Five festivals, two days, 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. I’ve lived in Edinburgh for a few years but I love a challenge, so I have also attempted to see as much as all the festivals as possible in one weekend, like a visitor might!
Across two days in August in Edinburgh, I went 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.
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, and what you might want to check out if you need a little break!
There are five festivals in Edinburgh in August, and each one is a little different.
Table of Contents
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 they open with a fantastic light show on a historical building in Edinburgh. I’ve enjoyed plenty of show’s at the festival across several years of spending August in Edinburgh, but some highlights of the Edinburgh International Festival have included a stunning event called Deep Time, where Edinburgh Castle was used as a canvas for projections showcasing the history of time, Alan Cumming in Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, a fantastic show where he really bared his heart to the audience, and the Glass Menagerie, a long-running theatre show with themes still relevant today.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is known by many names, not limited to Fringe Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, the Fringe, or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 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! It’s no wonder given that it’s an open access festival, 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 as a whole, not realising there are so many other acts on offer even just within the Edinburgh Festival Fringe!. A peek inside the extensive program, or at 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.
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 on the door 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 in the world, 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, and a few years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 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. 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
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 went along on an ‘Ugly Walk’, exploring industrial landscapes and challenging the idea that only nature can be beautiful to walk 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 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 this year I had the pleasure of seeing the Shetland Fiddlers, which is where my family originated from. There really is nothing like seeing the Edinburgh Tattoo!
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.
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 St Andrews Square. They’re my preferred option 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. 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…
Escape from the festivals
If you’re not careful you might get festival fatigue during August in Edinburgh. Cramming as many events into a short space of time is fun, but it can get exhausting. Luckily, all the usual top things to do in Edinburgh still apply which means there’s plenty of other things to see too, 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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I 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! This post also contains affiliate links that help me out at no cost to you.