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Lonely Planet Writer

The ultimate guide to Edinburgh's Fringe Festival for first-timers

Every August the world’s largest arts festival descends on the Scottish capital, bringing with it a pandemonium of performers, colour and creativity. The sheer scale of events can make it a dizzying prospect for both newcomers and experienced fans alike. Master the cobbled streets and mind-bending roster of shows with our guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from the hilarious Louise Bastock, one half of Glitter Business.

Fringe-goers enjoy the sunshine in the Underbelly Pasture, one of the off-street venues for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Underbelly stage is a hug inflatable upside down purple cow.
Navigating Edinburgh during the Fringe can be hectic, our guide is here to show you the way © Ken Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

What is the Fringe Festival?

The Fringe Festival was ‘established’ in 1947 when eight renegade theatre troupes decided to gatecrash the fledgling Edinburgh International Festival. From humble beginnings, it’s ballooned into a Goliath of over 3500 shows with 55,000 performances in 300-plus venues across the city. And it’s only one of four other festivals happening in Edinburgh in August which include the Art Festival (25 July-25 August 2019), International Festival (2-26 August 2019) and the International Book Festival (10-26 August).

These days, comedy is the bread and butter of the Fringe, but theatre, music, cabaret and childrens’ shows are formidably represented as well. The Fringe runs for three weeks every August with dates varying slightly each year – in 2019 it runs from 2-26 August.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile. The Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world, with an excess of 30,000 performances of more than 2000 shows. A man is walking along a high line wearing shorts and a bowler hat while playing a violin. A huge crowd is gathered around to watch.
The Fringe's smaller venues can be comedy goldmines © Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Where are the best venues in the Fringe?

In short: everywhere. Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly are considered the ‘Big Four’, where you’ll find bigger acts and TV names alongside up-and-coming artists. Just the Tonic is the younger sibling of the Big Four with a central hub on Cowgate Street and rooms scattered across the city.

The Free Fringe has one of the most extensive programmes at the Fringe, and while the rooms may be slightly more ramshackle (think pub backrooms, tunnels and even tents!) it still features some of the best and brightest on the circuit – keep an eye out for surprise bigger names as well.

English actress and singer Su Pollard poses during a photocall to promote her show 'Harpy' at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Underbelly George Square. She is sitting in a deckchair with her hands behind her head and feet raised, there are plastic flowers and the Underbelly venue in the background.
Word of mouth is the best way to find out about lesser-known gigs © Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images

How do I pick which Fringe shows to go to?

Nearly every show at the Fringe will be listed in the The Edinburgh Fringe Guide – your festival bible. If, however, you’re somewhat adverse to lugging this 452-page slab around, download the Fringe App (thankfully there is free WiFi throughout Edinburgh) where you can search shows by genre, time, venue, pricing and more. The Twittersphere is a great way to see what’s hot, follow your favourite acts and @edfringe or #edfringe for show updates, reviews and recommendations.

But, the best way to pick shows is to go analogue – talk to people you meet, talk to bar staff, talk to flyerers, everyone will have a show to recommend. Box Office staff are the keepers of the keys – cosy up to them for tip-offs on the best shows and under-the-radar, one-off performances. The ‘sold out’ boards outside bigger venues spotlight the most popular shows, but check the box office for returns (released about 10 mins prior to show time) or, if possible, book tickets for a few days ahead.

Festival-goers on The Mound precinct queue outside the "Half Price Hut" ticket office during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The office is in a shipping container painted red and white with windows to serve customers through.
Resale tickets are usually available 10 minutes before show time at the box office © Ken Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

How do I get Fringe tickets?

Buy your tickets via the Fringe app, online or straight from the venue box office. There is a central fringe office on the Royal Mile that has some cute merch (Fringe-branded umbrella, anyone?) and doubles as an info point and box office for all Fringe shows.

