The Edinburgh Fringe Festival attracts almost half a million visitors every August. Ticket sales alone bring in over £4 million every year and in 2018, 317 venues registered for the Fringe and they hosted 3,548 different shows.
So the Fringe can be quite overwhelming. Especially if you have never been before and probably won’t go again. You’ll want to make the most of the time you have!
– This guide was originally published on 21st July 2017 and has been updated.
Well, my good friend, I’m here to help. In 2013, I worked the entire stretch of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at one of the venues. I managed to see countless performances of all genres (…and quality) and I have an insider’s insight into what the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is all about. I also went back to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 and back again in 2017! In total, I’ve visited Edinburgh six times and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I recommend EVERYONE try and go once in their life. And if you’re remotely into comedians/theatre/dance/music? Then the Fringe is when you should go.
Hopefully, this first-timer’s guide to the Edinburgh Fringe will help take the pressure off so you can feel much more confident about leaving Edinburgh feeling accomplished and inspired by all the great shows you’ll see.
A First Timer’s Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
So what the heck is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival anyway?!
The Edinburgh Fringe is literally just a huge, amazing, arts festival! It was established over 70 years ago in 1947, after a few years of theatre troupes turning up in Edinburgh simply wanting to get their work out there when big fancy pants theatres wouldn’t accept their non-fancy pants shows. That’s all Fringe is anyway. Defiant, less commercial, do-it-yourself kind of theatre performed by people simply wanting to perform in any venue that will take them. Proper grassroots, pure imaginative stuff!
Edinburgh Fringe Festival venues range from typical stage set-ups to churches, pubs, abandoned buildings and outside spaces. A lot of these spaces remain empty for the rest of the year. Since 1947, the Fringe has grown bigger, more organised and more commercial. Groups from all over the world come to the Fringe to perform. Some are hoping to get picked up for a tour or representation, some simply want the experience.
The Fringe has spawned a whole range of different festivals in Edinburgh, gob-smackingly named the ‘Edinburgh Festivals.’ Some of these are scheduled at the same time as the Fringe in August so visitors can check out more than one.
The most popular Edinburgh Festivals happening around the same time as the Fringe:
- Edinburgh International Book Festival
- Edinburgh Art Festival
- Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
- Edinburgh International Festival
I attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival, one of the Edinburgh Festivals, in June 2019. Read my posts below:
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019: Press Pass, Coffee & More!
- EIFF 2019 Reviews: Every Film I Saw at Edinburgh International Film Festival
Working out your Edinburgh Fringe budget
When planning your Edinburgh trip, there are a few decisions you need to make. If you first work out how long you plan on staying in Edinburgh and how much money you have, this will massively help shape your itinerary.
And if you’re a bit strapped for cash, you could book one or two pricier options in advance (only if you’re really keen on seeing specific shows) and then hit up PBH’s Free Fringe or other cheaper shows for the rest of your time. You can also apply for the BBC’s shows at the Edinburgh Festivals, which are all free. You’ll need to do this as far in advance as possible because they’re always over-subscribed and they’ll email you if you managed to bag tickets.
However, if you’ve managed to save a bit and don’t mind spending, you are guaranteed to see some great shows! But just keep in mind that even though a show is free, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad, shoddily made show. It’s quite the contrary in many cases. Aside from each theatre’s own box office (and generally every performance venue will have the capability to print tickets), head to the Edinburgh Fringe shop right on the Royal Mile to buy tickets for any performance.
TOP TIP: Download the Fringe App before you go. Just search ‘Edinburgh Festival Fringe’ in your app store. It will not only help you navigate around the hundreds of venues, but it will also tell you which tickets are available at Virgin Money’s Half Price Hut (located on Princes Street) every day.
The shows featured change daily and I saw some of my favourite Fringe shows because of Virgin’s Half Price Hut. So while it may seem like a good idea to book all your tickets ahead of time (which it isn’t), you could be missing out on the best shows for cheaper.
Tips for Finding Accommodation in Edinburgh for the Fringe
I’m going to attempt to give you some tips on how to find accommodation for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But I’m going to warn you now, it’s not cheap and it’s not always easy.
Firstly, book as far in advance as possible. I mean, if you can book in January then that would be ideal as most of the listings will be available to book and you’ll be able to snag the cheapest rooms. If you’re a solo traveller staying in Edinburgh up to one week, I’d check out Hostelworld for hostels in Edinburgh. I only ever book hostels through Hostelworld because nowhere has a better choice for better prices.
