Edinburgh is deceptively complex, and an exploratory expedition can take much longer than a visitor might expect. If you are here for its festivals, it can be easy to despair that you will ever have the time to really discover the city that becomes the world’s largest centre for the arts every August. Luckily, this need not be the case. The sheer number of events scattered across the city means that even an unplanned itinerary is sure to take you on a good wander through its streets. And if you make a real commitment to attending festival shows in a few of the more spectacular venues, you are sure to experience Edinburgh in a way that few can rival.
The obvious starting place is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This iconic performance on the Castle esplanade offers one of the best views of the castle, and in the best possible atmosphere. After the performance, peel off from the flood of spectators pouring down the Royal Mile and have a quiet whisky in one of the many pubs nestled in the closes (alleys) that run down from the main street. Chances are you will be walking into another venue, whether it be a comedy performance or some traditional Scottish folk music. In fact, the Edinburgh Free Fringe has many performances throughout the day in pubs in and around the Royal Mile, so a walk down this iconic street need never be festival-free.
Around the corner and at the top of the Mound, the artificial hill that runs between the Old and New Towns, New College commands a view across the New Town. This impressive Gothic structure is home to the Church of Scotland – as well as the University of Edinburgh’s divinity faculty – and was once the site of the Scottish Parliament. During the Fringe, however, it becomes a major venue complex. Highlights in its largest venue this year includes the harrowing drama Nirbhaya and the hilarious improvised comedy Henson Alternative’s Puppet Up! - Uncensored. After the show, have a pint beneath the statue of John Knox in the courtyard.
From the Old Town to the New Town, let yourself soak up the Georgian architecture and perfectly planned streets from the Famous Spiegelterrace on George Street before heading into the Assembly Rooms, re-opened only last year after an impressive refurbishment, to see comedian Zoe Lyons, or into the Spiegeltent for Fringe regular cabaret show La Clique.
Several more of Edinburgh’s more famous landmarks are also venues. The Edinburgh Art Festival is making good use of the Scottish National Gallery with the first major exhibition of Peter Doig in the country of his birth, and a brand new commission by Christine Borland and Brody Condon is installed in the Watchtower at New Calton Burial Ground, giving visitors a rare chance to enter the structure. There’s also last year’s major Art Festival commission, Martin Creed’s transformation of the Scotsman Steps from Market Street to North Bridge – and the New Town to the Old.
Back on the Royal Mile, look for Edinburgh’s tallest spire. It belongs to the gothic building The Hub, formerly a church and now home to the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival. In the Hub Café you can buy a great coffee or lunch, and in the evenings at 9pm attend the Café Concerts, a series of performances by young professional musicians in a celebration of Yehudi Menuhin that will be ongoing throughout the festival. The Hub is also hosting a number of Interfaces, discussions by experts on topics such as the changes caused to brains by new technologies to Moleskine diaries, as well as conversations with festival performers. The Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh’s most striking neoclassical buildings, is the premier venue for the International Festival’s concerts. Sitting between Lothian Road and Castle Terrace, a performance here can easily be prepared for with a gourmet meal or a hearty pint.
If it is raining, don’t be fooled. You are almost definitely going to see a warm and sunny day, and then it will be time for one Edinburgh’s favourite summer pastimes: a drink and a barbeque in a park. If you do not have the time to join in yourself, you can get a taste of it in one of the many parks that are now home to performances. The Edinburgh International Book Festival has taken over the New Town’s Charlotte Square Gardens, and you are more than welcome to settle down on the grass with some festival food – whether it be a burger or a book – and relax between talks and workshops. In the Meadows you will find the Meadows Theatre Big Top, a 700-capacity tent with licensed bars and Thai food on site. Finally, on the first weekend of September the Leith Links will be hosting the Mela Festival, so not only will you have an excuse to explore Edinburgh’s port district but also yet another opportunity to laze in the sun with some wonderful food.
If you’re missing the Mela but want to explore Leith, a great excuse is to head down Leith Walk to Drill Hall where the Forest Fringe is taking place, a hub for intimate and experimental theatre with an emphasis on community and cooperation. After the show, head down to the Living Memory Association Hall to see the Patchwork of Leith Memories exhibition, a collection of unpublished photographs and memories of Leith through the years.
You can’t get away with a trip to Edinburgh without exploring its infamous lower levels. The Caves, once a complex of vaults that served purposes as diverse as whisky storage and stabling horses, are now an impressive underground venue. Just The Tonic @ The Caves is using the Caves to host Fringe performances, such as Charlie Dupré’s mingling of classical theatre and hip-hip. All around The Caves are many other Fringe venues that make similar use of old Edinburgh’s vaults, providing a useful alternative for those without time for a ghost or history tour.
And from the bottom to the top of Edinburgh, walk up Arthur’s Seat for a 1pm performance of Barry on Arthur’s Seat, a free comedy event out in the open in what has to be the festival venue with the best view.
One of Edinburgh’s premier venues has just re-opened after a two-year refurbishment: McEwan Hall at the University of Edinburgh. This impressive hall with its murals and domes is host to, among other events, an incredible circus act Circa: Wunderkammer and worldwide hot-ticket Hot Dub Time Machine, a late-night club in which a song from every year since 1954 is played.
Another recent addition to the festival scene is Summerhall, now in its third year as a Fringe and Art Festival venue. The former Royal (*****) Veterinary School for Edinburgh University is now a year-round arts centre, with a wonderful bar and café with a unique atmosphere. Check out Fringe First Award-winning puppet theatre piece Feral and Art Festival installation Süßer Duft Edinburgh 2013.
This list cannot claim to be complete. But that’s because it is unlikely you will be able to find a venue here that doesn’t exemplify something unique about Edinburgh, whether it be dissection theatres transformed into bars, churches into clubs or entire streets into performances. All you have to do is enjoy the festival season.
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