Last updated on March 27th, 2020
If you want to skip the introduction and head straight to the list of the best places to visit in East Lothian scroll to the bottom of this page and click on the links to pages 2 and 3.
The complete guide to the best places to visit in East Lothian – from beach to castle
When you think of places to visit in Scotland you might be like the majority of tourists and have all the big-hitters first and foremost in your mind. Edinburgh. Glasgow. The Highlands. The Isle of Skye.
I don’t really blame you, especially if you’re an international visitor because those four places alone will give you a taste of 90% of what the country has to offer.
But have you considered venturing a little further away from the crowded tourist areas so you can enjoy your holiday in peace and quiet?
Scotland has dozens of picturesque regions to visit but even within the open landscapes of the Highlands you’ll find coachloads of tourists going to the exact same places over and over again.
What visitors to our shores need to remember is there are lots of other areas that offer fantastic experiences off the standard tourist trails, and all of them have plenty of unique attractions to offer.
In this article, I’m going to share with you a region that I consider a bit of a hidden gem and one that’s criminally under-visited by tourists.
The place in question is East Lothian in the south-east of Scotland, and if you bear with me I’ll show you exactly why I think you should make a visit to this part of the country a top priority.
What’s East Lothian like?
You might be asking yourself why anyone should bother visiting a small, rural, relatively unknown part of Scotland when you could just as easily spend your holiday in Edinburgh or Skye.
To begin, (according to the UK Met Office) it’s one of the sunniest and warmest areas of northern Britain with average minimum temperatures dropping to just 2 °c in winter compared to -2 °c in the Highlands, and summer temperatures soaring to an average 20 °c compared to less than 17 °c in most other parts of the country.
The reason we get such good weather is the fact that we’re situated quite far south compared to much of Scotland, lying on roughly the same latitude as Edinburgh (East Lothian is the next county along to the east), and nestled on the east coast where it’s frequently drier than the west where downpours are brought in from the Atlantic Ocean.
That’s not to say you won’t get long balmy days on the west coast (try telling that to anyone on the sunny Isle of Tiree) but we do tend to get more of them on the eastern side of the country.
According to the Met Office, East Lothian bathes in an average 1400 hours of sunshine annually, although due to the haar (a sea-fog that rolls in off the Firth of Forth) you’ll find some coastal towns and villages have a slightly lower average temperature than those further inland.
But as far as the location goes I reckon this county has to be in one of the UK’s prime spots.
As I already mentioned, the city of Edinburgh borders East Lothian on its eastern edge so it’s dead easy to get into one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations if you want to combine city and the great outdoors in one holiday, but we’re in a great location to reach other parts of Scotland too.
The Scottish Borders lie to the south, with the English county of Northumberland not too much of a distance beyond, and thanks to well-maintained link roads like the A1 and A697 you can drive from East Lothian’s main town of Haddington to the major English city of Newcastle in just under two hours.
Head west on the M8 and you’ll be able to reach Glasgow from Haddington in around 90 minutes while Stirling can be driven to in around an hour, all of which makes East Lothian a great place to use as a base to explore southern Scotland.
But what about if you just want to stay in the county? Well I don’t think you’ll be disappointed as it’s spectacularly pretty in most parts and features a diverse range of coastline, forests, rivers and countryside, with many areas being only lightly populated.
It’s true that East Lothian is a rural county and a lot of it is used for farmland, but it’s grown in popularity in recent years thanks to the gorgeous beaches that border the Firth of Forth, and new tourist attractions seem to be popping up all over the place.
From Musselburgh in the west to Dunbar in the east, the East Lothian coastline forms a sweeping arc across 40 miles where some of the most scenic headlands and bays in Scotland can be found, and because it’s not seen as an obvious choice for holidaymakers you’ll often find these areas are totally devoid of bustling crowds.
If you’ve ever visited Skye in summer you’ll appreciate how much of a bonus it is to be able to enjoy the Scottish countryside in peace and quiet. But not only that, because we’re on the east coast we’re not plagued by swarms of midges either. Phew!
Things to do in East Lothian
So what is there to do in East Lothian?
Well, we’ve got mile after mile of beautiful, unspoilt coastline to enjoy, whether it’s the small stretch of beach at Musselburgh (an easy bus ride from Edinburgh city centre) or the wide expanses of golden sand at Yellowcraig (not far from the lovely town of North Berwick).
You’ll also find a stunning collection of nature reserves – with the John Muir Country Park being a firm favourite with locals – closely followed by Aberlady Bay and Gullane Bents, and because it’s bordered by the sea on it’s northern and eastern sides you’ll find some of the best bird-watching sites in the country.
In fact, if you’re a self-confessed twitcher you’ll find East Lothian to be a great place to watch Scotland’s wildlife, especially at North Berwick where you can visit the National Seabird Centre perched on the town’s seafront looking out towards the Bass Rock – which is home to one of the biggest colonies of gannets on earth.
It’s been said (by David Attenburgh no less…or was it Chris Packham?) that the Bass Rock is one of the true natural wonders of the world, and you can even take a boat tour out to it to see the birds up-close and personal. Fantastic stuff.
If you’re looking for family days out you’ll struggle to find better attractions than the ones East Lothian offers and for such a compact region there are a huge number of places to visit.
