On the fringes of the Fringe
June 11, 2019 11:43 AM   Subscribe

What's a good strategy for exploring Edinburgh when accidentally there during the Fringe? Definitely going to take in some festival offerings, but that's not why we're visiting, and we don't want it to take over our trip.

My girlfriend and I booked tickets for a summer trip to the UK and Ireland, and it includes two nights in Edinburgh (a Tuesday and Wednesday at the beginning of August). It wasn't until booking lodging this week and finding the offerings curiously scant and pricey that we slapped our heads in the realization that we'd booked a flight to Edinburgh during the Fringe.

I'm involved in experimental theater and she's a comedian in NYC, so it's a pleasant surprise in some ways. Couldn't be more up our alleys, and we'll definitely take in some programming. But we're not planning to do Fringe to the exclusion of all else on our two days' visit. We'd like to spend most of the visit taking in the tourist sights that are available other times of year, too--the castle, old town, etc.

But I gather that it will be a madhouse, and the festival will be happening literally on top of some of our desired sightseeing.

How to visit Edinburgh during the Fringe without making it all about the Fringe? Anything off the beaten path we could or should see? Any tips of things to do or places to definitely avoid?

Oh, we will be staying at an airbnb situated between Stockbridge and New Town, if that helps guide the advice.

Thank you so much!
posted by scarylarry to Travel & Transportation around Edinburgh, Scotland (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd get one of the open-topped bus tours. Touristy, but if you've only got a couple of days, they're a quick way to get the lie of the land. If you want to get out of the centre, there's one that comes past the Botanic Gardens, which are lovely to walk in, and then up towards Leith and the Royal Yacht Britannia (which I enjoyed more than I expected to, as someone who's completely indifferent to the royals, but YMMV). The stretch of Leith called The Shore is nice for a wander around and reasonably away from the madness of the Fringe. There's another bus tour that takes you to South Queensferry (small town just outside Edinburgh) where you can take a boat underneath the Forth Bridges and out to an island in the Forth, which is also nice if you really want to escape the city.

But to be honest, I'd be tempted to suggest you just give in and enjoy the Fringe. That doesn't mean you can't sightsee as well. Take a walk down the Royal Mile, you'll see most of the big tourist sights and it'll also be full of Fringe-related street theatre and people promoting their shows and is a nice place to spend time if you're not a resident trying to get somewhere.

You don't ask for Fringe tips but unless there's anything specific you want to see, you're probably best turning up to The Pleasance (comedy) and Summerhall (interesting theatre) and see what's on sale and take a punt that way. Still a slight gamble, but with a slightly better hit rate than going to something you get given a flyer for, which always risks you being the only person in the audience for something dire.
posted by penguin pie at 12:06 PM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

As near as I can reconstruct, my family was in Edinburgh for the start of Fringe in 2005 (we left on the day of the Heathrow strike which was Aug. 11th and Fringe started on the 7th). I don't remember it being a big deal at all for tourists. There were many street art events that we enjoyed between tourist stops, lots of people handing out flyers for their shows. Our accommodations were farther from the attractions than we would normally book and we sometimes took cabs. That's about it. Maybe dining was harder to get reservations for, but there was so much good food we always found a place.
posted by muddgirl at 12:12 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you're at the Pleasance, you could head out the back and go into Holyrood Park. Amazing 360 views across the city from the top of Arthur's Seat, though unfortunately it doesn't really feel like 'getting away from it all' as the peak will be really crowded with other tourists.
posted by penguin pie at 12:14 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would recommend the underground tour at St Mary's close, you'll need to book in advance but small groups should be a break from the crowds. The royal mile up to the castle and the area around there is definitely the most mobbed - add a lot of time to your journey time anywhere near there, whether by bus or taxi. Take a bus if you can, at least it won't be racking up fare. If you want to see the castle and old town, you're going to be in the worst of it I'm afraid, no avoiding that! It probably won't cause any real issues though, you sort of just have to embrace it.

Leith is much quieter but not too far away, if finding dinner reservations gets difficult. Plus the Royal Yacht Brittania. Or, if you find yourself near Prestonfield House they do lovely food or afternoon tea.

Some people really like the Surgeons Hall Museum but personally I found it a bit grim.

