The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s biggest arts festival. It’s also hell

The horror! The horror! Image: Getty.

The 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival kicks off this Friday. So what better time to examine how this arts and cultural hub absolutely annihilates one of the UK’s loveliest cities?

If you’re a fan of theatre, comedy, getting pissed up on London prices and watching men eat fire on the street, then you probably already know about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Globally renowned and hugely popular across Britain, the Fringe is the world’s largest arts and culture festival.

The Fringe celebrates performance art by playing host to acts from around the world, and even if you’ve never been you’re probably aware that it’s a major happening that draws in large crowds and big tourist numbers. It’s fun, it’s diverse (in its acts, at least; obviously not its audience) and good news! You don’t even have to leave the country to get to it.

What most people don’t know about the festival, however, is that it takes what is, usually, an adorable, Harry Potter-esque city and turns it into a living, breathing tourist mob monstrosity every single year.  Despite Edinburgh being, essentially, just a very, very large town, the Fringe forces it to contain an unholy number of events in a relatively short period of time, and house enough people to make the whole city look like Oxford Street. Although people know what the Edinburgh Fringe is, they don’t know what the Fringe does to Edinburgh.

Let’s start with some facts. Edinburgh, despite being the capital of Scotland, is not a big city. The population of the local authority area barely creeps above 500,000; look at the urban area alone, and it doesn’t even reach that. It also hosts these half a million people in only 100 square miles, making it incredibly compact. This is especially evident when you realise that

a) most of the city is contained between Morningside and Leith, and

b) a lot of that area is green space, forcing people to live even closer together.

And, like any normal city, it has shops, parks, workspaces, bars, concert venues and people who, you know, have to live their daily lives there.

Most of Edinburgh Image: Google Maps.

This is what Edinburgh looks like during the Fringe. These are some of its more than 300 venues; not all of them make it onto the map below.

Image: The Fringe Society/Google Maps.

As I’m sure you’ve now gathered, this is fucking insane. For a city that’s already small, and whose residents are already packed in like sardines, this is a hellish onslaught of events and pop-up venues that congest the city to a near standstill in its centre.

The reason why the Fringe has to fill up seemingly every free inch in the entire city with a venue? Because Edinburgh’s population more than doubles during the Fringe. Last year’s ticket sales hit approximately 2.5m across its 3,000+ shows in 300+ venues; these figures didn’t even include the attendance at non-ticketed free shows, of which there were 643. This means that a city that already is a bit close for comfort for 500,000 suddenly becomes home to over 1m in literally a matter of days.

Even more insane? The ticket sales are only outdone by the World Cup and the Olympics. That’s right: the Edinburgh Fringe is the third highest ticketed event in the entire world.

The cherry on top, the thing that makes the Fringe extra hellish for the people who live in Edinburgh all year round, is the length of time it runs for. It’s not just for a day or two: you can’t just hide in your flat for the weekend, or grin and bear it because it’ll all be over soon. Nor is it a year-long event, like a public art installation – something where there’s a lot on, but hey, people come and go and it relieve the burden.

No, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival lasts the entire month of August, with events preceding and succeeding the festival. All that means the mayhem last for, effectively, the entire summer.

Oh, god. Image: Ben Snooks/Creative Commons.

For a tourist, I get why this festival has so much appeal. It's busy with people and things to do  at literally all hours of the day and it goes on long enough that it can turn into a proper (albeit, wet) holiday.

But imagine the reality for an local. Edinburgh is a small and pretty quiet place, and most people get everywhere by foot. Even if you're having to commute from one end of the city to the other (say, from Newington to Stockbridge, a good 45 minute walk), you'll pass the dead centre of the city and most of its busiest streets (George Street, Princes Street, The Royal Mile) with relative ease. You won't get stuck behind people who don't know how to walk in cities, because there's plenty of space. The main streets will be only mildly humming at peak hours. Even if you decided to commute by bus (20 minutes) you'll rarely get stuck in traffic.

But then comes the Fringe. Not only is there gridlock on the roads on a constant loop, but most of its streets make Oxford Street on Boxing Day look like a pedestrian’s wet dream. The human walls are also just as unrelenting as the road traffic, lasting from midday until about three in the morning, with a big heave again at five as the clubs let out and the final shows finish. And this happens not just for one day or one weekend or one week; this is a Sisyphean punishment for Edinburgers that lasts for an entire month. All this to the backing track of a tourist-luring bagpipe on every corner. 

To be fair to the Fringe, Edinburgh is never without tourists. It has a surprisingly good food scene, excellent historical attractions (see: castles, underground streets), and the whole place looks like it’s straight out of an American fever dream of what a Disney-fied Scottish city would look like. But the Fringe is a uniquely agonising tourist experience for Edinburgh locals. So for those of you travelling up from the Home Counties, try to keep your slow walking and intrusive, old building photograph taking to a minimum. 


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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.