Jack Murphy started off this week looking for a place to go. The New York-based attorney had just begun a much-needed vacation, but had yet to settle on a destination. “I was going to go to Puerto Rico and I decided that the weather wasn’t all that great,” Jack says. So instead of taking a tropical getaway, Jack ended up in Edinburgh, Scotland…in the middle of the largest annual arts & culture festival in the world.
“It was totally last minute,” Jack admits. “I heard that airfare wasn’t too expensive and [Edinburgh] just seemed like the perfect place to go.” And as for the famous festival? “I actually only heard about it when I was looking up places to travel,” he says. “I heard that there was this thing going on.”
To use the singular “festival” in describing Edinburgh in August is kind of misleading. In 1947, the city hosted the first ever Edinburgh International Festival, which was designed to host performances from the world’s best in music and the dramatic arts. The idea was to help regrow Europe’s performing arts scene after the ravages of World War II. But not just those selected by the festival’s organizers showed up.
As the story goes, eight uninvited theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh at the same time and put on their own alternative performances in smaller venues throughout the city — thus launching the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an open access performing arts festival that has gained a reputation as a hub for comedy and experimental theatre. Over the years, even more festivals formed and joined the scene at Edinburgh in August, including those dedicated to visual arts, blues and jazz, and even military music.
These days, most people refer to everything with the singular catch-all phrase “the Edinburgh Festival” — although the vast majority of performances are slated under the Fringe (which welcomes any and all performers willing to participate). The result is a city packed with performers and artists of every kind in every possible venue, to the point where they spill out into the streets — busking, promoting upcoming shows, or just entertaining those passing by.
“I sort of had an idea that it would be lively and it definitely is,” Jack (who as of this writing is still in Edinburgh) says. “There are performances literally everywhere. It’s really fun.”
Jack had done some planning ahead of time, picking out performances that piqued his interest and booking tickets online. “Each festival has a website and it’s easily searchable,” he says. “You can spend a half-hour poking around and you can plan your week.” But even with a preset schedule, the Edinburgh Festival is perfect for meandering around the city and discovering shows. “It’s the kind place where you can walk around and pop into places,” Jack explains.
The first performance Jack caught, which he’d purchased tickets for, was by a gypsy guitar and cello two-piece. “It was exactly the kind of hidden gem I was hoping for,” he says. “Afterwards, I wondered around for a bit and saw a great acoustic guitar duo from Australia.”
Jack admits that he initially prioritized seeing musical performances. “There’s like 3,000 shows a day,” he explains. “I focused on music to narrow things down.” But even with that preference for just music, he still wound up attending an experimental theatre show on his second day.
“It was sort of a sound collage thing telling dual stories of Yuri Gagarin and a refugee from Africa trying to make it to Europe. It was really intriguing,” Jack says. “It wasn’t my sort of usual thing, but I needed something to do in the afternoon.”
And that’s the beauty of the Edinburgh Festival. Unlike a lot of other arts and culture festivals, planning what to see isn’t really all that important. Sure, picking shows from the programs is a good idea, but the unique joy of Edinburgh is the sheer abundance of live entertainment. Spontaneously taking in a performance (whether it’s on the street or in happened-upon venue) isn’t just a possibility, it’s the norm.
Of course, that same plethora of performances can also be intimidating. Questions like “What if I miss something really good?” and “How do I know a show won’t take a turn to the amazing RIGHT after I leave to see something else?” can often plague an Edinburgh attendee. The only real remedy is to let go and accept the vastness of the festival. “There’s no way to see everything,” Jack says. “There’s so many shows. But that’s sort of the fun of it – looking at all the shows that are at your fingertips and finding what you like.”
“It’s daunting,” he adds. “But it’s a good kind of daunting.”
And then there’s the fact that aside from being part one of the most epic annual arts events in the world, you’re also in Edinburgh, a city rich in culture and history. It’s home to the Scottish Parliment, along with the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, and the Scottish National Gallery. Oh, it also has a freaking castle!
“It’s a fantastic city in its own right,” Jack says. “I feel like I’m seeing Edinburgh plus.”
Oh, the best part about the Edinburgh Festival? There’s still time to go. The last day of performances is August 29. So it’s not too late for an impromptu trip.