Five festivals, one city.
Edinburgh is a festival city, and visiting in August means having the chance to go to FIVE of the eleven festivals that run over the year. Yes, that’s right, there’s more than the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo running throughout August! Before I lived here I didn’t realise quite how the festivals worked or everything that was going on throughout the month.
I’ve been able to visit the Edinburgh Festivals in August multiple times over the years, but I’m always discovering something new, which is the beauty of the festivals! Many visitors don’t have that privilege, so I also want to show that it’s possible to visit all five of the August Edinburgh Festivals in one weekend, or even in one day!
Table of Contents
- 1 Edinburgh’s Festivals in August: What You Need to Know
- 2 Edinburgh International Festival
- 3 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
- 4 Edinburgh International Book Festival
- 5 Edinburgh Art Festival
- 6 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
- 7 Edinburgh Festival’s for Families
- 8 Where to stay in Edinburgh during August?
- 9 Where to eat during Edinburgh festivals
- 10 Escape from the festivals
Edinburgh’s Festivals in August: What You Need to Know
There are five festivals in Edinburgh in August, and each one is a little different.
Throughout Edinburgh in August I’ve been to see everything from theatre and circus shows to art installations, comedy, cabaret, military bands, and fantastic fireworks displays. Edinburgh’s festivals at this time all overlap as they run across most of the month. These festivals sell as many tickets as the FIFA World Cup and are only outsold by the Olympic Games. That makes them HUGE, and something you really should add to your bucket list. People always talk about there being “something for everyone” in a city, and in this case, it really is true!
But where do you start? The population of Edinburgh doubles in August as people come to make the most of visiting the main attractions of the city amongst an electric carnival atmosphere. With so many people and so much to do it can be a little overwhelming. So let’s break it down across the five festivals on offer, where to stay, eat, the festival for damiland what you might want to check out if you need a little break!
Edinburgh International Festival
Edinburgh International Festival is the original Edinburgh Festival, beginning in post-war 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”, and I think it’s certainly done that! Each year they invite acts to come to the city for the month and perform anything from theatre, to cabaret, to workshops. Their program has a lot to offer and each act is carefully chosen.
Every year the International Festival opens with a fantastic light and music show that’s a free but ticketed event. The site of the illuminations take place somewhere different each time and in recent years have included Edinburgh Castle, Usher Hall, and Tynecastle Stadium. It’s amazing to see how they mold them to the contours of different buildings and sites in time to the music.
I’ve also enjoyed plenty of other shows at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, including the following:
- Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: A fantastic show where he really bared his heart to the audience, then played club songs.
- The Glass Menagerie: A long-running theatre show with themes still relevant today.
- Roots, by 1927: Animation and theatre mixed with live music and the re-telling of old folk tales.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as it is officially known, is the festival that most people have heard of and come to the city to see. It’s known by many other names, not limited to the Fringe Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, and simple, the Fringe.
It sprung up alongside the International Festival, on the “fringe” as it were. Eight uninvited theatre companies gatecrashed in 1947 to take advantage of the already gathered audience. Now it’s the largest arts festival in the world, given that it’s open-access, meaning anyone can show up and perform, just like the originals.
Comedy is the largest section of the Fringe Festival, and many people think that’s all there is on offer during the Edinburgh Festivals in August as a whole. But even within the Edinburgh Festival Fringe there are so many other different types of performances and shows. A peek inside the extensive program, or the Edinburgh Festival Fringe App and reveals everything from circus to music shows, exhibitions, dance and more.
The beauty of the Edinburgh Fringe is that anything can happen, and Fringe audiences are traditionally up for anything, so go with an open mind! I’ve seen a physical theatre show, comedy shows and dance performances that ranged from pure entertainment to thought-provoking presentations.
There is no one Edinburgh Festival Fringe location, but the Royal Mile is a good place to start. Part of it is closed off for street performers and people passing out flyers to tout their shows. The Pleasance is another of my favourite Fringe locations, located near Holyrood Park. I love all of the seating areas, bars, and eateries sandwiched in amongst the historic buildings. Also head over to George Square for one of the large Assembly run Fringe areas, where there are tons of food trucks and places to eat.
The thing about the Fringe is you can wander around the Old and New Town’s of Edinburgh and stumble across venues everywhere!
The Fringe Festival is also great for those on a budget, because many of the shows are free, or as the saying goes, “free to get in, but not to get out”. Most free Fringe performers ask for donations by the door upon exit to help them cover the cost of visiting Edinburgh in August to perform. One of my favourite things to do in August is wander the city with no agenda and pop into free Fringe venues to see whatever’s on next!
