The cultural map of the UK, invariably centered upon London, is about to tilt northwards, as it does every year around this time, when all roads lead to the Athens of the north, Edinburgh. The annual orgy of theatre, music, opera, visual art, film and literature that is the Edinburgh Festival - or more accurately, the various individual festivals that between them make it up - offers everyone from aficionados to the merely curious an opportunity to take in an unrivalled breadth and depth of artistic activity.

The Festival Fringe alone - with, this year, some 666 fringe companies presenting 1,462 shows from 50 different countries - is the largest arts festival anywhere in the world. And the sheer concentration of arts and audience, in one of the Britain's most majestically beautiful cities, makes it the most scintillating place on the planet for the culturally inclined to see and be seen.

At once a shop window for artists to display their wares in and a market place for audiences to buy them from, Edinburgh is also both alternately exhilarating and overwhelming to be on either side of the equation. For artists, reputations are sometimes made but more often fortunes are lost by showcasing themselves here. For audiences, the promise of discovery is frequently tempered by disappointment at yet another wasted hour (and yet another wasted tenner or so for the ticket) at making the wrong choices. Though there's no automatic prescription to help you make the right decisions, these are some of my survival strategies through the obstacle course that Auld Reekie in August sometimes represents.

Planning, planning, planning....

  • Arm yourself with the free Fringe Programme before you get to Edinburgh. You can pick one up at a number of London venues, or phone for a copy on 0907 159 2001 (calls cost approximately £2). Of course, at a daunting 176 pages of densely packed and painstakingly categorised and cross-referenced information, you may not be able to make any sense of the publication at first. But, like a really fine wine, while it tastes good the moment you sip it, it only reveals its darker mysteries as you get further down the bottle. Bear in mind, however, that the programme is liable to many changes post-publication so don't rely on it authoritatively to timetable your visit.

    Which is the fairest of them all?

  • Use the updated Daily Diary for precision planning. Published each day and distributed all over town, this helpfully orders the shows by timeband rather than name of the presenting company or title of the act (as in the Fringe Programme) to let you know what's playing on an hour-by-hour basis. Many of the larger individual venues also publish their own separate brochures that you can pick up at each one. The joint brochure for four of the biggest venues - Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and George Square Theatre - is virtually compulsory. But do remember to venture further afield too. There's more to Edinburgh than the Pleasance, though its pleasant courtyard setting, against the backdrop of Salisbury Cragg, is the nicest festival hangout in good weather.

  • Pick up the complimentary and complementary brochures to the other festivals, too, all of which are far easier to get your head around than the Fringe. If nothing else, they'll provide you with an alternative should you slip into arts overload.

    To book or not to book?

  • Book ahead - but don't overbook. If there's something you're particularly determined to see, don't delay, book today. The most popular fringe shows, especially comedy, do sell out in advance, so it's worth securing your seats for them. But don't book too many shows in advance - you'll want to retain some flexibility in your schedule to slot in late discoveries or recommendations you hear on the street. Most shows don't come close to selling out so you can simply buy tickets on the door. Even the more popular shows only fill up a day (or sometimes two, seldom three) in advance, so you can leave it fairly late to commit.

    Combatting Fringe fatigue

  • Guard against an ominous phenomenon - fringe fatigue. Everyone's metabolism is different, but this kicks in for me roughly around the third show of my third day in town. The first day is all excitement and anticipation, the second day is comfort and routine, but by the third day, irritation and aggravation takes over. What am I doing sitting in this hot, stuffy room, watching this dull drama or creepy comedian? Get me outta here! There's no known cure, except that it passes naturally - when you finally leave town. So I make sure now that I set my limits - a four-night stay maximum, and no more than five shows a day. That's still pushing it a bit - you may want to settle on three or four - but bear in mind that most fringe shows are barely an hour long, and with venues trying to maximise profits by scheduling as many shows in the course of a day as possible, shows run around the clock, from 9.00am to 2.00am and beyond, so there's lots of downtime between shows even if you do several in a day.

  • Build downtime into your schedule. This is really important and not just for refuelling at meal breaks - there's only so much haggis and chips and deep fried mars bars a man (or woman) can take - but also for enjoying the city, spending some time outdoors and breathing in the hops-fragranced air.

  • Anticipate shows that don't keep to their published schedules. If they overrun, you'll find yourself running over to the next one if the time you've allowed in between is too tight. Distances in Edinburgh, too, are deceptive. Those hills can take their toll, on your stamina as well as your shoe leather.

    Overhyped & up here

  • Beware, too, the curse of the critics. Come festival time, there seem to be nearly as many people who call themselves critics as performers. With the avalanche of newsprint expended on covering the festival and few shows actually worth covering, critics are only human, and tend to overhype the merely mediocre. There are also simply too many of them - both shows and critics - and it becomes difficult to separate the wood from the trees, which have all been pulped anyway in this futile attempt to lead through the forest that has been destroyed to make sense of it all. You'll find the most comprehensive Edinburgh Festival coverage in the Edinburgh morning paper, The Scotsman, which devotes a daily supplement to it. Otherwise, stick to one or two other reliable critical sources, and ignore the rest.


  • Enjoy it. Edinburgh is neither a race nor an endurance test. It's a pleasure, not a penance. And don't fret too much if you miss something that sounded good - if it's any good, chances are it'll reappear, either in London or again at Edinburgh next year.