IT CAN be a daunting thing, working your way through an unwieldy festival programme, trying to work out what looks good, what doesn’t and whether you can fit it all in. But one of the many things that the Edinburgh Art Festival has going for it is that the events (exhibitions) are largely free, and so even if, when presented with contemporary art, you feel the urge to mutter “my five year old could do better than this”, the only thing you’ll lose is a few minutes wandering round a gallery before pushing on to the nearest cafe.

Yet it is highly likely that you will find something that you enjoy. This year’s festival takes in the gamut of contemporary and historic art practice, and there are a number of artists blurring boundaries, working across other disciplines, from classical music to poetry, that will appeal to audiences outside hardcore visual art fans. There are also the fabulous Art Late events, which take you on a late tour around a changing roster of galleries, including performances and live music, every Thursday evening.

This is the festival’s 15th year, a bringing together of exhibition spaces, traditional and temporary, across Edinburgh under one umbrella – and one handy programme guide. There are talks and events, both for adults and children, and performances in unexpected places. The “partner exhibitions” are those exhibitions put on by Edinburgh’s galleries, who have always pulled out the big guns for August. Amongst others, I will be heading for “Jacob’s Ladder”, at the Ingleby Gallery in its new premises in Barony Street, exploring, via artist from Katie Paterson to Richard Forster, our attempts to understand the unknown and the vastness of space, to what promises to be an insightful retrospective of two Orcadian photographers and filmmakers, Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait at the Stills Centre for Photography.

Elsewhere there are 8,000 human skulls on display (if in photograph only) at Edinburgh College of Art and discussions and ruminations on migration and Brexit from Deveron Projects at the Royal Scottish Academy. At Dovecot, a major retrospective of Liberty London, the art print fabric studio which produced its first prints in 1875, will run for the duration, displaying textiles and garments ranging from late Victorian to swinging sixties and far beyond.

The City Art Centre is the host for a number of artists, exhibitions and projects, including the Festival’s Platform series, which gives an opportunity to artists just beginning their careers to make new work for the festival – the all-female group this year encompasses cultural identities, vocal narratives and multi-screen installation.

Two major partner exhibitions put their subjects in a British context – Canaletto at the Queens Gallery, Holyrood Palace, and Rembrandt, at the National Gallery. Whilst both share a British slant, the context is very different. Canaletto was commissioned by huge numbers of British aristocracy and collectors, Grand Tourists who couldn’t return home without a Canaletto in tow. Rembrandt, who probably never visited Britain, lit up the 18th century British art market and has influenced artists ever since. The former show is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work seen in Scotland; the latter can only be seen in Edinburgh this summer.

But if the major shows will appeal to the many, the commissions programme is arguably at the heart of the Art Festival. Curated by director Sorcha Carey, this year’s commissions have an undercurrent of the political.

The four new commissions this year include a return visit from renowned Indian artist Shilpa Gupta who gave the keynote lecture at the festival in 2014. This year she presents an audio installation at ECA’s Fire Station, which has at its heart the words of poets imprisoned over the centuries. Her work will also be presented in a special performance in the Burns Monument on Regent Road, which a couple of years ago was host to Jonathan Owen’s powerful re-carved 19th century statue of a female nude. The space, echoic, enclosed, and once “imprisoning” a statue of our own national poet, promises to be an affecting location for Gupta’s work.

Elsewhere Glasgow artist Ruth Ewan brings her “Sympathetic Magick” to the streets and pubs of Edinburgh, essaying the “Class Struggle Rope Trick”, amongst others, with “Marxist magician” Ian Saville. Adam Lewis Jacob’s installation “No Easy Answers” is an experimental intermingling of genres and narratives based around the contested nature of the suburban shopping centre.

And then there is Ross Birrell and David Harding’s collaboration with Syrian composer and violinist Ali Moraly in Trinity Apse, a haunting musical and video installation based around a performance of Henryk Gorecki’s powerful 1976 work, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (no.3), performed by the Athens State Orchestra, the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra and Syrian Soprano Rasha Rizk. On the closing weekend, Moraly will perform his work “Fugue”, composed with Birrell, live, a meditation on the shared etymology of “fugue” and “refugee” providing the springboard for the project - unmissable.

The Edinburgh Art Festival, Institut Francais D’Ecosse, West Parliament Square, Edinburgh, 0131 226 6558, EAF Kiosk: Mon – Sun, 10am – 6pm during festival