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Last updated on April 14th, 2021
East Lothian is situated near Edinburgh (it’s the next county to the east) and it’s one of the top visitor destinations in Scotland thanks to amazing tourist attractions that include The Scottish Seabird Centre and The National Museum of Flight. Discover the best places to visit in East Lothian in this complete guide.
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 good taste of everything that Scotland 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 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.
However, there are lots of other areas that offer fantastic experiences off the standard tourist trails, and most of them have unique attractions that you won’t find in the main tourist hotspots.
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.
The place in question is East Lothian in the southeast of Scotland, and if you’d like to know more about it you’ll find a collection of recommended attractions in the list below, followed by useful information that will help you make the most of your visit.
Map of places to visit in East Lothian
Click map for directions
- Yellowcraig beach
- North Berwick Law
- Hailes Castle
- Dirleton Castle
- The National Museum of Flight
- Tantallon Castle
- John Muir Country Park
- The Scottish Seabird Centre
- Bass Rock
- (A) East Links Family Park
The following list includes some of my favourite places to visit in East Lothian and I can safely say they all offer a good day out. I’ve tried to include a mix of paid and free attractions as well as a bit of history, countryside and a few family-friendly attractions.
Tourist attractions in East Lothian
East Links Family Park
Address: Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1XF
Website: East Links Family Park
Contact details: Telephone 01368 863 607
This farm-themed attraction near Dunbar is set in 20-acres of land that includes a host of activities and things to do for children and their parents.
The great thing about East Links Family Park is that once they’re through the doors you can let your kids zoom off and run wild without having to worry about them, because this attraction is absolutely chock-a-block full of fun – and safe – things to do.
There’s a brilliant fort where you can race to the top on a spiders web of nets before battering each other with foam balls. There’s a pedal-power race track where you can zoom to the finish line on single-seat go-karts. There’s a giant bouncy trampoline where you can perform all manner of mid-air stunts, and there’s a selection of slides, swings and roundabouts to bomb about on.
Who says playtime is just for kids?
Other highlights include a series of enclosures with herds of deer, llama and farm animals, and another go-kart track that cuts right through the enclosures so you can stop to feed the animals as you make your way around.
There’s even a train ride that puffs its way along the perimeter of the park and a water park so you can soak each other to your heart’s content.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to East Links Family Park.
The National Museum of Flight
Address: East Fortune Airfield, East Lothian, EH39 5LF
Website: The National Museum of Flight
Contact details: Telephone: 0300 123 6789
East Linton might not seem a likely candidate for the location of a national museum, but the restored WWII airfield just outside the village has been faithfully restored so that it now contains one of the finest collections of aircraft in Europe.
This is one of those Scottish attractions that offers something of interest to all ages, whether they’re a middle-aged mum and dad, a pensioner, teenager or a young child.
The organisers of the collection have gone to great lengths to make the museum as educational as it is fun and you’ll find display boards alongside each aircraft that tell you all about their history and the role they played in Britain’s skies.
The aircraft are split into three sections with two enormous hangars housing rare and exotic examples of military and civilian aircraft and a number of larger planes outside that can be clambered aboard and walked around.
The highlight of the collection is the museum’s very own Concorde and if it was ever your ambition to go inside one you can do just that at The National Museum of Flight, so hats off to The National Museums of Scotland for making this important part of Britain’s aviation history so accessible.
The museum also has a decent café so you can grab a bite to eat during your visit and the gift shop is one of the best I’ve seen at an attraction like this.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to The National Museum of Flight.
Outdoor places to visit in East Lothian
The Scottish Seabird Centre and Bass Rock
Address: Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick, EH39 4SS
Website: The Scottish Seabird Centre
Contact details: Telephone: 01620 890202
If you ever head to North Berwick you should try to make a point of visiting the seabird centre located near the harbour.
The attraction aims to both entertain and educate people about Scotland’s marine wildlife and it does a great job of making conservation both interesting for adults and fun for children.
The bulk of the seabird centre is located downstairs where you’ll find information displays that tell you all about Scotland’s coastlines and the wildlife that live in them, as well as aquariums full of living specimens collected from the sea.
