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Edinburgh Festivals: The ultimate guide

By Michael Thomas, Digital Content Editor at Festivals Edinburgh
9 July 2014

If there’s one thing that Scotland’s capital is more famous for than its universities, it’s the Edinburgh Festivals!

That’s because, as well as the all-encompassing, population-multiplying jamboree of the Fringe (the largest arts festival in the world!), Edinburgh actually hosts 12 major annual festivals and all manner of other celebrations. It’s not known as the Festival City for nothing...

Entertainment all year round

For students taking advantage of Edinburgh’s academic heritage, there are year-round opportunities to enjoy festivals of creativity, art, science and more. In April, the Edinburgh International Science Festival offers a public celebration of wonders, inventions and innovations in the world of science and technology, then May’s Imaginate Children’s Festival brings theatre and other performing arts to the city’s little ones, with plenty for adults to enjoy as well.

Dancers take to the streets in August ©Edinburgh’s Festivals

Summertime kicks off with June’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, showcasing new and innovative cinema and often giving a first glimpse of future hits (recent examples of premieres here include Brave, The Hurt Locker, Moon, Let The Right One In, Control, An Inconvenient Truth and Billy Elliot). And no sooner has the silver screen darkened, than the city is lit up again in July with the sights and sounds of the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, a blend of laid-back cool and red hot sounds.

And so to August, and what a formidable feast of festival fun – there’s the Edinburgh International Festival, with artists from around the world in some of the city’s finest venues, and a spectacular fireworks display rounding it all off. Then there’s the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival with thousands of performances in hundreds of venues. Theatre, comedy, art, music – you name it, the Fringe has it!

If you feel like a contemplative August, check out the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where authors, publishers and book lovers gather to preview new tales, read from old favourites and explore all that is great about reading. And for fascinating, inspiring and challenging art, Edinburgh Art Festival is another way to experience the power of human creativity.

August also offers the chance to see the UK's cultural heritage. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a visually stunning event held in the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, with both military and civilian performers from the UK and around the world. And in late August the Edinburgh Mela brings together international stars and UK-based talent in Scotland's leading celebration of cultural diversity through the arts.

Musicians at the Edinburgh Mela ©Edinburgh Mela Festival

After the glorious madness of the summer festivals, gather together for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in October, and revel in the joy of storytelling for all ages. And there’s just time at the end of a busy 12 months to have one last HUGE celebration, as hundreds of thousands of revellers celebrate New Year’s Eve in style in Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – this world famous street party is at the heart of a three-day programme of events.

And THAT is why it’s known as the Festival City!

On a budget

This is all very exciting, but what opportunities does Edinburgh offer to save a bit of cash while you’re enjoying the festival fun?

Well, first of all, it’s easy to get around – Edinburgh is a fairly compact city and the best way to explore is on foot. Most festival venues are within walking distance and there is an excellent bus service across Edinburgh, offering money-saving day tickets and a good night service. There are also taxi ranks dotted around the city centre.

The entertainment itself is often affordable, with many free or cheap tickets for early preview shows, plus hundreds of other bargain events. Look out for 2-for-1 ticket offers, often at fairly short notice (and don’t make the mistake of thinking it means a show isn’t so good – it’s not easy getting noticed during the busy festival period!). Don’t forget to share the love, and recommend the best offers to others too.

You don’t even have to see a show to enjoy Edinburgh’s festivals – half the fun is just taking it easy and people watching, whether at the Book Festival’s leafy Charlotte Square Gardens location, the lively Pleasance courtyard, or the even busier, even livelier Royal Mile, where street performers jostle for space with thousands of members of the public heading this way or that (and sometimes both at once).

Outdoor performance artists during the Fringe festival ©Edinburgh’s Festivals

Or to really experience it all, you could take a job or volunteer at a venue (check your visa status allows you to do this). Contact venues directly to find out what you could do. As well as the thrill of being part of making it happen, you might even see some of the action for free!