Free shows are typically non-ticketed, just rock up and at the end pop some cash in their bucket or, increasingly, acts provide card readers so you can give a contactless donation – there’s no obligation to pay for a free show, but, if you can, it’s worth chucking some cash in. Even free shows get busy, especially at weekends, so arrive early to guarantee a seat. If your show is listed as ‘Pay What You Want’, you can either count it as a free show or buy a ticket at the box office to guarantee a seat – useful if the show is regularly selling out.

People enjoy the sunshine in The Meadows, Edinburgh. There is smoke from barbecues dotted around the park, there are cherry blossom trees blooming in the background and lots of people sitting on the grass in groups. A church steeple is visible in the background.
When you're worn out from laughing, find one of Edinburgh's chill spaces to take a break © Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images

Where can I escape the madness?

Grab some grub and head to The Meadows. This green expanse is an oasis away from the crush of the city centre. If you’re lucky you might even catch an errant comedian running their show in the park, catching a quick nap or canoodling with a Fringe fling – best leave them to it, unless you’re willing to offer them one of your Scotch eggs.

Get the lay of the land with a walk up Arthur’s Seat, and treat yourself to breathtaking views over the city and out to the coast. The Botanical Gardens are another peaceful spot and well worth a visit to see if the world’s smelliest plant – their infamous nine-foot-tall ‘Corpse Flower’ – is in bloom.

Where’s best to eat and drink during the Fringe?

Come Fringe time, street food stalls and pop-up bars spring up all over the city. The main hive of huts can be found clustered around big venues in Bristo Square, George Square Gardens and along Charles Street. Be aware that festival food and drink stalls will charge a premium.

Elsewhere, Elephants and Bagels is a laid-back lunchtime cafe, hidden just off Nicolson Street, ideal for grabbing a snack on the go or sitting out a rainshower. Bagels are made to order and gluten-free options are available. For something more hearty head to the Mosque Kitchen where you can get a giant portion of fragrant curry for less than a tenner. Indulge a hangover at American-style diner City Cafe or head to homely Spoon for a healthy meal that caters for loads of dietary requirements.

The Pleasance Courtyard is one of the best places to grab a drink and soak up the bustling Fringe atmosphere. For a quiet wine while you digest your intake of culture, Under the Stairs is a hidden bolthole in the city centre. Don’t miss stopping by Panda and Sons in New Town. Enter through the bookcase of a barber shop and spend your evening in this speakeasy pouring over a tome of intriguing cocktails. If you really want to shake off the Fringe crowds, head down Leith Walk and make a beeline for Joseph Pearce’s for a sloe gin or The Black Fox for craft beer and drool-inducing pizzas.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe entertainers perform on the Royal Mile. A person in an oversized white yeti costume with a tartan sash and holding a staff props their leg up on a bollard while two men walk by.
However you travel during the festival, factor extra 'Fringe time' in to arrive on time © Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

What’s the best way to get around during the Fringe?

Walking is the best way to get around this relatively compact, but very cobbled city. You can scoot across town in 20-30 minutes and even the more far-reaching venues will only be a brisk 45-minute walk away. Bring comfortable, sturdy shoes – despite being a proficient flip-flop wearer, this Lonely Planet writer discovered the hard way that such footwear is a no-go on the hills of Edinburgh.

If you’re feeling weary from all that laughing, Lothian Buses are an excellent way to get around the city and beyond, download their app for live departure times and service updates. Edinburgh has Uber and cabs can be flagged down on main streets – strike up a convo with your driver and you might even get a cheeky show recommendation along the way.

However you decide to get around, it’s worth factoring in ‘Fringe time’ to your journey. Edinburgh’s population doubles in size during August and navigating the streets, and their influx of costumed-creatives, can leave you feeling like a contestant on Total Wipe Out – a 15/20 min buffer should see you reach your finish line unscathed.

If you're spending more time in the city, check out our guide to Edinburgh for first-timers.

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