Gatlinburg vs Asheville – Brutally Honest Pros and Cons, Which is Better?

the biltmore mansion, left and gatlinburg downtown, right

Have you ever wondered which is better to visit - or to live - Gatlinburg or Asheville? (photos by Sofia Gullion & Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A local compares two popular mountain towns, Gatlinburg, TN and Asheville, NC

While we don’t want to speak in generalities, there are some pretty obvious differences between the cultures of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. As someone who has lived in East Tennessee and driven across the mountains to visit North Carolina, those differences seem stark to me. In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of Asheville and Gatlinburg and decide – once and for all – which is better. 

Gatlinburg, TN is one of the preeminent vacation destinations in the world. It exists for vacation. Asheville, NC is a larger city with amazing vacation options within it and nearby. Both have pros and cons.

thick crowds at sugarlands in gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is an extremely walkable town (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Gatlinburg pros

First, it’s proximity to the mountains. Gatlinburg is not near the mountains. It is the mountains.

At any moment in Gatlinburg, you’re seconds away from the National Park. You can spend 10 or 15 minutes driving out of town and be high up in some lonely mountains, accessible trails and some of the best picnic spots in the world. It’s compact but that’s a feature, not a bug. You can hang out in Gatlinburg and leave your car parked for a couple of days. Almost everything you want is right on the strip or accessible by a trolley. 

Gatlinburg offers the kind of goofy, cheesy fun that’s been drawing people to the Smokies for generations. There’s plenty of good food, shopping and also some great people-watching. There’s a lot to do if you’re willing to pay for it. 

Gatlinburg pros summary:

  • Proximity to the national park
  • Walkable
  • Plenty to do
BirdVenture Houses Anakeesta
All of the great attractions, such as Anakeesta, can add to the cost of visiting Gatlinburg (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

Gatlinburg cons

While there is a lot to do in Gatlinburg, it can be a little redundant. Pancake houses and mountain coasters can only go so far. And it’s pretty expensive. A Gatlinburg trip that includes some of the Ripley’s attractions, a day at Anakeesta and more can drive up the cost. Certainly, there are ways to avoid some costs. The National Park is still free – except for parking. But a trip to Gatlinburg is likely to make a sizable dent in your folding money. 

Also, Gatlinburg is not a real town. Sure, some people live there year-round. But most of the businesses exist to serve the tourist trade. Yes, there are schools and grocery stores and the like but if you pull out the tourist stuff, you’ve eliminated 75% of the town. 

Gatlinburg cons summary:

  • Redundant attractions
  • It’s expensive
  • It’s a tourist town
biltmore estate
Today, The Biltmore Estate has become one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Asheville, NC (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Asheville pros 

Asheville is a great, interesting city. Downtown is full of good bars and there is a lively music scene. The foodie experience in Asheville is second to none. If you’re on vacation for the food, Asheville is the choice hands down. I was raised by children of the ’60s so I enjoy Asheville’s vibe – which has a touch of hippiness to it. 

To someone from East Tennessee, it seems a very bohemian society and I mean that in all the best ways. And it’s an interesting juxtaposition with its most famous destination, Biltmore. I’m not sure there is a place in the world that is less Hippie than Biltmore. Both have their place. It’s just funny that their places are so close together. 

Asheville pros summary:

  • Great bars and live music
  • Excellent foodie scene
  • Biltmore
Downtown Asheville NC WIth Car and Shops
Downtown Asheville is a mix of tourism and city life (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Asheville cons

It’s a fully functioning city, not simply a vacation destination. Is that good? Is it bad? I put it in the cons, but I’m not sure. To me, Asheville is a lot like Knoxville but with significantly more personality. If I’m going to Western North Carolina – I don’t quite want it to be quite so city-like. I go to Asheville for very specific things. If there’s a concert or a place I want to eat or Biltmore. However, if I’m taking the family to Western North Carolina on an excursion, I prefer Hendersonville. It’s not Gatlinburg-level touristy. But the tourism stuff is a little more compact and collected. 

Asheville cons summary:

  • It’s not a tourist town
  • That’s really the only con (if you can even consider that a con)

Which is better, Asheville or Gatlinburg?

Both serve their purpose well. If we were talking about the best place to live, it’s Asheville. But if we’re talking about the best place to visit, the best place to vacation (which I assume we are), it’s Gatlinburg. That’s the whole reason the place exists, to serve the traveler – which sounds like something out of “Ghostbusters”. Considering the vast difference in local culture, it’s a little amazing they’re less than an hour apart – separated only by some very, very large mountains.

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