If The Madness Of The Fringe Gets Too Much, Here’s How To Get Away
If you’re going to Edinburgh Fringe this August you’ll be joining thousands of punters and bachelor parties, have flyers shoved between your fingers every second step on The Royal Mile, and see minor celebrities hanging on every shadowy corner. It’s brilliant, but it’s bonkers. And if you’re anything like me, after a few days you might need to escape.
Here’s my top 14 ways to get away and grab a day or two for yourself amidst the madness of The Fringe.
Make a claim on Edinburgh Castle
You couldn’t really miss joining the herd atop Castle Rock to see Edinburgh Castle, could you? Tourists of all ages get swept up by its Winterfell blend of ruddy grandeur and history with the bothersome English and ‘The Stone of Scone’. It also guarantees you splendid views across the capital.
But with a chunky price tag, and packed with tourist traffic you might choose to give it a miss. It’s up to you; it’s not going away any time soon.
Enjoy a free painting session
Ok, so technically the Scottish National Galleries are Fringe venues, but if you’re both a sophisticate and light of wallet, they’re worthwhile stops. Expect collections of national and European classics, portraiture and modern luminaries, on top of August’s headline exhibitions like MC Escher. You might even bump into Phill Jupitus.
It’s cerebral, certainly touristy, but recommended. And it’s free.
Learn to clone sheep
The National Museum of Scotland is another free mainline attraction sitting on the Fringe’s fringes. The NMS invites you to tackle the varied and at times bizarre world of Scottish history, and dips into fascinating design from across the world. Lurching from Scotland’s dinosaurs to Dolly the Sheep, Alexander Fleming to Sterling Moss, the only thing missing from my last visit was a gallery for Judy Murray.
Seek out green spaces
You’ll probably know about Prince’s Street Gardens, a verdant channel cutting through Edinburgh’s dramatic leylines. It’s not to be missed, and scores of tourists will share your enthusiasm.
But if you’re really keen to escape, I’d say you’ve a better chance sneaking to the well-heeled boutiques of nearby Dean Village. Or join the slackliners and street performers in The Meadows, a short walk south of The Royal Mile.
Sort your Speysides from your Lowlands
One of those skills I wish I’d learnt at school, whisky tasting (OK, perhaps you did learn this at school) is best tried in Edinburgh, stacked as it is with whisky barrels at every watering hole.
Sat at the top of The Royal Mile, I’d give a gentle nod to The Scotch Whisky Experience – gimmicky yes, but with some substance at its heart. Once you’ve sat through the interminable ‘barrel ride’ history of whiskey, you’ll be treated to a tasting tour of Scotland’s four brewing regions.
I found new meaning to the phrase “great legs”, and left with a new level of snobbishness to exercise in Edinburgh’s plentiful pubs.
Climb a volcano
The best recourse to the expense and crush in Edinburgh Castle is a trip to Holyrood. The city’s largest Royal park, Holyrood is a much-loved outdoor spot for local and travelling guests alike. A short bus ride south-east, you’ll enjoy craggy postcard views within moments of passing the entrance gate.
Passing the esoteric Holyrood Abbey, and various Bronze Age relics and settlements, in time you’ll wind up to the summit of Arthur’s Seat. This dormant volcano rewards you with spectacular panoramas at the summit. And, crucially, it’s all free!
Roll up for Europe’s best free walking tour
Yet another free treat, Sandemans Walking Tours have cemented their deserved rep as the most charming, irreverent guides in 18 cities across Europe. I’m a repeat customer, and in Edinburgh their stories of a brutal, English-bashing, macabre history are a must.
Sandemans start you off on a navigation of the city, stopping to explain IRN-BRU as they go. With the other paid tours in their Edinburgh catalogue – such as their ‘dark side’ walk, and pub crawl – if you wanted, you could let them run your week.
