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Southwest Harbor vs Bar Harbor – Which One Should You Visit?

On my recent trip to Maine, I actually visited both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor whilst I was in the area.

I know that a lot of people have trouble deciding between these two so, seeing as I’ve been to both, I thought I’d put together this guide comparing them.

This post will look at the differences to help you decide where to visit on your next trip! It covers hotels, activities, atmosphere, nightlife and more!

Summary – Southwest Harbor vs Bar Harbor

Southwest HarborBar Harbor
Less choice for dining,
shopping & activities
Wide range of restaurants,
shops & activities
Access to Acadia
National Park
Access to Acadia
National Park
Quiet, not busyBusy & bustling
Relaxed feelMore commercial
Less expensiveMore expensive
Walking, swimming,
biking
Sailing, walking,
whale watching

I absolutely loved both of these little towns but I definitely preferred Bar Harbor over Southwest Harbor.

Bar Harbor was way more lively and there were just more things to do which really appealed to me.

Top Picks For Southwest Harbor

Best Hotel In Southwest Harbor: Harbor Ridge

Top Activities In Southwest Harbor:

Top Picks For Bar Harbor

Best Hotel In Bar Harbor: Port Inn Bar Harbor

Top Activities In Bar Harbor:

Acadia National Park

Locally referred to as ‘Quietside’, Southwest Harbor is a peaceful little sailing town that sits on the south side of Mount Desert Island. 

Bar Harbor, on the other hand, is a lively bustling harbor town that sits along Frenchman’s Bay. This stunning coastal spot is known for its many yachts & boats and spectacular views of the ocean. 

One of the main attractions on Mount Desert Island is the Acadia National Park which features jagged Atlantic coastline, epic wildlife viewing opportunities and so much more. You can explore this incredible national park by joining a bus tour.

Both locations are super close to this national park however Bar Harbor is closer to some of the park’s most popular sites and trails including the park loop road.

I noticed that Bar Harbor had way more shops, things to do and a wider range of hotels and restaurants to choose from compared to Southwest Harbor which had very few.

I also found Bar Harbor to be way busier and lively compared to Southwest Harbor, especially in the peak summer months from June to September. 

If you’re looking for a quiet, peaceful town then Southwest Harbor may suit you well. 

However, if you want somewhere a bit more lively with lots of shops, restaurants and things to do then head to Bar Harbor. 

Which Is Bigger?

Bar Harbor is much bigger than Southwest Harbor, in fact Bar Harbor is the largest community on Mount Desert Island. 

Bar Harbor covers 163.4km2 of area whereas Southwest Harbor covers just 58.7km2 so it is much smaller.

Southwest Harbor also has a much smaller population with just 1,700 residents. In contrast, Bar Harbor has a population of 5,500. 

I definitely found that the size of the towns was reflected in the atmosphere. Southwest Harbor felt very quiet and had far fewer amenities. 

Bar Harbor was super busy & bustling and had tons of restaurants, shops and other amenities to keep me occupied for a few days. 

Which Has Better Activities?

Acadia National Park

Both towns are close to the Acadia National Park which is one of the USA’s most visited National Parks.

It features woodlands, rocky beaches and granite peaks as well as a variety of wildlife including moose, bears and whales. 

I did spent a lot of my time in the area visiting Acadia and absolutely loved it!

I found that it was pretty easy to access Acadia National Park from both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor, however Bar Harbor was closer to the park’s most popular sites and trails as well as the park loop road.

The best way to see Acadia National Park is by booking a bus tour that will take you to all of the top sights. You could also book a private tour just for you and your group if you prefer. 

There are some excellent hiking trails within the national park. Some of the best are Gorham Mountain, Great Head Loop, Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain.

Activities In Southwest Harbor

Southwest Harbor has fewer amenities and fewer things to do compared with Bar Harbor but there are still some great things to see and do. 

As fewer tourists come to Southwest Harbor, it has more of a small village feel and is never busy. I thought it had a very relaxing, authentic feel.

Best Activities In Southwest Harbor:

There are some fantastic walking trails available in Southwest Harbor. The idyllic Wonderland trail was my favorite as it took us through a thick bed of wild roses and then ended up alongside the ocean. 

Echo Lake was also another highlight for me as it’s a mesmerising sandy beach with stunning bluffs that jut right into the ocean. 

Long Pond has a thrilling cliff that you can jump from or instead you can walk the trail along the water’s edge. I just walked along the trail but if you’re feeling adventurous, you can jump in!

