June 18, 2003 -- For most of the year, Edinburgh is a conservative banker's town. Aesthetically pleasing, culturally engaging and intellectually stimulating, but in a safe everything-in-moderation kind of way: a racehorse before the starting gun.
In August, the gates fly open. The city is flooded with an eclectic mix of artists, artisans, performers -- and the voyeurs who flock there to eagerly soak up their creative endeavors. This energy transforms Scotland's capital city into the world center for enlightened entertainment.
Authenticity distinguishes the August Edinburgh experience from others with superficial similarity. Unlike the Cannes film festival or The Olympics, this is the place where events and activities are more visible than sponsors or advertisers. There is no official festival candy bar or dandruff shampoo or even credit card.
Nearly a million people come to take part I four separate festivals that feature a lively (and live!) collection of over 30,000 events – including, theater, comedy, film, dance, opera, music, literature, commentary, and those that defy any categorization. There are hundreds of other independent events held in pubs, parks, stores, churches, streets, elevators (yes, you read that right) and even bathrooms. No space big enough to hold a performer and a few audience members is safe from venue seekers.
The festivals are:
Edinburgh International Book Festival
(August 9-25, 2003; www.edbookfest.co.uk)
The book festival is heroin for written word junkies. This is the antidote for readers who have slowly had their life sucked out from over-attendance at those non-descript Barnes & Noble book marketing events optimistically referred to as author events. The organizers were smart in making the happenings attractive to authors and speakers with a message that extends beyond "buy my book."
This year promises 650 events such as meet-the-author sessions with "tartan noir" author Ian Rankin; heated "debating matters" dialogues over medical ethics; children's readings; and workshops for those aspiring to be the next JK Rowling or Shakespeare take place all day.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo
(August 1-23; www.edintattoo.co.uk)
If, like me, you think this is going to be an exciting opportunity to see scantily clad military men flex their "I love Mom" and "hearts and daggers" biceps, think again. As it turns out, a tattoo is actually a military spectacle -- sort of a compendium of military parades, flying motorcycles and highland dancing you get to watch from the comfort of your own bleacher seat. So what would compel this pacifist who detests military displays of any sort to not only include it in an article, but also go to it twice? Location, location, location. If you happen to live close to a medieval castle decorated with fire torches, perched on top of an imposing 800 million year old rock where they play haunting bagpipes, there is no point in going to the Tattoo. However, for those of us who are still awed by this type of ambiance, it can't be missed.
Edinburgh International Festival
(August 10-30, 2003; www.eif.co.uk)
The international festival offers new pieces from established professionals. Operas, large classical concerts, and theatre cater to the wine and cheese set at $45 and up per ticket. As a New York City dweller, this is the one festival I almost never attend because I can get a regular dose anytime at home. My preference is to experience the performances that are excellent but may be too small or idiosyncratic to ever play anywhere ever again. Which means I spend most of my time at the Fringe…
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
(August 3-25, 2003; www.edfringe.com)
In its inaugural year in 1947, the high brow invitation-only International Festival found itself with six Scottish troupes crashing the party. Each group booked its own venue away from the official happenings and "the fringe" was born. It has since become the real draw.
What makes the festival unique is the sheer quantity of outstanding talent trying new things in the same place at the same time for very little money (tickets are less than £7, with discounts available). Earning its reputation for the unconventional and innovative, many of the 20,000 plus events do not shy away from controversial topics or experimental methods.
In previous years, some of the more interesting acts I have seen include:
- A monologue by a g-d fearing 55 year old woman who accidentally discovers the orgasm by jumping onto her runaway washing machine
- Two French teenagers translating American rap songs into their native tongue
- A physicist explaining chaos theory by discussing his career path
- Two Scots recounting the history of their country in full costume
While you are busy flitting between the German existentialist neoclassical postmodern deconstruction of Picasso's Guernica and a new interpretation of a butterfly's perspective on the genome project, the more traditionalists in your group will find plenty to keep them busy as well.
Put on by equally talented professionals, many of these less experimental events are just as engaging and entertaining. Past performances have included Macbeth (of course), Dougie Maclean singing folk songs, and a pre-Oscar rant Michael Moore discussing George Bush.
The first time visitor can initially feel very overwhelmed. At 200 pages, the Fringe program is larger than most university course catalogs. The descriptions are very brief and often have rave reviews making it hard to choose the ones that truly deserve your hard earned pound. Even a simple task like figuring out whether it is logistically possible to get to the next venue in time becomes daunting. My first year was spent huffing and puffing up cobblestone hills and narrow step closes only to miss the first 30 minutes of the typically-60-minute shows.
