“You’re so lucky to have all this on your doorstep.” I heard the refrain again as pushchair-wielding mums and backpacking tourists struggled onto a groaning 41 bus.
And so we residents are. I don’t hold with those who complain about the tourist hordes on Princes Street or the Fringe crowds on the Royal Mile. Year after year, Edinburgh in August is a delight – if you exercise some rudimentary planning and a modicum of common sense.
The Scots, a notoriously deep pocketed and short-armed tribe, know the Festival and Fringe doesn’t have to be expensive. It won’t be free exactly, but you can be a cheapskate at the Festival.
First of all, park for free at one of the park and rides on the outskirts of Edinburgh – you don’t want to drive into the city, and this way you can try the increasingly iconic Edinburgh Tram, as seen in Trainspotting 2. For all its fractious building and excessive cost, the tram brings continental flair to Auld Reekie. Where Amsterdam’s trams have the canals and Zurich’s the lake, the Edinburgh tram takes you straight past the Castle (via Bankhead industrial estate and Sighthill tax office), for only £1.60 each way.
The tram decants you straight onto The Mound into the treasures of the Royal Scottish Academy and Scottish National Gallery – both free, of course. The next cultural stop is the Gallery of Modern Art, where Eduardo Paolozzi’s monstrous towering Vulcan alone is worth a detour. Time for some refreshment. Seek out Paolozzi lager (not free unless you stumble upon a tasting), the Edinburgh Beer Factory’s craft beer whose tiny brewery you passed on the tram.
At lunch time, you could splash out £20 a head or so for a fixed price meal on Harvey Nick’s balcony and a quick Fringe planning session. Or back at street level, part-pedestrianised George Street has outdoor food to suit all pockets and tastes.
Time for a show but no cash? Go online to freefringe.com and take your pick. Or wander to The Pleasance, down by Holyrood, where various acts give taster performances for no charge.
Back out in the street, past a shiny-nosed Greyfriars Bobby and various cafés claiming to be where a penurious JK Rowling first penned the Harry Potter novels, the Royal Mile offers the Festival’s biggest and best free theatre. This year, post-terrorist attacks, barriers have appeared across the street, borrowed from the London Olympics. But the buzz is still there, with performers jostling for pavement room and sticking posters on every empty wall space.
If you’ve researched the programme and found what you want, the Fringe box office on the High Street will sell you tickets, but cheapskates tend to head to the half price ticket hut at the foot of The Mound.
Ambitious cheapskates, however, are likely to be beaten by Tattoo pricing (not remotely free), which is virtually unbookable this late in the season aside from package prices well over £100 per seat. Whether you regard it as stirring musical spectacle or rampant military kitsch, the sheer numbers of performers and the majesty of the Castle backdrop makes the Edinburgh Military Tattoo a must-see, at least once in your life.
Most importantly, people watching is the key to enjoying the Festival on a budget. Whether it’s dodging acrobats on the cobbled Royal Mile or watching Lamborghinis being ticketed on pedestrianised George Street; riding the Princes Street big wheel or heckling buskers on The Mound, the buzz follows the crowds.
But a final resident’s tip – don’t forget the (free to access) Book Festival. Even if you haven’t splashed out on a tough-to-get ticket to hear your favourite poet/author/journalist/politician pontificate, walk in and enjoy a beer in the middle of Charlotte Square’s exclusive private gardens, a haven of peace that is normally padlocked to the public. What could be nicer than drinks on the grass in the first minister’s garden? And don’t be too much of a cheapskate – buy a book…