You can also head out into the ocean on a boat tour from the harbor itself. 

There are also several mountains close by (Acadia, Mansell, Bernard and Beech) that provide a variety of trail options, including challenging climbs that lead to impressive panoramic views. 

Head out towards the coastline where you can go swimming, kayaking or canoeing. Kayak tours often head out into the ocean from Southwest Harbor. 

If you want to go freshwater swimming then go to Echo Lake, Long Pond, Somes Pond or Seal Cove Pond. These are also great places to go canoeing, kayaking or paddleboarding! 

If you don’t have your own then head to Long Pond as I noticed they have a lot of kayak and canoe rentals. 

There were only a few restaurants in Southwest Harbor so the selection is very small. You’ll mostly find seafood, including local lobster, in this small harbor town. 

Activities In Bar Harbor

Sand Beach in Bar Harbor

From my own experience, I found that Bar Harbor was way more lively that Southwest Harbor and there was lots more things to see and do. 

As Bar Harbor is where all the action is, the town does get fairly busy, especially from June to September.

Best Activities In Bar Harbor:

You can explore the town of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on this narrated bus tour where you can focus on the scenery instead of driving. 

Bar Harbor gives you access to lots of fun water-centred activities. These include whale watching, kayaking tours and boat tours around the harbor itself. 

One of the highlights of my trip was joining this sailing trip from Bar Harbor. It lasted 2 hours and we sailed up and down the coastline getting breathtaking views of the harbor and Acadia National Park from the ocean. 

I also noticed that Bar Harbor had several bike rental shops so you could spend the day cycling around the town. 

If you don’t want to miss anything in Bar Harbor then join a walking tour of the town. Your knowledgeable tour guide will tell you about the history of the town and tales of the people who used to live there.

I also really enjoyed taking a nice stroll along the coast in Bar Harbor. The Shore Path and the Otter Cliffs walks were my favorites as they wind along the bay overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Porcupine Islands.

I found that there was a really good range of restaurants in Bar Harbor. If you’re a foodie then join a Bar Harbor food tour and eat your way through the town. 

Which Has Better Accommodation?

Southwest Harbor

I found that Bar Harbor had way more choice when it came to hotels and accommodation compared with Southwest Harbor.

Accommodation In Southwest Harbor

Even though there is less choice compared with Bar Harbor, there are still a few comfortable places to stay in Southwest Harbor but there’s very few hotels. It’s mostly vacation rentals.

Many people also opt to stay at a local campsite in Southwest Harbor such as Quietside Campground

Best Hotels In Southwest Harbor:

Accommodation in Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor offers a wide range of hotels that line the waterfront of the harbor itself offering an idyllic location to spend the night.  

I ended up staying at the Port Inn which was a comfortable place to stay. It was super clean, modern and well located.

Best Hotels In Bar Harbor:

Which Is Better for Nightlife?

Sunset at Bar Harbor

I found that the nightlife was way more lively in Bar Harbor compared with Southwest Harbor.

Nightlife In Southwest Harbor

There isn’t much of a nightlife scene in Southwest Harbor but there is a small range of bars you can go to for a quiet drink. 

Chill out with a craft beer at The Upper Deck which is a chilled out waterfront restaurant and bar. You could also head to Sips for a drink or two. 

I also really loved Joey’s Place Sports Lounge as it was a bit more lively.

Nightlife In Bar Harbor

Nightlife in Bar Harbor is fun and vibrant. There is a range of bars and music venues where you can happily spend an evening. 

Carmen Verandah and the Lompoc Cafe are both great places if you’re looking for somewhere with music where you can dance.

I also loved spending time at The Thirsty Whale and the Blues Cafe as they have live bands that play on the weekends.

There’s a wide range of bars in Bar Harbor so whether you’re looking for a quiet drink or a place to dance the night away, you’ll find it all here.

Which Is More Affordable?

I noticed that as Bar Harbor was more commercial it tended to be more expensive than Southwest Harbor. 

I paid slightly more for accommodation, food and transport in Bar Harbor. 

Despite the extra cost, Bar Harbor provides the ultimate convenience as it has a wide range of amenities to choose from and you’ll definitely have everything you need. 


And that’s it!

Thanks for reading my guide on the differences between Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor.

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Megan Jones is a travel expert and founder of Traveller's Elixir who has been travelling the world full time since 2021. Megan's travel tips been featured in numerous media outlets including Metro, Timeout, Thrillist and more.

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