How to Get the Most from the Fringe
Trial and error finally led to trial and success. As veteran festival goers, my husband and I have devised strategies to make the most of our time and money and to avoid many of the frustrations. Follow some of our tips and hopefully your experience will be as good as ours.
Go during the first two weeks. You'll find fewer crowds, a better selection, and less pressure. Need I say more?
- If you are the plan-ahead type, become a fringe megastar by the end of May each year; just donate £62 (non-UK residents only) by web or mail. Yeah, yeah you'll be supporting a good cause and all that stuff. But the real reasons are two key perks: a program festival mailed to you hot off the press in early June and a priority booking hotline open a week before general sales.
- If your priority is to attend events that have been reviewed and approved, only select events whose catalog description has solid star ratings from a source you trust. If you can stand it, wait until you get to the festival and read the Scotsman's reviews (see below). With 20,000 events, you should still be able to get tickets to all but the very popular ones.
- Festival-goers with an appetite for spontaneity and a stomach for the consequences should run the Royal Mile gauntlet and make their selections from that experience. Don't buy any tickets in advance, don't even read the program. Just walk up the High Street watching the free previews. Every few seconds an outlandishly costumed character will thrust a flyer into your hands. Don't be scared off -- given the difficulty of rising above the noise, often their outlandish theatrics bear no relationship to the actual performance they are hawking.
Allow a minimum of 30 minutes to get between venues. Edinburgh has a few major hills and large crowds to navigate -- it may look close on the city map but so would the distance from Kilimanjaro's base to peak.
- Make The Scotsman your friend. Scotland's premiere newspaper is a crucial resource. The daily paper will contain a festival supplement with invaluable reviews and interesting anecdotes -- one of my favorites is a section where they report the bribes that arrived in their office the day before from performers seeking coverage. Additionally, they have a free booklet available each day around midnight all over town that lists every single official event chronologically for all four festivals. This "just the facts, ma'am" approach makes it easy to find events to fill that last minute opening or to stay organized for the day.
If you are a fringe megastar, you will get a priority booking telephone number you can use a week before everyone else, and throughout the festival. Alternately, buying online is your best bet. The official phone lines will be jammed and the fringe box office is strictly reserved for masochists.
If something you absolutely positively have to see is sold out for the duration, pick a showtime that is apt to be less popular and go to the box office. They will sell tickets right before the event if there is extra space. As long as I got there early enough (usually 60 minutes before the performance), I have almost always gotten a seat.
The Scotsman and others will have many 2-for-1 offers. Once again, that megastar benefit comes in handy: there is a list of over 300 shows to which you can get 2 for 1 tickets. Finally, on the first two days of the festival (August 3 & 4) many shows offer two for one to fill seats fast. If you have some flexibility or are more experimental, keep your eyes peeled and you can save a few dollars while trying something you might not otherwise have considered.
Fests, then Rest: Where to Lay Your Head
The Balmoral (1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2EQ, Scotland; tel. +44 1315 562414)
If you've recently won the Powerball or didn't listen to your broker's reassurances that tech stocks are as safe as series EE savings bonds, the Balmoral is the place to call home for your visit. It has all the accoutrements of a luxury property -- marble bathrooms, crown molding, down comforters, big rooms with high ceilings -- minus the over-the-top decor and amateur staff found in other establishment of a similar caliber.
The Balmoral's staff and environment are low-key. The quiet décor instills a sense of calm in visitors -- a welcome respite from the madness outside. Thick walls and carpeting, a very considerate housekeeping staff, and the lack of children running through the halls make your room feel like it's the only one in use. The rack rate during the festival -- which means about $600 to $800 a night -- means business travelers and couples make up most of the guest roster.
The professional but friendly staff anticipates all its guests' needs unobtrusively. Alison, one of the day concierges, greeted me by name although it was only by second visit. Stuart, the evening concierge, good naturedly answers all my "nightly stumpers" with minimal effort (Where is the best ice cream in all of Edinburgh? Which hair salon will give me an elegant cut and an appointment in the next 45 minutes? Can you get me tickets to the sold out tattoo for the Saturday night fireworks show?). Room service is fast and like so many other departments, go above and beyond to make you happy. Even when dealing with a "Sally" such as myself, they kept their calm and met all my picky demands without any extra charges or fuss.