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Print books are far from dead, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival proves it. In their seventeen-day run, more books are sold in the pop-up bookstore than a high street bookshop sells in a year. As the largest event of its kind, authors and book enthusiasts come from all over the world to see talks, performances, discussions and children’s shows. In the past leading authors like JK Rowling, George R R Martin and Ian Rankin have featured there.
Edinburgh’s festivals often overlap, so you’ll be able to see elements of theatre and comedy within the Edinburgh International Book Festival as well.
For example, a few years ago a theatre group performed part of The View From Castle Rock, a novel by Alice Munro about her families emigration from Scotland to Canada. Instead of an adaption, however, they performed it word for word as it’s written in the book, combining theatre and a book reading.
More recently I attended one of the nights in the Spiegeltent where members of ‘Bang Said the Gun’ performed Stand Up Poetry, which was funny and thought-provoking all at once.
There’s always something new and interesting to be seen, and the location of the Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens provides a lovely spot to escape from some of the festival madness around Edinburgh in August.
Edinburgh Art Festival
The Edinburgh Art Festival is the most recent of the Edinburgh Festivals in August. Originally, visual art exhibitions were part of the Edinburgh International Festival. The art side of the festival grew so large and took place across so many organisations and spaces that the Edinburgh Art Festival was formed to better showcase all there is to see.
Exhibitions pop up all over the city throughout August, many of them free, and there are art walks as well. I love how the Art Festival just seems to be woven throughout the rest of the festivals. Definitely take some time to see what’s on and pop along!
A few things I’ve done over the years at the Edinburgh Art Festival include:
- Going on an ‘Ugly Walk’ to explore industrial landscapes and challenge the idea that only nature can be beautiful to walk through.
- An exhibition by Nathan Coley in Parliament Hall, combining historic wallpaper and text to explore the ideas of identity, utopia, and assumptions.
- Greyson Perry’s exhibition about Julie Cope, a fictional “typical Essex woman” where you could read the story of her life and see it portrayed in insanely detailed tapestries.
- A light installation by Alfredo Jaar, which speaks to the current chaos and confusion we live in, but have to carry on through.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Growing up in New Zealand with Scottish ancestry meant I’ve always been well aware of what a “Tattoo” is. The word comes from ‘doe den tap toe’ which meant ‘turn off the taps’ and heralded the closing of the pubs, usually to the sound of drums, during the 17th and 18th centuries.
At the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August you can see performers from all over the world marching, playing instruments (especially bagpipes!) and putting on a fantastic show. The Tattoo has been held at Edinburgh Castle since 1950 with no show ever cancelled, and every year it’s screened on TV to over 100 million people.
I never knew quite what to expect with the Tattoo, even though I’d watched it on TV as a child, but I was completely blown away. It’s a spectacular show with Edinburgh Castle playing a key part as the backdrop to the performance. The New Zealand Army Band are always a favourite (of course!) and I love how every year countries from around the world get the opportunity to showcase their talents. Performances aren’t just military bands marching, so you can expect to see plenty of variety. I’ve seen shows with motorbikes, horses, dancers, singers and more!
Edinburgh Festival’s for Families
When they say Edinburgh Festivals is for everyone, they really mean it! While there is a dedicated Children’s Festival in May, there are also plenty of things at Edinburgh Festivals in August for families.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has an entire section for children in their program. We took Baby B along to his first Fringe Show when he was just 8 months old! It was a dedicated show for under ones, but many of the shows also have a “Babes in Arms” policy. It varies for each venue but often means a younger baby can be brought in with you. Children are also welcome at many of the Art Festival exhibitions, and the Book Festival has plenty of children’s events and is a great place to go away from some of the more crowded areas in the Old Town.
Aside from that, you can make the most of the festival atmosphere as a family, just like anyone else. We found the best time to do so was the morning, as that’s when many of the children’s shows are, and it was easier to maneuver around with a pram. Of course, taking a small child in a carrier makes things even easier!
Where to stay in Edinburgh during August?
So you want to come to the Edinburgh festivals in August (yay!) but where do you stay? With so many people converging on the city, finding accommodation during August in Edinburgh can be a little intimidating. I’d start with saying, BOOK EARLY! Such a busy time in the city inevitably means more expensive prices as there’s more demand for accommodation, plus many central places will book out early.
I always use Booking.com to search for options since it covers everything from hotels to B&Bs and private rentals. Edinburgh’s citizens also embrace the festival by renting out their spare rooms and in some cases whole houses during August, so keep an eye on Airbnb too!
