Chalet vs cabin, is there a difference? Which one is better?

A traditional chalet next to a cabin

A chalet traditionally has wider eaves than a cabin (photos by kaushika95 and Manduley/shutterstock.com)

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I must know the meanings of tens of thousands of words at this point in my life.

If you throw in the French I studied in college and the odd Spanish or German I’ve picked up along the way, it might even get into hundreds of thousands.

Definitions, however? Maybe not so many.  

We learn language mostly by being exposed to it through conversation with our parents, peers and family.

We learn the concepts well enough through context clues. We know what a word means even if we can’t parrot the technical definition.

For example, let’s take the word chalet. I don’t remember when I first heard the term, but it was probably in a book or a movie. Certainly, I don’t think mom was using chalet in everyday conversation around our Northern Indiana household. 

I’m approaching 50 years old. Until today, I would have defined it as a small home in the mountains, frequently associated with skiing. 

Not bad, right?

Probably good enough to pass a test in school, maybe even on something like the SAT. 

What is a chalet?

As they say on the internet, I was today years old when I learned that a chalet is a remote herdsman’s hut or a wooden house or cottage with overhanging wide eaves and a slopping roof, typically found in the Swiss Alps.

All these years, I thought a chalet was some fancy thing. Really, it’s a little hut with nice eaves built for a Swiss goat herder.

I thought you’d find a chalet in alpine regions at a ski resort, a small house frequently inhabited by snobby 80s movie villains who don’t want everyday people to have access to fresh powder and awesome slopes.

I reckon most of my life I’ve thought of chalet and cabin and lodge and cottage as essentially synonymous with slight variations for usage. 

A traditional Swiss chalet with wide eaves
A chalet traditionally has wide eaves (the edge of the roof that hangs over the exterior siding). Pictured above: a beautiful luxury chalet in French Alps in the winter (photo by Satep/shutterstock.com)

What is a cabin?

We’ve discussed the definition of a traditional chalet, so let’s look at the term cabin. A cabin, we all thought we had a pretty good handle on. A cabin is a small house or shelter, made of wood and situated in a wild or remote area. Fair enough.

I’d always thought of a cabin as a smaller, less pretentious structure, a rough-hewn log cabin, like something crafted by Abraham Lincoln’s dad. 

A lot of cabins are located on the edge of one of our country’s national parks. But small? I don’t how many Gatlinburg cabins you’ve rented for your family vacation, but they are frequently not small houses.

We’ve rented cabins for special occasions like a family reunion or graduation.

Most Gatlinburg cabins – or a Pigeon Forge cabin for the matter – will have a variety of amenities. Most of which include:

  • full kitchens 
  • multiple private bedrooms 
  • pool tables 
  • a coffee maker 
  • a gas fireplace 
  • a private hot tub 
  • a dining area 
  • high ceilings
  • an expansive deck 
  • a private bathroom for every bedroom

What is a chalet vs a cabin? Which one is better?

When you’re renting a place near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I don’t think there’s a lot of time spent by vacation rental owners on the definition of terms like chalet or cabin.

Are their vacation rentals nice? Do they have breathtaking views of downtown Gatlinburg or the mountains? They could be a chalet or a cabin or lodge or a cottage.

Whatever sounds best to the owner is what the wooden dwelling gets called. Is it a place for a romantic getaway and spectacular mountain views? Then they might call it a chalet, whether or not it has wide eaves.

Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Both a chalet or cabin will likely have the accommodations you are looking for.

The Knotty Pines Creekside Chalets
The Knotty Pines Creekside Chalets in Gatlinburg have elements of traditional chalets (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Are any of the Gatlinburg chalet homes traditional?

Do they come with goats and a fondue pot? Then no. They would not be considered truly traditional.

But many chalet rentals in the area will have a wood frame home with wide eaves. Most of them won’t be built slightly underground for temperature protection, but that’s really a necessity of living in the Swiss Alps instead of up on a Smoky Mountain. 

What makes a cabin a chalet? 

It’s a lot about the architecture of the place. The great chalet vs cabins debate is a little like how a square is always a rectangle but a rectangle isn’t always a square.

In the grander scheme, chalets are always a type of cabin but not all cabins are chalets. If you’ve got a simple structure, overhanging eaves, a sloping roof, a fireplace and crisp mountain air, you just might have yourself a fireside chalet.

Read Also: Best affordable cabins in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg: Top 8 ranked [2022]

The Roosevelt Lodge in Gatlinburg TN
The Roosevelt Lodge in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a massive rental that is suited for large gatherings or weddings (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What’s the difference between a lodge and a cabin? 

A lodge is a small country house occupied in season for sports such as hunting, shooting, fishing and skiing.

It could also be a gatehouse, but I don’t think most people – when they think lodge or cabin rentals – are looking for a place where they can man a gate for a few hours a day to keep the riff-raff away from the main house.

A lodge remains a simple house in the wilderness. However, I maintain, that it is often larger than a cabin. 

Read Also: The Grand LeConte Lodge is the largest rental cabin you’ve ever seen

Chalet vs cottage vs lodge

A cottage, by definition, is essentially a cabin by a lake or river.

Until today, I would have called a cottage something from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, a one-room home likely to be inhabited by a witch or a number of bears. 

I wouldn’t have known that had I not looked it up but there it is. I don’t suppose there’s much difference between the perfect cabin and the perfect cottage except one is located next to a significant source of water – which is handy, I suppose, for witches brewing potions and bears making porridge.

If you’re really that worried about whether you should rent a cottage, cabin, chalet or lodge, maybe you’d be better off getting a hotel room. 

Do you look for a chalet or a cabin while staying in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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