The Best Places to Visit in East Lothian – Ultimate Visitor Guide

Out About Scotland includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The historic county of East Lothian is situated to the east of Edinburgh and Midlothian, and to the north of the Scottish Borders. Although it’s not one of the main tourist destinations in Scotland it has some of the country’s best attractions including The Scottish Seabird Centre, Bass Rock, The National Museum of Flight, and a multitude of golden beaches.

Discover the best places to visit in East Lothian in this ultimate visitor guide which includes details of the top tourist attractions, the main towns, facts about the weather, and how to travel around the county.

east lothian

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 and drag to move and zoom in and out of this interactive map. Click the markers to visit each Out About Scotland attraction information page.

Bass Rock

Address: Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick, EH39 4SS

Contact details: Telephone: 01620 890202

Out About Scotland complete guide: Bass Rock

Bass Rock

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 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 on 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 – 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 agile (and noisy) birds up close.

You can read all about this attraction with my Complete Guide to The Bass Rock.


Dirleton Castle

Address: Dirleton, East Lothian, EH39 5ER

Contact details: Telephone: 01620 850 330

Out About Scotland complete guide: Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

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 has a couple of secrets that I bet you wouldn’t expect in a sleepy hamlet like this.

First, 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.


Dunbar Harbour

Address: Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1HU

Contact details: NA

Out About Scotland complete guide: Dunbar Harbour

Dunbar Harbour

Dunbar might not be the first place you think of when it comes to tourist attractions, but this historic town has a surprising amount of things to see and do.

As the birthplace of famed conservationist John Muir, Dunbar is proud to have a museum devoted to him as well as a large nature reserve next to Belhaven Bay, and there are a number of superb golden beaches on either side of this section of East Lothian’s coastline.

Another attraction that’s often missed by visitors is the historic 17th-century fishing harbour on the eastern edge of the town. The harbour is still in use for commercial fishing vessels but it’s mainly used by private pleasure boats so it’s a world away from the 1600s when Dunbar was one of the busiest herring ports in Scotland.

Walking along the 300-year-old harbour walls is like taking a wee trip back in time as much of the original harbour is still intact – as is the Dunbar Battery situated to the north.

The battery had several uses over the years as a weapons store and a military hospital but these days it’s mainly used as an open air venue for concerts. During the day, tourists are welcome to climb the battlements to view the panoramic views of Dunbar’s coastline and there are information panels throughout the site that explain the harbour’s use as a fishing port and a military base over the years.

An even older historic building is Dunbar Castle which lies on the opposite end of the old Victoria Harbour. This is a small fortification that’s sadly off limits to the public but it’s worth viewing as its strategic location is the main reason why the town exists. In fact, it’s believed that a fortification has stood on this exact spot for over 2,000 years.

Those looking for a little more action can charter boats that will take them into the North Sea for a sea fishing experience, and there’s also a dive school that takes visitors around several wrecks close to Victoria Harbour.


East Links Family Park

Address: Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1XF

Contact details: Telephone 01368 863 607

Out About Scotland complete guide: East Links Family Park

East Links Family Park in East Lothian

This farm-themed attraction near Dunbar is set in 20-acres of land that features lots of activities for children and 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.


Hailes Castle

Address: Hailes Castle, Haddington, EH41 4PY

Contact details: NA

Out About Scotland complete guide: Hailes Castle

Hailes Castle

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 attractive 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.


John Muir Country Park

Address: John Muir Country Park, Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1XF

Contact details: Telephone: +44 (1620) 827421

Out About Scotland complete guide: John Muir Country Park

John Muir Country Park

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 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 diverse the park 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.


The National Flag Centre

Address: Athelstaneford Parish Church, Main Street, Athelstaneford, East Lothian, EH39 5BE

Contact details: email info@scottishflagtrust.com

Out About Scotland complete guide: National Flag Centre

Athelstaneford to Garleton Hills

The National Flag Centre is probably the smallest attraction in East Lothian, as well as being one of the most difficult to find. The centre is situated in the tiny village of Athelstaneford which is set deep in the heart of the county around 3 miles (4.83 km) north-east of Haddington.

Legend has it that the Saltire – the national flag of Scotland – was founded in AD 832 when a battle was fought just outside the village boundary.

An army of Scots found themselves pitched against a much larger army of Anglo-Saxons, and as the Scots King Angus prayed for victory the clouds above his head formed a white cross set against the brilliant blue of an otherwise cloudless sky.