Alternatively, an excellent budget option is Edinburgh Festival Camping, who have everything from empty sites to pitch your own tent, to Luxury Bell tents, all at really affordable prices. It’s easy to jump on public transport to the city centre from their location in the west of Edinburgh.
Where to eat during Edinburgh festivals
There’s an overwhelming amount of dining options in Edinburgh at any time of the year, and in August, even more, are available! Food trucks pop up all over the place, but especially around popular festival venues with hang out spaces like George Square and outside Teviot at Edinburgh University. They’re one of my favourite spots for a bite to eat between busy festival events.
Food trucks aren’t the only pop-ups though, as full restaurants can appear, and sometimes they’re so good they end up staying, like Ting Thai Caravan. A couple of years ago I went Dram & Smoke, a pop-up restaurant serving their delicious take on Scottish scran. That’s food or all you Scotland newbies! Check the festival events to see if there are any options like this too.
Escape from the festivals
If you’re not careful you might get festival fatigue during Edinburgh in August! Cramming as many events into a short space of time is a lot of fun, but it can get exhausting. Luckily, all the usual top things to do in Edinburgh still apply, with free and paid attractions all over Edinburgh.
A visit to Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile won’t give you much of an escape from the crowds of the festivals, so the following are just a few options that might help with that!
One of my favourite places to gaze over the sights of Edinburgh and escape (most of) the crowds! Calton Hill is a popular spot but it’s so big you can always wander and find your own space. The views over Edinburgh are great, and the walk isn’t as steep as Arthurs Seat!
Mary Kings Close
If you glance to either side of the Royal Mile as you meander amongst the street performers and people advertising festival shows you’ll notice many small alleyways called closes. These small streets run to either side and were traditionally where the people of Old Town Edinburgh lived. As larger buildings were constructed on the Royal Mile and attempts were made to level out the street more some of the closes were, well, closed over.
Mary Kings Close was once the widest street in Edinburgh outside of the Royal Mile, and now you can venture into some of the houses that are still there, and learn more about how the people of Auld Reekie lived. What better way to escape the Royal Mile than go beneath it?
Just ten minutes from the end of Princes Street is the quaint area of Dean Village. My favourite hidden gem in Edinburgh, it’s a collection of beautiful old buildings and grain mills next to the Water of Leith.
This small area of underground caves is a genuine mystery and another hidden gem. No one actually knows when or why Gilmerton Cove was built or what they were even used for. A secret whisky brewing and drinking den? A witches coven? An escape route from Craigmillar Castle? They make for an intriguing visit, and since they are a short bus ride out of the city centre they are a definite festival escape.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
Just off the chaos of the Royal Mile is the sanctuary of the Scottish Whisky Experience. A visit to Scotland really isn’t complete without partaking of some whisky, and what better place to do it than in the home of the worlds largest whisky collection. I took a Masterclass, and now feel suitably equipped to taste much more whisky and actually know what I’m doing, and what I like!
Edinburgh Castle, as expected, gets incredibly busy during the August festivals. It’s always a must on any Edinburgh bucket list, but a great alternative is Linlithgow Palace. Half an hour by train from Edinburgh, on the way to Glasgow, is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Linlithgow Palace, or more accurately what’s left of it after a fire, is only £5 to enter, or the grounds and lake area surrounding it can be enjoyed for free.
Catch a train to the delightful seaside town of North Berwick, one of the best day trips from Edinburgh. You can wander the beach, try one of the many cafes, shop in the boutiques along the high street, or climb North Berwick Law for awesome views up and down the coast. If you want to get out on the water, take a boat trip from the Scottish Seabird Centre out to Bass Rock to see the Gannet colony.
If you’re coming to Edinburgh for the festivals in August you’ll likely leave still wanting more. The beauty of the Edinburgh Festivals is in their diversity, and after many years of attending, I’m still in anticipation of each August in Edinburgh and what that year’s festivals will bring.
Luckily, Edinburgh actually has eleven festivals throughout the year, so even if you visit outside of this time you might have the chance to experience Edinburgh at it’s finest, in festival style!
Check out Why Edinburgh’s Festivals Have To Be On Your Bucket List and find more information on ALL the festivals on Edinburgh Festival City, their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Have you been to Edinburgh in August for the festivals?
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Over the years I have attended some festival events in partnership with Edinburgh Festivals, Visit Britain and Visit Scotland. As always, all opinions are my own, and it’s not hard to see why when you read any of my other Scotland posts!
Originally published in August 2016