The Edinburgh Fringe Festival – My Approach

It’s the event that humbles all others. A city-wide carnival that sprawls itself over an entire month and generates laughs, screams and gasps throughout. Always with an indefatigable and relentless dynamism that seems to somehow increase year-on-year. A riot of creativity and passion, forever with a vibrancy and international outlook. It’s Festival time my friends and I’m off to the capital to observe the true impact of this month-long explosion on Scotland’s tourism industry.

I’m writing this with double-sided intent. Firstly, and most obviously, I want to promote Edinburgh and the uniquely impressive Fringe, the biggest performing arts gathering on the planet. Secondly, and in-keeping with my recent musings on over-tourism, I want to raise some awareness of just how crowded Scotland can be. This is the time of year when the city’s population famously doubles in size, when accommodation prices go through the roof, when locals either flee or moan endlessly and when the city’s ancient foundations are stretched to their limits.

There was a news announcement that a sinkhole had appeared in the city centre this week. Speculation was rife that AirBnB would be right on the case.

I admit, I see the Festival overcrowding as less of an issue than the uncontrolled, downright dangerous goings on in the more rural spots of the Highlands and Islands. This is a major city and it has the infrastructure to absorb a lot of the challenges. But still, visitors should be aware of the flip side to the coin that this invasion presents to the city’s residents….and of what to expect for their own visits.

overtourism edinburgh

royal mile edinburgh festival

 

Some suggestions….

For every person pointing fingers and ranting about the selfishness and ignorance that swirls around over-tourism, there is another steadfastly maintaining that they are entitled to enjoy themselves guilt free. I get that. I’m someone who strives for balance and, while I am very environmentally-conscious and a passionate believer in sustainability, I also want visitors to Scotland to have fun. That’s why I’ve been doing this all these years.

So, my objective is generally not to dissuade people from activities and destinations and is instead to constructively present advice on how to enjoy your travels in a way that shows respect to, and awareness of, the very special places you are visiting. In Edinburgh’s case, in August:

  • Limit your stay to a couple of days.
  • Don’t drive in the city. There’s no need whatsoever.
  • Stick to official accommodation providers, they are central to the tourism industry’s success.
  • Keep your visits to the main hotspots – the Royal Mile, Grassmarket and Princes Street – to a minimum.
  • Make your plans and reservations well in advance – if you just show up with a smile it’ll be wiped away sharpish.
  • Take an alternative approach to your day itinerary. Get up early (the streets were deserted for me at 6am, see below pics) and schedule in some hotel chill time in early/mid-afternoon when things are at their most frenetic outside.
  • Take a moment to reflect on the societal inequality within Edinburgh. Like any other city suffering under years of government austerity, severe poverty exists. And, while money is flowing left, right and centre during Festival, how much of it finds its way into the hands of those that need it most? I’m not going to preach or make specific requests and I’m not going to lay down guilt. Just take a moment or two to reflect on anything, however small, that you may be able to do while in the city to help correct that inequality.

peaceful edinburgh

vennel edinburgh empty

dean village edinburgh

Edinburgh festival walks

 

The Shows

Cannae beat a bit of stand up at the Fringe. Endless comedy shows can be hunted down every day in August as veterans and hopeful novices alike compete for the biggest laughs. I’ve been to some absolute riots and some complete shockers over the years and its always worth having your ear to the ground to help swing you in a certain direction. Try and hunt down that ‘I saw them before they were famous’ performance.

But this year I wanted something a bit different and the Ladyboys of Bangkok is the kind of off-the-chart-bizarre gig that I knew I had to inspect for real at least once in my life. Flamboyance and vibrancy are just two of the first words that spring to mind in general over Festival, with these characters winning first prize in that department. Resembling some sort of circus for the most part, I stumbled in out of the torrential rain and lightning forked skies to be visually attacked by a unique kind of entertainment that lodged somewhere between hilarious and genius. Capturing even my forever-multi-tasking attention throughout, they deliver a recreation of musical favourites in a fashion that leaves you reflecting on how on earth this can be a thing.

ladyboys of bangkok edinburgh

bangkok comes to edinburgh

edinburgh international festival shows

As with anything during August in Edinburgh, expect the unexpected. And when it arrives, just roll with it.

