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The Edinburgh Festival – When the World Comes to Scotland

The cultural highlight of any year in Edinburgh arrives every summer with the famous Edinburgh Festival. The center of the Scottish capital, which is already busy with tourists, becomes chock-a-block with gawking visitors and savvy residents, maneuvering amid all sorts of street performers, who try to cajole and lure people to come to the stages where they are performing properly.

The Festival (as everyone simply calls it) centers today on the Festival Fringe. As the name implies, this was not originally the focus of the event. Indeed the Festival began with the Edinburgh International Festival, which was inaugurated in 1947. It continues to attract internationally accomplished performers in classical music, opera, ballet, and drama.

But the Fringe has eclipsed it in popularity and scope. Initially it was avant-garde theater and topical drama. The notoriety - indeed fame - of the Fringe was cemented by the now legendary revue act called Beyond the Fringe, which featured the talents of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. Additionally, other early stars at the Fringe became members of comedy group Monty Python.

Today, the Fringe presents some 2,000 shows at nearly 250 venues. It provides an opportunity for almost anybody - professional or nonprofessional, an individual, a group of friends, or a whole company - to put on a show wherever they can find an empty stage or street corner. The range is mind-boggling: A gospel choir from Soweto, penis puppetry, or avant-garde theater.

Comedy still dominates the Fringe, which always draws some of the top English-speaking funny men and women, whether Americans Rich Hall and Janeane Garofalo or Britain's Stephen K. Amos and Bill Bailey. For up-and-coming jokesters and comedic actors, a breakthrough and critically acclaimed run at the Fringe can help establish a successful international career. Such was the case for Demetri Martin recently and Lee Evans, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Skinner, Billy Connolly, Rowan Atkinson, Jo Brand, Lily Savage (Paul O'Grady), Steve Coogan, and Paul Merton over the years. The Fringe has become increasingly established and corporate-sponsored, but it retains its aura of the experimental and unexpected.

My advice when faced with a mind-boggling array of performances all at one time is to 1] take recommendations from the List magazine, The Guardian, and other media coverage; 2] combine some very cheap shows with some top-name acts, 3] keep going until you cannot go any further, and 4] go a bit further and hit a pub in the small hours to share your experiences with others.

The International Festival generally highlights classical music, performed by orchestras and chamber groups. Queen's Hall on the city's Southside usually has day-long schedules of concerts. As if all this wasn't enough, Edinburgh also hosts other festivals in the period between late July and early September. In Charlotte Square, the international Book Festival  has become a large annual event, drawing authors such as J. K. Rowling and Toni Morrison. Big top tents are thrown up to house hundreds that come for readings and lectures. The venue also includes an excellent temporary bookshop, good for finding gems too often not available in the big corporate bookshops. Finally, the Festival also incorporates an international Jazz & Blues Festival, a visual Art Festival, and a more industry-oriented Television Festival. Until a few years ago, an international Film Festival was held concurrently, but it is now held in June.

There's more. One of the hardest tickets to get is the annual military Tattoo on the Castle esplanade for impressive precision marching and pipe playing . And the Festival always ends with some awe-inspiring fireworks and a concert in Princes Street Gardens. Do make any hotel or overnight reservations as far as possible in advance if you plan to be in Edinburgh anytime between the end of July and the first week of September.

The International Festival box office is at the Hub, Castle Hill (tel. 0131/473-2000; www.eif.co.uk). The Fringe is based in 180 High St. (tel. 0131/226-0000; www.edfringe.com). Information on all the festivals is found at www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk. Ticket prices vary for Festival, Fringe, and other shows or events. Some Fringe performances are free, but expect to pay £5 to £15 for most of them. The International Festival is pricier: £10-£50. The Book Festival admission is about £5-£10. For Jazz & Blues shows, tickets are around £10-£15. The Tattoo is more expensive: £15-£50 - and again shows sell out in advance.

Burns Night

Not an occasion limited to Edinburgh, on January 25, Scots the world over gather to consume the traditional supper of haggis, neeps (swede or turnips), and tatties (potatoes), accompanied by a dram of whisky, while listening to recitals of the works of Scotland's Bard, Robert "Rabbie" Burns, whose birthday is being celebrated. Burns suppers are held all over town.

Hogmanay

New Year's Day in Scotland is historically a bigger deal than Christmas, and Edinburgh now hosts one of the largest New Year's Eve parties on the planet. In Scotland, the festivities traditionally don't really even begin until the clock strikes midnight (the "bells"), and then the celebration can continue until daybreak. In 1993, the Edinburgh City Council began a 3-day festival that features rock and pop bands, street theater, a lively parade, and, of course, spectacular fireworks over the castle. By 1997, the event had become so big that participation is reserved for ticket holders. Storms, however, have been known to lead to cancelations as all of it is held outdoors. For information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.