I agree with going to the Pleasance or Summerhall and getting paid tickets to something, unless you can enjoy a lot of bad standup.
posted by stillnocturnal at 12:36 PM on June 11, 2019

Most of the people who are there for the fringe aren't going to the museums and so on- the sights will be busier than in July, but not impossibly so. Allow lots and lots of extra time to walk anywhere because the sidewalks are all jammed (enjoy the people-watching if you can) but it'll be fine.
posted by Shark Hat at 12:41 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

If it's the kind of thing you like, and you'd like to get out of the city center, then Craigmillar castle is a cool place to visit. One of my favorites from when I lived in Edinburgh in years gone by.
posted by anadem at 1:18 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't lived there in years, but I was heavily involved in Fringe stuff for a while and as I recall, as soon as you get out of the city centre it gets a lot less crowded and easier to ignore. One year I worked box office for a site-specific audio show in the Botanic Garden and every day I'd walk from Princes Street down to the gardens, and as soon as I got a few streets into New Town it was like the Fringe barely existed. So yeah, the botanic garden would be a good shout and probably most of the museums won't be super crowded (any more so than they are the rest of the summer), especially SNGMA as it's a bit further out. In fact I'd venture to say a lot of tourist stuff will be only slightly more busy because a lot of people who are there for the Fringe aren't interested in doing stuff like, ghost tours or whiskey tastings (or have done it before).

I think Old Town will still be a lot of fun during the Fringe, but anywhere near the Royal Mile or Pleasance it's going to be unavoidably layered on top of everything you see. And you will always run the risk of stumbling upon a play...like, on preview it's funny that anadem mentions Craigmillar Castle (which is a great place to visit), I remember taking a bus out there one year to see a site-specific performance of Racine's Phaedra that my friend was producing. You never know where people will be staging their stuff, part of the fun!
posted by cpatterson at 1:30 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Walk down from your flat to Stockbridge, and then head west along the path beside the Water of Leith. Go through the Dean Village & keep going. You'll come out beside the modern art gallery, which has a good permanent collection & a decent cafe with a garden. During August they have an exhibition of Dada & Surrealist art, which is a strong point for that gallery anyway. So if that's your kind of thing & it's a sunny day, it would be a good day out.

If it was me, though - I'd just get stuck right into the madness. I love it there at that time of year.
posted by rd45 at 1:41 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can highly recommend the Museum of Scotland, which is both fascinating and very quiet during the festival, I have used it for napping when I was working as a festival venue technician.

Just along from there at the entrance to the walk down to the Meadows is a small Brazilian pancake stand, if you're not veggie/vegan you should definitely go there and get the chicken curry pancake. It can't be eaten politely but don't let that stop you.
posted by quacks like a duck at 1:47 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Soooo crowded. I'd pick a venue and aim to see two or three things there.

CircusHub: Saw some AMAZING DEATH DEFYING CIRCUS ACTS for an alarming 11 pounds.
CanadaHub: The cream of Canadian indie theatre! Some really great stuff programmed this year.
Summerhall: Often a safe bet!
posted by stray at 3:37 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Circus hub if you like that kind of thing - great venue, not quite as crowded as some, and within the meadows park so you can have a picnic/chill out in some green space if the Scottish weather co-operates (not guaranteed!)

Also agree on suggestions above for the modern art galleries, Leith and Portobello beach if you want to get out of town a bit. However, around the main sites like the castle, royal mile etc. it will be festival-ised and best to just try to enjoy it! If you like wandering, maybe try to do so in the morning before things get super hectic. The royal mile can become unpassable with acts and mini shows in the afternoon and I generally avoid (although last time I had to be there during festival madness I was doing jury duty which was very surreal!).

It's always worth checking to see if there is anything in the international festival which you like the look of. World-class dance, music and opera. I've found the last few years that at least you know the standards will be high compared to the fringe - my highlights have been dance and circus acts.

Tuesday and Wednesday nights will not be as busy as the weekend so venues shouldn't be too crazy. I enjoy hanging out in George Square - lots of venues and the park in the middle is split into a couple of large outdoor eating and drinking areas. Again, if the weather co-operates, these can be quite relaxed places to soak up the atmosphere - Friday and Saturday nights get pretty hectic, but mid-week should be ok.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:25 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here to say there are plenty of free Fringe events you could pop into. Consider the military tattoo if you can get tickets, too. Also the Falkirk Wheel is nearby and quirky. And...Glasgow isn’t far away if you decide the capital is too moreish.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 2:33 PM on June 12, 2019

Rosslyn Chapel is a little way out of the city but easily accessible by bus.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 9:46 PM on June 12, 2019

Buy the Scotsman newspaper, read the reviews over breakfast, see what sounds good and fits your interest, buy tickets quick.
posted by biffa at 2:17 PM on June 13, 2019

If you do want a show rec, my wife and I saw a show called My Love Lies Frozen In The Ice when it toured Canadian fringes a couple of years ago and really loved it; I've seen probably close to 200 shows at Canadian fringes over the years and it's in my top 5. It has an offkilter hipster energy and a real knack for bare-bones stagecraft that I particularly liked.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:53 PM on June 15, 2019

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