Get to Know the Big 4 Venues at Edinburgh Fringe | Playbill

Playbill Goes Fringe Get to Know the Big 4 Venues at Edinburgh Fringe

If you're not sure what to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, start at these four performance venues.

Underbelly: Circus Hub Venue Courtesy of Underbelly at The Edinburgh Fringe

The 2024 Edinburgh Festival Fringe has announced its first large batch of programming, with over 200 shows. With only six months to go until the festivities begin, why not brush up on the main venue operators? Known as the Big Four, these spaces dominate the programming for the world’s largest international arts festival. And if you're a Fringe newcomer, these four operators are a good start when it comes to deciding what to see.

While hundreds of performance spaces exist at the Fringe, Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, and Underbelly are some of the most coveted stages in town, with carefully curated selections that are sure to tickle your fancy.

READ: What is the Edinburgh Fringe and Why Is Playbill Covering It (Again)?

Assembly Rooms

While the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland serves as a religious meeting place during the rest of the year, in August it transforms into a performance space for theatre that will make you think, and occasionally, tap your toes. The oldest of the Big Four, the Assembly Festival traces its roots to the 1981 Fringe, laying the foundation for what became the Big Four system. The company operates 17 theatre spaces and eight bars during the Fringe, with hundreds of shows programmed every summer, many of which have gone on to international acclaim: The Shark is Broken, which played Broadway in 2023, first found its footing in Assembly's hallowed halls! 

Assembly’s Fringe operation alone is more than three times the size of the rival Edinburgh International Festival, with an audience equivalent to the annual BBC Proms. Talk about underdogs winning the day!

Gilded Balloon: Teviot Venue Courtesy of Gilded Balloon

Gilded Balloon
Begun by Karen Koren in the mid 1980s, Gilded Balloon is comedy central, with solo shows and stand-up acts dominating their lineup. While the venue operates year-round, they leap into action during the Fringe, operating primarily out their Patter House location and National Museum of Scotland in 2024 as their Teviot location is renovated. Gilded Balloon is the unofficial home of Australian artists at the Fringe, and it is here that you’re most likely to find a form of performance art you aren’t familiar with. 

Legendary artists such as Craig Ferguson, Alan Cumming, and Tim Minchin have honed their skills at Gilded Balloon. And since 1988, the venue has hosted the annual competition So You Think You’re Funny. You’re sure to find a reason to laugh when you visit Gilded Balloon!

Pleasance Courtyard

The Pleasance Edinburgh is a theatre, bar, sport, and recreation complex situated on Pleasance Street in Old Town Edinburgh. With multiple large capacity locations at the main courtyard and at Pleasance Dome, Pleasance is the perfect home for large scale productions, such as the Fringe favorite improv musical Showstoppers! (where a talented team of performers improvise a new musical every night). Plus, it hosts many, international comedy and cabaret acts. 

With a courtyard deemed “the biggest beer garden in the city” during the month of August, it is also a great spot to grab a bite to eat, a drink, and your breath in between shows. (Hot tip: Make sure to try Sea Buckthorn Ice Cream from one of the sweets vendors; this orange berry is almost impossible to find in the United States, with a flavor somewhere between a melon and an orange.)

Underbelly Cowgate

The Underbelly is perhaps the most visually distinct of the Big Four Fringe venues, with its iconic flipped cow imagery (including a massive purple cow shaped tent called the Udderbelly). First opened in 2000, Underbelly operates off of its Cowgate location and George Square, with different styles of programming for each location. Underbelly is home to the offbeat and the unusual, with plenty of quirks roosting in Cowgate's cave-like hideaways and the ever iconic Udderbelly. 

Standup comics such as Joan Rivers and Russell Howard have summoned belly laughs from Fringe crowds at Underbelly, as well as comic musicals such as Jerry Springer – The Opera. Recently, the company (which has an offshoot in London) has even ventured into big-budget producing; it's one of the forces behind the highly anticipated Broadway revival of Cabaret. Keep your eyes peeled when you visit the Underbelly; you may be seeing an artist on the precipice of stardom!

Be sure to follow along with Playbill as we lead up to (and eventually attend) the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And if you’re interested in joining in on the fun, check out the Playbill FringeShip, our floating hotel for the 2024 Fringe, which will be docked in Edinburgh and will provide easy transportation to the Fringe (as well as exclusive on-ship entertainment).

For a full list of programming, visit

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