The Scots won the battle and from that moment they took the image of a white cross against a blue background as their national flag, which is now the oldest flag in Europe.

Visitors to Athelstaneford will find a museum dedicated to the Saltire behind the village church which has several information panels as well as an informative video that explains the battle in detail. Curiously, this museum is the only one in Scotland that’s located inside a Doocot (an old pigeon coop) so as you can imagine it’s not exactly big, but it’s certainly interesting.

After seeing the museum, visitors can take a pleasant walk through the countryside behind Athelstaneford where they will get a better view of the landscape that inspired the Saltire.

The waymarked trail starts opposite the church and continues across fields to the single-storey 16th-century Barnes Castle before finishing at the Hopetoun Monument which is a memorial dedicated to the 4th Earl of Hopetoun.

The monument is privately run but is open for free entry most days, with a winding staircase up the tower that takes visitors onto a platform that has unrivalled views of East Lothian’s countryside.


The National Museum of Flight

Address: East Fortune Airfield, East Lothian, EH39 5LF

Contact details: Telephone: 0300 123 6789

Out About Scotland complete guide: National Museum of Flight

National Museum of Flight

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 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 next to 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.


North Berwick Law

Address: Law Road, North Berwick, East Lothian

Contact details: Telephone 01620827459 (Countryside officer)

Out About Scotland complete guide: North Berwick Law

Berwick Law

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 conical hill 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.


Pressmennan Wood

Address: Dunbar EH42 1TG

Contact details: NA

Out About Scotland complete guide: Pressmennan Wood

Pressmennan Wood

There are many woodlands in East Lothian but this one near East Linton is recommended for a number of reasons.

First, it has a number of paths that criss-cross through the woodland allowing visitors to explore it from corner to corner, and second, due to its remote location there are never more than a handful of people in the wood at any time.

Pressmennan Wood is also the location of Pressmennan Lake (one of only four designated lakes in Scotland) which is full of wildfowl, and it’s a favourite hunting site for owls, otters, and bats, as well as a place for roe deer to forage for food. If you enjoy watching wildlife, you’ll love Pressmennan Wood.

The site is managed by The Woodland Trust which has built a small car park near the entrance and they’ve done a great job of gravelling large sections of the paths meaning they’re accessible by wheelchair for most of the year. That being said, visit in winter and you’ll find it’s a different story, especially if you take the lower path next to the lake as it can turn into a bit of a quagmire from start to finish.

The broadleaved woodland becomes a vision of browns, reds, and yellows in autumn which makes a nice change from the pine trees that cover most of Scotland, and while it’s not exactly a rival to Perthshire’s Big Tree Country it’s equally scenic.

In addition, Pressmennan Wood is close to two other wildlife havens that are stunning throughout the year. The first is the Lammermuir Hills which are easily accessed from the B6355, and the second is Woodhall Dean Wildlife Reserve which is an ancient woodland that’s home to rare Sessile Oak.

Visiting Pressmennan Wood shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, but by combining a trip with either of those other attractions you’ll have a full days-worth of lovely nature-filled walks.


Book now & save

scotland mountains

Prestongrange Museum

Address: Morison’s Haven, Prestonpans, East Lothian, EH32 9RX

Contact details: Tel 0131 653 2904

Out About Scotland complete guide: Prestongrange Museum

Prestongrange

Prestonpans near Musselburgh is a prime example of East Lothian’s long-vanished mining industry. Like many of the county’s rural villages, Prestonpans lies on a large seam of coal but what sets it apart is the fact the village is also close to the sea, meaning it had a profitable salt-panning industry in addition to coal mining.

For over 800 years the harbour at Prestonpans saw goods sail in and out in quantities that rivalled Leith in Edinburgh, but with the decline in coal mining in the 1960s the port was abandoned and so was the Prestongrange mine behind it.

Today, the buildings that comprise Prestongrange have been partially restored and are accessible to the public as a free-to visit open air museum compete with an audio tour. It’s not as impressive as the National Mining Museum in Gorebridge admittedly, but it’s an interesting place to visit and there’s enough to see to keep visitors occupied for the best part of an hour.

You’ll find the museum on the B1348 just after the entrance to Levenhall Links leisure park. There’s a parking area outside the museum on a tarmacked road which runs past a small visitor centre (only open in summer) with several buildings spread across the site in all directions.

