Arts: Edinburgh: a survivor's guide

The world's biggest arts festival is no picnic. Veteran David Benedict offers advice
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Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the orgy. Yes, it's festival time, folks. Once again, the denizens of Edinburgh open their doors to the world's largest arts jamboree and, as usual, it's bigger than ever.

All over the sternly beautiful city you'll find everyone from students to stars performing in everything from 3,000-seat venues to spaces the size of an awkwardly appointed cupboard. It's time to pack that rucksack and head off for a teeming banquet of theatre, comedy, opera, film, dance, pop, literature and exhibitions.

This year, for reasons best known to themselves, the International Festival and the Fringe have slightly parted company. The glamorous orchestras and upmarket international companies kick off on Sunday 16 but the fringe is already under way in what is known as Week Zero.

That means there's five weeks' worth of entertainment on offer. You'd have to be certifiably insane to stay for the whole shebang, but even a flying weekend visit offers treats and traps aplenty. No matter how long your visit, the following advice should help you emerge smiling from this exotic jungle.

Just Say No

There is more on display than you would imagine possible.Everywhere you walk, you will be assaulted by eager actors and artists determined to lure you to everything from "An entirely new and vital physical realisation of Titus Andronicus with real meat pies" to The Life of Sylvia Plath. Accept all the leaflets and you will collapse under the weight.

Do your homework

I know it is the size of a telephone directory, but read the Fringe Guide in advance. Likewise the International Festival Guide. Big name shows and past Edinburgh legends will sell out fast, so book early. Anything at the Traverse or the Assembly Rooms is a guaranteed hot ticket. Elsewhere, check the small print. When a company quotes a review saying "the hottest show this year" they may have lifted it from the Middlesbrough Shopper.

Adopt an Edinburgh accent

Alternatively, have a T-shirt printed, emblazoned with the legend "Leave Me Alone, I Live Here". Both wheezes tend to stop lousy clowns miming at you in the street.

Line the stomach

Bearing in mind that Edinburgh affords the delightful opportunity of all-day drinking, this should be done early. Haggis is a boon in this department. This means that you do not have to do last-minute quaffing of vast amounts at 10.50pm - but beware of long-term alcohol poisoning.

Take sensible footwear

Edinburgh is fairly compact but you will be amazed at how much time is spent traipsing across town from venue to venue. Your Manolo Blahniks may look divine but they are not built for hill-walking, and Edinburgh is not flat.

Take a watch

Shows are on from the early morning to the wee small hours and timing is essential if you want to catch more than the occasional performance. Anyone working to a tight schedule should consider a spot of circuit training.

Wax your ears regularly

This has less to do with personal hygiene and more to do with picking up the gossip. Everyone is there for the same reason, so they sit around and yak about what they've seen and what to avoid. All the reviews in the world don't compare with word of mouth. The Right Size, last year's sensation, did 10 minutes from their show Do you Come Here Often? and everyone immediately told everyone else. Tickets simply disappeared.

Take plenty of dough

You will inevitably wind up seeing more than you planned to (a good thing, but, even with low ticket prices, it all mounts up). And then you have to eat. And drink.

Don't go for the record of shows seen

A bunch of schmucks always insists on going for the record but don't be one of them. The winners are invariably theatrical anoraks who have aimed for quantity not quality. What shall it profit a man if he shall gain umpteen stand-ups, seven cutting-edge re-creations of the trials of Oscar Wilde and 55 student revues - if he loses his mind?

You can miss comedy heroes

It's not imperative that you see the comedy headliners: they will all tour the country with their new material in the autumn.

Book decent accommodation

Sleeping on someone's floor is fine for one night, but living in close confinement with people as tired, sweaty and drunk as you are pales after a (very short) time.

Look out for `Best Of...' nights

These enable you to sample several comics in one go before shelling out for someone who looks good on paper and turns out to be another pimply youth doing observational "Have you ever noticed..." drivel.

Rush for the Perrier

The big-noise Perrier awards are hyped to the skies and publication of the short-list provokes a rush on the box office. If stand-up is your bag, be quick off the mark.

Pick up on freebies

Look out for free ticket offers in The Independent. You have nothing to lose (except maybe an hour of your life) and everything to gain.

Review the reviewers

Anyone who can hold a pen or stab at a keyboard is drafted in to pronounce upon the merits of the thousands of productions (literally) which appear every year. Some commentators are, thus, to be taken with a sack of salt. It goes without saying that members of your trusty Independent team are peerless in their sagacity and perspicacity.

Mingle, mingle, mingle...

One of the festival's greatest pleasures is the atmosphere. Virtually everyone you meet is doing exactly what you are: seeing stuff and having fun all day long, which makes for easy and instant friendships across age, gender and everything else.

Soak it all up at the fun and friendly Traverse Theatre bar or the slightly more manic Assembly Rooms. Hang around the Pleasance or The Gilded Balloon. Performers with a masochistic bent could even try the mad Fringe Club.

Be bold

Loads of shows are cheap and short. You are not investing an entire evening after a hard day, so sample stuff that's out of the your usual sphere. Take yourself off to an early morning concert or check out a premiere at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Right in front of you there is a whole world of entertainment you would never normally consider seeing. Why not risk it?