Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Seeing as travelling and busking aren't possible right now, I've decided this is the perfect time for me to start that blog that's been on my to-do lists for the past two years. I'll be reminiscing through old journals, photos and videos and sharing my experiences of busking and travelling my way around Europe!
One of the most exciting yet often overwhelming parts of arriving in a new place, loaded up with all of your busking gear, is finding the right place to play. I've often found myself sitting on buses, frantically googling the best busking spots and sifting through old busking blogs from 2009 (where the information has been helpful but sadly too out of date to be of any use) or wandering up and down streets, dragging my busking trolley behind me with aching arms, trying to trust my busking instincts and determine the best place to set up.
I'd like to use this space as a place where I can share what little knowledge I have of playing music and busking around Europe so that other travellers or travelling musicians may find something that may help them on their own future crusades or musical endeavours.
❛Wander off lightly into the wild unknown.❜
If you're dreaming of travelling but don't feel brave enough to do it, I think the best thing to do is just book a ticket. Stop overthinking.
Choose the cheapest date, pay for your ticket and tell yourself 'I'm ready. I'm doing this, no matter what.'
In 2018 I decided I wasn't feeling fulfilled because I wasn't focusing on what I loved. One day in April, tired of daydreaming, I finally quit my college course and flew to Edinburgh with my guitar, my amplifier and my lovely friend Liam.
We stayed at the Castle Rock Hostel. Eleven pounds a night. Free tea and coffee. Breakfast for £1.50. A music room and art all over the walls. A few cobble stones away from Edinburgh Castle (built on top of an extinct volcano!) and the Royal Mile. It's one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in and all the windows are huge. Liam even ended up volunteering there for a few hours a day, in exchange for a free bed.
My first day of busking in Edinburgh was terrible. No matter where I tried to play, I kept getting shut down. The first place I set up was at the side of St. Giles Cathedral. After a few songs a man came out and told me I was disturbing him and his holy work. I moved to the Grassmarket- a huge square surrounded by quaint little shops and pubs.
Ignoring the intimidating signposts displaying pictures of amplifiers with large red lines going through them, I set up my amp between two trees and started singing. To my surprise, people started sitting down on benches to listen. Sadly, after an angry old lady with a rebellious glass eye appeared for the second time, informing that she was going to call the police if I didn't go away, I had to pack up.
The Grassmarket is a residential area who's residents have been 'plagued by buskers for years' the glass-eyed lady croaked bitterly, pointing her crooked, wrinkly finger in my face. I burst into tears. It felt as though my whole 'busk and travel the world' plan was completely failing. I remember thinking 'I've just left everything behind to play in the streets and they're not letting me do it'.
After being encouraged to leave for the third time, this time by a fellow busker; a man with his face painted blue, who told me I needed a 'permit' to busk during the day, I wandered hopelessly down the Royal Mile, tears in my eyes, thinking I should never have left home.
I had stopped on the side of the street and was wondering what to do next when a kind looking, red-headed and bearded magician waiting for his turn to busk spotted me and asked if I was alright. His name was Todd Various, an escape artist. I told him I was having trouble finding a place to play and that I'd just encountered a mean, angry old lady. When I mentioned the glass eye he laughed and said he knew who I was talking about. She was infamous for causing trouble for street performers. Todd gave me a tissue and some sunglasses and offered me his suitcase to sit on. As he explained how the busking scene works in Edinburgh, I realised this was my first lesson.
When you get to a new city and aren't sure how things work there, the best thing you can do to get an idea of the busking scene, is to ask other buskers. (Preferably buskers who aren't in the middle of a performance- buskers who are hanging around, writing poems, drinking coffee and scratching their beards whilst waiting for their turn to play.) Most of them will be delighted to impart their knowledge on travellers from faraway places. Chatting to them immediately gives you a sense of connection to the city and busking in a spot that they've suggested to you, gifts you with a sense of security.
Apparently amplifiers are banned in Edinburgh so I was advised to busk in the evening when there's less of a chance of being stopped by the police. I found the most magical spot. At the very top of the Royal Mile, just below Edinburgh castle. The sun would set in the evenings, casting the castle's shadows on the cobbles. Couples and families would stroll by, arm in arm, hand in hand. I had many beautiful, peaceful evening busks there (once all the bagpipe players had gone home) and it soon made up for all the misfortune I'd experienced on my first day.
The top of the Royal Mile became my regular busking spot for the rest of my two weeks in Scotland. One day I thought I'd change things up a little, so I wandered over the railway tracks to Rose Street. Edinburgh is split into two parts; Old Town and New Town. The former; a bustling, cobbled, hilly maze of tartan kilts and scarves and tourists. The latter; more local, a bit sadder.
I only tried busking once on Rose Street, somewhere near Primark. It didn't go well. It was eerily quiet, a grey Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it was me, maybe it was just the wrong time of the day, the wrong day of the week, whatever the reason was, nobody was listening. After a while, an old man came over and like a Scottish Prophet declared; 'the rain is coming'. Two seconds later it started lashing and all of my busking gear got soaked. Perhaps Rose Street on a sunny weekend would have been better.
