15 Things You Need to Know Before You Go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I’m attending for the 5th time and I’m so freakin’ excited.

I remember my first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many years ago – it was all a little bit overwhelming and I didn’t even know where to start.

So, I thought I would share some valuable lessons I have learned over the years – hopefully they will make your festival experience go much smoother.

What is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?

It is, quite simply, the largest celebration of arts and culture on the planet.

Quick Facts:

  • In 2017 the festival had 3,398 shows with a total of 53,232 performances.
  • Performers from over 70 different countries travel to Edinburgh, Scotland to take part.
  • The events and shows take place in over 300 venues throughout the city.
  • The ticket sales are only exceeded by the World Cup and the Olympics – which means that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the third highest selling ticketed event in the world.
  • Some major names in entertainment got their “big break” at the festival, including Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly.

It’s kinda like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of culture and entertainment, with so much to see and do that it’s almost overwhelming. (My previous record was attending 13 shows in 3 days, but I think I will probably top that this year.)

If you have never been to the Fringe and aren’t sure what to expect, here are some thing you should know before you go:

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: 15 Things You Should Know

It’s Actually Several Simultaneous Festivals

Did you know that while the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is going on throughout the month of August, there are also several other festivals happening simultaneously?

There’s the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

So, in addition to all of the theatre events associated with the Fringe – you’ll also have lots of other events to attend if you want to see something different.

There’s Any Type of Entertainment You Can Imagine

Want to watch a ballet? An opera? A raunchy stand up comedian? A sexy burlesque showcase? A murder mystery musical? A rap battle?

No matter what you are into, you can watch it at the Fringe. Go wild!

Book Your Accommodation in Advance

When I travel, I often like to leave things open-ended and I don’t mind booking stuff at the last minute – but not at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In the month of August the city of Edinburgh gets absolutely PACKED with people – it’s the largest theatre festival in the world, after all!  In 2016, ticket sales hit approximately 2.5 million for 3,000 + shows over more than 300 venues – which is insane for a city of 500,000 people.

That means that there isn’t a lot of room to squeeze everyone in (especially since there is a lot of green space and not many high-rise hotels near the compact, medieval-era centre of the city).

If you want to get a place to stay that is centrally located, I would recommend starting your search as early as possible.

You Can Also Buy Tickets in Advance

If there is a particular performer that you absolutely MUST see and you don’t want to run the risk of missing them – you can buy tickets in advance for their show.

Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Edinburgh Fringe Ticket Website, click “Filter Results” and enter the name of the show into the search box. Click “View Results.”
  2. Click on the show you want to see, then click the date you want to book your ticket for.
  3. You can then select a time (if there are multiple shows in one day) and choose Full Price or Concession.
  4. Go to Checkout and purchase your tickets.
  5. When you arrive in Edinburgh, head to the Fringe box office at Old Assembly Close High Street, EH1 1QS.
  6. Go up to one of the electronic terminals and scan the credit card that you used when you purchased the tickets online.
  7. All of the tickets you booked will be automatically printed out from the machine.

Yup, it’s that easy. Pretty great, huh?

(Want some ideas for which shows to book? You can read the top rated reviews here.)

Plan a Bit – But Also Be Spontaneous

I like to book a few shows in advance, but also leave some time to be spontaneous and just wander into a show if it looks interesting.

Part of the great joy of the Fringe is these spontaneous discoveries. Sometimes the random shows you take a chance on are AWFUL, sometimes they are brilliant and sometimes they are just so strange that they make for a great story afterwards.

There’s a Lot of Free Stuff To See

You’ll have to pay to see the big name performers, but there are a huge number of Fringe performances that are free* to attend.

Check out Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe Guide, which has been around since 1996 and is one of the biggest and best programmes of free shows.

There’s also the Laughing Horse Free Fringe, the rival source for free entertainment. Laughing Horse Comedy hosts free fringe performances at venues all over the city, including Bar 50, Dropkick Murphys, the Free Sisters and more.  

*Keep in mind that some “free” shows will pass a hat around at the end, or have a donation box at the door as you leave. You don’t have to give them anything, but if you enjoyed the show it’s nice to give the performers a couple of quid.

Use the Half Price Hut

It’s totally worth checking out the Virgin Money Half Price Hut, which offers 50% off tickets at the last minute for shows that same day. If you are feeling spontaneous and want to take a chance on something – this is a great way to do it while saving money.

You’ll Be Handed a TON of Flyers

Walking down the Royal Mile at any time of day means walking through a gauntlet of face-painted, costumed and bedazzled actors and performers who will try to catch your eye with a big smile and thrust a flyer into your hand advertising their show.

If you accept everything that is given to you, by the end of the street you’ll be clutching a thick stack of paper that is equivalent to a small tree.

This can be handy, because sometimes the flyers can alert you to shows you will genuinely find interesting. However, if you are walking up and down the street more than once, accepting the same flyers again is just wasteful – especially if you have no intention of seeing that particular show.

