Enduring Edinburgh: How to Survive the Fringe
Coming to Edinburgh for the Fringe? Here's a guide of what to pack, what to eat and how to recover once it's over...
Edinburgh in August can be a daunting prospect, so we've put together a guide to surviving the madness, and staying fed, rested and entertained along the way.
What should I bring with me?
Know where your towel is: Bring a decent rucksack and pack the Fringe Programme with its handy paper map, a spare phone battery or charging pack for more high-tech navigation, a scarf or pashmina (think of it as your towel, and refer to the works of Douglas Adams for why this is a good thing), a bag of nuts or similarly small, non-sticky, snacky food so you can eat on the move, in the queue and while browsing the Programme, and a bottle of water – you’ll get warm dashing from show to show.
Also, a fan: all Fringe venues are cursed and no air conditioning works in the first week. You can construct one from a flyer or a sturdy magazine. You should still have room to spare for a growing collection of badges, tissues and various trinkets from shows.
Carry as much cash as you’re comfortable with. This is always necessary to put in buckets at the end of shows and to make sure you can acquire overpriced beer without waiting for a card machine to work.
Clothes for four seasons: If it's raining: packable waterproof, decent shoes for walking around in. If it's sunny: packable waterproof, decent shoes for walking around in. A lot can happen to Edinburgh's weather while you're in a show, walking to a show, or indeed sneezing. Bring layers and be prepared to carry them, and be sure to wear proper shoes with proper insoles to stop you from developing a limp around day four.
If you really must bring an umbrella (and, really, you mustn't) do not use it while marching around not looking where you're going. Edinburgh is too windy for umbrellas. Those of us over about five-foot-five walk around in fear of losing our eyes to your rusty spokes. Umbrellas should only be used as impromptu walking sticks or for dramatic gesticulation.
How do I get into it all? Get there early and be prepared to wait. Relax. Let the flyerers come to you. Engage them in conversation and find out as much as you can: most even have a sense of humour. Find out where you can pick up tickets for your myriad different shows – Fringe box offices and machines can give you tickets for anything, and the Big Four venues all dole out tickets for one another, but smaller venues may need you to go to their own ticket office to pick up.
Take advantage of two-for-ones, and go to see free shows that are on just around the corner. Don't over-plan. Get the app. Talk to strangers. Make decisions quickly and learn to power-walk. Go where that swift North wind takes you and don't worry too much about things going wrong.
How do I find the Next Big Thing? Talk to people: artists will emerge from obscurity in real-time as the month wears on, so word-of-mouth is essential here. Read the magazines draped over every single venue, and if you want to be really comprehensive the British Comedy Guide online tracks all Fringe coverage, but also take the advice of strangers. Most of all, go to see the shows you wouldn't normally see.
And, newcomers, take heed: don't assume that if a show is free it can't be any good. That is the attitude of a Fringe amateur. In the last five years, free or pay-what-you-want shows have taken two newcomer awards, two main awards and two panel prizes.
How do I avoid flyerers? Really? You won't properly experience the Fringe without interacting with any flyerers. These are people whose job it is to see and advertise shows, to spend a whole month in the city rubbing shoulders with performers and getting all that inside knowledge you're looking for. Really? Alright then. Walk quickly, staring at your shoes, talking or singing to yourself, looking utterly distracted, and do not engage with anyone or anything. Alternatively, take the damn flyer, read it, absorb it, and recycle it.
How many shows can I see in a day? This really depends on personal preference and mental and physical stamina levels. Newbies should aim for three or four shows a day tops, and factor in a lot of time for navigating Edinburgh's many layers and levels. Reviewers should look at seeing no more than five shows a day; any more and your writing feels like a battle against the dreaded cliché, and all your free time will be spent trying to unpick the memories of each performance.
Experienced Fringe-goers are limited only by finances, time-keeping and stomachs. It is possible to get through eight shows a day, including a breakfast show in the morning and a final wildcard midnight show, but this should not be attempted more than once or twice. There is only so much culture one can process in a single twenty-four hour period, after which you just need a nice sit down. A world record is held by comedy enthusiast David Chapple, who saw over 300 Fringe shows in 2014. (This year, to celebrate the Fringe's 70th birthday, David and Carole Chapple are taking on 70 challenges for Mind).
Where should I eat?
You need to eat proper meals: your stomach will only start heckling you if you don't. The Big Four venues around George Square and Bristo Square are well served with studenty eats of surprising variety – we've put together more detailed guides to the food options around Pleasance Courtyard, Bristo Square and Summerhall, but for now here's a brief selection.
For burritos, go to Illegal Jack's, or for wraps of a more African persuasion, hit the aptly-titled Africano Wrap Place. If pacifying a hangover is the first order of the day, get to Snax on Buccleuch Street (it’s pronounced buck-loo); for a fantastic, hearty curry, head to one of the Mosque Kitchens (there are two of them, it's a very long story, but they are both delicious and affordable). Coffee and cake should be taken at Lovecrumbs on West Port near the ECA, Zebra on the Mound, Baba Budan behind Waverley Station or Machina Espresso on Nicholson Street.
There’s a clutch of fine food establishments around The Stand comedy club on York Place. Teeny weeny coffeehouse Fortitude has impressively strong espresso to cure that third-show-of-the-day fatigue, and posh nosh of the highest quality is available at Valvona and Crolla on Multrees Walk just round the corner. There is even another incarnation of Snax on West Register Street, just off the Royal Mile and bang next to the Voodoo Rooms, home to some fantastic free comedy.
Where can I have a nice sit down?
Outside: The Meadows, the Mound (if it's not completely packed full of people, there's a nice set of steps you can sit on to watch the Old Town and New Town jostle for position on either side of the gap that once was the Norr Loch), Nicholson Square, Princes Street gardens, Portobello beach further out of town, or the Royal Mile dead in the centre.
Inside: Any café. Pick one. Go in. Be nice. The Pleasance Dome and the Gilded Balloon, when not dolled up in Fringe regalia, are Potterrow and Teviot, two student union buildings which are designed to have people sit in them and not buy anything. If you're quiet you can sit in a public library and browse the Fringe programme.
How do I get away from it all?
For a spell outdoors, get up Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill or Blackford Hill and look at the sprawling mass of Auld Reekie from on high. Take a bus out to Portobello Beach and find the green armchairs in the Espy for a cosy pint in a busy seaside pub. Or head down Leith Walk for a plethora of charity shops, independent cafés and the last few vestiges of the Trainspotting-era Embra set oddly alongside Michelin-starred restaurants and hipster bars.
The museum and Edinburgh's many libraries and galleries are still here, too, for a bit of peace and quiet amid the hubbub. The Botanic Gardens often have more than their fair share of art and artistic plant-life, as well as a stellar wee café and a lovely view of the city. Beware (or celebrate) that almost anywhere in town is a venue for August, including the National Museum on Chambers Street.
It’s over. I am physically, emotionally and financially exhausted. What do I do now?
The post-Fringe blues is a common phenomenon. The adrenaline has worn off and it's eleven months until next August. So, keep seeing live shows. Whether theatre, art or comedy is your bag, it does indeed exist outside of Fringe time. Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle are blessed by The Stand for comedy year-round; London has The Bill Murray and Soho Theatre. Before you know it, the programme for August 2018 will be on its way.