for a good story and "I've seen a worse show at the Fringe than you" top trumps).  There'll also be some cool one-off events and unusual venues, such as Arthur's Seat.  If you've bought a ticket that needs collected before a show, remember that the queues can be looonng.  Our top picks for the Fringe will be coming soon too - it's always good to get personal recommendations!

Who knows if this current heatwave will last but our advice would be to err on the side of caution and bring along a small brolly and raincoat you can pack away.  Edinburgh can easily have four seasons in one hour, never mind a day, and you certainly don't want to be caught out having to buy a bright purple thistle plastic mac out of sheer soggy desperation.  The golden rule is: if the weather gets too wet, go and have a drink.

Good Food & Where to Get It
It's always a good idea to know where some tip top takeaway places are as it can be hard to bag a table at your usual favourite places.  Good portable food options around the Old Town are: George Square's multitude of food vans; Oink, for a tasty pulled pork roll (though avoid if you don't like seeing the animal your meat is coming from); the Tempting Tattie and Rotato for mahoosive baked potatoes with great fillings; Red Box Noodle Bar for fresh stir fried noodles in a takeaway box and Piemaker for an authentic Scottish pie experience (I'm talking macaroni pie here).  Good veggie options are Peters Yard, who have a veggie/vegan option every day; Union of Genius, who have veggie/vegan soups and salads and the Baked Potato Shop, an all veggie option for tatties, rolls and salads.  If you absolutely need to sit and eat, there are a few good large places to visit: Mosque Kitchen is cheap, tasty and has plenty of seating; Cafe Musa on the Mound is set away from the madding crowd and has a good range of lunches, cakes and teas as well as a gorgeous view; and Spoon Bistro  and The Outsider serve excellent fresh and seasonal food.

Where to Drink
With hopefully more gorgeous summer days ahead, outdoor drinking is a very real and exciting prospect.  The Pear Tree and The Beehive Inn both have beautiful big beer gardens and Summerhall has its own microbrewery, producing Barneys beer.  The pop-up Pommery Champagne Bar at the Signet Library is back for August, so you can enjoy some fizz in super swish surroundings.  Cocktails can be found at Bar Kohl56 North and The Villager though they do get very busy (Jane loves the sharing platters at the Villager too).  If you feel like splashing out, the Missoni Hotel Bar is fabulous in every way - their drinks are also fabulously expensive.

Places To Escape
Ignoring the festival completely is totally an option if you avoid much of the Old Town (though traffic jams affect pretty much the whole city).  If you just can't be bothered this year, Stockbridge, Bruntsfield and Leith are generally fairly light on festival action and you could enjoy a trip to the beach at Cramond or Portobello. 

Sneaky festival secrets from a former festival employee

Katey's tips above will set you up as a savvy Fringe reveller, but as I (Jane) worked the festival as a box office manager for five years, along with many sore heads and nights dancing in beloved festival piano bar dive Fingers,  I've gleaned a sneaky secret or two along the way:

(1) How to get tickets for sold out shows...

Trick for getting tickets to a totally sold-out show: there are no guarantees but some venues will reserve tickets for press, reviewers and performer friends and family and if these haven't been allocated, these may be released at the last minute for the public to purchase. It can be anything from 2 hours to 30 minutes before the show starts and expect to queue - but if you're patient, you'll be in with a much better chance of getting that golden ticket.

(2) How to make sure you're on time for shows...

Someone once told me that Edinburgh's population doubles during the Fringe. I don't know how true that is, but remember that the streets will be packed to the hilt with festivalgoers and moving about is about as brisk as pouring treacle off a spoon. Give yourself generous commuting time, especially if you're lining up back-to-back shows, and try to give the main "people jam" culprits - Princes Street, the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge - a wide berth if you need to nip about quickly.

(3) How to make sure you see the show you've got a ticket for...

It sounds a bit obvious but do your best to be on time for shows. Some, like stand up comedians, will welcome tardy audience members with a merry and robust pisstaking - but others (often more serious acts) won't allow in latecomers, and venues aren't obliged to refund your ticket if you get shut out of a performance because you've arrived late.

(4) How to make sure you don't end up wasting money...

Actually an almost impossible feat - as much great stuff there is at the Fringe there's a healthy helping of  utter dross too, and sometimes it's cleverly disguised. But here's how to avoid throwing money down the drain before you see a show: festival venues, in as friendly a way as possible, place the onus of getting your ticket order right squarely on the buyer and will only refund at their discretion. Check, check and triple check your order to ensure all your details are right before hitting that confirm button. If you're going old skool and purchasing via a human, ask the seller to read the order back to you before they print your tickets.

And finally...

Expect venues to be hot
Expect seats to be a bit uncomfortable
Expect to pay cash at a lot of the smaller venues' bars
Expect to chat to lots of random people and possibly a minor celebrity
Expect to use a large inflatable purple cow as a landmark for navigation
Expect to party till 5am
Expect to have an absolutely bloody brilliant time.


  1. Overwhelming indeed!

    Last year, I outsourced everything to CulturePie, a one-woman operation that builds custom Festival itineraries.

    It was fantastic. No stress: just cool shows and a great festi-break.

    The tips above are good, and are all things I've tried with some success, but if you don't have much time at the Festival, I'd recommend professional assistance:

  2. Also recommend Elephants & Bagels for a takeaway bagel lunch!