It's that time of year again! Every summer, Edinburgh's historic city centre becomes transformed into the world's largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Actually, what is commonly referred to as 'the Edinburgh Festival' is really a collection of festivals, staged all year round, with the summer being the time when a number of them coincide and overlap, creating almost a single festival experience.
But for those who haven't experienced the festival before, or have no idea what to expect from Edinburgh during August, here's my brief history of, and introduction to, Edinburgh's festivals...
The first festival was staged in 1947, when arts companies from around the world were invited to stage a celebratory series of performances to mark the newly won peace across Europe, following the Second World War.
That original festival continues today, over 70 years later, as the Edinburgh International Festival, a roster of theatre, opera, dance and music from around the globe, all carefully curated to an annual theme, and staged in some of the larger venues around the city.
But in 1947, a handful of theatre companies who weren't invited to perform at the first festival came to the city anyway, and staged their work in small church halls and community centres. The next year, the number of 'uninvited' companies grew, and eventually the gathering of non-curated theatre companies coalesced into what is today the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Today, also bigger and stronger than ever after more than 70 years, the Edinburgh Fringe is, by itself, the world's largest arts festival, with over 3,000 performances taking place across the city every single day. If you aren't prepared for what that looks, sounds and feels like, then you're in for a treat!
Around 350 venues are set up around the city, some purpose built, others transformed from rooms and halls that may otherwise be unused throughout the year, and you can find everything from circus and burlesque to stand up comedy, dance, and high drama, from international companies and student troupes, experienced figures from the world of entertainment to new performers just starting out their careers.
As in 1947, the Fringe is uncurated, meaning it's open to anyone and everyone to come and take part. The quality of work can vary wildly, but that is all part of the excitement and interest!
The Edinburgh Military Tattoo was originally staged by the British Army as their contribution to the Edinburgh Festival in 1949. The first performances were at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, but today takes place in the large stadium built at the front of Edinburgh Castle.
It's a massive spectacle of military bands from all around the world, with lights and images projected on the castle itself, and concluding with a huge firework finale. The Tattoo takes place throughout August, and - spoiler alert - is generally sold out by January/February each year. So if you've just arrived in Edinburgh and don't have your tickets for it yet, your chances of getting a few returns at the official Tattoo office are limited!
And the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place for two weeks in August too, celebrating literature from all around the globe with hundreds of event with authors, publishers and illustrators.
So that's what you should brace yourself for if you are coming to Edinburgh this summer. They say the population of the city swells from around 500,000 people to over 1.5 million during the month of August, so you'll be in good company (and lots of it!).
It also means you are heavily advised to pre-book anything you plan to do in the city, from visiting Edinburgh Castle to seeing shows in the festivals, to restaurant reservations and travel plans.
But most of all enjoy it, and - if it's your first time - allow yourself to be immersed in the madness. Edinburgh during the festival(s) is like nothing else.
It is, some might say, the greatest show on Earth. Welcome.
Explore Edinburgh - and avoid some of the crowds - with my private city walking tours!
So you only have 24 hours in Edinburgh? Well, my first piece of advice would be to start planning your return visit NOW!
A single day simply isn't enough to time to get more than the briefest taste of the fantastic flavours that Edinburgh has, but you can certainly spend your time getting to grips with some of the key aspects of our city.
Wear sturdy shoes, dress for the weather, take regular coffee breaks at some of the city's many independent cafes and coffee shops, and carry an emergency supply of chocolate to keep your blood sugars up - this day is going to get hardcore (Jack Bauer eat your heart out!).
Here's my official #ThisIsEdinburgh24 guide to how best to spend your one and only day in Edinburgh...
Assuming you're visiting during the summer, the sun has been up for a couple of hours already, so there's nothing to stop you rolling out of bed super early to begin exploring the city! Of course there's not much open at this time of day, but it's a perfect time for doing what is probably the city's best cost-free attraction: Arthur's Seat.
Climbing to the highest point in the city gives you a fantastic 360-degree views for miles in every direction. It's a relatively easy walk - about 45 minutes from the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile, and only the top section is a little scrambly. Even better than the views will be your sense of achievement at this time in the morning!
