Edinburgh Festivals in August: Choosing What Shows to See
May 16, 2019
How to Choose the Best Shows at the Edinburgh Festivals in August
August isn’t exactly the ideal time to visit Europe. It’s a time of year generally marked by excessive heat, enormous crowds, and staggering prices. But there is one key reason to come to Europe in August, and that is for Edinburgh’s festival season — five of Edinburgh’s 11 annual festivals are held in August. Having dreamed about visiting the Edinburgh Festivals in August for years and having the highest of expectations, I can tell you that these were absolutely met and exceeded during the week I spent there. Another plus? You don’t really have to worry about excessive heat when you’re so far north.
Were you at all surprised to hear that there are five festivals in Edinburgh in August? Because I definitely was. I knew about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and that was about it. But beyond the Fringe, the city hosts the Edinburgh Arts Festival, International Book Festival, Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the original festival, the Edinburgh International Festival which began in 1947. It was a time of great devastation in Europe, just two years after World War II. The festival’s intent was to bring nations together once again through the celebration of arts and culture. Today, the International Festival features opera, music, theater, and dance from around the world.
Just to put the scope of the Edinburgh Festivals into perspective, there are over 4.5 million attendees from over 70 countries annually and over 3,000 performances at more than 300 venues in August alone. So, let’s assume that as one of those attendees, you’ve booked your hotel months in advance, paid off your flights on your next month’s credit card bill, and are getting pumped about all the awesome performances you are about to see. You then go online to the Festivals Edinburgh website, download the PDF because for some reason PDF’s are way easier to read, and all of a sudden your upper brow starts to glisten and your heart starts to sink a little bit because you don’t know where to even begin when it comes to choosing shows. I’ve been there before and I may have even panicked about it. Not quite “shed a few tears” freakout, but definitely a mild chest tightening.
But there is no reason to worry. Each day that you spend at the Edinburgh festivals in August, you will become more and more savvy at learning how to choose your shows. So please, whatever you do, don’t pre-book five shows a day for every day that you are in Edinburgh. You want to leave free time for performances that will be unexpectedly brought to your attention whether that be from a mummy flyering on the Royal Mile or a man dressed in a nude bodysuit surrounded by clergy members yelling “shame” ala Cersei season 5, episode 10.
In the meantime, use these tips to research exactly how to choose what shows to see during the Edinburgh Festivals.
Buy tickets for The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
This event is the most anticipated of the season and is considered its own festival. The performance, located on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle, lasts about 100 minutes and hosts about 1,000 military and civilian performers each night. Special effects, dancing, military music and pageantry, along with a nightly fireworks spectacular not only amaze the eyes, but tug at the heart. There is a new theme each year and last year’s “The Sky’s the Limit” led by the Royal Air Force celebrated breaking of barriers and human potential being infinite.
Tickets for The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo can range from 25-340 pounds and should be bought well in advance as they do sell out. But, if you’ve been a reader of the blog before, you know that I do nothing in advance, so here’s the trick to getting same-day tickets. Of course, there are no guarantees, but this will be your best bet. Go to the Tattoo Box Office at 1-3 Cockburn Street at 9:45 AM after your arrival in Edinburgh. The shop opens at 10:00 AM and sells whatever inventory they have left. My friend and I ended up spending 55 pounds — the best spent pounds of the trip — for fantastic seats at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo that same evening. Performances take place every weekday evening and twice on Saturdays.
Seating Tip: Because the seating is in a round (well, rectangle) on grandstands, I recommend sitting either mid-way or higher to get the best view of all of the action. If you have ever been to a hockey game I think you will understand how an elevated view can give you a better perspective of the game, or in this case, military show. And, if the Top Secret Drum Corps from Switzerland are performing that year, make sure you don’t miss it!
Discuss with fellow festival goers.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest performing arts festival in the world…and that is just one of five festivals taking place in Edinburgh in August. Needless to say, you will probably need some direction in choosing what exactly are the must-see shows. I found that searching online for reviews by different publications did not help me successfully narrow down the list of potential shows.
Instead, what worked best was reaching out to a variety of people to discover their personal favorites. While I was in Edinburgh, I searched the top posts for hashtags like #edfringe #festivalcity or 2019’s hashtag for the Edinburgh Fringe: #MakeYourFringe. You can also utilize the location tag feature in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Royal Mile and reach out to fellow travelers or local Scots posting about the festivals. I recognized some fellow travel bloggers who were there for the festival, but if you send a friendly message to travel bloggers, journalists or people simply visiting the festivals, I am sure you will receive some amiable responses in return. I sent a DM saying something to the effect of…
Hi _____, I’m going to be in Edinburgh for the festival season too! What were your favorite shows you’ve seen so far? There are so many to choose from! Thanks so much, ______
Who else should you speak to? Hotel staff, fellow pint imbibers at the pub, other tourists taking the free walking tour — which you should definitely do to acquaint yourself with Edinburgh — restaurant waitstaff, and anyone else who looks friendly and unbothered enough to discuss their personal festival highlights.
There’s an app for that. Download it. It’s called the Fringe App.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival started as a sort of protest when a number of acts who were not invited to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, decided to use alternative venues within the city to showcase their performances. These “defying the norm” shows grew exponentially into what today is known as being the largest performing arts festival in the world. Nowadays, anyone who can find a venue to perform is able to have a show. And these shows can vary vastly from circus performances to stand-up comedy, cooking classes, silent discos, parodies, musical reviews, and ghost tours.
