Star-spotting, gigs and strong cocktails: It's party time at the Edinburgh Festival

August in Edinburgh is dedicated to theatre, comedy and high culture, right? Not at all, says Alice-Azania Jarvis – it's also a festival of star-spotting, gigs and strong cocktails
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The Independent Culture

Heading up to the Edinburgh Festival, I wasn't expecting to see many Scots when I got there. The city is famously Anglicised for much of the year, when its cobbled streets are flooded with southern students, but it becomes especially exotic during the Festival as it transforms into a cosmopolitan bubble, populated not only by hordes of British theatre-lovers, but also by performers, journalists and visitors from around the globe.

For these four August weeks, Edinburgh is almost unrecognisable. The Royal Mile becomes a showcase for international talent, with Brazilian dancers busking alongside the Soweto String Quartet, while the streets are prowled by Fringe performers peddling tickets to their various shows.

The effect on the nightlife is electric. You can't miss the jumble of improvised nightspots, and the carnival atmosphere continues long into the night. My first taste of this came at the Forrest Café, a topsy-turvy, hippyish kind of commune-cum-bar. Within 10 minutes of arriving I spotted the comedian Simon Amstell; half an hour later he had taken to the stage, bashing out a spirited set of Elton John covers on the bongo drums. Members of the crowd soon joined in, prancing around and backslapping like they were old friends. This, as it turns out, is not unusual: at the Fringe, "normal" people (such as me) get to mingle with the famous all the time.

Nowhere does this happen as regularly as in the Festival venues' bars, where the stars of the in-house shows go to unwind after a performance (or gather courage before one). Roy Walker and Michael Barrymore can be seen out almost nightly, normally engaged in intense conversation with a bartender. Britt Ekland seems to turn up everywhere, always accompanied by her neckerchief-wearing chihuahua.

Less star-studded, but by far the most unusual spot, is the Spiegeltent, a giant vaudeville marquee that pops up each year in George Square. As the sun sets, the Spiegeltent becomes one of the most popular parties of the festival, reeling in the crowds with live bands and DJ sets, all of which take place in surroundings reminiscent of a Victorian circus.

The city's more permanent clubs hold varying appeal. Many a student favourite lies dormant over the summer, their cheesy pop outshone by the bohemian charms of the Spiegel. The same goes for the usual tourist fixtures, such as the Opal Lounge, a chic-ish lounge club, and the nearby Browns; all are eschewed in favour of more quirky, more Festival-friendly environments.

Some, however, take on a new life, with visitors happening upon a new favourite each year, presenting landlords with a glut of business and a boost in profits. I found myself making almost nightly end-of-evening pilgrimages to Garibaldi's, an unlikely combination of Mexican diner and dance club that serves strong cocktails and spicy appetisers.

As well its array of venues, the Festival brings with it some of the year's best live music. The recently launched Edge Festival has a line-up to rival any music festival, hauling in talent from around the world. An early highlight was the Mercury-nominated Laura Marling, who played a low-key gig at Bannerman's Bar, but with indie favourites such as Newton Faulkner and Noah and the Whale, as well as Dizzee Rascal, Pendulum, NERD, and The Raconteurs all set to appear, there's plenty to choose from.

There are few places on Earth that offer such a mixture of theatre, comedy, music and revelry. For an unseasoned visitor such as myself, it's exhilarating to slip into the decadent rhythm of waking at noon, strolling through the crowds and popping into one of the city's countless lunch-spots before setting off to take in some shows, have a few drinks and head out on the town.

For the duration of the Festival, Edinburgh becomes a hot-house for cultured hedonism, the lazy mornings, the fun-fair streets and carnivalesque nightlife offering a welcome escape from normality. For those lucky enough to spend the entire month there, the plunge back into reality must be difficult. I was there for only a week – and I'm checking the trains back.