 

Base

The first question many of us as travellers will ask is where to set up camp during this chaos. Many may see the outskirts as an attractive option, choosing to travel into the city. Perfectly valid logic there. But that is likely to limit you to peak-time pavement pounding without the escape clause option of retreating out of sight when the need inevitably arises. Or when the weather suddenly turns apocalyptically bad, as happended with me this week. And being in someone’s armpit on a packed train to Waverly is no-one’s idea of happy holidays.

So, I pitch it another way. Stay in the city centre, paying more admittedly, and take advantage of the placement by visiting the popular spots at quiet times. Have the round-the-clock accessibility to ensure that you’ll get your Festival fill in a day or two before exiting to see more of Scotland.

The stylish Radisson Collection was my base of choice on this occasion. Comfortable, convenient and offering their own restaurant and very friendly staff, urban travellers can’t ask for more. Superbly, they also have an in-house massage service. Magnificent. My approach…..

  1. Early start taking in the top sights before anyone’s up.
  2. Excellent mid-morning breakfast at the hotel.
  3. Back out to explore the less congested areas of New Town Edinburgh.
  4. Mid-afternoon massage and a cheeky siesta.
  5. Early cocktails and dinner at in-house Epicurean before the dinner rush.
  6. Early evening show.
  7. Sunset moment atop Calton Hill.
  8. Back to base for an early night.

radisson collection edinburgh

edinburgh cocktails

calton hill edinburgh sunset

Aside from a very brief bit of jostling when crossing the Royal Mile, this made for an extremely memorable and almost completely stress-free Festival experience. It can be done, folks.

 

Disclaimer

Although invited to stay at the Radisson as a guest for review purposes, my recommendation on it as a place to stay in Edinburgh is based solely on a very enjoyable recent stay. The massage helped too.

 

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10 Comments

  1. You’re kidding, right? “….uncontrolled downright dangerous spots…. in the Highlands and Islands”? I must’ve missed the dangers at HebCelt where many musicians played in the Town Hall to pensioners and kiddies, or played late into the night at local hotels. Dangerous? Really?

    1. Not dangerous as in ‘I’m gonna get stabbed or shot here’….dangerous in the context of over-tourism. These rural spots are extremely delicate and the uncontrolled hordes that are currently in Glen Coe, the Fairy Pools, Glenfinnan et al are eroding the landscape, causing chaos for locals who need to work there and upsetting wildlife. Tourism needs to be controlled in order to prevent this and ensure that travel destinations are actually benefitting from tourism. At the moment I’m aware that a lot of locals feel like they are the victims of it, something I’m trying to address.

  2. I’m a tourist and I don’t want uncontrolled hordes to ruin the fragile beauty of the Highlands and Islands either (or anywhere else!). I hope y’all figure it out soon. Thanks for the clarification.

  3. An excellent overview of the joyous madness that is Edinburgh at this time of year, min (I remember it well from a previous life working in the Waverley Market tourist office…😮😮) You are bang on about the accommodation: whatever was a bargain has long since been snapped up, probably by the artists appearing at the Festival, and the hosts of what is left, rightly or wrongly, can afford to inflate their prices. Your post might be a tad too late for visitors this time around (I remember well my answer as a tourist office assistant when asked where the customer could find accommodation close to Edinburgh: “Perth”) but it should be a very useful memo to people planning to visit the capital NEXT year.

    1. Thanks Elspeth, it most certainly is a crazy time! And yes, accommodation reccs are for future Festivals but hopefully expectations can be adjusted in the meantime for the challenges out there amidst the joyous madness :-).