Note that none of these buildings are open to the public to enter except on pre-booked guided tours, but you can walk around them at any time and (rather unusually) the audio tour is accessed via a phone number so you can listen to it on your mobile device 24 hours a day.

When you’ve finished exploring Prestongrange I recommend heading across the other side of the road to try to find the remains of the abandoned harbour before walking along the sea front to access Levenhall Links.

This is the site where mined rocks and coal slag from Prestongrange mine were deposited. For many years the site was cordoned off for safety reasons, but it is now open as a wildlife reserve.

A number of freshwater lagoons have been built inside the renovated waste ground which are a haven for wildfowl, and visitors are welcome to view them from three purpose-built bird watching hides.

If you’re thinking about picking up a pair of birdwatching binoculars take a look at my Guide to Birdwatching Binoculars which has a selection of great value optics.


Preston Mill

Address: Preston Road, East Linton, EH40 3DS

Contact details: Tel 01620 860426

Out About Scotland complete guide: Preston Mill

Preston Mill

As a county that’s often called ‘the nation’s larder’ it’s no surprise that East Lothian is home to some of the most picturesque farming landscapes in Scotland.

There are hundreds of historic farm buildings in the quaint villages that dot this underrated part of the country, but one of the best-known is located next to the babbling waters of the River Tyne in East Linton.

Preston Mill is set in an extraordinarily pretty area with rolling hills spread out in all directions which are only broken by the sleepy village to the west. In fact, it’s so attractive the epic 134-mile John Muir Way briefly diverts through it on its way to its end point at Dunbar.

This grain mill was built in the 18th-century and saw commercial use right up until the 1950s, after which it was purchased by the National Trust for Scotland who renovated the buildings back to how they would have looked over two hundred years ago.

There’s no fee to walk around the outside of the buildings (as long as the gate is unlocked), but there’s a small fee to join a guided tour which takes visitors inside to hear stories of how grain was milled back in the day and what life was like for the people who worked there.

It shouldn’t take much more than an hour to complete a visit (including the tour) but at least the mill is close to a number of other attractions that are within a short drive including Hailes Castle, Traprain Law, and the National Museum of Flight.

There are a couple of unusual features of Preston Mill that have gained it a small amount of fame, including the very unusual Dutch-style conical roof on the mill house which is unlike any other in Scotland, and the Phantassie Doocot – one of the largest pigeon coops in Scotland – which lies a half mile to the south.

An interesting point to note is that the mill was used during filming of the TV series Outlander so it’s often visited by fans of the show. If you’d like to know more about sites used as Outlander locations take a look at this article: Outlander Filming Locations Near Edinburgh.


Seacliff Beach

Address: North Berwick, EH39 5PP

Contact details: NA

Out About Scotland complete guide: Seacliff Beach

seacliff beach

There are more than 40 miles of pristine beaches along East Lothian’s coastline and all of them offer something a little different. Gullane, for example, is wide and long, while Yellowcraig is close to woodland and has lovely walks through sand dunes.

My personal favourite of them all though, has to be Seacliff beach located a couple of miles south of North Berwick. It’s not the biggest beach by any means but it’s wide with a shallow, enclosed bay that’s perfect for paddling about in and there are large exposed areas of bedrock that are great places to let the kids explore.

Tantallon Castle lies a mile to the north so it’s possible to walk to it from Seacliff beach and there’s a coastal footpath in the opposite direction that takes walkers on a very picturesque stroll to Tyneinghame beach which is much bigger but more exposed to the North Sea.

The bonus of having so much raised bedrock in the bay is that it offers protection from waves – especially if the wind is blowing from the east – making Seacliff beach one of the safest on the south-east coast.

The crescent shape of the bay also means sunbathers can tuck themselves away at the back of the beach and be almost completely protected from the wind – which is no mean feat for this part of Scotland.

To get to Seacliff beach follow the A198 a mile south of the turning to Tantallon Castle and join a single-track farm road which has a barrier with paid entry and a grass parking area.

There are no facilities at Seacliff beach but you’ll find a cliff-top café a couple of miles to the north at Drift, or you can drive three miles to a Tesco superstore in North Berwick.


