Edinburgh: Not just a pretty festival
Street performers run riot during the Edinburgh Festival. (Will Salter/LPI)
Edinburgh Festival is a singular event most accurately referred to in the plural. In the general vicinity of August a host of festivals come to town covering art, books, politics, music, theatre, dance, food, spirituality and multiculturalism and pretty much everything in between. Events include anything from a Mozart-penned mass at the neo-gothic St Mary’s Cathedral, avant-garde modern dance, Dizzee Rascal and more comedians than you could poke a rubber chicken at.
The highest concentrations of performers and people are in the Old Town. At the western end of the Royal Mile is the Castle, temporary home to the insanely popular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (7-29 Aug). At the eastern end is Holyrood Castle and Holyrood Park where the Foodies Festival (13-15 Aug) and Festival Cavalcade (8 Aug) are held. At this time of year, walking from one to the other will probably involve negotiating four jugglers, two unicyclists, a retro-clad maiden doing light operatics and a local who's trying make a quid from her world-record number of body-piercings. There is also tartan, whisky and (very probably) rain. Meanwhile, seagulls the size of winged chihuahuas stare malevolently down from steepled sandstone spires.
Some of the most popular festivals are the Edinburgh International Festival (13 Aug-5 Sep), the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (6-30 Aug) and the PHB's Free Fringe 2010 (8-29 Aug). For music lovers there is the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival (30 Jul-8 Aug), art-aficionados should visit the Edinburgh Art Festival (29 Jul-5 Sep), while bibliophiles will not want to miss the Edinburgh Book Festival (14-30 Aug).
Fire and ice
The Royal Bank of Scotland Fireworks (Queens Street Gardens, 5 Sep) marks the moment when it is time to take off the party hat. More than 10,000 fireworks explode above the Castle and cascade downs its walls, choreographed to live music. Prime viewing is from the Princes Street Gardens, which is ticketed, but you and up to 200,000 others can enjoy it for free from various points around the city. A view of the north face of the castle is best.
Fireworks feature heavily in Hogmanay, Edinburgh's famous New Year's Eve celebrations, as well. In 2011, a procession of torch carriers including the Up Helly Aa' Vikings from Shetland is also planned, making a river of fire flowing up Calton Hill.
Pyromaniacs can also get a mid-year fix at the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill (30 April) where Edinburgh celebrates its Celtic roots with the Green Man, the May Queen, dancing, and large balls of fire being swung about on ropes.
Art and art galleries are integral to Edinburgh. Galleries are well patronised by locals as well as visitors, and with the exception of the occasional special exhibition, they are free. The National Gallery Complex on The Mound includes the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. The National Portrait Gallery, also central, is due to reopen in November 2011 after a major refurbishment. To the west of the city centre, the collections at the Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery take a more contemporary take and include artists such as Warhol and Miró. A path from the rear of the gallery leads down the banks of the Water of Leith, which is home to one of the Gallery's of Modern Art's most recent commissions, Anthony Gormley's 6 Times. This comprises 6 life-size cast-iron figures which follow the path of the river from the Gallery to the where the river joins the sea in Leith.
Smaller galleries worth a visit include Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Ingleby and Talbot Rice Gallery at Edinburgh University.
Ghouls & graveyards
Strange happenings in the dark are another Edinburgh tradition, and the dramatic landscape and the ornate mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture provide the perfect setting for it. The Edinburgh Dungeons, a range of ghost and graveyard tours, and a genuinely creepy display of torturer's tools at the National Museum of Scotland keep the tradition alive. Mary King's Close is haunted by anecdotes, although the stories of people being sealed alive in the Close during the plague have been long discounted.