Last week my brother and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland and had such a great time!
Turns out we were there during the annual Fringe Festival! It’s the largest arts festival in the world (last year alone the city saw over 40,000 performances), and usually lasts for the month of August. Types of shows include theater, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, musicals, spoken word, and improv, and performers range from big names in the entertainment industry to budding artists just starting out. The Festival’s history dates back to 1947, when several theater groups came to Edinburgh to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Problem was, these performers were never invited and weren’t on the official programme. Undeterred by the non-existent welcome, these eight groups decided to perform anyway on the “fringe of the Festival”, which is where today’s festival gets its name. Over the next couple of years more and more artists came out to Edinburgh to showcase their talents (also unofficially), and in 1958 the Festival Fringe Society was established to help organize these performances.
I know I haven’t been to Edinburgh when the festival isn’t on, but I would highly recommend coming in August, or at least overlapping your travel dates so you’re in the city for some part of the festival. Yeah there are a lot more people around, but it’s such a unique event that making your way through hoards of tourists will be well worth it. And when you’re there, definitely check out as many shows as you can. Wednesday night I went to a free comedy show called “Cinemash”, put on by Joystick! Impro. In this sketch the performers (Richard, Robert, and Simon) created improvised movie skits featuring scenes and backgrounds provided by the audience. It was a fantastic way to spend an hour; I don’t think I’ve laughed harder this entire trip!
Two things to note about free shows:
- Even though they’re free, this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be tons of people there. There are so many performances that many will overlap and start at or around the same time. With five minutes to go before showtime there were only four of us in the audience. A couple more people showed up just as we were starting, but it was still a very intimate show (which, in my opinion, made it that much cooler).
- Even though they’re free, it’s customary to give the performers a “tip” at the very end. It’s entirely up to you how much you want to give, so this works well for people traveling on a budget!
Another show I went to was a musical parody of the British television show “Doctor Who”. It’s definitely not a mainstream show, especially outside of the UK, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about this one as I’m sure I’ll lose most of you. Suffice it to say that it was hilarious, endearing, and really well done (I had more fan girl moments than I can remember). Unlike the first show this one wasn’t free (it was about £10 pp), but totally worth it!
Another highlight of our stay in Edinburgh included meeting new people! The first night was spent getting to know the city “the real way”, aka by making our way through some of the local watering holes. I bumped, literally, into Ewan (who is actually from Aberdeen, but now lives in Edinburgh), and when I told him I was from San Francisco he surprised me by saying he had lived there for a while. We spent the next 15 minutes in a state of nostalgic stupor: Ewan reminisced about his favorite skate park in the city, and I described to him the most beautiful burrito I had ever laid eyes on (in the Mission, obviously).
Side note #1: The spell-check on this computer isn’t recognizing “burrito” as a real word. What.
Side note #2: A Chilean friend of mine once told me that he knew a Californian missed home when she began talking about burritos. I guess he had a point.
The next day I went up to Edinburgh Castle with Zach and Ahmed, new friends from the hostel. The castle is an imposing structure that looms over Old Town (the city of Edinburgh is split into Old Town–medieval–and New Town–18th century and later). It’s located right at the end of the Royal Mile, a street that is considered the “spine” of the city. It’s a mile long, as the name suggests, and runs from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle isn’t like your stereotypical “four-walls-four-towers-with-an-enclosed-square” type of castle. It’s actually a collection of smaller buildings surrounded by a high wall and gate. From the outside it looks like your average castle, but on the inside it’s more like a small village. Once inside you have a chance to check out some pretty neat exhibitions/museums including: the National War Museum, the Royal Palace, The Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown Jewels), the Prisoner’s War Exhibition (which was closed when I went), and the Scottish National War Memorial.
The entrance fee might be a little steep for those traveling on a budget. It’s £16 for most people (around £9.50 for seniors and children), and if you want a booklet or audio guide as you walk around that’s an extra £3-5. I would say it’s worth the price if you’ve never seen a castle before (this is why I went; castles are in short supply in the Bay Area) or you won’t have a chance to visit any other castles during your trip or if you are planning to visit other castles and old buildings in Scotland (you’d buy the “Explorer Pass”, which gets you into a bunch of other Scottish historic sites).
While in the city my brother and I also managed to squeeze in a few walking tours. One took us around the Old Town and introduced us to many of the city’s famous landmarks. The second tour was a night tour. Called “The Dark Side”, this walking tour focused on all of Edinburgh’s creepy stories (and believe me, there are quite a few…). If you’re a fan of serial killers, witches, grave robbing, body snatching, and mysterious murders, this is definitely a tour for you! Unlike the daytime city tour however, this one is not free; it costs £10 for adults and £8 for students.
The third tour was a whiskey tour! You can hardly go to Scotland and not do a whiskey tasting. The one my brother and I went to was through “The Scotch Whiskey Experience”, located right outside the Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile. There are several of these places around the city, and many whiskey shops do their own tastings as well. I enjoyed this one because it was broken down into several parts: first, we went on a “barrel ride” and learned about the process of making whiskey (this was a little cheesy, but informative); next, we walked around a small showroom that had laid out several ingredients of whiskey and told us some more about the production process; finally, we were given a proper presentation about the history of whiskey in Scotland and a step-by-step tutorial on how to taste whiskey.
Some highlights from this tour:
- Single malt whiskey can be made anywhere in the world; however, you can only make Scotch whiskey in Scotland.
- Whiskey translates from Scottish Gaelic as “the water of life”
- How to taste whiskey:
- STEP 1: Hold the glass up to the light and examine the color: a lighter color means you have a younger whiskey or it was matured in an American bourbon cask; a darker color may indicate an older whiskey or that a European sherry cask was used for maturation
- STEP 2: Swirl the whiskey around so that it coats the glass to examine the body. When you stop swirling you’ll see a ring has formed at the highest point you swirled, and the whiskey will begin to run down from that ring. The legs are the “tears” of the whiskey. If these legs are very thin and fast, you have a light body whiskey; if they’re very thick and slow you have a full or heavy body whiskey
- STEP 3: Next comes the “nosing” of the whiskey. Stick your nose in the glass so that rim touches the tip of your nose, leave your mouth open a little bit (to let air into your system), and take a deep breath. Try to get some different aromas in.
- STEP 4: Taste the whiskey by keeping it in your mouth for about 8 seconds, letting it touch every surface.
- STEP 5: Notice the finish. If you have a light-body whiskey the finish is only 2-3 seconds long; if you have a full-body whiskey it will cling to the inside of your mouth longer and may take up to 30 seconds before you fully stop tasting it.
I had a terrific time in Edinburgh and can’t wait to return to Scotland to see the rest of it! At the moment I’m back in London, but will be off to Dublin tomorrow morning! If anybody has any recommendations for things to do/see in Dublin or Galway, you know how to contact me :)
Until next time, cheers!