In order to get the true essence of the Fringe festival, you will want to experience both paid and free Fringe performances. While I had felt confident in my choices for some of the more well-received shows of the 2018 Edinburgh Festival season, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss out on the unpolished performances as well. So a couple of days into the trip, I was having dinner by myself around 8 PM (20:00) and opened up the Fringe app. I filtered for shows starting at 9:30 PM (21:30) in a location less than a kilometer away and went through my options.
I discovered a show entitled “Hangry Americans” which incorporated stand-up comedy with Americans eating some of the most egregious American foods like cheese spray and twinkies. I ended up staying at that venue for a few other shows including a showcase of Australian comedians and a stand-up comedy show called Old Jewish Jokes. The whole night was random and I think truly epitomized the essence of the Edinburgh Fringe. And it didn’t hurt that I ended the night with a deep fried Mars bar at 2 AM. Keep in mind that free shows will ask you for a tip at the end, so bring a few pounds with you! Many of the actors, comedians, musicians, etc. travel long ways to be in Edinburgh for festival season, and with a free show, any tips that you give are typically used to help offset travel costs.
While there are a plethora of free Fringe shows to choose from, there are four main stages for the Fringe festival that host ticketed productions. I highly recommend a visit to at least one show at a few of the following “Big Four” venues: Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, and Underbelly. The performances at these venues have typically hosted acts at the Fringe before. Surrounding these venues are food stands and pop-up beer gardens buzzing with festival-goers enjoying a pint after the show!
You can also use the app to check out the deals at the Half Price Hut, a box office that sells discounted tickets and has 2 for 1 specials similar to the TKTS booth in the West End and New York. The hut is located right near the Scottish National Gallery, but if you aren’t in the general vicinity, the Fringe app conveniently shares what is on offer at the hut for that particular day.
Collect booklets detailing events for the Edinburgh Arts Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Let’s not let two of the five festivals be overshadowed by the Fringe and the Tattoo. I mean, J.K.Rowling did read Harry Potter to a small audience at the International Book Festival in 1997 for goodness sakes.
I found that the simplest way to browse the events for both of these festivals was to pick up a free booklet at popular landmarks throughout the city of Edinburgh. The brochure is stocked at many cafes, bookshops, and arts and cultural organizations throughout the city. There are PDF versions online, but the booklets are compact and slim. The number of events for each festival was not too overwhelming, so you can easily browse through the available options for the dates of your stay and choose accordingly.
While the other festivals hold events in locations throughout the whole of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place at Charlotte Square Gardens in a series of large tents. There is a large bookshop, speaker series, book signings, and pop-up food and beverage stands within the gardens. It is free to enter and peruse the festival’s offerings, but many of the events do cost. The author talks are probably the most popular events of the festival.
The Edinburgh Arts Festival has bodies of work spread out throughout the whole of Edinburgh. The festival includes over 40 exhibitions each year, showcasing works from both modern and historical periods. The majority of events are free to attend so use the map in the brochure and take yourself on a self-guided tour of the installations throughout the city. The Arts Festival actually begins in July, so if you arrive to Edinburgh a few days before August, you can get a headstart on festival season!
Edinburgh Festival City FAQ’s
How Many Edinburgh Festival Shows Should You See in One Day?
If you have come to Edinburgh solely for the festival season, you could see up to five shows a day. However, if you plan on sightseeing in Edinburgh as well during your August trip, I recommend 2-3 acts a day.
How Do You Manage Your Time Between Sightseeing and Attending Edinburgh Festival Shows?
Give yourself a minimum of five full days in Edinburgh. Due to the influx of visitors, popular attractions like the Edinburgh Castle, Royal Yacht Britannia, and The Real Mary King’s Close will have longer wait times and tours like the free walking tour or any Harry Potter related tours will be packed with hundreds of people. With five full days in Edinburgh, you can plan on doing 2-3 sightseeing activities a day and then attending 2-3 performances as well. However, on the day that you visit Edinburgh Castle, plan on clearing your entire morning and early afternoon schedule.
What are the Edinburgh Festival Dates for 2019?
Edinburgh Art Festival: July 25 to August 25
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: August 2 to August 24
Edinburgh Festival Fringe & Edinburgh International Festival: August 2 to August 26
Edinburgh International Book Festival: August 10 to August 26
What is the weather like in Edinburgh in August?
Weather in Edinburgh in August can be unpredictable, but know that there is a good chance that the weather will be colder than what you were expecting. Most of the days that I was in Edinburgh in August were rainy and around 55 degrees Fahrenheit ~12 degrees Celsius. I had assumed that since it was August, I would be looking at a solid 75 degrees minimum on the daily, but that was probably pretty ignorant considering just how far north Edinburgh is located. There are definitely some beautiful summer days though in Edinburgh! I would just make sure that you check the forecast ahead of time instead of assuming the best.
Are you planning on attending the Edinburgh Festivals in August? What shows have been recommended to you? Please share in the comments below if you have any questions about the festivals!
Heading to other parts of the UK? Don’t forget to check out all of my other posts!
Thank you so much to Festivals Edinburgh for providing me with tickets to a variety of shows while I was in Edinburgh for the festival season.