Somewhere for the weekend: Edinburgh

Finding a hotel room is a performance in itself, but a few days in Festival city can be a truly memorable experience. Sally Chatterton reveals how to get the best out of it
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Don't you read your newspaper? The 56th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest celebration of the arts, took to the stages of 183 venues on Monday. And if the thought of all that cultural fun isn't enough to entice you northwards, the Jazz Festival, the International Festival, the Tattoo, the Film Festival, the Television Festival and the Book Festival – all of which run pretty much concurrently with the Fringe – might just swing it for you. Not that you'd have time to take it all in. The Fringe alone, which runs from 4 to 26 August, boasts more than 14,000 shows. Not bad for a festival which started off when eight groups gate-crashed the official International gathering in 1947. Now, for one month only each year, the ordinarily staid Scottish capital plays host to a frenzied mass of performers, audiences and lone street pipers. More details can be found on www.edfringe.com

DOWN PAYMENT

Go (0870 6076543, www.go-fly.com) has return flights this weekend, flying up on Friday and back on Sunday, from Belfast from £50, East Midlands from £126, Bristol from £156 and Stansted from £112. British European (08705 676676, www.fly.be) has flights from Birmingham from £74.10. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) has flights from Heathrow and Gatwick from £132.60, while easyJet (08706 000000, www.easyjet.com) has flights from Gatwick from £165, Luton from £175 and Belfast from £95, and bmi (0870 6070555, www.flybmi.com) flies out of Heathrow, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford and East Midlands. Edinburgh's airport is a 20-minute cab drive from the city centre, which costs about £15. For national rail enquiries, call 08457 484950. GNER's rail services from London should be fast and frequent; journey time from King's Cross to Waverley station is about four and a half hours. A GNER London-Edinburgh saver will cost about £80 but discount tickets are available and should be booked as soon as possible for the festival as, inevitably, they usually sell out some weeks in advance.

A word of warning: if you haven't got friends or relatives in the city to stay with, or a hotel room that was booked well in advance, you will be lucky indeed if you find a last-minute place to stay, affordable or otherwise. Call Edinburgh Tourist Information (0131-473 3800) for an up-to-date report on the accommodation situation.

INSTANT BRIEFING

Auld Reekie is one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Because at every crossroads there are views of architectural splendour or spectacular cross-country vistas, sightseeing cannot be done speedily. There's the crouched gothic beauty of the old town in one direction, the Georgian elegance of the new town in another, the view across the Firth of Forth, or across to the castle from Calton Hill, all presided over by the volcanic outcrop of Arthur's Seat, which looms in the distance. Edinburgh's summer is a wilful creature and the chances are it'll be misty, raining, foggy or all three during the month of August. In which case you won't be distracted by Edinburgh's beauties as you chase across town, head bowed against the elements, determined to seek out more elusive enchantment – the funniest comedian on the Fringe, for example.

MUST SEE

So who is the funniest comedian on the Fringe? As ever, rumour, counter-rumour and nonsense is already being spouted as to who is going to win this year's Perrier Award – the most prestigious and longest-running comedy award on the Fringe. Daniel Kitson, who narrowly missed the sparkling cup last year, is one of the hottest tickets this year with his twisted, self-deprecating show Something at the Pleasance (tickets: 0131-556 6550), while the newcomers Men In Coats (also at the Pleasance), breathe new life into the usual comedy format with their delightful blend of slapstick, mime and magic. However, if you're reluctant to waste precious hours testing your sanity with the lottery that is comedy on the Fringe, go to the Traverse theatre. It consistently produces a programme of superior theatre, and this year is no different – book a ticket now for Rona Munro's new play Iron (Traverse box office, 0131-228 1404).

MUST BUY

What else but the "great chieftain o' the puddin' race", as Rabbie Burns described haggis, ie the liver, heart and lights of a sheep stuffed into its stomach? It might have been invented for the dedicated Fringe-goer – you could probably live off one for a week. Take some home from Edinburgh's best butchers, Crombies (97-101 Broughton Street, 0131-557 0111). Sheep-free versions are also available throughout Edinburgh. If you're intent on a spot of late heckling, forget the wee dram; you'll need a large whisky to see you through the mayhem that is early hours comedy. Scotland exports more than 700 million bottles a year of its national drink. Visit the Scotch Whisky heritage Centre (354 Castlehill, 0131-220 0441) to sample some malt whiskies before buying a bottle in the gift shop to take home. Avoid the rest of the Royal Mile's "jock" tat and the Assembly Rooms' sponsored T-shirts, and go instead to Fopps on Cockburn Street for the cheapest records you'll find anywhere (rumoured to be opening a store soon in London's Covent Garden). Pop into Something Fishy on Broughton Street for some of Edinburgh's freshest and finest seafood or, if it's department-store action you want, try Jenners on Princes Street, Scotland's answer to Harrods, where you'll find tastefully tartan-packaged gifts aplenty. For the wannabe sophisticates, Harvey Nicks is about to open its third franchise on St Andrew's square. Designer umbrellas are certain to proliferate.

MUST EAT

While you have to search keenly to find morsels of artistic merit on the Fringe, it's not nearly so hard to find a decent meal in Edinburgh. In fact you're spoilt for choice – from Rapido's (79 Broughton Street) deep-fried Mars bars and smoked-sausage suppers, to Oloroso's (33 Castle Street, 0131-447 8722) deep-fried "jammy piece" (that's a jam sandwich to non-Scots), the city has something to tempt everyone's tastebuds. If you want to rub shoulders with the performers – and are not looking for signs of culinary excellence – try lunch at the Pleasance pasta bar. But if you crave a little sophistication after the damp throng of the Pleasance courtyard, try the Tower restaurant at the top of the Museum of Scotland (Chambers Street, 0131-225 3003), which has an exquisite pre-theatre menu of £12 for two courses (watch out for the expensive extras) and views across to the castle. Or Nicolson's (6a Nicolson St, 0131-557 4567), which has a younger, less uptight feel but equally edible dishes. Before picnicking, visit Valvona and Crolla (19 Elm Row, 0131-556 6066) – one of the greatest Italian delis outside Italy; and for lunch on the hoof, as you leg it between venues, try the Piemaker (38 South Bridge, 0131-315 2111), situated at the heart of the action, which extends its opening hours during the festival.

INTO THE NIGHT

You're not going to find it hard to stay up late in Edinburgh. There are shows on until five in the morning – from the infamous Late 'n' Live at the Gilded Balloon (0131-226 2151) to Pleasance Nights at the Other Place (0131-556 6550). Thanks to Edinburgh's liberal licensing laws, it's not difficult to find drinking establishments and clubs open way past midnight. And, if you've got the munchies on the way home, drop into Pizza Paradise (4-6 South Bridge), which serves perfectly palatable pizza and pasta dishes until five in the morning.

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