Looking to let the kids go wild and burn off some energy? Take them to East Links Family Park with its family-friendly rides, adventure playgrounds and farm animals.
Or how about looking at one of Europe’s best collections of aircraft at The National Museum of Flight, or seeing how Scotch whisky is made at the Glenkinchie Distillery?
You’ll find all these attractions and many more within a relatively short distance of each other in East Lothian, plus of course, it’s close to the city of Edinburgh so you can always take a train or hop on a bus and be in the city centre within an hour of most stations.
The best towns in East Lothian
There are lots of pretty rural towns and villages in this county, although many of them are quite sleepy (i.e. there’s not much going on) so they might not be quite what you’re looking for if you’ve come to Scotland to enjoy an exciting holiday.
That being said, if you’ve got a hire car you’ll be able to get to the nicest parts of the county easily enough and many of the larger towns are worth visiting in their own right.
I’ll list a few of the most important/tourist-worthy East Lothian towns below.
North Berwick is a lovely seaside town on the eastern side of the county roughly 20 miles northeast of Edinburgh that has two glorious sandy bays, golf courses to the east and west, and a boatload of popular attractions.
It’s a quaint town with lots of artisan craft shops and really good restaurants, but most people visit it to enjoy the seaside atmosphere.
If you stand anywhere on the coastline of North Berwick and look out to sea you’ll notice the gleaming white pinnacle of the Bass Rock jutting out of the waves with clouds of swirling seabirds filling the sky overhead. It’s quite a sight and I totally recommend you visit the Scottish Seabird Centre to take a boat out to the island of Fidra and the rock to see these natural wonders up close.
Another highlight of the town is something that looks a bit like a volcano rising out of the ground not far from the town centre, and in fact, that’s exactly what it is.
North Berwick Law is a 187-metre volcanic hill that offers stunning views at the top, with the dramatic Tantallon Castle clearly visible to the east and Yellowcraig beach a short distance away to the west.
These attractions alone make North Berwick worthy of a visit, and I have to say this picturesque coastal town is my favourite place to visit in East Lothian on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Dunbar is located around 30 miles east of Edinburgh and 30 miles north of the English border, with good transport links from the capital city so it can be reached by train in under half an hour.
There’s a lot of history in the town and one of the most influential people in the history of conservation was born there – John Muir – who later went on to establish the great American National Parks of Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia National Park.
The work of John Muir has been immortalized in Scotland with the 134-mile John Muir Way walk and cycle trail that stretches across the country from Helensburgh in the west to Dunbar in the east, and it’s fitting that Dunbar is the location for a museum devoted to him.
Dunbar is renowned for it’s record levels of sunshine and Sunny Dunny, as it’s known, enjoys one of the driest climates in Scotland with a mere 600mm of rainfall annually.
This balmy (for Scotland) weather means it’s perfect for enjoying the great outdoors and I can’t think of many nicer places to go for a walk than the nearby John Muir Country Park with it’s picturesque combination of beaches, grassland, mudflats and forest.
If you’d like to explore the town’s history then I suggest heading down to the harbour and wandering around the 11th-century Dunbar Castle which used to be one of the most formidable fortresses in Scotland. These days it’s just a ruined shamble of walls but it offers an interesting insight into the past of this quiet East Lothian town.
Although Haddington is the administrative centre of east Lothian, the town with the biggest population is Musselburgh.
That’s probably because nowadays it’s basically part of Edinburgh and you can easily drive or take the bus from the city centre in around 20 minutes, and as it’s paved the entire way you can even walk to it if you want (not that many people would choose to walk 6 miles through the city when there are the fantastic Lothian Buses available).
Musselburgh is pretty much the next settlement along the Firth of Forth from Leith and it’s most notable for the stretch of beach that’s always busy at the weekends in summer with Edinburgh locals looking to make the most of the little seaside town they’ve got on their doorstep.
Another big draw for visitors is the racecourse which is the oldest in Scotland having opened all the way back in 1816. If you like the odd flutter on the horses then Musselburgh racecourse is well worth visiting and it’s even attained a coveted five-star visitor rating, so I recommend you take a look at the Musselburgh Racecourse website to find out the list of upcoming fixtures.
There seems to be a link between history and sport in Musselburgh because the oldest surviving golf club in the world is located in the town as well, with the 9-hole Musselburgh Links course being recorded in history books as early as 1672, and it was used by James IV over a hundred years before that. Not a bad sporting pedigree for a quiet coastal town in East Lothian.
Haddington is the geographical centre of East Lothian and is also its administration centre. While it’s not considered a particularly big town in modern times there’s a lot of history within its boundaries and at one point it was the fourth biggest town in Scotland.
You’ll find Haddington around 17 miles east of Edinburgh so it’s easy to drive to using the nearby dual-carriageway, and the town centre has all the usual country shops as well as few big retailers making it a useful destination for shopping if you’re staying in the area.
There’s not a huge amount to do in Haddington to be honest as it’s just a sleepy farming community but there’s a good farmers market held there on the last Saturday of every month and the 700-year old St. Mary’s Collegiate Church is the biggest parish church in Scotland.
Nearby attractions include the Historic Environment Scotland managed Hailes Castle which is free to visit and has a lovely setting on the bank of the River Tyne, and Lennoxlove House which is a large 15th-century tower house that’s open to the public for guided tours.
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