Upstairs you’ll find a really good café – top tip: get a seat by the window or sit outside in summer for great views of Milsey Bay Beach – and a decent gift shop. You’ll also be able to try some mega-powerful binoculars to look across the water at the enormous Bass Rock.
The world’s biggest colony of gannets live on the rock and watching them take flight as they go on the hunt for their next meal is a real spectacle. But even better than watching them from land is the boat trip that’ll take you to the rock to see these curious (and noisy) birds up close.
You can read all about this attraction with my Complete Guide to The Bass Rock.
John Muir Country Park
Address: John Muir Country Park, Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1XF
Website: East Lothian .gov
Contact details: Telephone: +44 (1620) 827421
The John Muir Country Park can be found near East Links Family Park so if you ever visit the attraction you might as well take the time to explore the beautiful nature reserve next door. Believe me, once you get there you’ll be glad you made the extra journey.
The park borders Belhaven Bay with its glorious expanse of golden sand and the River Tyne, and in between there is a range of wildlife habitats that run through the park towards East Links golf course and beyond.
Once you start exploring I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how peaceful the place is, with sweeping sand dunes next to wide mudflats that border a thick forest of pine trees.
It really is a nature-lovers paradise and I reckon John Muir would be proud to see that such a beautifully-maintained park exists so close to his hometown of Dunbar.
The John Muir Country Park is a great place for walks and there are trails running right through it but if you just want to sit on the beach you’ll find it’s only a short walk from the on-site car park.
There are toilets, showers and BBQ facilities next to the parking area as well, so if you want to have a family day out in summer I can’t think of a better place in East Lothian to visit.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to The John Muir Country Park.
Address: Law Road, North Berwick, East Lothian
Website: East Lothian .gov
Contact details: Telephone 01620827459 (Countryside officer)
If you’ve already been to North Berwick you might have seen an enormous hill dominating the landscape around East Lothian’s northeast corner.
This giant landmark is Berwick Law, a volcanic plug that rises from the earth to a height of nearly 190 metres.
It’s easy to find Berwick Law as it’s well signposted from North Berwick so if you’re in the town to enjoy its beaches, shops or seabird centre you might like to spend an extra hour climbing to the top of the enormous rock that shadows the southern edge of the town.
There’s a winding path that runs all the way to the top of Berwick Law from the car park at the bottom, and although it’s not a long walk it’s quite steep so it’ll likely take you the best part of an hour to get up and down it.
Once you get up there prepare to whip your camera out because the views are absolutely fantastic. To one side you can see Tantallon Castle, towards the sea lies North Berwick with the Bass Rock a short distance away, and to the other side are East Lothian’s best beaches of Yellowcraig and Gullane.
The Law has been used for hundreds of years as a lookout post and there’s an old WWII bunker still up there gazing out across the Firth of Forth for any signs of a long-since-vanished German invasion.
Another historic point of interest are the two enormous whale bones that sit at the top of Berwick Law. The bones form an arch as a commemoration to the whales that were hunted throughout the North Sea by Scotland’s whaling industry.
Thankfully the whaling industry has died out in the UK but the two bones (don’t worry – they’re fibreglass replicas) are a reminder of how times have moved on.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to North Berwick Law.
Address: Yellowcraig, North Berwick, EH55
Website: East Lothian .gov
Contact details: Telephone: 01620827459
Yellowcraig Beach is a great place to spend a sunny afternoon if you’re looking for a nice place to visit in East Lothian.
It’s long enough that you can find a quiet spot, clean enough that you can let the kids run around without worrying they’ll step in something they shouldn’t, and diverse enough that you won’t get bored.
The beach is entered via a decent-size car park that’s got a picnic area and public toilets on one side while the other has a nice little children’s play park, and the surrounding area has lots of paths running through a combination of woodland, wild grassland and sand dunes.
In fact, this area is so nice you could spend the entire day there without even stepping foot onto the beach, especially if you decide to follow the John Muir Way that threads its way through Yellowcraig from Prestonpans to North Berwick.
