Edinburgh: not just a pretty festival

A festival or ten

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Edinburgh Festival is a singular event most accurately referred to in the plural. In the general vicinity of August a host of festivals come to town covering art, books, politics, music, theatre, dance, food, spirituality and multiculturalism and pretty much everything in between. Events include anything from a Mozart-penned mass at the neo-gothic St Mary’s Cathedral, avant-garde modern dance, Dizzee Rascal and more comedians than you could poke a rubber chicken at.

The highest concentrations of performers and people are in the Old Town. At the western end of the Royal Mile is the Castle, temporary home to the insanely popular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. At the eastern end is Holyrood Castle and Holyrood Park where the Foodies Festival and Festival Cavalcade are held. At this time of year, walking from one to the other will probably involve negotiating four jugglers, two unicyclists, a retro-clad maiden doing light operatics and a local who’s trying make a quid from her world-record number of body-piercings. There is also tartan, whisky and (very probably) rain. Meanwhile, seagulls the size of winged chihuahuas stare malevolently down from steepled sandstone spires.

Some of the most popular festivals are the Edinburgh International Festival, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the PHB’s Free Fringe. For music lovers there’s the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, art-aficionados should visit the Edinburgh Art Festival, while bibliophiles will not want to miss the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Fire and ice

The Royal Bank of Scotland Fireworks (Queens Street Gardens) marks the moment when it’s time to take off the party hat. More than 10,000 fireworks explode above the Castle and cascade downs its walls, choreographed to live music. Prime viewing is from the Princes Street Gardens, which is ticketed, but you and up to 200,000 others can enjoy it for free from various points around the city. A view of the north face of the castle is best.

Fireworks feature heavily in Hogmanay, Edinburgh’s famous New Year’s Eve celebrations, while pyromaniacs can also get a mid-year fix at the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill. This is where Edinburgh celebrates its Celtic roots with the Green Man, the May Queen, dancing, and large balls of fire being swung about on ropes.

Galleries

Art and art galleries are integral to Edinburgh. Galleries are well patronised by locals as well as visitors and, with the exception of the occasional special exhibition, they are free.  The National Gallery Complex on The Mound includes the National Gallery, the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Portrait Gallery.

To the west of the city centre, the collections at the Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery take a more contemporary take and include artists such as Warhol and Miró. A path from the rear of the gallery leads down the banks of the Water of Leith, which is home to one of the Gallery’s of Modern Art’s most recent commissions, Anthony Gormley’s 6 Times. This comprises 6 life-size cast-iron figures which follow the path of the river from the Gallery to the where the river joins the sea in Leith.

Smaller galleries worth a visit include Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Ingleby, and Talbot Rice Gallery at Edinburgh University.

Ghouls & graveyards

Strange happenings in the dark are another Edinburgh tradition, and the dramatic landscape and the ornate mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture provide the perfect setting for it. The Edinburgh Dungeons, a range of ghost and graveyard tours, and a genuinely creepy display of torturer’s tools at the National Museum of Scotland keep the tradition alive. Mary King’s Close is haunted by anecdotes, although the stories of people being sealed alive in the Close during the plague have been long discounted.

The first 'City of Literature'

Authors past and present figure prominently in Edinburgh. Literary lions born or based there include Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Muriel Spark, as well as JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh. Literary pub tours, literary walking tours, and no shortage of good bookshops cater for bibliophiles. In 2004, Edinburgh was appointed the first Unesco City of Literature, and the Edinburgh Book Festival continues to thrive. The Writers' Museum and the Scottish Storytelling Centre are also easily accessible from the Royal Mile. Further down the hill the Scottish Poetry Library is home to a vast selection of poetry books and pamphlets, and poets feature in regular evening events.

Fine dining in Scotland? Really?

While the rest of the UK is telling old jokes about Scottish cuisine, Edinburgh has been quietly establishing itself as a haven of fine dining. There is plenty of good quality Indian, French and Thai to be had, and a good smattering of Italian. Where Edinburgh really excels, though, is in menus prepared with locally sourced produce. Five of Edinburgh’s restaurants have received Michelin stars in the recent past: Martin Wishart, The Kitchin and Plumed Horse down in waterside Leith, and Restaurant 21212 and Number One in the city centre.

How to

In August, Edinburgh’s population doubles and prices for accommodation follow suit. Book early to avoid sleeping in the park. Thankfully, festival events are well organised and easy to book either online or in person. Programs and flyers are everywhere, and The Hub and the Fringe Shop on the Royal Mile are there to help.

Remember that 'The Official Edinburgh Festivals Map', which is free and has venues marked, is your best friend. It is best and probably quickest to get around the main Festivals venues on foot. Beyond that, there is an excellent bus network, which will carry you around all day for £3.20. More info can be found at the official Edinburgh Festivals website.

This article was refreshed in June 2012