Edinburgh's epic Festival Fringe brings out the best in this beautiful ancient city, discovers Stephen Jewell.

A journey through the evolution of Scotland's favourite cereal with accompanying breakfast, The History of Porridge at the Contini cafe is a fine way to start the day at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Beginning with the simple, water-based fare of Oliver Twist's day, before progressing on to more elaborate contemporary versions involving double cream, strawberries and chocolate, co-owner Carina Contini's commentary is as engaging as her food is tasty.

At the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh's Old Town, the Continis' flagship restaurant, Cannonball House, is named after the shot lodged in its wall, allegedly when government troops fired at Bonny Prince Charles, who was staying at nearby Holyrood Palace, during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, although the more likely explanation is that it was deliberately placed there by engineers who were constructing the city's first water supply.

Step out on to the street and you're immediately caught up in the throngs of coach parties heading for Edinburgh Castle.

Head down the hill to Parliament Square, and the crowds become even more hectic as regular tourists cross paths with those who have travelled from across Britain and the world to attend the Fringe. Indeed, as one wit I overhear jokes, it really does seem like almost every British drama student is currently encamped on the Royal Mile, performing Shakespearian soliloquies or other quickfire sketches to entice you into their shows.


Turn right at South Bridge and you head towards the heartland of the Fringe. Usually home to the University of Edinburgh, George Square and the adjoining Bristo Square are radically transformed every August, as venues like the Udderbelly and Gilded Balloon set up vast Spiegeltents in their spacious grounds.

Before catching a show, you can enjoy a fragrant Thai curry, a haggis burger or a Scandinavian open sandwich in the picturesque Assembly George Square Gardens.

This year's Fringe features in excess of 30,000 performances of more than 2000 shows, and that's not including the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh Book Festival or the more prestigious Edinburgh International Festival, all of which are also held in August - you're most definitely spoilt for choice, so what to see?

Rather than carrying around the doorstopper-sized print programme, Fringe chief executive Kath Maitland recommends newcomers should search for shows on the Fringe's efficient website, where you can filter results by categories or genres.

With comedy making up around half of the overall offerings, some critics have complained the appeal of the Fringe is wearing thin.

But while experienced stand-ups like Marcus Brigstocke, Stewart Lee and Paul Merton, along with up-and-comers like Phil Wang and Nish Kumar, continue to attract large audiences, there is plenty of drama on offer.

 Okareka Dance Company performed at this year's Festival Fringe. Photo / James Millar
Okareka Dance Company performed at this year's Festival Fringe. Photo / James Millar

A distinctly Scottish version of a Finnish story, The Year of the Hare, makes for an exhilaratingly unpredictable experience at the Pleasance Dome. In contrast, Phil Jupitus' Impossible at the same venue takes a more contemplative approach, as it depicts the breakdown in the friendship between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.

On a hill between Edinburgh's Old Town and New Town, it's worth visiting Assembly on the Mound just to gaze up at its ornate, Victorian architecture, which supplies some suitably spooky surroundings for Round Peg Theatre's adaptation of Henry James's classic ghost story, Turn of the Screw.

While 2014's "New Zealand at Edinburgh" programme hasn't been formally repeated this year, there are still plenty of Kiwis making their presence felt. Returning to the Assembly Roxy after last year's sell-out performance, idiotic Venezuelan DJ Juan Vesuvius - aka Auckland's Barnie Duncan - manages to create even more hilarious chaos in Calypso Nights: Juan 2. Also at the Roxy, the Okareka Dance Company brings a touch of Karangahape Road to Edinburgh with K Road Strip: A Place To Stand.

With tickets for most shows costing not much more than a few pounds and lasting on average an hour, you really haven't got much to lose on any count. But if you're really looking for a bargain, look no further than the Free Fringe, which boasts some real gems such as Nathan Cassidy's Back to the Future.

You can't get better value for money than that.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies to Glasgow via Hong Kong and London.

Details: Next year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe will be held August 5-29.