I’ve made no secret about my love for Edinburgh. It’s a city steeped in history, boasting beautiful architecture and brimming with an arts and foodie scene. The usual top things to do in Edinburgh include a visit to Edinburgh Castle, a stroll down the Royal Mile and tucking in to a meal involving haggis and a dram of whisky. Cliche maybe, but all on the Edinburgh bucket list nonetheless!
But there’s another part Edinburgh that may have escaped your notice. Edinburgh is a festival city, in fact, it’s the biggest festival city in the world. During the year there are eleven festivals covering everything from storytelling and performing arts, to science and epic New Year celebrations. And whenever there’s a festival happening the city buzzes with an electric atmosphere of excitement!
I’m continually surprised when I mention Edinburgh’s festivals to other travellers from outside the UK and they either haven’t heard of them, or maybe just one or two in passing. After talking to people so much about it, I decided it’s about time to write about why Edinburgh’s festivals need to be added to your must-do list!
I’ve been living in Edinburgh on and off for 6 years now and I’ve been lucky enough to go to an immeasurable number of festival events in that time. But there are still plenty of things I didn’t know about the festivals for most of that time!
So if you’re wondering why exactly these festivals should be bucket-list worthy and what you really need to know, here are ten facts to get you started:
- The only event bigger than Edinburgh’s Festivals is the Olympic Games, and festival ticket sales are equal to the FIFA World Cup. That’s a lot of people and a lot of tickets!
- The Edinburgh International Book Festival is the largest book festival in the world and in its 17-day run they sell more books than a high street book shop sells in a whole year.
- The Edinburgh International Festival, showcasing the arts, began way back in 1947 as a way to bring people together after WWII. They still invite performers from all over the world to the city.
- The Edinburgh Festival Fringe started literally on the “fringe” of the International Festival in 1947. Eight bold theatre groups turned up uninvited and used the opportunity of the already present crowds to perform. That enterprising spirit continues today with alternative spaces across the city morphing into venues for any type of show you can imagine. You can set up an umbrella and call it a festival venue. Seriously.
- Also in the spirit of the original, the Fringe Festival is still considered to be “open access” which means that anyone can show up and perform whatever they like. There are over 50,000 performances at the Fringe! And that’s not even including the street performers that take over the Royal Mile for the month.
- The United Kingdom’s largest visual art festival takes place in August, with over 30 venues being used to house Edinburgh Art Festival commissions, including traditional gallery spaces but also unique places like inside the Robert Burns memorial and under a railway bridge!
- The Edinburgh Festival’s have been home to some of the biggest names in the business, including Billy Connelly, Robin Williams, Emma Thompson, J K Rowling, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, George R R Martin, Alan Cumming… I could go on but you get the idea, so get yourself here to see it!
- The world’s longest-running film festival is held here in June and also began in that golden festival year of 1947.
- Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year celebration, and now Hogmanay in Edinburgh is one of the cities biggest events. It’s the only festival to appear in the Discovery Channel’s Top 25 World Travel Experiences and really is something to behold. I should know, I’ve been for many New Year’s in a row!
- The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo held it’s first performance in 1950, and since then no show has ever been cancelled. It includes performers from all over the world, who showcase their talents on the forecourt of Edinburgh Castle. The Tattoo has travelled overseas four times, taking Edinburgh Castle with them each time… or a set that looks exactly like it! If you’re lucky you might get the chance to see it on their next tour, but it still can’t compare with seeing the real thing from the grandstands perched on Castle Rock.
When are Edinburgh’s Festivals?
The height of the festival year is in August when five festivals run simultaneously:
- The Edinburgh International Festival
- Edinburgh Festival Fringe
- Edinburgh International Book Festival
- Edinburgh Art Festival
- The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The population of Edinburgh doubles for the month, as people flock to the city to revel in the festival atmosphere, an added bonus to the usual top things to do in Edinburgh. Check out my quick guide to all the Festivals in August to make the most of your experience!
But if you’re not coming to Edinburgh then it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Come outside of August and enjoy traditional storytelling bought back to life at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in October. Or enjoy Edinburgh before the pre-August madness at the Jazz & Blues Festival in July or the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.
Spring in Edinburgh is one of my favourite times of year to visit, and it also means you can visit the Edinburgh Science Festival or the Edinburgh Children’s Festival. or a celebration of performing arts for children, just to mention a few of the other festivals!
And, of course, there’s Hogmanay at New Year and all the Christmas Markets are on then too!
Edinburgh’s festivals should be on your bucket list because they really are like nothing else. I’ve never been to a festival anywhere else, where the whole city is transformed into one big venue for your entertainment and enjoyment. Edinburgh Festivals are the heart of Edinburgh city on display, with all it’s history, creativity, and downright quirkiness there for you to see.
Have you heard of Edinburgh’s festivals? Are they on your bucket list?
Over the years I’ve attended some festival events in partnership with Edinburgh Festivals, Visit Britain and Visit Scotland. As always, opinions are my own (like you need me to tell you otherwise when I rave about Edinburgh all the time!).
Originally published in August 2016.