Travel Guide to Gatlinburg, TN: When, Where & What

November 20, 2020

If you're native to TN (or its nearby surrounding states), chances are you've heard of a little town called Gatlinburg (or its sister-town, Pigeon Forge). If not, let me paint a really quick picture for you: sprawling Smoky Mountains in golden hues as luminous as the sun (in fall, anyway), a bustling "main strip" filled with tourist traps (but also, kitschy/nostalgic little tucked-away gems), booze on every corner (moonshine, whiskey & wine, oh my!), and OH MY GOD SO MANY BEARS (don't worry - just bear imagery). You'll find bear images, statues, and logos everywhere (but also: real bears, too, if you're remote in a cabin somewhere, so be smart.)

Despite a lot of the touristy/cheesy attractions, we love Gatlinburg for its kitschy charm. It's very family friendly, but it's also versatile. Gatlinburg can be a great destination for a romantic weekend getaway (if your cabin doesn't come with a hot tub...find another cabin) or a friends/girls trip. We top out at around 2-3 days in Gatlinburg, but there truly is a plethora of things to do - so many that it could definitely keep you busy for a week or more!

We recently took a long weekend trip to Gburg (as I like to abbreviate it), but we stayed in neighboring Sevierville, which offers the same great accommodations, but less traffic in/around the city. If you're considering Gatlingburg for a trip, this post should tell you all you need to know! I'm going to break down the basics: when, where & what!

W H E N   T O   G O
Think of Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge like the country version of Disney World: it's very popular down here and is pretty much always busy these days. Every city has its best & worst times to go, but it really varies depending upon your perspective. So let's break it down real quick:

  • January - March (winter): probably the least amount of crowds (with the exception of Spring Break time), but not as much going on. Also: COLD (great for Ober Gatlinburg & skiing though)!! But if that doesn't bother you, and you just want to be able to drive the strip without spending 30 minutes in standstill traffic, this is probably your best bet.
  • April - May (spring): great weather and moderate crowds (avoid big holiday weekends like Easter & Mother's Day). Dollywood also does a beautiful flower & food festival that I've been dying to check out (it's like the country version of Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival).
  • June - September (summer): HOT & crowded (are you seeing the Disney parallels now?). It gets very humid here in the summer, so if you're not ready to feel sweat in places you didn't know you could sweat, this might not be the best time for you. It's also typically very crowded with lots of families.
  • October - early November (fall): Quite possibly the best time to go, in my opinion. Crowds are still there, but you don't have the Christmas crowds yet. The fall colors are out in full force, and if you're visiting in fall, then leaf-peeping is a "must do." Walking around is also much more enjoyable because the weather is great. Plus: Halloween stuff!
  • Mid-November - December (fall/winter): Gatlingburg kind of has a love affair with Christmas year round (we have an entire resort dedicated to it) but you can really feel the Christmas cheer this time of year. It's usually chilly, but not unbearably cold yet. There's tons to see & do that's Christmas-related (light displays, attractions, Dollywood's Christmas festival, etc.), but if you hate crowds, this probably isn't the best time to come, as it can be one of the busiest times of the year.

W H E R E   T O   S T A Y
There are (what seems like) an infinite number of places to stay in the Gatlinburg area. Where you stay really depends on what you want to do. I've stayed in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville and they all offer something different. 

c/o Buckberry Lodge

If you're looking to be right in the hustle & bustle of all Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge have to offer (& you don't mind the constant traffic), then my pick would be Westgate or The Inn at Christmas Place. If you're looking to be driving-distance close, but not constantly fighting crowds & cars, and also enjoy more spacious accommodations, New Hotel Collection is for you. Lastly, if you're looking for that true "cabin in the mountains" feel, but still want the amenities of a resort, spring for a room at Buckberry Lodge (the rooms have fireplaces and balconies, and the views are ace)!

W H A T   T  O   D O
Oh my gosh, where do I even begin with this one!? Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer so many different things to do: everything from outdoor activities like skiing and snowboarding to shopping, dining, and drinking your way around downtown. My number one attraction would definitely be Dollywood!

Dollywood is fun no matter your affiliation or ties to Dolly Parton herself. Even if you hate country music, you will still have fun at this park. Dollywood is so much more than what I expected (honestly, I didn't really know what to expect). The park itself was incredibly clean and actually had a lot of rides (and for all ages, too). There are plenty of kiddie rides, but also some truly amazing roller coasters. 

I was most excited to tour Dolly's museum, Chasing Rainbows, but thanks to covid, it was closed. There was still a fair amount of live outdoor entertainment though, and plenty of options for food! The cinnamon bread is an absolute "must do." What Mickey-shaped foods and dole whips are to Disney World, cinnamon bread is to Dollywood.

Honorable mention picks for major attractions:

All that sightseeing & wine drinkin' will get your tummy rumbling, and there is only one place I will recommend every time (because it's tradition for us to go here during every visit), and that is the Pancake Pantry.

One thing I will say about Gatlinburg is they love their pancakes! You'll find a pancake house on every corner in town, and some directly across the street from each other. But the Pancake Pantry is the only one true original. Don't be mislead by the long line that will inevitably be snaked around the building - it moves fast and it's sooo worth the wait! The Pancake Pantry is a Gatlinburg tradition. It's been around since 1960 and claims to be Tennessee's first pancake specialty restaurant. Their menu is extensive in their pancake offerings, and there is something for every palate. My personal favorite are the "Sugar 'n Spice" pancakes & the accompanying cinnamon cream syrup!

Just behind the Pancake Pantry you'll find The Village Shops, a collection of 27 unique shops themed to a European Village (think German pavilion at Epcot). Here you'll find everything from coffee and donuts to candles, soaps, and hiking gear. It's an adorable little shopping village to wander and has a lot of cute photo ops! If you like tea & spices, be sure to check out The Spice & Tea Exchange.

Lastly, you can't go to Gatlinburg and not spend some time in the mountains. There are so many trails and places to go hiking in the Smokies. This article sums up the top 8 hikes with the best views, but if hiking isn't your thing but you still want some payoff in terms of views, check out Cades Cove (it's drivable, but you can make stops as you please).

When we were in Gatlinburg recently, we did a scenic drive along Foothills Parkway. There are several lookout points where you can pull over and take in the views - or do what I did and just stand in the middle of the road (#doitforthegram).

Whether you're going for the day, a long weekend, or a full week's vacation, Gatlinburg & the Smokies offers something for everyone. The cost can be as little as you want by opting for one of the numerous motels/budget hotels or it can be extravagant at a secluded luxury mountain cabin or sprawling resort (Dolly has her very own resort & spa, DreamMore). Wherever you decide to stay & whatever you choose to do, you're sure to have a great & memorable time!

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