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

Both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor are popular vacation spots located on Mount Desert Island in Maine. 

This post will look at the differences between them 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,
Sailing, walking,
whale watching

Top Picks For Southwest Harbor

Best Hotel In Southwest Harbor

Top Activities In Southwest Harbor:

Top Picks For Bar Harbor

Best Hotel In Bar Harbor

Top Activities In Bar Harbor:

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, however, is a lively, bustling harbor town that sits along Frenchman’s Bay. This stunning coastal spot is known for its many yachts and 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.

Bar Harbor has more shops, things to do and a wider range of hotels and restaurants to choose from compared to Southwest Harbor which has very few.

Bar Harbor is much busier and lively compared with 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? Southwest Harbor or Bar Harbor

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. 

The size of the towns is definitely reflected in the atmosphere. Southwest Harbor feels very quiet and has far fewer amenities. 

Bar Harbor is busy, bustling and has tons of restaurants, shops and other amenities to keep you occupied. 

Which Has Better Activities? Southwest Harbor or Bar Harbor

Of the two locations, Bar Harbor is more populated and so it has more options when it comes to activities, dining and shopping.

Both 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. 

You can easily access Acadia National Park from both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor, however Bar Harbor is 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. It has a very relaxing, authentic feel.

Best Activities In Southwest Harbor:

There are some fantastic walking trails available in Southwest Harbor. The idyllic Wonderland trail takes you through a thick bed of wild roses and then ends up alongside the ocean. 

Echo Lake has a sandy beach and 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. 

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 they have kayak and canoe rentals. 

There are 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

Bar Harbor is much more lively that Southwest Harbor and there’s 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:

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 best activities is to join a ship cruise from Bar Harbor. This 2-hour cruise offers unforgettable views of the harbor and Acadia National Park from the ocean. 

Bar Harbor also has several bike rental shops so you can 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.

You can also take a nice stroll along the coast in Bar Harbor. The Shore Path and the Otter Cliffs walks are a great place to do this as they wind along the bay overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Porcupine Islands.

You’ll also find a 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 vs Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor is more populated with hotels and accommodation compared with Southwest Harbor so you’ll have more choice on where to stay.

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.

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.  

Best Hotels In Bar Harbor:

Which Is Better for Nightlife? Southwest Harbor or Bar Harbor

The nightlife is much 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. 

For something a little more lively, go to Joey’s Place Sports Lounge

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.

The Thirsty Whale and the Blues Cafe have live bands that play on the weekends so are also fun places to spend the evening. 

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? Southwest Harbor or Bar Harbor

As Bar Harbor is more commercial it tends to be more expensive than Southwest Harbor. 

You’ll pay 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. 

Both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor are fantastic vacation destinations. 

I hope this article was helpful in highlighting the main differences of Southwest Harbor vs Bar Harbor.

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