But it’s the beach that’s the main draw and I have to say it’s one of my favourite stretches of coast in the whole of East Lothian – apart from bank holidays when it gets a bit too busy.
Unfortunately, this is one gem of an attraction that’s seemingly been discovered by the entire county and when the holidays begin it gets quite hectic, so if I was you I’d try to visit it mid-week instead of the weekend.
Just off the shore you can see the nature reserve of Fidra Island that was the inspiration for the book Treasure Island, while golf courses can be found to the east and west along with fields of thick grasses that are a haven for birds and insects.
Behind the beach are wide sweeping arcs of sand dunes that make a great hidden-away picnic spot and a network of rough paths join the site together so you won’t have to go traipsing off-road too much to explore it.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to Yellowcraig Beach.
Castles to visit in East Lothian
Address: Tantallon Castle, Near North Berwick, East Lothian, EH39 5PN
Website: Historic Environment Scotland
Contact details: Telephone: 01620 892 727
Tantallon Castle is one of my favourite historic sites in East Lothian, not only because it’s a fascinating place but also because it’s set in one of the nicest stretches of coastline in the county.
The castle is located close to North Berwick and North Berwick Law so it can be easily combined with a visit to either of those recommended East Lothian highlights, and it also overlooks Seacliffe beach which is the best beach I’ve found so far in Scotland for guddling about in rockpools.
The castle is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland so there are plenty of information boards dotted about if you want to learn about it’s history, and they’ve restored part of the castle walls and towers so that you can climb to the top and get amazing views across the lovely East Lothian countryside.
This sandstone fortress features the last fortified curtain wall that was built in Scotland and with the cliffs of Oxroad Bay bordering the side facing the Firth of Forth it must have been almost impregnable back in the day.
Unfortunately it was left to fall into ruin during the 1650 civil war and wasn’t taken into state care till 1924, but at least it’s now a cared-for attraction that’s open for public admission.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to Tantallon Castle.
Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland. With passes starting at just £35 (as of 2019) it’s an absolute bargain!
Address: Dirleton, East Lothian, EH39 5ER
Website: Historic Environment Scotland
Contact details: Telephone: 01620 850 330
Dirleton Castle can be found a short distance away from Yellowcraig beach in the quiet East Lothian village of Dirleton, and although it’s not one of Historic Environment Scotland’s biggest sites it’s definitely worth visiting.
The castle is in a great location for tourists thanks to nearby beaches like Yellowcraig and Gullane, and you’ve also got North Berwick just up the road with its quaint craft shops and cafés, and dramatic Tantallon Castle a little further around the coast if you’re in the mood for even more Scottish history.
There’s not a huge amount going on in Direlton village but the castle is a great place to visit and it’s got a couple of secrets that I bet you wouldn’t expect in a sleepy hamlet like this.
First off it has the biggest herbaceous border in the world, and even if you’re not particularly interested in gardens I think you’re going to like the one that Dirleton has on show.
Second, the entrance towers are some of the oldest in Scotland, and even though much of the castle is in ruin those towers look like they’ll last another 500 years yet. Look and learn modern house builders…
Other points to note as you visit Dirleton Castle are the dovecote that housed more than a thousand pigeons (a popular food source in the middle ages) and the cavernous underground cellars where grains and beer were stored for the lean winter months.
You can read all about this attraction in my Complete Guide to Dirleton Castle.
Address: Hailes Castle, Haddington, EH41 4PY
Website: Historic Environment Scotland
Contact details: Hailes Castle is unmanned.
The sleepy, rural area between Haddington and East Linton is one place in Scotland that you’ve possibly got no intention of visiting, but I can at least suggest one good reason why you should try to head out there – Hailes Castle.
This 14th-century ruin is a bit of a hidden gem in my opinion, not just because it’s free to enter (I like free) but because it’s set in a remarkably peaceful riverside setting next to the River Tyne.
There are loads of great walks in this part of East Lothian and I think it’s the perfect place to forget about the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh (just 40-minutes away by car) but it’s also an interesting historic attraction.
