I’ve lived in Edinburgh for close to nine years now. Every year, as August looms closer, people ask me the same question:
“But aren’t you sick of the festivals yet?”
It’s never an easy question to answer. Each summer, our city plays host to a number of festivals including the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Jazz & Blues Festival, the Magic Festival, and of course, the almighty beasts that are the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe.
On the one hand, it’s great. Our city comes to life. Bars pop up left, right and centre. There are shows and events every hour of every day. People come from every corner of the world to grab a slice of the action and the atmosphere is brilliant. It becomes socially acceptable to leave the house dressed only in tin-foil and glazed over with a three-day-old hangover.
On the other hand, for locals, it’s exhausting. Our wee streets are crammed. Getting to and from work involves leaving the house 20+ minutes early every day and you’re forced to fight your way through a sea of selfie-taking, street-performer-ogling and seemingly never-willing-to-budge visitors who have no concept of spatial awareness. Unless you happen to work in a profession which allows you to wear a lanyard it’s near impossible to make it from one shop to the other without accumulating half a dozen unwanted flyers.
Hence my conflict.
Over my time in the city, I’ve learned that in order to enjoy the festival season, you have to come up with a few coping mechanisms. For me, that means not feeling bad about taking a day off now and then to escape the madness and get some quiet time. Here’s my top recommendations for ways to escape the festival crowds:
Take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens
A 20 minute walk North of Edinburgh’s city centre will take you to Inverleith, home to the Royal Botanic Garden and an all round lovely part of town. Inverleith park itself has great views of the city without the crowds that you’ll find in Princes Street Gardens or the Meadows, or for complete serenity, head into the Botanics themselves, where you can admire the landscaped grounds and 13,000+ species of plant without a single leafleter to sight.
Walk the Water of Leith
The Water of Leith walkway is one of the most overlooked treasures Edinburgh has to offer. The river flows for over 24 miles, originating up in the Pentland Hills and eventually meeting the Firth of Forth. It cuts right through the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town but is easily missed as it meanders away between rows of townhouses. Even if the sun’s not on your side, much of the walk is sheltered by trees so regardless of weather, it’s a good way to get some fresh air and escape the hubbub of the city centre. For the perfect route, I’d take a number 12, 26 or 31 bus out to Roseburn and start there in the morning. There’s a sneaky back entrance to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (also home to a rather lovely coffee shop!), and from there you can follow the riverside path all the way to Stockbridge, passing the gorgeous Dean Village en route. Finish up with a coffee in Stockbridge, where the ratio of decent cafes far outweighs budding comedians, and job’s a good ‘un.
Have a pint at the Old Chain Pier
Edinburgh’s full of lovely boozers. Problem is, tables go like gold dust, and even if you do find a seat, you’re likely to be within earshot of some chancer trying to plug their show. If you fancy some pintage without being guilted into a one woman play exploring the link between feminism and fascism then head shorewards. The Old Chain Pier, down in Newhaven, might be a little bit of a trek, but it’s a cracker in terms of atmosphere and serves up some of the best fish and chips in Auld Reekie. Watch as the sun sets over the Forth and you’ll soon forget there’s a festival happening at all.
Jump on the train to North Berwick
There’s nothing a little fresh sea air can’t fix. Thankfully, it only takes half an hour to get from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station to North Berwick by train. The seaside East Lothian town makes for a perfect retreat during the festivals, although if you’re still looking for a little live entertainment but in a quieter setting, it’s worth noting that the town also hosts its own Fringe by the Sea throughout August. For complete escapism, however, the town has lots to offer; explore the range of independent shops and restaurants, visit the Sea Bird Centre or, if you’re feeling particularly energetic, climb the Law, an imposing beast of a hill which towers 600 feet over the town.
Discover the secrets of Lauriston Castle
Fancy stepping back in time a little? Head out towards Cramond, where you’ll find Lauriston Castle, a 16th Century tower house with unbeatable views out over the Firth. Explore the Edwardian interior, engage in a costumed performance or simply spend time relaxing in the beautiful Japanese Friendship garden. Better still, it’s only a short bus ride to Cramond itself, where at low tide you can walk across the causeway to the nearby island. Just make sure and check the signs properly – you don’t want to end up stranded! That being said, it could make for an interesting script for next year’s Fringe…
Climb the Pentland Hills
To see the city from a different perspective altogether, jump on a bus to Balerno and follow one of the walking trails up into the Pentland Hills. The village itself is picturesque, and there are walks to suit just about every ability. Better still, the only crowds you’re likely to encounter are the occasional flock of rogue sheep. Thankfully, they’ll not try and fleece you for every penny you’ve got….see what I did there?
Have a dip in a Turkish bath!
If you’re all gigged out and in need of some R&R, head through to Portobello where you can chill out in the historic Turkish Baths. There’s a range of hydrotherapy rooms to hide away in, and differently heated pools which are sure to help those Fringe-weary muscles relax – just make sure you know which one you’re jumping into, lest you fancy an accidental dip in the ice pool! Top off your swim with a wee stroll down the promenade and you’ll be ready for another day of shows before you know it.
Take a day trip to Stirling
Distance is not always a bad thing. If you fancy getting away from the capital altogether, grab yourself a train ticket and hop aboard the wondrous Scotrail service to Stirling, a mere 50 minutes away. With a population of just 50,000, Stirling is considerably smaller than Edinburgh; during the festivals, that’s no bad thing. The town is incredibly picturesque, surrounded by rolling hills, lush farmland and forests and is the perfect place to base yourself for a day away from the crowds. You could easily spend a day just meandering around the castle, but it’s also a short drive to the National Wallace Monument, built in homage to William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. The climb to the top is well worth it for the view, and don’t forget to stop by the second floor gallery, where you can gaze up at Wallace’s actual sword, and will find yourself fighting back the urge to drop your best Mel Gibson impression.
Check out the sculptures at Jupiter Artland
Just ten miles outside of Edinburgh lies the stunning Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park and art gallery set within the estate of Bonnington House. The garden itself is pretty whimsical and with over 80 acres to cover, you’re unlikely to find yourself in a throng of people. To get to Jupiter Artland from the city centre, take the number 27 bus from Regent or Dalry Road; the journey takes just over half an hour.
Visit the National Museum of Scotland
Okay, okay…distancewise, a trip to the National Museum isn’t going to take you far from the festival centre. In fact, Chambers Street is pretty much slap bang in the heart of Edinburgh’s Festivalville. However, once you step inside those doors, it’s like stepping inside an oasis of calm. With its large, sweeping corridors, giant skylights and impressive renovations, it’s easy just to get lost in the beauty of the building alone. There are countless great exhibitions, taking you on a tour through the natural world, scientific explorations, art and design and displays on cultures from across the world. Better still, it’s free! And if you do fancy getting some show action in, keep an eye out for the Museum After Hours events during the Fringe, where you can party among the collections and watch handpicked performers in a completely unique setting.