The Edinburgh Fringe remains firmly the world’s largest arts festival, with every nook and cranny in the city colonised by weird (sometimes very weird) and wonderful shows every August. Last year saw Scotland’s Capital city host 50,266 performances of 3,269 different shows across the festival with an estimated 2,475,143 tickets sold.  Here is culturised‘s summary of the different venues and our top picks on the best spots for those heading to the Fringe this year.
With one of the widest programmes of the festival there is nothing you won’t find at one of the Assembly venues. Spread widely across the city, the hub focuses around St George’s Square and Assembly use both university lecture halls and purpose built theatres in the square itself to stage their productions. Some Assembly favourites include Oxford University accapella group Out of the Blue and the infamous Margaret Thatcher Queen of Gameshows. One of their smaller venues Assembly Roxy has a wonderful large theatre (beware lots of steps) with some quirky architecture and often hosts fantastic international productions.
The Assembly Gardens are also good meeting spot. Every Fringe a wide expanse of green astroturf is laid out and populated with benches, bean bags, and deck chairs, around which is a wide variety of bars and street food to enjoy if you find a moment to sit down.
One of the most well-known names at the Fringe, C have six venues this year, having announced the opening of both C Royale and C Hill Street since last year’s festival. C have everything from family shows to late night cabaret, from comedy to exhibition spaces, so it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something that takes your fancy if you have a leaf through the programme.
The bar at C’s principle venue on Chambers Street is also the place to go if you fancy a beer or five and a dance to some rather eclectic music. It is a firm favourite among Fringe performers, so if you fancy partying with that guy you saw doing Hamlet while dressed as a chicken and riding a unicycle earlier in the day, C is where you’re likely to find him.
Gilded Balloon takes over the University of Edinburgh’s Student Union every August and uses its many spaces to provide some great comedy and late night events to keep the party going well into the small hours. It’s worth checking out bizarre Australian sketch trio Aunty Donna who are over again this year with their show Big Boys, and if you’re not ready to call it a night at 1am then head down to the comedy cabaret Late n’ Live which runs until 5am.
The Gilded Garden is also hotspot for celebrity spotting: expect to be queuing for a pint behind the likes of Al Murray and Eddie Izzard. The open courtyard right in the middle of the action provides a great spot for eating and drinking between shows (or simply as a place to soak up the atmosphere), and the crepe van is a great place to keep yourself fuelled when hopping between shows.
A bastion for free programming this is a place for the weird, wonderful, and whacky, and always unearths some hidden gems. Noted in the past for strengths in musical theatre and dance, Greenside has grown massively over the past five years from it’s first space at Royal Terrace (just behind the Playhouse) and has expanded to Nicholson Square and created a new Fringe hub over at Infirmary street: both just minutes from the Royal Mile. Greenside also really encapsulates the DIY festival aesthetic and it has a performer-centric feel which is often lost in the mass commercialisation of the Fringe in past years.
With a mixture of large and more intimate performance spaces these are places to add to your itinerary. The two bars at both Royal Terrace and Infirmary Street are great drinking spots and not so expansive as places such as Assembly Gardens or the Underbelly Pasture. They’re great for getting a real feel of the festival, with plenty of outdoor courtyard space as well as rain cover. One top tip is to combine a trip to Royal Terrace with a trip up Calton Hill which offers speculator views of the city and it’s fireworks, and is a bit easier on the legs the a hike up Arthur’s Seat.
Split into two parts, the Courtyard and the Dome, Pleasance is one of the venues that truly encapsulates the Fringe aesthetic. Retaining the handmade feel despite its corporate growth. There is nowhere quite like Pleasance Courtyard to grab a drink as they transform the University of Edinburgh’s Sports Centre every year into a slice of paradise a ten minute walk from the Royal Mile. There is plenty of choice, with the main courtyard as well as less busy spots behind, and alongside the main quad there are the bunkers running alongside with further bars and smaller more intimate venues. The Grand theatre plays host to some of the largest performances across the Fringe, including the mighty Olivier Award-winning Showstoppers.
