The 8 Best Things to Do in Bar Harbor: Gateway to Acadia
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As is so often the case, I arrive at night. Coming down the hill into Bar Harbor, her lights cast a soft orange glow. The wind is gusting over Frenchman Bay and the water I know is just out of sight is disproportionately quiet despite its size. This is Bar Harbor, Maine, and I’m here for a few days to see what it’s all about and discover things to do in Bar Harbor.
Bar Harbor is the main gateway to Acadia National Park, and it’s where most visitors will base themselves to explore the park. Whether you’re just looking for a Maine vacation getaway in Bar Harbor or you want to dive in to explore Acadia, I’ve got you covered.
I visited Bar Harbor in May 2019 just before the summer season kicked off. Many of the shops and restaurants were still running limited hours if they were open at all – and some tour operators weren’t even starting up for 1-2 more weeks. Nevertheless, I was warmed by the hospitality – and delicious lobster dishes on offer despite the cool weather. Based on my 3 days in Bar Harbor, I’ve put together this great weekend itinerary you can use any time to plan your trip.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Abenaki / Abénaquis, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Wabanaki peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in July 2019, and was updated in June 2022.
When to Visit Bar Harbor & Acadia National Park
As I mentioned, there’s a definite “on” and “off” season in the coastal town of Bar Harbor. While most of Acadia National Park is open year-round and some of the hotels in Bar Harbor stay open year-round too, the main season in Bar Harbor is from May 15th to September 15th each year.
If you visit outside these peak times, you can expect a few things: cooler weather. Fewer businesses are open, or limited hours. Certain tours won’t be available. Oh, and snow. During the winter, Bar Harbor gets up to 68″ (that’s nearly 5 feet!) of snow on average.
How to Get to Bar Harbor
If you’re flying to Maine to visit Acadia National Park, you’ll probably end up flying to either Portland or possibly Bangor. In general, flights to and especially within Maine are pretty expensive, so it might be cheaper to fly to Portland and drive from Portland to Bar Harbor.
It’s a three-hour drive between Portland and Bar Harbor on the fastest route (I-295 and I-95); if you want to take the coastal route for more scenic drives (US-1), this can stretch up to five hours depending on how often you stop and traffic.
When I visited Bar Harbor and Acadia, I flew into Portland and drove to Bar Harbor. It took me about 3.5 hours to get there, and 4.5 hours to get back on the coastal route.
The Best Things to Do in Bar Harbor
Looking out over the water on my first day in Bar Harbor, I was struck by two things: this is a small town – and there are surprisingly a lot of things to do in Bar Harbor! Home to only 5,500 year-round residents, Bar Harbor hosts 3-4 million visitors each year. So yes, there’s plenty for all those folks to do.
1. Visit Acadia National Park
Let’s start with the big one: Acadia National Park. As Maine’s only national park, Acadia is a huge draw, and Bar Harbor is the epicenter for most tourism activities related to the park – it’s a great base especially if you’re not camping in the park itself.
I’ll cover what to do in Acadia in greater detail below, but whether you want to look out from atop Cadillac Mountain, nosh popovers near Jordan Pond, or challenge your hiking skills on miles of trails like The Precipice, Acadia has all the great things I love about our national parks (history, culture, the best views, and the great outdoors!).
2. Hike to Bar Island
I was a little bit confused why it’s called ‘Bar Harbor’ when as far as Google Maps would tell you, there are no harbors around. That is until I saw the Mt. Desert Narrows between Bar Harbor and nearby Bar Island at low tide.
Twice a day, the tide drops so low that a wide gravel bar appears and connects Mount Desert Island and Bar Island. This ‘bar’ also creates a natural ‘harbor’ on the eastern side… hence the name Bar Harbor!
During those low tide windows, you can actually hike to Bar Harbor and up to the peak of the small island. Just keep the time in mind so you don’t get stranded when the tide comes back up! (Seriously – if you get stranded, you’ll have to wait up to 12 hours before you’ll be able to walk back!)
3. Taste Maine: Eat Lobster & Drink Blueberry Beer
Did you know Maine harvests 90% of the lobster and grows 10% of the blueberries in the United State? If you’re going to have one meal in Bar Harbor, you’d better make it fresh Maine lobster with a blueberry beer – the best adults-only way to enjoy all that fresh fruit.
Here are some of the spots to eat in Bar Harbor with some of the best food and drink:
- Side Street Cafe – I can’t tell if Side Street Cafe is a local’s secret I’m not supposed to share, but it should definitely be on your list. The restaurant is busy with locals and visitors alike, so pull up a stool at the bar and ask about whatever special has lobster in it. (I had the lobster mac, obviously.)
