Little ripples. That’s how it starts. Little ripples getting bigger. And then suddenly you’re eye to eye with a dinosaur. The Edinburgh Fringe is the T-Rex of arts festivals and it has a way of creeping up on you. For ages it’s a faint shape on the horizon, reassuringly far away, and then it pounces.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. In 2015 there were 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues. This year’s number is actually slightly lower. But even so, it’s still huge: this is a festival with its own dialect, its own geography. It is a kind of microstate that materialises for three weeks every August. It also keeps growing, like something on an agar plate or the ooze in a 1950s B-movie. You can almost picture a young Steve McQueen standing in the Meadows, crying: “it’s back. And nothing can stop it.”

The beast can be conquered though – and not with a bucket of chum and a harpoon gun. Here’s our guide to what to see and where to see it.

Traverse Theatre
The Traverse stands a little apart from the rest of the fringe, with its curated line-up. While tickets for Daniel Kitson’s new show, Mouse: The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought, are going to be hard to come by because Daniel Kitson tickets are always hard to come by, you should try to catch the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, the highlight of the company’s Midsummer Mischief season, and In Fidelity, the new piece by Rob Drummond (the man behind the brilliant Bullet Catch). Mark Thomas returns with his new piece, The Red Shed, exploring his political coming of age. The Traverse is a new-writing venue primarily, and this year’s programme includes Ross Dunsmore’s first full-length play, Milk, Adura Onashile’s Expensive Shit, and Breakfast Plays by Traverse associate artists on the subject of technology.

Pleasance

The Pleasance has two main spaces: the Dome on Bristo Square, with its murky light-eating atrium, like being in an aqua park without the waterslides, and the cobbled Courtyard, the venue most people picture when they think of the fringe.

There’s always a fun mix of theatre and comedy at the Pleasance. This year, horror specialist Kill the Beast is back with its new show Don’t Wake the Damp (pictured top right), inspired by 1980s sci-fi, Middle Child returns with Ten Storey Love Song, and Breach, a young company that made a splash last year with The Beanfield, is returning with Tank, about attempts by scientists in the 1960s to teach dolphins to speak English.

Off-site Not Too Tame, the company whose show Early Doors was designed to be performed in pubs, returns with a new piece, Electric Eden, inspired by rave culture.

Assembly
Assembly’s main hub is on George Square with its tents, bars and gardens, though it also has spaces in the imposing Assembly Hall on the Mound. The programme includes a mix of theatre, comedy and cabaret. Seiriol Davies, a regular collaborator of Caroline Horton, is at Assembly George Square with How to Win Against History (main picture), a musical inspired by the life of the flamboyant fifth Marquis of Anglesey. Kai Fischer’s Last Dream (on Earth), designed for headphones, sounds particularly atmospheric, and House and Among the Reeds, a double-bill by Clean Break, the company that makes work exploring the experience of women in the criminal justice system, should make for potent, political theatre.

Underbelly
Though the atmosphere at the Underbelly’s main venue on Cowgate can occasionally resemble the inside of Inspector Rebus’ sock drawer, it’s always a good place to see new writing. This year I’d recommend you catch Mr Incredible, Camilla Whitehill’s follow-up to Where Do Little Birds Go?. Gagglebabble is teaming up with National Theatre Wales to present Wonderman, a “gig-theatre” take on Roald Dahl’s short stories. Gender identity looks like being a key theme this year and Lucy Skilbeck’s Joan is well worth seeing in this respect.

As with last year, the Udderbelly, the upside-down purple cow, will be located in George Square. And 2016 is also the second year of the Circus Hub on the Meadows, Underbelly’s space dedicated to the increasingly rich range of circus acts on the fringe. This is where Camille O’Sullivan will be performing her new show, The Carny Dream.

Gilded Balloon

The Gilded Balloon is pushing its theatre programme this year. In past years it’s felt like more of a comedy venue, but this year it is joining forces with the National Museum of Scotland to create a new performance space. There will also be another new Balloon space at the Counting House, intended for emerging performers and using a pay-what-you-can model. One Day Moko (pictured right), a piece inspired by real encounters with people living on the streets, and the new show from the Tongue Fu team, Animal (Are You a Proper Person), both look interesting.

Summerhall
It’s not one of the ‘big four’, but Edinburgh’s former veterinary college, with its dissection rooms and anatomy theatres repurposed as performance spaces, has rapidly established itself as one of the most important venues on the fringe. The year-round arts space boasts an incredibly rich programme of theatre and visual art. Highlights this year include Inspector Sands’ The Lounge, set in a care home, Heads Up, the new piece by Kieran Hurley, and Francesca Milican Slater’s Stories to Tell in the Middle of the Night. And Letters to Windsor House, the new show by Shit Theatre, sounds like it has the potential to be the company’s most considered show yet.

As with last year there are programmes within programmes at Summerhall. Northern Stage is presenting a number of shows, including Rash Dash’s Two Man show, and the Paines Plough Roundabout is also back in situ, with a programme featuring three world premieres including Loves, Lies and Taxidermy by Alan Harris and Growth by Luke Norris as well as a series of late shows. The courtyard gin bar is also one of the nicest places to drink on the fringe.

Forest Fringe
The Forest Fringe is 10 years old. Deborah Pearson, Andy Field and (latterly) Ira Brand’s alternative festival, a response against the excess of the fringe, is no longer the puppy cocking its leg against Bristo Square. It’s a big dog in its own right – big enough to be staging a retrospective and to be publishing its first book with Oberon.

Now based at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall and running from August 11-20, it’s more chilled out and calming than it used to be – an afternoon here is a balm. There’ll be an opportunity to revisit Dan Canham’s evocative dance piece 30 Cecil Street and Richard DeDomenici attempting to recreate the iconic opening of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting as part of the Redux Project.

Zoo
The two Zoos are always worth a visit particularly if you’re interested in dance and physical theatre. Clown Funeral’s adaptation of Luke Kennard’s poem The Murderer looks intriguing, as does StoneCrabs’ Luna Park, set in the Coney Island amusement park. Footprint’s show Daniel picked up an award at the National Student Drama Festival.

Having said all the above, the whole point of the fringe, some would argue, is to ignore guides like these and go exploring, to follow your gut and your nose. There’s always work of interest to be seen in the various C venues and, latterly, Greenside. If you’re interested in spoken word it’s worth being sweated on in the Banshee Labyrinth. And if you haven’t trod in something dubious at least once, you’re not fringing correctly.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 5-29: edfringe.com. Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and head of our Edinburgh reviewing team