The Edinburgh Festivals: A Survivor's Guide

The Edinburgh Festival is a month-long orgy of culture, world-renowned for packing so much into four weeks and for hastily improvised performance venues. if you want to avoid the tourist traps or know where to go when it gets too much, start taking notes

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Published 28 Jul 2015

Do the Fringe like a local

Edinburgh isn't just a cultural capital in August—you could be out every night of the week at a poetry slam or an indie documentary screening any day of the year—and some of the city's best-loved acts take it up a notch when the festival rolls around. Spoken word and music maestros Illicit Ink can normally be found entertaining crowds at the Bongo Club, but this year they're hitting the Book Festival with a fairy-tale-themed night featuring as part of the Jura Unbound lineup. The Improverts, the University of Edinburgh's improvised comedy troupe, perform weekly during term-time and nightly during the festival. They've launched hit comedy acts like Mitch Benn, Jenny Colgan and Miles Jupp, so it's worth going along and checking out the stars of the future.

Food and Drink

You're going to need coffee if you're to get through all the shows you've highlighted in your Fringe guide (spoiler alert: you will not make it to all these shows). Don't go to the Elephant House. Seriously. Once a popular student hangout, it's now overrun with tourists and Harry Potter obsessives because J.K. Rowling once apparently wrote there. There's even HP-themed graffiti in the toilets. And they've stopped putting Maltesers on top of their hot chocolate, so frankly what's the point?

Brew Lab does some of the best coffee in Scotland, although getting a table is hit and miss at the best of times. Get some of their cold-brewed coffee to go on the one hot day of the year and you'll never crave a Frappuccino again. If you need a pick-me-up before heading over to St Andrews Square or The Stand then Artisan Roast on Broughton Street is the only stop you need to make. Artisan Roast provide most of the coffee for the rest of Edinburgh's coffee shops, so get it from the source. Otherwise, swing by Kilimanjaro on Nicolson Street before hitting the Pleasance, Wellington Coffee on your way to the Book Festival and Lovecrumbs in West Port when you need a serious cake fix before a show at the Traverse. For booze, avoid The Peartree and its packed beer garden and check out one of the Swedish-themed pubs dotted around the city. Hemma does amazing cocktails, Joseph Pearce has incredible food and Sofi's is that perfect Edinburgh blend of cosy and cool. Bramble, Lucky Liquor and Dragonfly are best for cocktails, and if you want good whisky – well, you're in Scotland. Everywhere has good whisky, it's the law. Don't forget to take advantage of the cheaper student bars in the Pleasance, Teviot and Potterow, all of which double as some of the best Fringe venues in the city.

If your knowledge of Scottish cuisine begins and ends at haggis, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Yes, it's still a staple of any self-respecting menu, but now it's gone artisanal. The Apartment, five minutes from the King's Theatre, does a good line in Scottish fusion, Spoon is essential for breakfast (assuming you don't mind it taking long enough to count as brunch) and Leith's Michelin-starred delights include The Kitchin, which deserves its award and then some.

Stockbridge is the Islington of Edinburgh, where all the artsy, quirky middle-class live so naturally they have a good farmer's market. Go on Sundays between 10:00 and 17:00 and enjoy a picnic as you flit from play to comedy to what-even-was-that, and laugh while the queues in Pret a Manger stretch out to Waverley Station.

Get away from it all

If the Festival madness is proving too much for you, then it only takes a short bus ride to escape it all. No, I don't mean climbing Arthur's Seat—assuming you can even get up there—with all the other out-of-towners who have the same idea. If you want to commune with nature and be able to get back in time to see that hot new Radio 4 comedian at 19:30 then jump on bus number 11 or 16 and take a walk in the woods around Braid Hills, or go a bit further and hike the Pentlands. The nearby Royal Observatory is both educational and offers the best view of Edinburgh you'll ever see (unless you happen to be staring out of my living room window at sunset, in which case kindly leave, things just got weird).

If the sun is shining and you fancy a swim, Portobello Beach has you covered. Further up the coast, Musselburgh is quieter and, some say, prettier, and if you head down towards the Forth Bridge then Cramond is a beautiful afternoon out.

Getting around

The buses all have free wifi, take advantage of this. Even if you don't need it. It's free! It's probably compensating for the fact that the bus driver won't let you on unless you have exact change. It's £1.50 for a single or £4 for a day ticket and they don't take notes. Don't even ask. To save yourself from rummaging in your pockets and getting glared at by the driver, there's an app that lets you buy tickets on your phone, and all you need to do is show the ticket to the driver – so make sure your phone is charged, because they will not show mercy, even if you cry a bit. Um...so I've heard. Mobile tickets cost a minimum of £10, which is enough for two day tickets and a couple of singles.

If you've never seen Edinburgh without the throngs of tourists and street performers, never walked down the Royal Mile without wading waist-deep in flyers advertising experimental theatre and stand up comedy or never seen the castle without the acres of scaffolding that marks the Tattoo, then you're missing out on one of the most beautiful cities in the UK. Enjoy the festival, but make sure to come back out of season too – you won't regret it.