This year I spent the summer in the U.K. and just happened to visit Edinburgh in August, while nearly the entire city was busy with activities related to the 2015 Fringe Festival. “What is the Fringe Festival?!” you might ask. Actually, you’d probably only ask that if you were me… apparently I was the only person who didn’t realize that Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival is the largest performing arts festival in the world.
Luckily, my unfamiliarity didn’t stop me from enjoying the festivities. Ticket pre-orders aren’t necessary for most shows. And the good news is that even though the city is crowded with festival-goers, it’s still possible to enjoy all the usual Edinburgh sites as well as the festival extras during the month of August.
Here are a few highlights from what I did in and around Edinburgh:
- The Fringe (of course!)
If you’re in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, don’t try to avoid it…join it! Low-priced shows are performed all day, every day at numerous venues all over the city. If it suits you, you can hop from one performance to another all day long. Many comedy, improv and experimental shows are free. Because I had plenty of other things to see in Edinburgh, I limited myself to three paid shows (one per day). Each cost less than $15, and each was unique, memorable and 100% enjoyable. One show, a play called “Back When We Were Grownups” – which was performed by only two cast members inside what appeared to be an oversized shipping container – was so beautifully moving that I walked around in a dejected daze for about 30 minutes afterward. But the other shows were fun!
The sheer number of performance options can be overwhelming, so I just decided that I wanted to see theater (as opposed to music or comedy) to narrow things down. I then flipped through the theater section of the festival guide (which is about the size of a phone book) and chose a few shows that piqued my interest and fit my schedule. It’s a good idea to purchase tickets at least a few hours in advance to avoid the situation of a show being sold out.
In conjunction with the Fringe Festival, more than 100 crafters converge outside St. John’s Episcopal Church on Princes Street in central Edinburgh for an amazing craft market. Each stall is artfully filled with handmade creations ranging from jewelry to furniture to paper goods and much more. I have visited numerous art and craft fairs over the years, and this may have been the best market I’ve ever attended.
Since I’m traveling on a budget with only a backpack, I resisted the urge to purchase something from each stall. But if you love handmade things like I do, and you happen to have more space in your bag and your bank account, don’t miss the chance to take a few things home with you!
Yes, there are many, many castles in Scotland. But at Edinburgh Castle, there is really quite a lot to see. I enjoyed viewing the Scottish National War Memorial, the Crown Jewels (though honestly they don’t compare to England’s…don’t tell the Scots I said that!) and the famous Stone of Destiny. The stone, though it doesn’t look like much, has been included in the coronation ceremonies of kings and queens for hundreds of years.
Visit the Additionally, the views over the city are pretty impressive.
Another interesting portion of the castle is the Prisons of War exhibit, which is situated in the castle dungeon. The exhibit shows how prisoners lived in those caverns, the crafts they made while sitting out their sentences and other details about their lives. Doors that were used in the dungeon are on display and still show intricate carvings made by prisoners from France, Spain, the U.S. and other countries.
Ok, I’ll admit it…I love Jane Austen. And because her stories took place during the Georgian era in British history (approximately 1714-1830), I’m also interested in that time period. (I know… I’m a nerd!) So when I learned that there was a Georgian home in Edinburgh that had been decorated with furnishings from the period, I wanted to see it. The National Trust in Scotland manages this house, which features an interesting exhibit about the home’s owners and a short film dramatization showing how they used several of the rooms in the house.
The interiors are beautifully decorated, and each room is staffed by a dedicated guide who provides further information and is available for questions. In the special interactive room, visitors can try on clothing from the era, practice writing with quill pens and guess at the purpose of various items that were used in the Georgian home. This is one of those attractions that not everyone will appreciate, but I thoroughly enjoyed the couple of hours I spent at the Georgian House. It was beautifully presented…you know, if you like that sort of thing…
Because there’s just so much to see in Edinburgh, I opted to get an overview of the city by taking a Sandemans free walking tour. Our group had a great guide who was full of energy and interesting information about Edinburgh. I saw streets and sites that I likely would not have seen on my own. I would recommend taking a free walking tour in Edinburgh, especially during the Fringe. A guided tour will give you the incentive to get out and brave the crowded streets, and you may gain a greater appreciation of the Fringe Festival by learning more about it.