Hopping over to the other side of town the Pleasance Dome takes up residence at the Student Centre on Potterrow. With bars and food outlets under the giant dome this venue is home to some incredible comedy from the likes of comedy duo Max and Ivan and renowned theatre productions such as All is Quiet on the Western Front. Year on year the Pleasance has both a great atmosphere and great shows; it’s not to be missed.
With their eight venues across the city, you’re never far from a Space show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Touring their performance spaces one will be treated to the beautiful architecture of theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, the cosy confines of theSpace on North Bridge, and one of the festival’s oldest venues in the form of [email protected] theSpaceUK use all these venues to stage a wide variety of shows, primarily consisting of theatre and comedy productions. There’s something for everyone in the Space programme.
For a post-show beverage, Space’s best option is the bar at their Surgeons’ Hall venue. Situated immediately adjacent to the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which bosts an impressive Ionic colonnade which cannot be missed as one walks down Nicholson Street. The bar is set back from the thoroughfare of the pavement and offers a spot of seclusion despite being firmly situated in the action.
This is a hive of excitement and talent and slightly off the beaten track. In a beautifully renovated brewery that has previously served at the Edinburgh University Veterinary School, Summerhall is now a year-round arts space boasting world class exhibitions, art installations, and performances. Summerhall is the place to head for cutting edge performances from performers at the top of their field, in particular keep an eye out for Northern Stage who are returning for their sixth year to the venue and are often responsible for some of the festival’s most critically acclaimed work. The Round-a-bout stage is particularly impressive and offers something quite different.
The central courtyard has a lively buzz and there are plenty of places to relax and grab a drink that are less congested than many of those of the other venues more centrally based.
Although dotted around the city, it is the iconic upside down purple cow on the Underbelly Pasture in St George’s Square that most people think of when they hear the word “Underbelly”. The pasture has fake grass, giant flowers, and more drink and food outlets than one would think possible. This is a great place to grab a drink but on weekend evenings it can be extremely busy. In one corner there is also a large Bedouin style tent with lots of floor cushions, which is perfect for larger groups and escaping a sudden downpour (which are frequent). Inside the cow is one of the Fringe’s largest stages where you can expect festival favourites like Shitfaced Shakespeare and Austentatious.
Down alongside the Royal Mile is Underbelly on Cowgate. After seventeen successful years this is a hive of great comedy and theatre performances a little more out of the ordinary. Expect great late night cabaret and hay bales. For the circus fans Underbelly have their own dedicated space in the Meadows (only a fifteen minute walk away from the Royal Mile) in Edinburgh’s largest central park. The Circus Hub has two giant circus tents as well as lots of outdoor areas for children and a quirky bar.
Renowned for punchy contemporary physical theatre and dance, Zoo have curated an international programme of cabaret, theatre, music, and dance across both of their beautiful venues: their original home on The Pleasance, and Zoo Southside on Nicholson Street . Zoo’s venues tend to take a little more time to get to, but are definitely worth it once you have arrived, and with their focus on physical performance the offer something a little different to most of the Fringe’s other main venue providers.
Zoo is often a great place to spot emerging artists who are set for bright futures, so it’s a good place to start if you want to be able to say “I liked them before they were cool” quite a lot in a couple of years time. With pop up food sheds and a wealth of outside fairy lights, Zoo also has a great atmosphere for late night socialising outside which is definitely worth experiencing if you are visiting the Fringe.
So there you have it, culturised‘s round up of the major venue providers at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also important to remember that being broke is no barrier to enjoying the festival: especially on the comedy side of things many of the best acts perform for free and collect money after their shows. Check out the listings at the Free Festival, Laughing Horse (who have a fantastic hub on Cowgate called the Free Sisters), and PBH’s Free Fringe to see what’s on offer.
One final thing: make sure to take a gamble and see something truly bizarre. That’s the true point of the Fringe.