Having descended Arthur's Seat (or even if you're only just now getting up) grab a hearty breakfast from one of the cafes on the Royal Mile and get ready to go again! Right across Edinburgh you'll find cafes, bars, and restaurants offering you a Full Scottish Breakfast - a variation on its Full English equivalent from south of the border, with the potato scone, Stornoway black pudding, haggis and (if you're lucky) lorne/square sausage providing the local flavour - baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and (less commonly) white pudding are all things you're likely to find amongst the standard fare of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast.
Of course the other traditional Scots breakfast of porridge is having a resurgence too - many cafes offer a 'luxury' take on this simple dish. If you intend to take Edinburgh seriously over the next few hours, you might be best advised to have both of the above!
Having refuelled, you're now set to visit the city's most iconic feature, Edinburgh Castle. Open from 9.30am every morning, book your tickets in advance and be at the drawbridge on time to get direct access to this historical site. The castle may not appeal to everyone, but even if you're not into military or royal history, you should find enough of interest here to fill a couple of hours - and the views (more close-up on the city than Arthur's Seat) are stunning. Be sure to visit the birth room where James VI and I was born to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Prisons of War exhibition is particularly interesting.
Leaving the castle, you should make your way down the hill to the Grassmarket, historically a site not just of an agricultural market but also one of the city's sites of execution - you'll find a shadow of the gallows marked in the pavement at the eastern end of the square. Along here you can top up your energy levels with a drink or a light lunch from the bars and cafes, before moving towards -
- Greyfriars Kirkyard, accessed from the bottom of Candlemaker Row at the east of the Grassmarket. This graveyard is one of the city's most picturesque and peaceful places, and is the resting place of a large number of the city's famous sons and daughters. You'll also find the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog whose story has entered the annals of local mythology for spending 14 years sleeping on the grave of his dead master. Exit the graveyard near Bobby's grave and you'll find a statue to Bobby, usually thronged with visitors taking photographs! Cross the road and you'll be right on the doorstep of the National Museum.
You can easily spend hours wandering around the National Museum of Scotland - lose yourself in the labyrinthine modern wing, or browse the galleries of exhibits in the original Victorian section. Be sure to see Dolly the Sheep, the world's first genetically cloned animal, and The Maiden, a gruesome piece of local history, being the guillotine which sent men to their deaths in the 17th century.
Entry to the museum is free, although you can also pay to visit one of the visiting exhibitions, but whatever you do, don't miss the somewhat hidden roof terrace, with views over to the castle and out to the summit of Arthur's Seat (where you were standing barely 6 hours or so ago!).
From the museum, pass the side of the University of Edinburgh's iconic Old College quad building and head north along South Bridge (yes, you did read that correctly...!), crossing the Royal Mile at the Tron Church and continuing onto North Bridge over the roof of Waverley Station - take a moment (or two) to photograph the views from either side of the bridge. Ahead of you is the Balmoral Hotel and the eastern end of Princes Street. You are now entering Edinburgh's New Town, a Georgian-era city development nearly 250 years old - depending on your inclinations you can choose to browse the shops on George Street or relax in Princes Street Gardens.
If you fancy completing the trilogy of volcano summits in Edinburgh (having already done Arthur's Seat and the rock underneath Edinburgh Castle), turn right to walk up Calton Hill, with its monuments and views. Otherwise your next mission is to tackle -
- the world's tallest monument to a writer - the monument to Sir Walter Scott, colloquially known as the Gothic Rocket, on Princes Street; 287 steps up, and the same number back down - if you have no head for heights, a dodgy knee or a fear of confined spaces (the staircase is pretty steep and narrow) then you can be excused this part of the day by providing a note from your mum....!
The National Galleries of Scotland are not to be missed - the permanent collection of classical work is free to view in the buildings on the Mound, between Princes Street and the Old Town, or if you are more of a fan of modern artists then walk or catch a bus to the two galleries on Belford Road, at the west end of the city centre. The National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street is accessed through St Andrews Square, and again entry is free.
Treat yourself to a quality meal at one of the city's many independent restaurants, and prepare for the evening portion of your visit.
Depending on the time of year, Edinburgh's cultural scene is a rich and varied one. Catch a show at the city's Royal Lyceum Theatre, or check out the Traverse Theatre for contemporary and new writing. The Usher Hall hosts a variety of classical and contemporary music throughout the year, or during the summer you can take your pick of events from the Edinburgh International Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe.