I have never eaten in their very popular restaurant, Number One, and rarely recommend anywhere on the British Isle as a destination for culinary delight (make a left turn at London if that's your priority). However, the few meals I have ordered up (usually soup and dessert) have been worthy of the stars their Michelin chef recently received.
Stay in one of the rooms facing West and you'll have a lovely view of the Castle, park, and crowds bustling along Princes street. Stay in a South facing room and you'll have a great view of the dramatic Arthur's Seat park and maybe even glimpse the sea. Try to avoid the Eastern facing rooms -- for now they are just looking at scaffolding surrounding a building that is being refurbished.
Luxurylink.com is currently auctioning off a Balmoral package that includes 3 nights with dinner and breakfast to be taken anytime between now and November, subject to availability. If you call and find out the nights you want are available, go to www.luxurylink.com and bid. The last round of winning bids were close to the rack rate, but getting dinner and breakfast included made it a great deal.
Cheaper Digs Around Town
If your income more closely matches the giant salary I take in as a journalist or if you want more of the "local" experience "letting a flat" is a secret strategy for success. The best options -- in order from those requiring the most patience to the least are: Festival Flats, then the Fringe Website bulletin board, followed by the Edinburgh Tourist Board website.
My dog has a better PR agent and marketing department than Festival flats. But the fact that they have no website and finding their phone number is virtually impossible means you have a better chance of getting exactly what you want. Call and describe your needs, they'll set one of their extremely diligent and friendly staff off to find something within 15 minutes walking distance of the main street (Princes Street). One-bedroom spaces (which typically have a sleeper sofa in the living room) go for about $450/week. Two-bedrooms are rarely less than $750/week. On numerous occasions they have gone out of their way to accommodate my logistical challenges and have always come through with something great. As with everything at the festival, booking early gives you a wider selection. Here's the number, 011.44.1620.810.620.
Fringe Festival's Online Bulletin Board
Originally this site was designed to help performers find a place to put their sleeping bags. It's now a best bet way to connect directly with residents looking to let out their flat in August. .Post a message with your detailed needs, budget, and dates. Click the box that says, "Keep me informed of responses" and e-mails will be forwarded to your e-mail box. Keep pickiness to a minimum and you'll get several good responses.
This requires more work (you will have to connect with each individual owner), has a higher risk (you will have to judge the flats sight unseen, or get digital pictures and may not have any resolution if something should break when the owners are out of town) but can also save much money and provide a wider selection. I used this method for our most recent accommodation and got a much better deal than any of the other options. We have since become friends with the person who is letting us the flat.
Edinburgh Tourist Board
The tourist board is an excellent source of information and assistance. Most times of the year they will help you find accommodations over the phone or fax. For the festival, the only real option is to go to their website which has hundreds of listings for self catering accommodations. Lacking a map with all accommodation locations indicated, you will need to click on each individual link to find out more about the property. When you finally narrow it down to ones that suit your needs, you will need to call each one. Most will be sold out months in advance. Most people listed have been rated by the Scottish Tourist Board, which excludes flats from non-professionals who simply want to make a few dollars during the festival.
Begin far enough in advance and have infinite patience, you will find the right place at the right price. For additional housing options, simply visit our indepth coverage of Edinburgh in our Destinations section at www.frommers.com/destinations/edinburgh.
Taking a Break: A Daytrip Out of Town
Traveling to Scotland without visiting the Highlands and Islands is like going to Paris without getting a fresh hot croissant from Max Poilane's boulangerie. How many places have right of way signs with pictures of Heeland Coos (Highland Cows) and Blackface sheep?
Travelers seeking more than a tour of souvenir shops and Whiskey factories must go with Rabbies Trailburners (www.rabbies.com). They focus on local flavor, filling days with as many off-the-beaten track activities (i.e. a walk overlooking the sea) and free time as visits to popular destinations (i.e. the Eilean Donan Castle) and shopping. Most guides welcome company even when they are off-duty. Take advantage of these opportunities and you'll get a real sense of the place though pub visits, walks, and chats with the locals.
All of their guides are engaging storytellers but Sue Ramsey is by far the most infectiously ebullient and creative. On my personal favorite, the 3 day up to Skye, she peppers historical tales with music, anecdotes, and personal stories. Maybe it's her straight-out-of-a-romance-novel mass of red curly hair, or her theatric vocal intonations, but there is just something about a tour with her at the helm that feels as if all of Scotland's historical figures have come along for the ride.
Have you attended the August Edinburgh festivals in the past and have a story to tell or a tip to share? Tell us all about it in our Message Boards. Go here and click "Add Discussion" to get started.