Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge: Where should you stay in the Smokies?

Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg (left) and Pigeon Forge (right) are both very popular areas to visit in East Tennessee (left photo by jdross75/stock.adobe.com; right photo by Kevin Ruck/stock.adobe.com)

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It’s go time. The showdown we’ve all been waiting for. Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge.

Mano a mano. Who ya got?

Look, we understand there are no right answers here, everything’s subjective – unless you pick Sevierville, then we award you no points.

But when it comes to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge? With these major tourist destination towns, you can’t go wrong.

It’s the Beatles vs the Stones.

Star Wars vs Star Trek.

It’s original Aunt Viv vs surprise there’s a new Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil ain’t noticed a thing.

It is, of course, possible to like both but virtually impossible to not have a favorite.

So, let’s get scientific with this thing and go to the tale of the tape.

Aerial of Pigeon Forge TN
An aerial view of Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (photo by Kevin Ruck/stock.adobe.com))

Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge: The breakdown

So is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for your family vacation?

Located five miles apart from each other, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have decidedly different approaches to the same goal. Sure, you can play mini golf, gorge on flapjacks and drink a disturbing amount of moonshine in either, but the civic identities couldn’t be further apart.

The overall comparison is based on geography.

Gatlinburg is a mountain town that was forced to grow into the nooks, crannies and hollers on the edge of what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it is located along the outskirts of the park’s entrance.

Gatlinburg was built with a vague notion of European influence.

It’s a town built for walking, talking and sitting down at a meal. While there are plenty of things to keep kids entertained, Gatlinburg at its heart is for adults. Certainly, it’s for mature adults – with diversions to keep the young ‘uns from getting riled up and bothering us.

Pigeon Forge is not a mountain town. It’s mountain adjacent.

As such, it’s able to stretch its legs and grow. The mini golf courses and kart tracks don’t have to be carved into the side of a hill. If Gatlinburg is vaguely European, Pigeon Forge has a soupçon of Las Vegas.

It’s all neon lights and shiny cars. And it’s cruisin’ the strip, seeing things and being seen. It’s entertainment, hillbilly style.

Dollywood sign in Pigeon Forge
Dollywood is the undoubtedly the main attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What has more attractions, Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg?

There are a lot, a lot, of things for visitors to do in either Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. But each has a signature attraction, the crown jewel of civic tourism.

As far as Pigeon Forge’s attractions, the jewel is Dollywood, which is almost unfair. Dollywood, frankly, has surpassed Sevierville as the third-best community in Sevier County, and it’s not even open year-round.

With its own hotel, and an exceptional water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country, in addition to the theme park itself, Dollywood is not only a massive attraction for Pigeon Forge – it’s a massive, famous attraction for East Tennessee.

Pigeon Forge also has the Titanic Museum attraction, Wonderworks, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum and many dinner shows, like the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud or Dolly Parton’s Stampede, formerly known as the Dixie Stampede.

But Dolly Parton’s Dollywood is the main winner in this category and it’s not even close. It is continually recognized as among the best of the best amusement parks in the country.

For years, Gatlinburg’s signature attraction has been Ober Gatlinburg or the Gatlinburg Space Needle. And that case could certainly still be made, but Anakeesta is charging hard into that territory.

Read Also: Anakeesta vs Ober Gatlinburg: Which attraction is better?

To me, when I think Gatlinburg, I think Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. One of the country’s premier aquarium experiences, Ripley’s offers a new experience every time you go.

And they have penguins.

The winner: While Pigeon Forge wins the fight in this category, Gatlinburg deserves an honorable mention.

Pedestrians in Gatlinburg TN
It’s much easier to navigate Gatlinburg on foot (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which is easier to navigate: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Traffic in either city can be a nightmare. Gatlinburg has the excuse of geographical limitations, but Pigeon Forge – with hectares of wide open space – was a victim of its own lack of vision.

Pigeon Forge has more side roads by which you can circumnavigate some of the traffic, but for much of it, you have to risk the Parkway.

Gatlinburg, however, is a city in which you park your car and stretch your legs. A little bit of a hike and avoid a soul-crushing traffic jam?

The winner: Gatlinburg wins the point this round.

