During August, all rules and social conventions are put to one side when Edinburgh hosts the world’s biggest arts festival.
Actors perform improvised soliloquies on the Royal Mile – often on stilts, and maybe smothered in something – while this year one troop of comedians took it upon themselves to perform part of their show by actually talking out of their arses. (No, seriously. Google it.)
There’s no denying that during the eleven “off-season” months Edinburgh is considerably quieter, but in our opinion the wonderfully irreverent spirit of the Fringe permeates the city throughout the year.
To prove we’re not talking out of our derrière, here are eight ways to experience the quirky side of Scotland’s capital from September to July – whether you take part in a city-wide treasure hunt, seek out the grave of the real-life Thomas Riddle (Lord Voldemort) or check out Edinburgh’s little-known “Wild Wild West”.
1. Go on a city-wide treasure hunt
To mark Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, top attractions and heritage sights in Edinburgh have joined forces to compile a treasure trail through Edinburgh in 101 objects.
Those seeking to complete the entire trail will discover a golf ball used by Robert Louis Stevenson, an original copy of the Trainspotting screenplay signed by Ewan McGregor and a series of miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat.
To celebrate a hard day’s object-hunting, you can head to The Royal Dick bar where Pickering’s gin is served on tap (this tap, incidentally, is also on the list). One of the perks of having a micro distillery next door.
Made in Edinburgh
2. Dine with the animals
If you’re tired of drinking your flat white alongside boring humans, all is not lost during your visit to Edinburgh.
Maison de Moggy, Edinburgh’s first cat café, is a peaceful spot on Grassmarket. It’s home to twelve cats ranging from slouchy ragdoll Pierre (our personal favourite) to an uber energetic sphynx cat named Elodie Chauve.
There are toys everywhere, nooks and crannies for the cats to explore and generous slices of cake available for human visitors. All the above is experienced to the soundtrack of plinky plonk French classics from the early 20th century and will set you back £8 for an hour (food and drink cost extra).
Dog-lovers can rejoice too. Scotland’s capital will soon have its first dedicated canine café – the Edinburgh Chihuahua Café – by the end of 2017. Watch this space.
3. But whatever you do, do not stroke this dog’s nose
The exact story behind Edinburgh’s beloved Skye Terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, is somewhat hazy. The most popular is that the wee mutt spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he passed away himself.
Whatever the truth, Greyfriars Bobby’s diminutive statue, just opposite the entrance to the Greyfriars Kirkyard, has become one of Edinburgh’s top tourist attractions. So popular, in fact, that visitors have taken to rubbing the dog’s nose for good luck – a trend started by a tour company in 2012.
But some locals aren’t happy. After council-led repair efforts the nose-rubbing continues to cause visible damage to Bobby, so the message is clear. Hands off Bobby, people.
4. Visit Edinburgh’s Wild, Wild West
Think architecture in Edinburgh and what comes to mind? Medieval tenements of the old town, Georgian townhouses in the New Town, the super modern Scottish Parliament. But how about Edinburgh’s Wild, Wild West?
Undoubtedly one of the city’s quirkiest sights, a strip of Wild West-style saloons, jails and trading stations is tucked down an alleyway in Morningside, off Springvalley Gardens. Built in the mid-nineties for a furniture business that specialized in “American southwestern style”, it is worth a visit for its sheer attention to detail.
The street is small and now occupied by workshops and garages, but get the right angle and sepia-drenched filter and you should be able to fool your followers as to where in the world you are.
5. Visit Lord Voldemort’s grave
If you know what Hogwarts house you’d be in because you’ve taken the online sorting hat test, you’re almost definitely going to have a good time in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s capital city was the birthplace of Harry Potter. It was in The Elephant House café on George IV Bridge that a young J.K. Rowling penned the tale of the Boy Who Lived, taking inspiration for her wizarding world from the winding alleys and turreted buildings of the city.
There are plenty of stop-offs on the Potter Trail, and perhaps the most enthralling is the grave of Thomas Riddle, hidden in a corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard in the city centre. Little is known about the real Thomas Riddle, beyond the fact he died at the age of 72 in 1806, but Rowling herself has suggested the tombstone could have been an inspiration for her choice of name. She regularly took walks through the graveyard while writing the series, and a tombstone of one William McGonagall can be found nearby.
6. Explore higgledy piggledy pubs
During the Fringe, the temptation is to buy a plastic-cup pint for a fiver before rushing into your next show. But there are countless brilliant drinking holes bursting with character around the city.
One of our favourites, the Sheep Heid Inn is right on the other side of Arthur’s Seat, offering a rickety village-pub atmosphere and a decent range of ales, plus a traditional menu (the pan-fried sea bass is our pick). This is one of the Queen’s favourites, so they must be doing something right.
For something more central, the Royal Mile Tavern is what you’d call a proper Edinburgh boozer. Come here for its selection of more than one hundred whiskies, a bite to eat on its classic pub grub menu, or live music (think everything from motown to rock) from 10pm every night.
For something a bit more craft-led, the Hanging Bat on Lothian Road stocks an impressive array of brews from around the world in a cool space with exposed walls.
7. Knock to enter at prohibition-style cocktail bars
For a a slightly different drinking experience, head to Panda & Sons “barbershop”. After entering the bar through a bookcase, you’ll find one of Edinburgh’s coolest prohibition-style cocktail bars, with a chapter-by-chapter menu delivered by a team of expert (and dapper) mixologists.
Nearby Bryant and Mack off Rose Street offers a similarly clandestine experience, but following a “private detective” theme from start (the entrance is a nondescript door beside a window reading Bryant & Mack Private Detectives) to finish (the menu comes in an envelope with “confidential” stamped on the front).
If you’re up for getting a bit more hands-on, Heads & Tales offers gin masterclass sessions where you can taste a number of gins, and learn how you should be serving them up at home.
Panda & Sons
8. Book a stay with style
Accommodation is something of an afterthought for most Fringe-goers: grit your teeth, accept you’ll pay double the usual rate, and it’ll probably be an Uber journey home after your last show.
But visit out of season to experience some of the most exciting design-led accommodation offerings in Britain, without burning too big a hole in your pocket.
Recently opened Eden Locke – the sister of Leman Locke in Aldgate, London – is impressive as soon as you enter, with the ground-floor Hyde & Son serving up supreme third-wave coffee during the day and cocktails during the evenings (try the espresso martini). The rooms, with their L-shaped sofas and pastel tones – plus nice touches like the copper crockery and vintage telephone – offer a relaxed hub to wind down in after a day in the city.
Set in a series of tall Georgian townhouses in the West End, Chester Residence merges the benefits of serviced apartments with the luxurious trappings of a top boutique hotel. Expect fluffy robes and freestanding baths, and – in some of the rooms – views of the castle. This one still isn’t cheap, but one benefit is that you won’t want (or need) to leave.
Greg travelled to Edinburgh with Virgin East Coast, who offer direct trains from London to Edinburgh. Advance returns start from around £70. Explore more of Scotland with The Rough Guide to Scotland. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image: 123rf/Keattikorn Samarnggoon.