Seton Collegiate

Address: Longniddry, EH32 0PG

Contact details: Tel 01875 813334

Out About Scotland complete guide: Seton Collegiate

Seton Collegiate Church

Seton Collegiate is a historic attraction located near the village of Longniddry that’s managed by Historic Environment Scotland. The church dates back to the 1200s but it’s remarkably well-preserved thanks to the restoration work undertaken by HES who charge a small entrance fee for the upkeep of the building and maintenance of the car park.

As churches go this is one of the smallest in HES’s roster but it’s no less interesting for it, and it offers an interesting insight into Scotland’s religious history.

The church was originally designed by the wealthy Preston family as a collegiate to train priests and was expanded several times into the building we see today, but it fell out of use after the Jacobite-supporting Preston’s lost their power during the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Today, Seton Collegiate is a fine example of medieval architecture and is a popular attraction thanks to its manicured gardens and intricate external stonework that’s reminiscent of the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian.

Sadly, while Rosslyn Chapel is full of attractive carvings on the inside, Seton Collegiate is quite plain, but at least there are lots of information panels that help to explain the story of the Preston family and the reasons why they built such a large college.

Next to the collegiate is a very grand castle that looks like it’s part of the attraction but is, in fact, privately owned and off limits.

However, if you’d like to experience a wee bit more history you’ll find the Battle of Prestonpans viewing platform a mile west on the A198 where you can view the site of one of the most important battles of the Jacobite uprising.


Tantallon Castle

Address: Tantallon Castle, Near North Berwick, East Lothian, EH39 5PN

Contact details: Tel 01620 892 727

Out About Scotland complete guide: Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle

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 Seacliff 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 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.


Yellowcraig Beach

Address: Yellowcraig, North Berwick, EH55

Contact details: Tel 01620 827459

Out About Scotland complete guide: Yellowcraig Beach

Yellowcraig Beach

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 has a picnic area and public toilets on one side while the other has a 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 has 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 in summer. For the rest of the year it’s actually surprisingly quiet though.

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.


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

north berwick coast

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

Dunbar Harbour

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.


Musselburgh

Musselburgh

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

The Best Places to Visit in East Lothian - Ultimate Visitor Guide 25

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.


Travel in East Lothian

dunbar

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.

bass rock

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?

Maybe you fancy having a bet at Musselburgh Racecourse or seeing where the creator of the world’s greatest national parks was born at the John Muir Birthplace Museum in Dunbar?

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.

Discover East Lothian in 360° with this article: Virtual Tours of Attractions in East Lothian.

East Lothian

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

What is the weather like in East Lothian?

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.

How can I travel to East Lothian?

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.

Where are the main towns in East lothian?

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.

What are the top attractions in East lothian?

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.

More outdoors and nature articles

  • Where Can You See the Northern Lights in Scotland?
    The dancing, skipping, multi-coloured lights of the aurora borealis are caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with the earths magnetic field, and they are most visible in northern countries like Scotland. In this article you’ll discover the best places to view the northern lights in Scotland, as well tips to help you see them and information on Scotland’s fabulous dark sky parks.
  • The Best Munros in Scotland – Ultimate Visitor Guide
    Munros are mountains in Scotland that are over 3,000 feet in height. They can be found in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Western Isles and Central Scotland. Discover the best Munros to climb, the easiest, the highest and advice for Munro bagging in this ultimate guide.
  • The Best Lochs in Scotland – Ultimate Visitor Guide
    There are more than 30,000 lochs in Scotland and the majority are located in the Scottish Highlands, including the tourist-favourites of Ness, Lomond and Shiel. Discover a collection of wonderful Scottish lochs in this article that delves deep into what makes each one such a special place, along with details of what you can expect to find when you visit them.
  • The Best Outdoor Winter Activities in Scotland
    Winter is an amazing time to be in Scotland, especially if you love exploring the great outdoors. There’s something magical about the country when winter visits and there are more things to do in this season than you might expect. In this article I’ll show you the top activities to enjoy in Scotland between November and March whether you want to see wildlife, go on an invigorating walk or take part in exciting sports, along with a couple of other winter activities that just might surprise you.
Best places to visit east lothian

Don’t forget to bookmark Out About Scotland to discover the best places to visit in Scotland, learn what to do in each region and get suggestions for top tourist attractions to add to your Scottish sightseeing itinerary.

By Craig Neil

Scotland travel writer and specialist 360° photographer. Founder of the Out About Scotland travel website and Vartour virtual tours.