- The Reading Room – The primary dining room for the Bar Harbor Inn where I stayed, The Reading Room has a bit more traditional vibe. Their clam chowder bread bowl is solid, and you can treat yourself to a blueberry martini or blueberry cobbler. Yes, it’s possible to max out on blueberry!
- Galyn’s – Almost everyone recommended Galyn’s for their Happy Hour (lobster specials! ) and view out over the water.
- Geddy’s – Geddy’s has a bit more… shall we say personality? This place is eye-popping and caters to the traveler crew, but it’s hard to miss and a trip to Bar Harbor without dining there feels like a missed opportunity.
- Thurston’s Lobster Pound – You want lobster, you say? Then it’s worth the 35-minute drive to Thurston’s down on the southwest coast of Mount Desert Island. Fresh lobster, no-frills.
- Atlantic Brewing Company – If you want local beer, this is a great place for it. Officially considered a tasting room, you’ll find experimental beers on tap, rather than the Atlantic Brewing beers you might try elsewhere. They are attached to a small pop-up kitchen that does cool food like poutine. (You’re right next to Canada, after all!)
4. Go Sailing or Kayaking
You might be struck by just how much water there is around the town of Bar Harbor, especially if you’re not familiar with Maine. I certainly was – I knew Maine was coastal but I had no idea how jagged and rocky the shoreline would be, and just how many islands there are. (Countless is the true number…)
Get out and take advantage of that water by kayaking or boating. There are several kayak tour operators based in Bar Harbor, including Coastal Kayaking Tours making it the perfect place to explore the ocean.
If you want a more luxe experience, book a spot on the Margaret Todd, a four-masted windjammer that sails during the summer months. Downeast Windjammer offers daytime and sunset sails. (I was so bummed to miss this, but they don’t start sailing until mid-May each year.)
There are also plenty of nature tours for those who’d like to experience Bar Habor’s wildlife. Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. offers delightful whale cruises, where they take you 50 miles off the coast to spot whales, puffins, harbor porpoises, and birds of all kinds.
5. Walk the Shore Path
The Bar Harbor Shore path is part of a larger project called The Museum in the Streets. This self-guided tour is marked with signs around town that teach you the history of Bar Harbor through its historic buildings and the residents who owned them.
In fact, Bar Harbor’s historic heyday pre-dates the national park, established in 1916. Between the 1880s and 1920s, some of New England’s most famous families had homes or vacationed in Bar Harbor. These included president Taft and some members of the Rockefeller family.
Along the Historic Shore Path part of the walking route, you can admire the rocky coastline and neighboring islands, as well as wave to passing boats.
6. Visit the Schoodic Peninsula
Most visitors in the area might spend time in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, but very few make it to the Schoodic Peninsula – which is actually part of Acadia National Park too!
You’ll need to drive about 75 minutes around Frenchman Bay and the Mount Desert Narrows to reach Schoodic Point. There you’ll be able to see the gorgeous rock formations and do some serious tide-pooling away from the crowds in Bar Harbor.
7. Visit Bar Harbor’s Museums and Galleries
I know that spending a day inside a museum may not be your first alternative, especially when you’re in a town with so much gorgeous nature like Bar Harbor.
However, a short visit to the Abbe Museum is well worth it. Founded by Dr. Robert Abbe in 1928, the Abbe Museum is one of Maine’s first museums and the only one in the region dedicated solely to the history and culture of Maine’s Native people, the Wabanaki.
The museum has two locations, one at 26 Mount Desert Street in the center of Bar Harbor, and another at Sieur de Monts Spring in Acadia National Park, which opens Memorial Day weekend through mid-October.
8. Souvenir Shopping
I’m not normally the one to advocate souvenir shopping, but Bar Harbor is just a fun place to walk around main street area and browse the window displays at the various gift shops. I was delighted with how many Maine and/or lobster puns I saw on t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, you name it.
I didn’t go for any of the sweatshirts or keychains, but I did get my first charm for my charm bracelet in a few years! Yes, it’s lobster shaped.
How to Spend 3 Days in Bar Harbor & Acadia National Park
How do you put all those diverse experiences of things to do in Bar Harbor into one fun itinerary? Easy! Here’s a quick look at what I suggest for three days in Bar Harbor:
- Day 1 – Downtown Bar Harbor. Shore Path. Northeast Windjammer Sunset Sail. Lots of lobster.
- Day 2 – Acadia National Park. Hiking, noshing popovers, or just driving around sightseeing.
- Day 3 – Get outside. Hike to Bar Island or drive to the Schoodic Peninsula. Kayaking on Frenchman Bay. More lobster.
Let’s dig in with a little more detail so you can make the most of your 3 days in Bar Harbor!
Day 1: Explore Town & the Coastline
Once you arrive in Bar Harbor, it’s time to explore! This first day is a great chance to stroll around downtown window shopping for souvenirs you might want later or walk along the waterfront to watch the boats at work.
