An Insider's Guide To Attending The Edinburgh Festivals In Style
There’s nothing quite like The Royal Mile during festival time in Edinburgh. The Festival Fringe and the International Festival - the performing arts festivals which take place throughout August every year - see around two million visitors from all over the world coming to watch or take part.
Anyone who’s visited the Scottish capital during festival time will remember the cobbles of 'The Mile', the bustling crowds and bright flyers; the variety of acts performing attention-grabbing tasters, from dance troupes, to comedians and wee girls doing the highland fling. It seems there’s a show down every alleyway.
This year, the festivals run from August 2-26. International Festival highlights include Sir Ian McKellan at the Assembly Hall, performing extracts from his best loved roles and sharing highlights from his career, and the Scottish Ballet performing The Crucible at The Playhouse as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
The Fringe is the more experimental of the two festivals, coined in 1947 after eight acts turned up to the International Festival uninvited, staging their own shows on the sidelines. Hotly contested tickets this year include Eddie Izzard’s stand-up show Wonderman, and activist and actress Rose McGowan’s first live performance of Planet 9 - an amalgamation of memoir, music, storytelling and projections which promises to take viewers to a new realm.
But with so many people in the city, organisation and insider knowledge are key to enjoying festival season in true style. This is our luxury guide.
How to get tickets
Both festivals are run like military operations, with hundreds of volunteers lending a hand each year. Unfortunately there is no way to purchase an all-access ticket - with so many companies involved, it’s not an option either festival provides. Tickets are available to purchase online, where you can also find directories of all productions, or at the relevant box offices.
Alternatively, rope in your hotel concierge, who is sure to have a stock of tickets (and the inside track on what’s most worth seeing). It’s the easiest way to see a variety of shows without the admin.
Where to stay
The two bastions of luxury in Edinburgh are enduringly popular: The Balmoral, on the east end of Princes Street, and The Caledonian on the west. Both historic railway hotels, neighboring Waverley and Haymarket stations respectively, they still offer the best night’s sleep in the city. That and practicality, due to their central location and the high-calibre restaurants and bars housed within each.
The Balmoral still has a limited amount of rooms left in August, including classic suites, from £1,500 per night for bed and breakfast. Whilst the hotel concierges can assist with a festival itinerary, where they excel is securing tables at ‘fully booked’ restaurants and recommending hidden locations locals love to escape the fray.
The Caledonian also has a few rooms left in August, including the King One Bedroom Suite from £1,950 per night, and the King Premier room with a view over Edinburgh Castle, from £759. The concierge team here has long-established contacts in the city to help source show tickets you can’t find anywhere else.
In celebration of the festival season, its casual restaurant, Grazing by Mark Greenaway, is offering an early bird three-course menu at £30 per person. Upstairs at its fine dining restaurant The Pompadour, a three-course pre-theatre menu is available for £35 per person.
Additionally, the hotel’s Guerlain Spa is offering a special ‘Guerlain at the Festival’ package, including a 60-minute Caledonian Chic massage or Guerlain Radiance Facial, a glass of champagne and access to the spa facilities for £99 from Monday to Thursday and £129 from Friday to Sunday.
Alternatively, for the freedom of self catering, consider renting one of Edinburgh’s opulent Georgian townhouses. Top Hat House in the West End sleeps up to 10 in five en suite bedrooms and still has availability in August. The house was designed by legendary architect William Playfair and has been fully renovated, with a large kitchen and dining area and artworks by local artists.
Owned by ex-events professional Jane Lindsay and farmer Gavin Baillie, there are a number of add-ons that can be requested at a certain price, from private chefs to chauffeur-driven cars and luxury hampers on arrival. Both Edinburgh locals, the pair are on-hand with recommendations, and can help arrange your itinerary.
Top Hat House rates start at £750 per night during the week and £800 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a minimum stay of three nights during festival season.
Where to eat
If there’s one thing you don’t want to mess up during the festival season, it’s dinner reservations. With the city so busy, tables at the best restaurants are extremely hot property.
For Michelin star dining, go to Number One at The Balmoral Hotel, where Scottish chef Mark Donald has created a menu inspired by his heritage. Think oysters with smoked kipper and parsley, Scottish wood pigeon with green juniper, or Highland Wagyu beef with beetroot and smoked bone marrow. There is also a seven-course tasting menu with prestige wines available for £220 per person.
A stone's throw from The Royal Mile on George IV Bridge, Ondine is best for seafood. The restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and is known for its love of provenance. From scallop divers on Mull to lobstermen in Newhaven, the establishment works with the finest local producers and it pays off in its fresh flavours.
Castle Terrace might have lost its Michelin star a few years ago, but locals are still going in their droves, especially since its refurbishment earlier this year. Located next to the Usher Hall (an Edinburgh International Festival venue) and led by Chef Patron Dominic Jack, the restaurant specialises in Scottish ingredients and contemporary cuisine. The surprise tasting menu is a treat at £85.
For as long as it has been open, everyone has wanted a seat at The Kitchin. Situated on the Leith waterfront, it’s a short drive out of the city centre and a refreshing break from the festival schedule. Tom Kitchin opened the pub-style restaurant, with a focus on seasonal cooking from nature to plate, in 2006 and earned a Michelin star one year later. Call a few weeks ahead to snag a spot and savour Kitchin’s British-style cooking, made with French techniques.
Scotland is hardly known for its meat-free cuisine, but for elegant vegetarian dining, David Bann fits the bill. Located in Cowgate, between Fringe and International Festival territories, the restaurant serves interesting dishes like baked beetroot pudding with potato and swede dauphinoise. David Bann also serves brunch on Saturdays until 5pm, but note that the restaurant does not take any reservations during the festivals.
For afternoon tea on The Royal Mile, book into Colonnades at The Signet Library. The neoclassical lower library dining room has Corinthian columns, vast chandeliers and its catering service has been granted a Royal Warrant. The champagne afternoon tea is a decadent option, complete with small dishes like salmon, smoked haddock and saffron pie and desserts such as dark chocolate Alaska. Groups should request the middle table below the Insta-worthy chandelier.
Timberyard is a cool, creative venue in a converted warehouse, which caused a buzz when it opened a few years ago. Still going strong, the restaurant uses artisan growers, breeders and fishermen to bring fresh food to the table. Diners here have the luxury of choice with a la carte, four-course dinner, six-course pescetarian dinner and eight-course vegetarian dinner menus on offer.
Other things to do in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is an incredible location, where sea, city and hills exist together. As far as locals are concerned, the best walk is Arthur’s Seat, which towers over Holyrood Palace, looking onto the city and the Firth of Forth.
Hikers will enjoy the route straight up to the summit over the Salisbury Crags - a particularly hairy climb in the wind, for which walking boots or sturdy trainers are necessary - while those who need a steadier path should drive or walk up the winding road from Holyrood and park by Dunsapie Loch near the top to enjoy the views onto Duddingston.
It’s a savvy time to be learning about whisky, which saw a 40 per cent lift in asset value in 2018. With one of the largest collections in Edinburgh, Scotch at The Balmoral has over 500 whiskies to try and a number of different tasting experiences. The most noteworthy among them is the Rare & Ghosted package at £150 per person, during which you are served four rare drams, from limited releases, closed distilleries and rare bottlings.
You can’t miss the castle when visiting Edinburgh - it towers over the city from Castle Rock and is especially impressive when illuminated at night. Groups can book exclusive out-of-hours private tours with Historic Environment Scotland, where they can see the Royal Palace, the Scottish crown jewels, the stone of destiny and Mons Meg - the iconic medieval bombard fired at each year at Hogmanay.