If a few of you are travelling, I’d recommend getting an apartment. Airbnb is, of course, the first port of call to look for an apartment during the Edinburgh Fringe, but there are so many other sites too. You’ll be able to buy some food so you don’t have to eat breakfast out and save on money.
I’ve stayed in student accommodation during the Fringe Festival and this is such a good option. I stayed in Destiny Student – Cowgate so it’s super well-located in Edinburgh’s Old Town, it has a little kitchen so you can save on breakfast and it’s one of the most affordable private accommodation options during the Fringe.
Top tip: A good location is better than ‘good’ accommodation, trust me. You’re barely going to be in your accommodation in Edinburgh so who cares if the decor is nice? Try and book accommodation close to the Royal Mile or Princes Street so you don’t spend half your day walking to and from your location. And the buses/trams are often unreliable or go on strike during the Fringe season so I wouldn’t rely on public transport much.
What shows/performances do you want to see?
As soon as you arrive in Edinburgh, pick up an Edinburgh Fringe programme bible. It’s a big, heavy phone book-type thing featuring 99% of the shows at the Fringe. They’re in every train station, hotel, museum and basically everywhere around Edinburgh. They’re totally free, and you can even order a Fringe Programme before you go or search for your nearest outlet here.
Whether you’re a stand-up comedy kind of dude, a drama geek looking for new writing or if you just want to watch live music, all of it and more is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As with budgeting, deciding what kind of shows you want to catch will help narrow down your choices.
If you’ve only got time for five shows and you want to see some comedy, a play, a one-person performance, etc. then you know you shouldn’t book tickets to all the top comedians on the telly! Plus, I wouldn’t see all the top comedians who tour regularly anyway. Try and seek out performances that you know you will only see at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Keep in mind, the Fringe is a fantastic opportunity to see something you’d never normally see. And hey, if it’s a free show then what have you got to lose?
Oh, but you know who you should definitely check out? The Noise Next Door. They’re a bloody amazing comedy improv troupe and I watch them on literally every possible occasion and they’re always at the Fringe. Often, they do a child-friendly afternoon show and an adults-only evening show. You can thank me later!
Types of Venues and Theatres at the Fringe
It would be pointless trying to make a definitive list of all of the venues at the Fringe because there’s just too many and they change every year. During the Fringe, the smallest of pubs can be transformed into a stage.
However, I think it’s worth giving you an overview of the main companies that have venues all over the city. As well as hitting a selection of genres, I think that if you try and see some performances at the top venues then you’re more likely to see a Fringe staple or veteran performer. Not that there’s anything wrong with watching a bit of improv in a back street pub!
- Gilded Balloon
- C venues
- Zoo Venues
- The Space
- Just the Tonic
- Paradise Green
How to Fully Experience the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Accept that you’ll watch some crap
There are hundreds of amazing shows at the Fringe and you will miss most of them. The Fringe is not the time for FOMO. And in their place, you will see some really mediocre crap. But part of the experience of the Fringe is that you really just don’t know what you’re getting. Don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time watching a terrible show… it’s all part of the Fringe experience!
Walk up and down the Royal Mile and soak in the chaos
Outside of the theatres, you absolutely must spend some time on the Royal Mile which stretches from St Giles Cathedral and all the way down the High Street. The Royal Mile is where most of the shows performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will hand out flyers and put on little skits to entice you to their show.
It has such an amazing buzz and you should make a point of walking down the whole street. Even better, be impulsive and book tickets to a show that catches your eye on the Mile!
BBC at the Edinburgh Fringe
The BBC is also present at the Edinburgh Festivals and usually set up a little space at George Heriot School (used to be Teviot Place but they moved) which is a gorgeous outdoor area with games and deck chairs to get a drink and some tasty takeaway food. The BBC at the Edinburgh Festivals is always the first place I hit up when arriving in Edinburgh because it’s still a busy place but a welcome respite from the craziness of the Edinburgh streets.
Also, I do usually have tickets so one or two of the free BBC shows and they’re usually held here. The Janice Forsyth Show is great if you get a chance to watch that. Try and get tickets for your first day in Edinburgh as they usually interview/recommend shows for you to watch!
Princes Street Gardens
The other main hub of Fringe excitement is Princes Street Gardens where the Virgin Money Half Price Hut is. There are lots of street performers and entertainers to pass the time (including the odd bagpiper as usual!). And if it’s good weather, which sometimes it is (though let’s face it, this is Scotland we’re talking about), the park is the perfect place to spend a relaxing morning before show-hopping for the rest of the day.
That’s my first timer’s guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe before? Do you have any other top tips? Let me know in the comments below!