A home away from home

Of course, you’ll need somewhere to stay, and Edinburgh has a lot to offer here as well – just bear in mind that if you intend to come in August, the city’s population will double (seriously; sometimes more than double) so don’t forget to book in plenty of time!

That said, it’s usually possible to find somewhere to stay even at the last minute – you just need to be flexible. Consider staying at more than one B&B (‘bed and breakfast’, or guesthouse) or hotel if there’s no availability for the whole length of your stay. And try calling hotels that may have extra rooms that aren’t listed online. Even if they’re fully booked, they may know a suitable alternative or call you back if they have any cancellations.

If you’re still finding it difficult to secure last-minute accommodation, tap into local knowledge. Check out websites like Gumtree or Airbnb, where locals offer a spare room or even an entire apartment to rent. If you use Reddit, you could also check out /r/edinburgh for useful tips and chat with Edinburghers and other fans of the city.

The Tourist Information Centre also keeps a list of last-minute availability, so give them a call on +44 (0)131 473 3800 or visit the office on Princes Street.

Build up your strength

All this festival-going will take a lot of energy, so you’ll need somewhere to eat. Fortunately, Edinburgh has lots of great places which will fill your tum without emptying your bank account. These are a few of our favourites:

With only a few tables but generous takeaway supplies, Union of Genius on Forest Road offers six different seasonal soups every day, an artisan bread selection, and a hearty set lunch for less than £6.

The Baked Potato Shop, just off the Royal Mile, offers seriously generous portions of gourmet baked potatoes and a wide variety of delicious hot and cold toppings for around £5-7.

Garden party during Edinburgh Festival Fringe ©Edinburgh’s Festivals

Who doesn’t love an all-day brunch menu? With two café-restaurants (on Hanover Street and Forth Street) highlighting homemade and local products, plus lunch and dinner menus, Urban Angel offers healthy and delicious meals in the £5-12 range.

A cheery hole-in-the-wall with communal tables and food served mostly in compostable boxes, Ting Thai Caravan on Teviot Place offers hearty Thai meals for under £10 – or half that if you go at lunchtime.

Boteco do Brazil is another recent addition to the student dining scene in Edinburgh. Tapas dishes start at £3.50 and mains cost around £8. It’s a large space, with outdoor tables in the summer plus music and dancing in the club downstairs.

Students’ Unions

Students visiting Edinburgh may want to take advantage of the city’s many students' union venues, for a cheap lunch, a quiet drink or a raucous night! During August’s busy period, many are taken over by performers and visitors, but for festival-goers during the rest of the year, they offer a great range of places to hang out, meet people and have some fun.

Edinburgh’s student unions include:

University of Edinburgh
   • Pleasance, in the Pleasance area, just off the Royal Mile
   • Teviot Row House, Bristo Square in the heart of the university’s main campus area
   • Potterrow, also Bristo Square
   • King’s Buildings House, on the King’s Buildings campus on the south side of the city.

Napier University
   • Napier Union Bar (currently in the Three Sisters bar, Cowgate).

Heriot-Watt University
   • Heriot-Watt University Student Union, on campus, Hermiston, West Edinburgh.

Queen Margaret University
   • Maggie’s Bar, at The Students' Union. The Queen Margaret campus is located to the east of
     Edinburgh, just outside the seaside town of Musselburgh.

Edinburgh College of Art
   • The Wee Red Bar, in the city’s West Port area.

Fireworks at midnight, Edinburgh Hogmanay 2013 ©Edinburgh’s Festivals

For a relatively small city, Edinburgh has so much to offer visiting students, whatever you’re interested in – from science to theatre, film and music, heritage, diversity and more – and some of the world’s best festivals are at the heart of it all! What are you waiting for?

Read more

   •  UK festivals, celebrations and public holidays
   •  Explore the UK: City guides for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
   •  The best of the UK's music and arts festivals

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