  4. The Ladyboys of Bangkok have been coming to Dundee for years and years and I have assiduously avoided their show despite reviews, recommendations and heavily discounted tickets. This is the first article that has made me consider actually going to see them 😊
    It’s a good few years since I was in Edinburgh during the Fringe, I was lucky enough to have friends who lived in the Liberton area and therefore had a free base. Even then, it was too much for me. The aimless crowds, the amount of waste paper from all the pamphlets, etc, left on the streets every day all just totally scunnered me and left me very grumpy.
    I’ve followed the discussions on Fc’bk these last few days re over tourism and been sadly disappointed by the sheer ignorance and selfishness of some of the contributors to posts by concerned people like Kay Gillespie.
    I love this country and love that so many people from elsewhere are finally discovering our diverse charms. But the photos of parts of Skye in particular were heart-breaking. What are your views on the possible re-introduction of the toll on the Skye bridge for non-locals? Or the forth-coming (eventually) Edinburgh tourism tax? Do you think numbers, particularly from the USA, will decrease once tv Outlander eventually comes to an end, however many years from now?
    I was recently staying with the above mentioned friends who now live fairly close to Dumfries. It was a joy to travel about on un-busy roads, not have to fight your way through crowds, etc to your destination, e.g. Threave and Arkleton. How do we persuade tourists that there is so much joy to be had from relatively unknown parts?
    Btw, on my way through Dundee on returning from my recent holiday, I was delighted to see the town and especially the area around the V&A really busy. It put a big smile on this grumpy auld git’s face 😁

    1. A very unusual way to spend an evening I’ll grant you Jacqui, but a surprisingly captivating one! But yes, criticisms of over-tourism do seem to be contentious and gets people’s blood pressure up. I really struggle with understanding that – the awareness raising being done is just about making the fun that we are all seeking sustainable, while thinking longer term. If Kay is getting a hard time then some people might want to have their heads examined as I’m sure, like me, her aim is to help the industry and Scotland as a whole. I’m not sure why that would be controversial.

      As for taxes and tolls, my specific views are irrelevant to be honest, although I certainly share your concerns. What’s needed is a bold and coordinated strategy from the powers that be to properly address the issue. No hiding, no short-sightedness, taking an inclusive approach that seeks expert input and revolves around a genuine focus on protecting our most vulnerable sites and, crucially, doing something urgently around the affordable housing situation in these hotspot areas. Those are big challenges but much more attainable ones in the immediate term are to stop thoughtless promotion of sites and destinations that are bursting at the seams and take a nationwide outlook to ensure that the love is spread across the land. I have always tried to ensure that in the work I do and I know that VisitScotland do as well. I’d like to see the whole industry being more ambitious about it but small steps are better than no steps. Keep smiling Jacqui, Dundee is awesome and the word is out. 🙂

  5. Hello Neil, Thank you for your post. 🙂

    As you know I am a big Scotland fan and come back to visit quite often (e.g. three times this year!). Being a tourist myself, I am aware I might contribute to the problem of overtourism so I try to avoid times that are too packed with people. I don’t always succeed…
    In June, we travelled with friends who did not have time in low season and – as I hadn’t been in that season in quite a while – I had completely forgotten how crowded Edinburgh can be (there are always lots of people in Edinburgh, but to me it felt like there were at least twice as many as I was used to)! :-O

    I do not have an FB account, but followed the discussions about that Skye pic on Instagram and Twitter and I was really ashamed for that person. I hope no-one will ever have to complain about me misbehaving
    in your lovely country… 🙁

    Best wishes,
    Tanja

    P.S.: I have to admit that I am longing to go back to visit the Fringe and Tattoo, though… 😉

    1. Hi Tanja, Yes Edinburgh is super busy year-round these days but June is a breeze compared with August so you did well! For those that love that kind of Festival atmosphere, there’s nothing to match it. I think I know the Skye pic you’re talking about – a thoughtless idiot. I’m sure you’re a fantastic traveller and, at the moment, any comments on over-tourism are aimed entirely at raising awareness and it’s then over to the individual as to how they want to travel. Even slight tweaks in behaviour and planning can make a big difference to dealing with the problem. It should certainly never be about discouraging people from visiting Scotland and having a great time doing so though. Hope you make it back soon!

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