You could walk the Shore Path or do the self-guided Museum in the Streets in full (which should take about 60-90 minutes). Be sure to stop and enjoy the expansive water views punctuated by the Porcupine Islands – that’s what makes the Maine coast special. For lunch, start on a high note at Side Street Cafe.
Bar Harbor also has several parks in a town like Village Green or Agamont Park, where you can stroll around a bit. In the summer months, you might stumble upon a community event happening, especially if you’re on a weekend trip to Bar Harbor.
For dinner, pop into one of the restaurants I recommended like Galyn’s or Geddy’s depending on your mood. Lobster lobster lobster. (There is other great fresh seafood too if lobster isn’t your style.)
Day 2: Visit Acadia National Park
And now for the Maine attraction: Acadia!
(I can’t believe it took me 2,000 words to finally make a Maine pun! ?)
It’s totally do-able to spend just one day in Acadia National Park. This is especially true if you aren’t planning any major hikes in the park since that’s the most time-consuming activity. With only a day in Acadia, here’s how I recommend you spend it:
- Early Morning – Start by driving to the entry booth near Schooner Head Overlook to buy your Park Pass.
- Mid-Morning – Explore the southeast part of the Park Loop Road. Stop at Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Cliff. If you’re feeling ambitious, go for a hike like The Beehive (trailhead located near Sand Beach).
- Lunch – Head up to Jordan Pond House for a lunch of their famous popovers, followed by an easy walk along the Jordan Pond Path.
- Afternoon – Journey toward the west part of the park by passing through the towns of Seal Harbor and Asticou by way of Maine SR 3. You’ll connect to Maine SR 102 and can head down to the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse one of the most picturesque spots in the park.
- Dinner – Stop for dinner in the town of Southwest Harbor.
- Evening – Watch the sunset from Cadillac Mountain, then stay to see the stars come out!
It’s a jam-packed day, but it gives you a chance to see a ton of the park. You could also modify this day and take the Island Explorer, a free shuttle bus, into the park instead. This will help avoid the car crowds that form on summer weekends (you’re warned!). You won’t be able to see all of the above sights, but you’ll see most of them along the Park Loop Road. Read more in my Acadia National Park guide.
Day 3: More Time in the Great Outdoors
If you do feel like one day in Acadia wasn’t enough, you could head back to the main parts of the park today. Or you could explore other parts of the park instead! There are miles of hikes to explore, here are some ideas.
- Go Kayaking – Most of the coastal waterways near Acadia are also part of the park, and you can keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like otters, sea birds, and even whales!
- Hike to Bar Island – Bar Harbor’s neighboring island is also part of Acadia National Park. There’s a small window of 1.5 hours before and after low tide when a gravel bar is exposed connecting the town of Bar Harbor and Bar Island. Time your hike for the low tide and walk the “land bridge” to Bar Island. You can also do some tidepooling along the way.
- Drive to Schoodic Peninsula – Escape the biggest crowds with an hour’s drive to the Schoodic. You’ll see a lot of the same gorgeous coastal views with way fewer people.
Regarding food today, I recommend lunch at Atlantic Brewing Company where you can refuel with hearty food and funky beer. For dinner, end with a luxurious meal at The Reading Room, looking out over the harbor as the sun sets.
Where to Stay in Bar Harbor
Now that you have all the other information, it’s time to book a place to stay and make this Bar Harbor trip a reality!
During my trip, I stayed as a guest of the Bar Harbor Inn. Located on the waterfront along the Shore Path, the Bar Harbor Inn still retains her regal New England roots with plenty of modern touches. Some rooms have fireplaces and balconies that look out over the harbor; they’re reconstructing the pool and pool bar for future summers too!
You can book the Bar Harbor Inn directly on their site, or on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
For other hotel options in Bar Harbor, check out sites like Hotels.com or Booking.com to compare options and find one that fits your budget. (These links will take you straight to results for Bar Harbor.)
If you (like me) love a good Vacation Rental, here are some of the best places:
- Accommodation in Bar Harbor can be expensive; this Artistic Home sleeps up to six and starts from only $95/night (depending on the season). Book on VRBO.
- This Downtown House with City & Park Views is right in the center of it all, and easy to walk to explore all of Bar Harbor. From $285/night. Book on VRBO or Booking.com.
- This Restored Home fits up to seven and is modern and clean. It’s a great family option, from $382/night. Book on VRBO
Admittedly, these prices are a bit higher than I usually recommend for Airbnbs. Bar Harbor is a seasonal town and prices are higher in the summer.
Now that you know the best things to do in Bar Harbor, you’re ready to plan a trip! Do you have other questions? Let me know in the comments!