Iconic Edinburgh Activities
Edinburgh is always awash with great things to see and do, and this is never more true than in the peak festival period. Here are our top 10 iconic activites to get the best of the city.
1. A Royal Mile coffee
If you have just flown from the other side of the world and haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, Edinburgh’s festival energy might be momentarily disconcerting. An early morning dash down the street to fetch a quadruple-shot coffee and you are rubbing shoulders with fawns on stilts, cavemen playing guitars, or characters from Alice in Wonderland wandering past grumbling about the heat inside their hats. There is no need to panic. In fact, you have accidentally stumbled into one of the city’s most indispensible August experiences, as Edinburgh Festival Fringe performers take to the streets to promote their performances. All the way down the Royal Mile they claim their own square of cobbles and begin to compete for visitors’ attention. Expect music, magic, physical theatre, the obligatory six-foot tall unicycle ridden by a half-naked man juggling knives, and all sorts of innovations in-between. There’s no better introduction to Edinburgh’s festival season dynamic, so get the coffee to sit-in and watch Edinburgh wake up.
2. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The only August festival concentrated on a single performance throughout the month, the Tattoo is an imposing presence on the skyline and in the festival air. This enthusiasm is well earned; the Tattoo is watched by hundreds of thousands arena-goers annually, and millions more will join in the experience globally via television. Its stern beauty and consistent perfection, lit up on the castle esplanade, is a 62-year old Edinburgh institution that has become a crucial component of many festival goers’ visits to the city. Just make sure to hold on to something fixed to the ground if you’re on the Royal Mile when the arena gates open and the over 8000-strong audience floods down the Royal Mile in the late evening.
3. A wander down the Scotsman Steps
If you are planning a wander from the Old Town to the New Town, take a turn on North Bridge and let this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival’s centerpiece Work No. 1059 lead you down to Market Street. A couple of years ago this thoroughfare was simply Scotsman Steps, which had lost their historical charm to dilapidation. Now, with the help of funding from the Edinburgh City Council, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, Martin Creed’s commissioned artwork has transformed them. Every step is now clad in a unique marble, each from a different part of the world, creating an artistic experience sure to become one of Edinburgh’s top tourist destinations. Once you reach the bottom, check out Market Street’s art galleries for a taste of the Festival’s world-class exhibitions.
4. See something outside of your comfort zone…
The Fringe is open to any performer with the chutzpah to bring a show here; it is this freedom of expression that is responsible for much of the festival’s dynamism and energy. However, a true Edinburgh August will not be complete until you have been to at least one show that is truly not to your taste. An hour or so of squirming in your seat, unable to leave because to do so you must cross the stage, perhaps having your horror mirrored by other audience members, or perhaps feeling utterly disconcerted by their visible enjoyment: this is a rite of passage that must be borne. Try to keep your mind open – especially to details that can be turned into an anecdote later to dull the pain.
5. … Then see a great show and discover the Next Big Thing
Luckily the infectious enthusiasm of the Fringe will have you back on the quest for the unknown geniuses of showbiz in no time, searching from pub basements, to garden tents and fourth-floor lounge rooms. The word-of-mouth network grows throughout the festival, so that as August draws to a close you might feel that the number of shows you simply must see is growing faster than you can cram performances into your schedule. That is because Edinburgh really does attract the best of the best. Remember that many Monty Python members began here, as well as Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Flight of the Concords and Tim Minchin; every year some new performance mastermind is discovered, and with any luck you might be there for the next one.
6. See a concert at the Usher Hall
The Usher Hall is one of Edinburgh’s most impressive buildings, its green dome rising into the skyline below the castle in a way that recalls Rome’s Pantheon. The impressive neoclassical building is considered to be among Europe’s best concert halls, so it is no surprise that it has been the main venue for the Edinburgh International Festival since its conception in 1947. This year it is hosting a number of world-class performances as part of the Festival, from Ravi Shankar’s famous sitar to a full rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Eat a meal at one of the gourmet restaurants around Castle Terrace, or have a pint at a Lothian Road pub, before you sink into Edinburgh’s classical heritage.
7. Inspire a child’s love of books, or rediscover your own
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is quickly becoming one of the world’s largest events of its kind, with authors from all over the world filling its stages in Charlotte Square each year. Alongside the inspiring adult program a massive children’s programme also runs, catering to all age groups from babies to teens, so if you are visiting Edinburgh with a child then there is no better place to start or finish instilling in them a lifelong love of literature. They will love the story readings and workshops on offer, and you might learn something too; why not spend an hour learning how to tweak your bedtime storytelling skills, or meet the author behind books you loved as a child.
8. Explore …
A dream for walkers, the city also has plenty of public transport options to get the most out of Edinburgh’s patchwork of different community areas. After exploring the twisting side streets of the Old Town and the wide, proud roads of the Georgian New Town, you might head south to Marchmont, Morningside or Bruntsfield, and have a croissant and coffee in a sidewalk café. Or buy a disposable barbeque from local supermarkets and join in Edinburgh’s most popular summer activity: a lounging picnic in the Meadows. Or to the West End, where you’ll find beautiful cobbled streets filled with boutique stores and gastropubs, and a long but lovely walk or a short bus ride towards the docks will get you to a physical theatre show and a pint at Leith on the Fringe. On your way, if it happens to be between the 2nd and 4th of September, visit the Edinburgh Mela Festival at Leith Links, a celebration of cultural diversity. The farmer’s market, every Saturday from 9-2 at Castle Terrace is another local tradition you are welcome to join.
9. … and climb
Edinburgh, built on a volcanic outcrop, is full of things that demand you climb them. Standing imposingly over the New Town is Calton Hill, with the National Monument that earned Edinburgh its Athenian nickname. Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags provide impressive views of the city and a real Scottish landscape. The Scott Monument is an incredible celebration of a writer, showing Edinburgh’s longstanding commitment to the arts, and that can be climbed, too. Finally, an uphill stroll to Edinburgh Castle will complete your climbing needs.
10. Eat Haggis
Everyone has to try it.