Like Dirleton Castle, Hailes is really just a collection of ramshackle ruined walls, but you can still get a real sense of how grand it must have been back in the 1300s.
Apparently the Hepburn family (the original owners of Hailes Castle) were renowned for entertaining guests and they must have had a great time in this peaceful setting next to the river. While you won’t be able to have your own grand banquet in the castle grounds I think the bank of the River Tyne is a perfect spot for a summer picnic.
Just don’t forget to pack your Scotch eggs (which you can learn how to make in my Guide to Traditional Scottish Food You Have to Try).
You can read all about this attraction with my Complete Guide to Hailes Castle.
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 for 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 nice 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 Dunbar Harbour and taking a look at 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 history 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. In fact, 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 speedy 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 the Musselburgh races are well worth attending and the racecourse has even attained a coveted five-star visitor rating.
Take a look at the Musselburgh Racecourse website to view the list of upcoming races.
There’s a long association with sport in Musselburgh because the oldest surviving golf club in the world is located in the town, with the 9-hole Musselburgh Links course being recorded in government records as far back as 1672. Not a bad sporting pedigree for a quiet coastal town in East Lothian.
At this point, I have to give a mention to the village of Prestonpans which is the next village along to the east of Musselburgh.
Not only was it the site of one of the most important events in Scottish history – the Battle of Prestonpans where the Jacobites won a major battle – but it’s also home to a nice free attraction at Prestongrange Museum.
Haddington is the geographical centre of East Lothian and it’s also the administrative centre. While it’s not a particularly big town 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 A1 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 Lennoxlove House which is a large 15th-century tower house that’s open to the public for guided tours.
The weather in East Lothian
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 The Highlands or the Isle of Skye.
Well for starters, (according to the UK Met Office) East Lothian is 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 the county gets such good weather is the fact that it is situated quite far south compared to much of Scotland, lying on roughly the same latitude as Edinburgh 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 East Lothian does tend to get more of them.
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.
Before you explore East Lothian check my handy Weather Forecast Map.
Getting around East Lothian
There are plenty of travel options if you want to explore East Lothian but to be honest, as someone that has spent a lot of time there I suggest using a car as your main means of travel due to the fact the county is so rural.
There’s a train line that runs from Musselburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed but it follows the coastline quite closely so isn’t much use if you want to head inland. There are also bus services like East Coast Buses but as they’re quite infrequent they can be a pain to use if you just want to hop-on/hop-off between tourist attractions.
If you have a car you’ll find that Edinburgh borders East Lothian on its eastern edge so it’s very 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 the county is 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 coastlines, forests, rivers and countryside, with many areas being only lightly populated.
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.
Plan your trip across East Lothian with my Scotland Route Planner Map.
Things to do in East Lothian – a summary
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 or the wide expanses of golden sand at Yellowcraig.
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 has 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 to see the birds close up. 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.
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 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.
Well that just about wraps it up for this guide to the best places to visit in East Lothian and I hope you now have some ideas for days out in this often-overlooked county.
It’s easy to get to most of the attractions listed in this article from Edinburgh so if you’re a long-distance traveller and want to explore a little bit of the ‘real’ Scotland away from the usual tourist traps I seriously recommend you give East Lothian a look.
Frequently Asked Questions
East Lothian is 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.
Using the A1 and A697 you can drive to East Lothian’s main town of Haddington from the English city of Newcastle in just under two hours. Head west on the M8 and you’ll be able to reach Haddington from Glasgow in around 90 minutes while the journey from Stirling takes around an hour.
North Berwick is a seaside town on the eastern side of the county roughly 20 miles northeast of Edinburgh.
Dunbar is located around 30 miles east of Edinburgh and 30 miles north of the English border.
Musselburgh is the next settlement along the Firth of Forth from the Edinburgh suburb of Leith.
Haddington is situated approximately 17 miles east of Edinburgh.
Yellowcraig beach, North Berwick Law, Hailes Castle, Dirleton Castle, The National Museum of Flight, Tantallon Castle, John Muir Country Park, The Scottish Seabird Centre, Bass Rock, East Links Family Park.
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