If this is your first visit to the Edinburgh Festival, you may be surprised at how much there is to see simply on the street. If you want to, you can spend a good couple of hours a day sampling what's on offer, without ever seeing the same thing twice and without a penny leaving your pocket. They're loved and hated in equal measure - the downside being the crowds they attract, and the log-jams they inevitably cause - but nobody can deny that street performances are an integral part of Festival life.

These are, of course, all outdoor options, but they go ahead whatever the weather. In fact, if you're not bothered by a bit of drizzle, you'll find a cloudy sky keeps the crowds at bay.

Royal Mile stages

Every day, you can catch a whole afternoon of free entertainment on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, just outside the Fringe box office and the city-centre landmark of St Giles' Cathedral. The road's closed to traffic, and temporary stages are set up to show extracts from performances across the whole range of genres at the Fringe. The main purpose of the Royal Mile stages is to help you choose where to spend your hard-earned cash later on, but don't be deterred - you can use it as a complete freeload if you prefer.

Each stage does have a programme for the day written up beside it, but seeing a particular show requires a super-human level of organization; it's far easier just to turn up and see what's on offer at the time. You never know what you'll find - a musical chorus on one stage may be drowned out by the rock band just next door, while behind you two slapstick clowns vie for laughs from the fickle crowd.

Street performers

The Royal Mile is also a magnet for street performers, the professional showmen who make a living by strutting their stuff on the public stage. While there will always be those who solicit your cash simply by painting themselves gold and standing really still, the best street performers rival anything you'll see on the "official" Fringe.

The typical street performance follows a well-rehearsed pattern. First, the performer builds the size of their audience, attracting attention by exhorting those already there to cheer wildly at a variety of warm-up stunts. Then there is an extended period of patter involving "volunteers" from the audience and, always, more wild cheering. Only at the very end will they pull out their key stunt - an impossibly dramatic feat involving some combination of swords, flaming torches, chainsaws and a unicycle - before the audience dissipates, a new one forms and the whole thing happens all over again.

It's easy to be cynical, of course, and after seeing a few such performances you do realise that they're really all the same, but it's still a pleasant way to occupy a free half hour. If you're going to do it at all, do it properly: let go of your inhibitions and cheer. You'll be asked to put money into the hat at the end.