The order was really rather tall: five absolutely epic festivals, three and a half short days, and one capital city that is otherwise known for its fussy weather and gloomy medieval history.
Actually, let’s get that sorted right away: the weather was consistently fantastic throughout my time in Edinburgh. In fact, it rained for a grand total of five minutes, so there, out the window with your Scottish weather myths. I don’t want to hear it!
And as far as obscure medieval features go, Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites served as an equally stunning and brooding backdrop for the five major August events, which I was able to experience as I literally witnessed Edinburgh transform into a versatile festival capital before my eyes. The possibilities were truly endless: applied arts, dance, music, humour, circus, science, technology, military processions, quirky buskers, you name it, Edinburgh’s got it. I was truly impressed at seeing both local and international creatives hard at work in such an enchanting setting of cobblestone streets and medieval closes.
Simply put, Edinburgh’s population literally doubles in size during the August festivals and the thousands of events are only ever outsold by the Olympic Games in terms of ticket numbers. So yeah – it’s quite something, to put it mildly.
Feeling overwhelmed at this overabundance of options and unsure where to start? Here’s a very personal recap of my experience at Edinburgh’s festival of festivals (that’s a thing, right?), with last-minute tips for the remainder of the 2016 edition.
I’m not even one bit embarrassed to admit that I took over 700 photos of the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo. Truth be told, I was well aware of the event’s large-scale reputation but I had no idea just how grandiose it actually is in reality.Each and every Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is different from the last; this year’s theme is Tunes of Glory and is set to pay tribute to HM The Queen’s 90th birthday and is marked by a strong sense of British tradition and the memorable melodies of the Massed Pipes and Drums as well as various performers from over 48 countries.
Though luck for getting tickets to this year’s edition, though, as it’s once again completely sold out. But if you’re able to plan far at least a few months ahead, try and secure tickets as early as December 2016 for the 2017 Tattoo.
Guru Dudu’s Silent Disco Walking Tours
A Lady’s Guide to the Art of Being a Wingman
Welcome to the world’s largest arts festival! A magnet for creativity and innovation, Edinburgh’s famous open-access arts market features 50,266 performances, literally taking over the city’s 294 venues, and comprises anything from theatre to circus, from spoken word to opera, and from dance to musicals. The programme is not artistically vetted in any way; unlike the majority of other similar festivals, anyone who’s got a production and a venue can be selected in the lottery, making the Fringe absolutely cutting-edge in every way, year after year.
Fringe offers a mix of paid and free, indoors and outdoors events throughout Edinburgh. I attended a few:
- Buskers on the Royal Mile: As you can see from the photos above, the Royal Mile gets quite busy during the festival and it took me a solid hour to get from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle because I stopped at so many performances along the way!
- Abi Roberts: Anglichanka: the UK’s only comedian to have performed in Russian… in Russia! This show is about the hilarious tales of Abi Robert’s life as an opera student in the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s and, in true English fashion, is thoroughly self-deprecating.
- Alba Flamenca: Having made flamenco part of Fringe for the past ten years, the intimate performance of Alba Flamenca is straight out of an Andalusian dance hall. The raw passion of both the dancers and the musicians is evident, as is their enjoyment and excitement. One of my favourite shows of Edinburgh Festivals.
- Guru Dudu’s Silent Disco Walking Tours: this was as much fun as it sounds. Don’t expect to learn anything here, as this isn’t your standard walking tour, but do plan on making a fool of yourself in some of Edinburgh’s most iconic squares and being completely fine with it. There’s safety in numbers, and these massively popular tours are proof.
- Elixir: Who knew circus could be this hilarious? I truly had never seen anything like it before, as acrobats fly sky-high into the air and come down cracking a joke like nothing just happened. Truly electrifying.
- A Lady’s Guide to the Art of Being a Wingman: say hello to The Desperettes, who, dressed as men but with towering pink hives on top of their heads, will test various and eyebrow-raising pick-up techniques with their witty comebacks and lively soundtrack.
The Fountain of Youth by Sally Hackett
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015
Consistently pushing the limits of visual arts, the Edinburgh Art Festival regroups Britain’s most influential art galleries and artists through guided tours, exhibitions, talks, and performances of all kinds, pioneering exclusive artworks along the way.
- Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden: This guided tour explores the history of gardens in visual arts and how botanical studies have influenced paintings from the 16th to the 20th century, including household artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Maria Sibylla Merian and Carl Fabergé. It even includes some of the earliest and rarest surviving depictions of gardens and plants.
- Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2015: Taking place in the splendid Scottish National Portrait Gallery, this exhibition celebrates the absolute best of contemporary portrait photography; capturing the raw emotion and moods is truly an artform and it is beautifully presented here. Plus, it’s totally free of charge!
Alan Cumming…. duh!
Inaugurated in 1947 as a celebration of peace through the arts in order to bring together audiences and artists from around the world, the International Festival is often dubbed the “curated version of Fringe” by locals as it takes over the city’s most prestigious venues and attracts big-name, internationally-acclaimed performers. The programme is entirely devoted to virtuosity and the finest acts, regardless of the genre. I saw two shows at the International Festival:
- Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: ELI GOLD WITH A SCOTTISH ACCENT! My apologies for that fangirl moment, but as fate would have it I had just finished binge-watching The Good Wife before I got my tickets to Alan Cumming’s show so you can imagine my excitement. The proudly Scottish, magnetising performance was awash with bravado, salacious anecdotes, and profoundly moving moments—it is about sappy songs.
- Chotto Desh: The utterly captivating show is an amalgam of storytelling, interactive animation, and modern choreography tells the story of a young man’s dreams from Britain to Bangladesh in a unique dance-theatre production. It’s actually a reworked version of Akram Khan’s Olivier Award-winning autobiographical show DESH and is well worth seeing.
Being home to illustrious authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Burns, Ian Rankin, JK Rowling, and Walter Scott, it comes as no surprise that Edinburgh would enthusiastically celebrate its literary heritage with a book festival. This year’s apt theme is “Migrant Stories to Literary Legends”, and explores the consequences of shifting powers in our ever-changing society as told in books.
There’s a massive headquarters of sorts over at Charlotte Square Gardens where book lovers mingle to discuss their latest discoveries, grab coffee, and just enjoy the festivities. They can also shop at the pop-up bookstore, which, over the course of three weeks, sells more copies than a high street shop does in an entire year (!).
- The View From Castle Rock: Taking place in a beautifully restored 19th-century church which, oddly enough, is located right across from Castle Rock, this is a word-for-word adaptation of Nobel-laureate Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, which imagines the extraordinary experiences of Munro’s Scottish ancestors who sailed from Leith Docks in 1818 in the hope of a better life in Canada.
Edinburgh Festivals – A Few Tips
- The Tattoo is the most expensive festival in Edinburgh (rates vary between £25-£300 per person) BUT I feel the price is amply justified considering the level of the performance, the setting, and the sheer scale of it all. If you’re going to spill on one thing during Edinburgh festivals, better make it the Tattoo, truly the event of a lifetime.
- Another note on pricing: although many of the shows are completely free of charge, it’s strongly encouraged to leave some cash at the end of the show. It’s just the nice thing to do.
- If you, too, are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the options —again, literally hundreds of shows are happening every single day of August across five extensive festivals— pick out styles and categories that you feel you will connect with the most, i.e., visual arts, technology, dance, humour, theatre, etc, and book tickets for those first. And if you’re feeling adventurous, why not opt for random picks? ;-)