The 2.5 hour tour covers interesting sites like the Royal Mile and Greyfriars Kirkyard (a cemetery) as well as stories like the supposed real-life inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You’ll also be immersed in Old Town Edinburgh’s legendary (and beautiful) Baronial architecture.
5. Sampling Haggis
Haggis is a traditional and storied Scottish dish that was no doubt created in the days when poor farmers made use of every possible semi-edible ingredient that could feed their families. Haggis is essentially ground up animal parts that we wouldn’t typically eat…and that’s all I’m going to say. These days, most of us who live in the Western world and have more culinary options would choose to eat just about anything else. But I’m a fairly adventurous eater, and I thought I may as well try it while visiting Scotland.
On my last afternoon in Edinburgh, I ducked into a hip little restaurant* near the Royal Mile that advertised traditional Scottish dishes, and surprised the waitress when I asked for haggis. When the dish came out, it was more like a fancy, petite patty than the photos I’ve seen of plates heaped with traditional haggis. Maybe it wasn’t entirely traditional, but I think I chose the right place to try the dish. The haggis was rich, filling and actually pretty delicious. I’m not sure I’ll ever need to eat haggis again, but I do recommend that you try it once – if only for the experience of sampling Scottish cuisine while in Scotland!
6. Daytrip to Stirling
This isn’t actually part of Edinburgh, I know, but Stirling is an easy day trip from Edinburg and really worth a visit. I went to Stirling for two reasons: 1) Stirling Castle and 2) The William Wallace Monument, otherwise known as the “National Wallace Monument.” The bus trip from Edinburgh to Stirling took about an hour and cost about $15.
Like Edinburgh Castle, there are several special exhibitions to explore at Stirling Castle. In addition to several furnished castle rooms, two exhibits that I found particularly interesting were the Regimental Museum and the “Stirling Heads” exhibit, which featured descriptions about the castle’s original personalized ceiling plaques (reproductions shown below).
The William Wallace Monument in Stirling is quite a production. It sits up on a high hill overlooking the city and can be seen from miles away. One must drive (or in my case, walk) up a paved hill through neighborhoods to get to the parking lot and ticket office. Once you’ve bought your ticket, you can wait for a tram to drive you to the entrance to the monument or, like me, you can walk the 20-or-so minutes up the hill. It’s a pretty walk through a wooded area, and it’s also a good workout up a fairly steep incline. I recommend the walking option, but be sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes!
When you reach the entrance, you aren’t finished climbing! Once inside the Wallace Monument, there are four rooms of exhibits, and each room is on a separate floor. The exhibits are fascinating and include such artifacts as Wallace’s sword as well as a timeline of his life and an explanation of how he became such a legend in Scottish history. I also enjoyed a video dramatization in the Hall of Arms, which depicts William Wallace and his compatriot Andrew de Moray discussing their victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
When you finally reach the very top of the monument, known as “the crown,” you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Stirling and the surrounding countryside, including the place where Wallace and his men triumphed over King Edward I at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. I had a great time visiting the monument and I left with a better understanding of Scotland’s history and deep national pride. I also learned that William Wallace was more than just that crazy-haired Mel Gibson character in Braveheart…
In summary, go to Edinburgh and enjoy it…during the craziness of the Fringe Festival in August or at any time of year. Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city that oozes with history, incredible architecture, plenty to do, and friendly people who speak with that lovely Scottish accent. It’s one of those cities where I know I’ll return. There’s so much more to see!
Have you been to Edinburgh? What was your favorite part?