Why is Edinburgh home to the world's biggest arts festival?

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1. One city, many festivals

Every August Edinburgh is home to an explosion of artistic creativity.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will see thousands of performances across hundreds venues in the city.

And that's not including the International Festival, the Book Festival and the world famous Military Tattoo. Added together, they become the biggest festival of arts in the world. So what has made the Edinburgh Festival such an enduring success?

2. Famous faces and Fringe fresh

One of the reasons is the Festival and Fringe give you the chance to see established global stars, as well as an opportunity to spot performers before they hit the big time.

In 1953, Richard Burton appeared at Edinburgh's Assembly Hall in the Old Vic's production of Hamlet.

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Margo Fonteyn danced with the Sadler's Wells Ballet at Edinburgh's Empire Theatre in 1954.

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Marlene Dietrich performed in concert at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre in both 1964 and 1965.

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In 1971 Robin Williams played Tranio in a Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew in Edinburgh's Viewforth Centre.


Rowan Atkinson was just 21 when he came to the Fringe as part of the Oxford Revue in 1976.

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Later to find fame as Austin Powers, Mike Myers was one half of comedy duo Mullarkey and Myers in 1985.

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One of Graham Norton's first comedy gigs was at the Pleasance in Edinburgh in 1991.


3. WATCH: A capital choice?

Salzburg comes to Scotland

Edinburgh’s iconic castle on a hill helped inspire Austrian émigré, Rudolf Bing, to set up a festival of music and drama which would symbolise the end of wartime hardship.

The castle setting reminded Bing of the Austrian city of Salzburg, home to an annual music festival. The setting, together with some more practical reasons – Edinburgh's lack of wartime bomb damage, accommodation for up to a hundred thousand visitors, as well as its large number of theatres – all went in its favour. This, together with an enthusiastic welcome to the idea from the city's Lord Provost, encouraged Bing to get started, and the first International Festival took place in late August 1947.

Birth of the Fringe

At the same time, eight theatre groups – who were not part of Bing's international festival – came to Edinburgh, and staged their own productions. This is the point where the Edinburgh Fringe burst into life, embracing a much broader, more informal range of shows. This mixture of the official and the unofficial attracted performers and audiences from around the globe. It would be a key factor in turning Edinburgh into the home of the world's biggest arts festival. And while Bing’s International Festival remained the nucleus of the city’s festival activity, by 1974 it was being outsold by the Fringe. Today the Fringe dwarfs its more serious older brother.

4. Edinburgh goes global

The 1960s was an exciting decade for the growth of the arts and the Edinburgh Fringe provided a perfect platform for this. It was during this decade that the seeds were sown for the mighty Festival city that Edinburgh has become.

Sixties seeds

In the 1960s the idea that anyone could come to the Fringe and put on a show really took hold. Thirty two theatre groups came to the city in 1964, and by the end of the decade that number had doubled. The free-form spirit of the Fringe was also boosted with the opening of the Traverse Theatre in 1963. Because the Traverse was founded as a theatre club, it avoided the need to send scripts of new plays to the censor for approval and so could be daring in the work it staged. The Traverse went on to launch important Scottish playwrights like Liz Lochhead and John Byrne.

The next big thing

At this time Edinburgh also began to gain a reputation for premiering shows which would go on to international acclaim. Beyond the Fringe (1960) starred a young quartet of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller and heralded the start of the satire boom. 1966 saw the premiere of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which went on to become a global success. Then as now, the possibility of seeing a global hit created a real buzz for Edinburgh audiences, and for the performers the exciting possibility of being discovered.

Comedy is king?

For lovers of stand-up, Edinburgh is a paradise, with a third of the Fringe programme given over to comedy. Some argue that comedy is too dominant, but today Edinburgh continues to stage important theatrical debuts, like Gregory Burke's 2006 drama Black Watch, about soldiers' experiences in Iraq. More recently Rona Munro's trilogy The James Plays (2014), about three generations of Scottish kings, met with critical acclaim.

5. Beyond the Fringe: festivals around the world

Edinburgh may be the biggest arts festival in the world, but click to find out more about other arts festivals with their own claims to fame.


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Three Choirs Music Festival

The Three Choirs music festival, which rotates among the cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, has been running since 1715.


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Dark Season Blues

Dark Season Blues is an annual blues festival held in the town of Longyearbyen on the Svalbard islands, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.


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FiSahara is the Sahara International Film Festival, held every year in south-west Algeria near the West Saharan border.