For all its appeal as a historic and attractive capital city, Edinburgh is perhaps best known for its incredible annual Festival, which takes place every August and transforms the place into an overwhelming mass of cultural activity. To even attempt to get a handle on what’s going on, it’s worth appreciating that the “Edinburgh Festival” is an umbrella term that encompasses several different festivals. The principal events are the Edinburgh International Festival and the much larger Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but there are also Book, Jazz and Blues and Art festivals going on, as well as a Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade.

The sheer volume of the Festival’s output can be bewildering: virtually every branch of arts and entertainment is represented, and world-famous stars mix with pub singers in the daily line-up. It can be a struggle to find accommodation, get hold of the tickets you want, book a table in a restaurant or simply get from one side of town to another; you can end up seeing something truly dire, or something mind-blowing; you’ll inevitably try to do too much, stay out too late or spend too much – but then again, most Festival veterans will tell you that if you don’t experience these things then you haven’t really “done” the Festival.

Dates, venues, names, star acts, happening bars and burning issues change from one year to the next. This unpredictability is one of the Festival’s greatest charms, so be prepared for – indeed, enjoy – the unexpected.

The Edinburgh international festival

The Edinburgh International Festival, or the “Official Festival”, was the original Edinburgh Festival, conceived in 1947 as a celebration of pan-European culture in the postwar era. Initially dominated by opera, other elements such as top-grade theatre, ballet, dance and classical music now carry as much weight, and it’s still a highbrow event, its high production values and serious approach offering an antidote to the Fringe’s slapdash vigour.

Performances take place at the city’s larger venues such as the Usher Hall and the Festival Theatre and, while ticket prices run to over £60, it is possible to see shows for £10 or less if you’re prepared to queue for the handful of tickets kept back until the day. The festival culminates in a Fireworks Concert beside the castle, visible from various points in the city.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Even standing alone from its sister festivals, the Fringe is easily the world’s largest arts gathering. Each year sees more than 40,000 performances from more than 750 companies, with more than 21,000 participants from all over the world. There are something in the region of 1500 shows every day, round the clock, in 250 venues around the city. Much more than any other part of the Festival, it’s the dynamism, spontaneity and sheer exuberance of the Fringe that dominate Edinburgh every August.

These days, the most prominent aspect of the Fringe is comedy, but you’ll also find a wide range of theatre, musicals, dance, children’s shows, exhibitions, lectures and music – and a decent range of free shows.

While the Fringe is famous for its tiny and unexpected auditoriums, five Fringe giants colonize clusters of different-sized spaces for the duration of the Festival. These are all safe bets for decent shows and a bit of star-spotting. And while it’s nothing like as large as the venues reviewed here, you shouldn’t ignore the programme put on at the Traverse Theatre. Long a champion of new drama, the “Trav” combines the avant-garde with professional presentation and its plays are generally among the Fringe’s most acclaimed.

Fringe venues

Long based in George Street’s Assembly Rooms, Assembly has been on the move in recent years with its impressive line-up of top-of-the-range drama and big-name music and comedy acts.

The most varied programme of the big five, occasionally staging controversial productions that other venues might be too wary to promote.

Gilded Balloon
The comedy-focused Gilded Balloon bases its operations in a students’ union, the gothic Teviot Row.

Pleasance Courtyard
A slightly raucous atmosphere, thanks to its busy courtyard bar, with offbeat comedy and whimsical appearances by panellists on Radio 4 game shows. They organize events at a variety of external venues, too.

Operates eleven comedy and cabaret spaces, including the giant, inflatable upside-down cow, “the Underbelly”, on Bristo Square.

The other festivals

Edinburgh Art Festival
A relative newcomer on the scene, held throughout August and including high-profile exhibitions by internationally renowned contemporary artists as well as retrospectives of work by pioneering twentieth-century artists. Virtually every art gallery in the city participates, from small private concerns to blockbuster shows at the National Galleries of Scotland’s five venues.

Edinburgh International Book Festival
Taking place in the last two weeks of August, this is the world’s largest celebration of the written word. It’s held in a tented village in Charlotte Square and offers talks, readings and signings by a star-studded line-up of visiting authors, as well as panel discussions and workshops.

Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival
Immediately prior to the Fringe in the first week in August, easing the city into the festival spirit. Highlights include nightly jam sessions and a colourful New Orleans-style Mardi Gras and street parade.

The Military Tattoo
Staged in the spectacular stadium of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, the Tattoo is an unashamed display of pomp and military pride. The programme of choreographed drills, massed pipe bands, historical tableaux, energetic battle re-enactments, national dancing and pyrotechnics has been a feature of the Festival for over half a century, its emotional climax provided by a lone piper on the Castle battlements. Followed by a quick fireworks display, it’s a successful formula barely tampered with over the years. Tickets (£16–50) should be booked well in advance.

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