Busking at the top of the Royal Mile.
Another place I tried was 'The Meadows'. A wide open space of endless green lawns, laced with cherry blossoms. There was a man busking acoustically along the long, lampost-lined walkway so I set up far away from him, near the park entrance, where two paths crossed. It was a beautiful spring weekday afternoon and the park was peaceful and quiet. Too peaceful and quiet. Asides from the occasional jogger, cyclist or strolling couple, the walkways were deserted. I didn't mind though, I played for myself and drank up the pink blooming blossom trees.
Apparently in summer, the Meadows are heaving with brightly coloured picnic blankets and the smoke from barbeques dances between the trees. Perhaps busking on a warm summer's evening in The Meadows would have been more successful.
As for other busking spots, I didn't try anywhere else. My courage had been knocked and I didn't fancy another encounter with glass eye. I did see a lot of buskers playing on Princes Street though and they seemed to be doing well. One of whom was Megan D. Their soft, unique voice and alternative takes on covers stopped me right in my tracks and forced me to buy a CD.
Buskers near Princes Street
My favourite open mic was Out of the Bedroom. It's held in a cosy, nest of a bar called 'Woodland Creatures'. The music room is surrounded by trees made out of ropes and fairy lights and flowers. The best part was every act gets a whole 15 minutes and only original material is allowed.
I noticed there were regulars at these musical evenings and they brought a warm, familial atmosphere with them each night in their guitar cases. The singer-songwriter scene there seems strong and I found the other musicians to be friendly, open and inclusive.
If you're planning a trip to Edinburgh, I'd say go during Springtime. I can't speak for the other seasons as I've only ever seen Edinburgh at the end of April; an explosion of daffodils, daisies, cherry blossoms and tulips. The days are slowly warming up and there are far less tourists than in Summer.
If you find yourself there on April 30th, you can't miss The Beltane Fire Festival; a Celtic celebration of the birth of Summer. With all the wonder of children, Liam and I climbed Calton hill under the full moon, following the rumbling drums, losing ourselves in the blazing fires, the wild dancing and a world of weird and otherworldly characters.
Beltane Fire Festival, April 30th, 2018.
Climb an extinct volcano called 'Arthurs Seat' in the early evening. Watch the Sun spread fading orange all over the city, hold the Moon in your hands as she slowly rises, guiding you safely back down the hill and home to your warm hostel dorm.
Liam holding up the Moon, Arthur's Seat.
Spend some time perched in a tree in the Royal Botanic Garden, take a free tour up North, through the wild highlands ('free tour' means you pay your tour guide whatever you think the tour was worth) and laugh at the other tourists jumping off the tour bus to frantically take photographs of famous castles, read the words written all over the walls of The Writer's Museum, visit the graveyard behind Flodden Wall, where half the character's names from Harry Potter are carved onto tombstones, see the Gothic buildings in the distance transform into Hogwarts before your very eyes.
Wander around the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (make sure you get there before it closes or else you'll end up just walking around the building looking for an unlocked door or sneaking into the vegetable patch to check out whats growing just to make the journey feel worthwhile).
Pretend you've been invited to a college art exhibition- snack on the free food and sip pink champagne whilst casually admiring the artwork and smiling at suspicious strangers, stroll along the river to the charming Dean Village and Gardens (I wouldn't recommend following the music into a random building or up the creaky stairs because the violin players might get angry with you).
Hop on a bus to Portobello beach and fall asleep on the sand wake up hungry and wander sleepy eyed to the nearest chipper or simply lay in the almost Irish-green grass of Princes Street Gardens or The Meadows.
'Just a Song' outside the Writer's Museum
almost The end
I know the world today is in a state of uncertainty. (There's enough being said about it already which is why I didn't want the current pandemic to be the focus of this writing.) As time appears almost frozen, now is the perfect time to reflect on the past and make plans and dreams for our freedom-filled futures; when things slowly return to normal and travelling and playing music on busy streets and in cosy, beer-filled bars becomes a possibility again.
I hope you enjoyed reading some reflections from my past and maybe you'll take something from it that will be of some benefit to you in the future!
Life was a page,
You were the pen.
Will we ever live as intensely again?
-April 19th, 2018.
(I've just realised that last line was stolen from Eavan Boland, oops.)
I thought I'd include a summary here, for anyone who'd like to skip my ramblings and get straight to the point...
The top of The Royal Mile (evenings)
The Meadows (summer/weekends)
Rose Street (not on a rainy weekday)
The Grassmarket (only if you're unamplified, really brave or invisible)
Beltane Fire Festival (30th of April)
Royal Botanic Garden
The Writer's Museum
Greyfriar's Kirkyard (Harry Potter tombstones)
Scottish National Gallery
Dean Gardens and Village
Princes Street Gardens