Give a gentle head shake and say no thanks when you are handed a flyer. (After all, the performers pay to have them printed so they won’t mind saving them for someone who is actually interested.)

It’s Not Just About the Royal Mile

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Don’t make the mistake of only hanging around the Royal Mile, the main cobbled street in the centre of Edinburgh. Yes, that’s the epicentre of all of the street performer action and there’s a lot of venues there – but there are actually hundreds of venues spread throughout the city!

There’s the Mound, the Assembly Halls, the Underbelly, The Pleasance Courtyard, the Gilded Balloon and many more. See a few different shows in each venue so that you can enjoy all facets of the festival – they all have their own unique vibe (and cool courtyards with drinks and food trucks).

Download Google Maps on your phone so that you can navigate your way between each venue quickly and easily. It’s a relatively compact city and all of the venues are within walking distance. 

Bring the Right Shoes – And Clothing

You’re going to be walking in between the venues when you are seeing back-to-back shows, so wear practical and comfortable shoes – especially since many of Edinburgh’s streets are steep and/or cobbled.

Also – remember that you are in the UK and even though it’s August that doesn’t mean you are safe from rain. The weather can be unpredictable – warm and sunny one moment and drizzling the next.

You’ll spend a lot of time queuing outside of the venues before you take your seat, so make sure you have a waterproof layer or an umbrella to keep yourself dry.

There’s An App For That

I highly recommend downloading the Edinburgh Fringe App. It features the entire festival programme, with information about all of the shows and their times.

Also, it has a planner feature – so that you can organize all of your shows and make sure you don’t have any conflicting times.

But the feature I love the most is the “Nearby Now” button. Let’s say I am just finishing up lunch and I don’t have a plan of what I am going to see next. I open up this section of the app and it uses my GPS location to show me what performances are starting soon in the venues closest to me.

Oh look, a musical comedy about blobfish is starting in 15 minutes at a venue just down the block. Let’s go!

Download it on the iPhone App Store or on Google Play.

Stay Up Late

For at least one night at the Fringe – stay up until the wee hours of the morning and enjoy the late, late entertainment. In many venues throughout the city you can watch comedy, music and other entertainment until 3am.

The jokes get a little edgier and the crowds get a little more… vocal – which can make things even more entertaining.

I always find that a late night out at the Fringe leads me down a rabbit hole to somewhere strange. I’ve found myself watching a rap battle in an unknown basement in the Old Town, or dancing until 5am with a bunch of Edinburgh locals. I always end the night thinking “how the hell did I end up here?” as well as “this is pretty awesome.”

Go out late and see what happens after midnight at the Fringe!

Consider Being a Friend of the Fringe

If you plan on really binging on shows at the Fringe and you’ll be attending with someone else, it’s worth becoming a Friend of the Fringe.

For £35 per year, you can get 2 for 1 tickets on up to 15 shows. (It’s limited to two tickets per show run, per membership.) You’ll also get perks like an Official Fringe Programme delivered to your door, access to an Exclusive Box Office where half price tickets are available and an exclusive booking phone line. (Plus 10% off merchandise in the edfringe shop.)

It’s the 2 for 1 deals that really make it worth it. If you plan to see a few paid shows where the tickets are £10-£20 – your savings will make the membership pay for itself.

Don’t Be Afraid of Audience Participation

My Australian friend Cam taught me not to fear sitting in the front row at a comedy show. Now I always park myself right front and centre, in the prime seats that everyone is trying to avoid. 

I understand why you might be hesitant to do so – after all the comedian might single you out and ask you questions and that can be nerve-wracking. But, the thing to remember about this is that when a comedian talks to the audience, they are not trying to make you look bad.

They are trying to make themselves look funny by showing off how they can improvise while talking to the crowd. If you just respond naturally, the pressure is on them to be witty.

Just relax – the spotlight is on the person with the microphone, not you.

Plus, when you fill the first rows of the venue you’ll make the crowd feel more engaged to the person on stage – which lifts their energy and will help them to give you a better show.

If you get called up on stage for some audience participation – don’t panic! Remember that it’s not the comedian’s goal to make you look dumb, it’s to use what you do and make it funny and entertaining. You’re in good hands, so just go along with it.

Leave Some Time to Do Other Cool Edinburgh Stuff While You’re There

Free Things to Do in Edinburgh
The View From Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

If you’ve never been to Edinburgh before, you’ll want to take some time to explore the city during your visit as well. There are many non-Fringe related things to do in Edinburgh that are pretty great – such as:

  • Taking a tour of Edinburgh Castle.
  • Hiking to the top of the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat and admiring the view.
  • Having a pint in some of the cool historic pubs.
  • Visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
  • Having a picnic in Princes Street Gardens.
  • Go for a walk along the Water of Leith.
  • Going on a free walking tour to learn the history behind the city’s highlights.

Here’s my guide to 16 Delightful Free Things to Do in Edinburgh.

Any questions about Edinburgh or the Fringe Festival? Please leave them in the comments below and I’ll answer them!

Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

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