Alternatively, head back into the Old Town for some spooky history either with an evening tour of Mary King's Close, the original 'underground' city, or with one of the city's many and varied ghost walks - you'll find meeting points for the different tour companies along the Royal Mile, between St Giles' Cathedral and the junction with North/South Bridge.
Congrats, you're almost done! You've seen the city from a variety of angles, explored some of its most historic sites, and (hopefully) not been drowned out by the Scottish weather.
Time to kick back and relax with a drink at one of the city's many, many watering holes! No need to ditch the tourist theme just yet though - you've earned a dram or two of Scotch whisky - the nation's favourite export - so head to Sandy Bell's or the Royal Oak in the Old Town for live folk and traditional music every night of the week...
This is just a personal pick of some of the highlights that Edinburgh can offer, and is not intended as a serious single-day itinerary - why not book a more manageable bespoke walking tour tailored to your own personal interests...
Type 'Edinburgh' into Google and among the first results you'll get will be mention of some festival or other. But the Edinburgh Festival as a definitive description is actually a bit of a misnomer; there is no such thing as THE Edinburgh Festival, rather we have a number of festivals which run throughout the year, climaxing in what I often generally describe as 'festival season' over the summer, when a number of these individual festivals overlap and conjoin to give the city's its infamous festival spirit and atmosphere.
Here's a short idiots' guide to help untangle the different festival experiences on offer in the city...
Edinburgh International Festival
Originally THE definitive Edinburgh Festival, what is now Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was founded in the aftermath of World War II, in 1947, to provide a collective and collaborative platform for creativity and artistic endeavour. Today the Festival is a curated (ie. by invitation) series of predominantly classical performances from a collection of dance, theatre, music and opera companies from all around the globe. The EIF runs during August each year, and culminates with a spectacular live fireworks concert staged in Princes Street Gardens, with fireworks let off from Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
NOT the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (haircuts, anyone?!), the Fringe - as it is popularly known - also began in 1947, when eight theatre companies who weren't invited to take part in the EIF turned up in the city for a number of impromptu performances. Over the years the number of companies taking part in the Fringe has soared, and today the Fringe (by itself) the world's largest arts festival. The Fringe programme is completely open-access and non-curated, meaning anyone who has the means to produce and stage a production is welcome to bring their work to Edinburgh during August; hundreds of venues across the city host thousands of performances every single day. Today the Fringe is known as a hotbed of creative talent, and many major comedians, actors, theatre companies and musicians have launched their careers by getting noticed at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Also held during August each year, the Book Festival invites authors from around the world to talk about their work, sign copies of books, and take part in discussions around a range of literary themes. The Festival is held in a series of specially constructed marquees in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town.
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Currently held in June each year (it has previously taken place in August) the Film Festival is a curated collection of new and classic films, featuring guest appearances by a range of actors, directors and cinema icons.
These are the main cultural festivals for which Edinburgh is known, but we also host a variety of additional festivals throughout the year, including (but not limited to):
and plenty more besides! We have festivals for food, festivals for drink, festivals for historical figures associated with the city, festivals for a range of outdoor pursuits - you name it, we (probably) have a festival for it! And if we don't.... then there's a valuable gap in the market!
See this festival city in more detail with my private city tours!
At the bottom end of the Royal Mile, on land that was, until fairly recently, dilapidated and unkempt, sits one of Edinburgh's multitude of iconic buildings. Not the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but another, more recent construction that continues to divide opinion.
With politics in Scotland currently very much to the fore, the new Scottish Parliament building is well worth checking out. Designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, the building occupies a former brewery site, and is strikingly (some would say unpleasantly) modern in its use of concrete, steel, wood and glass.
The building remains a controversial structure on the grounds of its cost. Originally budgeted at £40m, the final cost of the building soared to over £400m. It began construction just before the turn of the millennium, and was finally opened in 2004. Unfortunately Miralles didn't live to see his 'magnum opus' completed, having died in 2000, aged just 45, from a brain tumour.
With the old Scottish Parliament having dissolved following the Act of Union in 1707, when the new Parliament first sat again in 1999 the meeting was opened with the words, "The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25th March 1707, is hereby reconvened...". After nearly 300 years, the Scottish Parliament was back in action! Today, 129 members are publicly elected to the Scottish Parliament every four years.