Take the High Road
If you’re a little richer in time, you should consider thrusting northwards to Scotland’s splendid Highlands. Two hours’ drive will drop you in vast, woolly scrubland conjuring enough rugged romance to put hair on your chests (lads); the kind of wild splendour you didn’t know existed in the crowded little UK.
Top sights up here include sweeping Glencoe, magisterial Ben Nevis, and a thousand lochside trails and hamlets.
Eat first, ask questions later
If your diet permits it, don’t miss out on haggis, neeps and tatties. Yep, on paper haggis sounds bad – a sheep’s heart liver and lungs, seasoned, minced up and stuffed inside its stomach – but don’t judge a haggis by its membranous outer casing.
Done well it’s a tangy treat, and in my case, usually a prologue to a nap. Start your search with The Arcade Bar, Bert’s Bar or The White Hart. But if you’re really struggling with the idea, just stick to the neeps and tatties instead.
Investigate Scotland’s quirkiest legends
With a few days in Scotland’s capital, I could get a little insight into the kind of stories that make its tourism tick. Watch out for the Heart of Midlothian on The Royal Mile, a paved heart-shape where the uninitiated wade through the spit of anti-government dissenters.
Then there’s the Scottish Shame, a replica of Athens’ Parthenon left unfinished by lack of budget. Or Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Bobby the dog was said to have watched over his master’s grave for 14 years. True or not, the storytelling is what makes Edinburgh’s legends breathe life.
Seek out its hiding places
Even during the Fringe-time buzz, this city is never more than a moment from serving up a quiet curiosity. Edinburgh dangles tantalising clues to its hidden past in its coves and closes.
Although many locals have their theories, Gilmerton Cove’s networks of underground caves give little hint to their true purpose. And around The Royal Mile, you can squeeze through claustrophobic under-floor closes where medieval residents are said to have hidden from the plague and The English. It’s dark, it’s peculiar – it’s pure Edinburgh.
Have a wizard day
Forget Harry Potter World; Hemel Hempstead’s main attraction has got nothing on Edinburgh for tales of the planet’s favourite wizard.
Whilst you’re checking out Bobby the dog in Greyfriars Kirk, you can also find the grave of Harry’s nemesis Tom Riddle (or rather, Tom Riddell, who’s found some posthumous fame as a JK Rowling character). You can get a beautiful aerial view of George Heriot’s School, supposedly the inspiration for Hogwarts, from high-winding cobbled streets. And you can sip coffee in The Elephant House, where Rowling dreamed up her magical opening chapters.
Find some alternative nightlife
You only have to see the marauding bachelor parties to know that Edinburgh is a much-vaunted spot for huge nights out.
All the usual chain pubs are here, but there’s a healthy alternative current to bring you off the main strip and into Scotland’s peerless arts heritage. Names to sample include Cabaret Voltaire, Sneaky Pete’s, Voodoo Rooms and The Bongo Club – but watch out – The Fringe often brings shows to these venues.
For a proper escape, squirrel yourself away in one of Edinburgh’s traditional old pubs, with a pint or dram of local courage.
Forget Edinburgh, get to Glasgow!
Just over an hour by train or car, weary Fringers can make a move west to Glasgow, Scotland’s industrial heart, for a day-trip or longer.
For my and many others’ money, Glasgow is the real guts to Edinburgh’s glitz. It has its own glut of worthy expos, like Kelvingrove Art Museum, or Riverside Museum of Transport. And for something less hifalutin, you could stop at football grounds Ibrox, Celtic Park or Hampden Park. Or just drink in the irreverent atmosphere on Sauchiehall Street. You’ll return Fringe-fresh, and with a better idea of the ‘real’ Scotland than your fellow punters.
Ed Cuffe-Adams is a marketer, musician and writer. He lives for shoestring travel, weird history and urban adventures. He’s roughed it in South America, Asia, Siberia, the US and Eastern Europe, and he loves to share what he sees. Tweet at him @thephrasebook!