Even if the exterior of the building doesn't wow you, check out the inside of parliament, which is free to visit and open six days a week. - The interior spaces are astonishingly airy (considering they're built from concrete!) and have a cool, contemporary feel. The debating chamber in particular is a highlight.
There are so many details in the building, inside and out - look for the recurring motif in the panels around the windows, believed to be based on Raeburn's 'Skating Minister' painting; or view the 'thinking pods' built into the MSPs' private offices at the rear of the building, protruding out from the wall; or view the whole building from above, atop the Salisbury's Crags in Holyrood Park, to see its shape, emerging from the land like a tree...
Lovers of architecture (and especially modern architecture!) will be wowed this innovative and provocative building, which won the national Stirling Prize for Architecture in 2005. On a warm, sunny day, casual visitors will appreciate dipping their toes in its loch-inspired ponds, or relaxing on the grass of its landscaped grounds.
Free guided tours of the Parliament building are available, including access to the public gallery of the debating chamber where MSPs engage in the business of managing a variety of aspects of Scottish legislation, and with a variety of exhibitions, tours and special events to educate and inspire visitors.
Today the Scottish parliament building is just one reason to venture to the bottom of the Royal Mile, and can feature on a private walking tour of the city.
Each year on 25 January, Scots around the world celebrate Burns Night, in commemoration of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. A traditional feature of the 'Burns Supper' is a steaming plate of Scotland's national dish, the haggis. But there is often some confusion (or lack of information!) about what haggis actually is - so here's my guide to what Burns himself described as the "Great chieftain o' the puddin-race".
Contrary to some humorous representations, the haggis is not in fact an animal native to Scotland. It suits the Scottish sense of humour for locals to tease visitors about going haggis-spotting in the Highlands, or hunting parties to catch this shy creature - and think what sport we would have if this were actually the case!
The traditional haggis recipe is sheep-based, using sheep's lungs, liver and and heart finely chopped or minced together with onion, oats, suet and a blend of spices and seasoning. Originally the ingredients were combined in the skin of the sheep's stomach, before being steamed or boiled, but in recent times this element of tradition has been superseded by the use of synthetic casings.
As described, it is understandable that haggis might sound a little unappetising (and indeed one of the great misconceptions about haggis focuses on its unpleasant-sounding ingredients) but its flavour is rich and spicy and incredibly tasty. Vegetarian options are commonly available, but food puritans (from a nation that also consumes deep-fried Mars bars....) cry foul at these unnatural gastronomic creations.
Haggis is traditionally served with 'neeps and tatties', which is mashed turnips/swede and mashed potatoes. Some people also produce a sauce (often whisky flavoured) or douse the haggis liberally with butter to create a moist and tasty dish. Haggis is increasingly offered in a variety of other forms, including deep-fried in balls, in pies, or sliced and fried or grilled as part of a traditional Scottish breakfast.
For a 'national dish' it may be surprising to learn that haggis's origins are not inherently Scottish. Similar recipes from the north of England date from the fifteenth-century, whilst a description of a meal sounding very similar to haggis is described even earlier, in Homer's Odyssey, from 800 years BC! Other suggestions are that the haggis made its way to Scotland via France or Scandinavia.
At a traditional Burns Supper, the haggis is brought into the dining room to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and before it is served is toasted with Burns's Address to a Haggis, which celebrates its virtues before it is sliced open and distributed to guests. The address in full, in Burns's original Scots dialect, is as follows:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis
Make of that what you will! And so haggis remains a popular part of Scots culture, regularly eaten throughout the year as well as on Burns Night.
In recent years the haggis has taken on another role, as a sporting icon. Haggis hurling began as a joke and is now practised relatively seriously - the current world record for hurling a haggis stands at 217 feet (66 metres)! One condition of the sport, as generally agreed, is that the haggis must remain intact and fit for eating after having been thrown...
Sadly, the composition of haggis - specifically the use of sheep's lungs in the recipe - has meant it is officially on the US government's food blacklist, and since 1971 has been illegal to sell or import a haggis to America. Quite what the millions of Scots Americans eat on Burns Night remains unclear!
If you're visiting Edinburgh, you'll find plenty of restaurants where you might wish to try haggis. Explore the city with a private walking tour for some personal recommendations!
Of all the attractions in Edinburgh, the National Museum on Chambers Street is the one that I find myself recommending most often to visitors, and to locals too!
Part of the National Museums of Scotland umbrella group (which includes the National War Museum within Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian, and the National Museum of Rural Life in South Lanarkshire) the National Museum was formed by the amalgamation of the former Royal Scottish Museum, constructed between 1861 and 1888, and the Museum of Scotland, a modern wing which opened in 1998.
The National Museum underwent a significant three-year renovation to modernise and improve its facilities and exhibition spaces, reopening to the public in 2011, and is today the most visited attraction in the whole of Scotland.
Part of the museum's appeal (and value) is its free admission to the main collections and exhibitions, with additional charges for special exhibitions held throughout the year. But for the cost of absolutely nothing, you can access an array of world-class displays on a variety of subjects, from the history of Scotland and its people, to the world's wildlife, and even origins of the Earth and the universe itself. Children will be engaged by a variety of hands-on exhibits to entertain, educate and inspire them, and adults can wander through the maze-like buildings to find interesting and unusual exhibits at every turn.
Architecturally the two buildings are as fascinating as each other, depending on your preference for the clean lines and open spaces of the Victorian exhibition hall or the curved staircases and sandstone geometry of the modern wing. It is easy to lose track of your location in the rooms and spaces, so do pick up a free map on your way in to help you navigate the exhibits more easily.
Regular guided tours lead you around some highlights of the museum, and there is a programme of events each month to engage and inspire visitors - check at the visitor services desk on arrival whether there is an event that you can join today.
Things you shouldn't miss:
Plus the Museum has a cafe, brasserie and fine dining restaurant - The Tower - to cater for your dining requirements during your visit.
So whether you are taking shelter from the worst of the Scottish weather, or spending an afternoon exploring for hidden gems, you'll find something to interest you at the National Museum of Scotland, and given that it's a free entry attraction if you run out of time during your afternoon, or have a spare hour before catching your flight home, it's an ideal place to revisit again and again and again!
Get more recommendations for things to do in Edinburgh on my private city walking tours!
"Lang may yer lum reek!"
It sounds faintly insulting, I know, but this is a traditional Scots greeting for the new year, translating as 'long may your chimney smoke' - or long may your fire burn.
This is an example of Scots, variously described as both a language and a dialect, with many words relatively easily translated back to formal English. There is no universal distinction between a language and a dialect, but in a 2010 poll conducted by the Scottish Government, an overall 64% of respondents agreed that Scots was best considered a dialect. There may be an element of perspective on the matter led by whether or not a person is a native speaker of Scots - in the same survey, 58% of people who spoke Scots regularly considered it a dialect, whilst 72% of people who never spoke Scots considered it a language.
Certainly a native speaking in Scots might be considered challenging for a visitor to understand - but compare 'dialectic' Scots with Gaelic, an entirely distinct language which bears no easy relation to formal English. According to the 2011 census, just over 1% of the Scottish population indicated that they could speak Gaelic at that time.
If you venture to the Highlands on your visit to Scotland, you'll notice that all public signage is presented in both English and Gaelic - the differences in those languages will be easily visible here.
Scots is still in active use around Scotland, and specific usage varies between regions or areas of the country. (In this sense it is again less like a fixed language than a variable dialect.) You will find examples of Scots phrases readily available on t-shirts, posters, mugs and other souvenir items - none of this should override the fact that Scots is a current and contemporary form of expression across Scotland, and is not merely a vestigial linguistic hangover from bygone times. Even any examples of 'old Scots' that you encounter - such as the motto on the side of John Knox's house - can be understood fairly easily with a little effort to translate into formal English.
Be sensitive to the fact that Scots is an integral part of Scottish heritage and culture. You are likely to encounter Scots in conversation with locals, and if you find yourself struggling to understand anything that you hear or read, a polite request for repetition or explanation will be received more warmly than a joke about your lack of comprehension. Just as some people will find comments about 'Mickey Mouse' Scottish banknotes insulting, so are they likely to feel aggrieved at remarks which denigrate the way they express themselves.
During your visit, you may find the following list of phrases a useful reference...
Aye / Naw - Yes / No
Whaur ar ye fae? - Where are you from?
Awa an bile yer heid - Don't be stupid
A dinna ken! / Eh? - I don't understand
Whaur's yer cludgie? - Where's the toilet?
Caw on the polis! - Call the police!
All my private city walking tours are conducted in plain old English, for the ease of comprehension!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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