View from Cades Cove
The road from Pigeon Forge through Wears Valley to get to Cades Cove is a better drive compared to getting there from Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Base of operations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

Often, you come to the area with the idea of getting out and exploring. Proximity to each other is a wash, so how do the cities compare as a base of operations?

First of all, if you want to hike the trails or get into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and maybe drive over to the North Carolina side, Gatlinburg is a clear choice.

But if your idea is exploring more of East Tennessee, then Gatlinburg is actually a little bit out of the way. The decider here to me is Cades Cove and Townsend.

The road from Pigeon Forge through Wears Valley is a mostly pleasant, quite beautiful drive. The road from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove is an unrelenting, twisting claustrophobic hellscape.

Don’t be fooled by the babbling stream. That road hugs the bottom of a holler with a mountain jutting up on either side.

If you suffer from the slightest bit of motion sickness, it is a torturous nightmare. It’s literally the only place in the world I’ve gotten car sick in the driver’s seat.

The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point, and I’m sticking my nose out the window like a dog begging for fresh air.

Tanger Outlets in Sevierville
Tanger Outlets offers some of the best shopping in Sevier County (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best shopping: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Again, there’s a bit of pick your flavor here.

The Pigeon Forge area has more discount outlet shopping – but also more cheesy tourist shops that look like they got picked up in a Myrtle Beach hurricane and landed here like Dorothy and Toto. Pigeon Forge is also hit by a few unlucky boundaries.

The best shopping in the county now resides in Sevierville at the Tanger Outlets, which has siphoned off some of Pigeon Forge’s outlet business.

Gatlinburg has a wider variety of unique shops, especially in the Arts and Crafts Community. However, you can get some of that stuff in Pigeon Forge, too.

Gatlinburg’s biggest problem for serious shopping is the very thing we awarded a point for in traffic – the walking.

In Pigeon Forge, you’re rarely very far from your car – and therefore your trunk – where you can drop off your purchases, rest for a second and recharge for round two.

If you buy too much stuff in Gatlinburg, you’re schlepping stuff up and down the mountain like a Sherpa ferrying adventure-seeking tourists up and down Everest.

The winner: Point for Pigeon Forge.

Justin Mychals at Ole Red
Ole Red is a fun place to visit for parties who want to hear some live music (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best themed dining: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s. When I came up Hard Rock Café was cool – not like pseudo Boomer cool but actual honest-to-God cool.

Give me a burger, some over-priced nachos and sit me next to some fringed Jimi Hendrix jackets and a guitar once played on stage by the backup guitarist from Slayer and I’m a happy man.

Gatlinburg’s best chance for competition is Ole Red, which resides in the former Hard Rock location right at the entrance to the strip. Ole Red is a better live music venue and – it pains me to say – has better food.

However, it does not have a Native American-themed dress worn by Cher when she performed “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” at the Whiskey A Go-Go in the winter of 1971.

I’m voting with my heart, not my head.

The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point in an upset!

Pancakes at the Pancake Pantry
The Pancake Pantry is one of the best restaurants in Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best restaurants: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Sure, you can find a good steak dinner or a delicious pancake breakfast at either place.

But Gatlinburg has The Melting Pot, The Peddler Steakhouse and the Pancake Pantry.

Pigeon Forge has Paula Deen.

The winner: Gatlinburg wins in a landslide!

Glass section on the SkyBridge
Gatlinburg has unique attractions like the SkyBridge at SkyLift Park, which features a glass section in the middle (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which has the best thrills: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Pigeon Forge has a wide array of slingshots, high-rise Ferris wheels and a variety of things that make you go viral on YouTube.

Gatlinburg has a glass sidewalk in the sky that occasionally gets cracked by guys doing baseball slides with keys in their pocket. There’s fear and then there’s fear.

Why does Gatlinburg get knocked down? So it can learn to get up, baby.

The winner: Point to Gatlinburg. We’re on the comeback.

Drinks at Anakeesta with mountains in the background
Both towns are family-friendly, but Gatlinburg has more for the parents. For example, Anakeesta offers play areas for the kids while offering a relaxing getaway for the adults (media photo courtesy of Anakeesta)

Is Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg more family friendly?

I’m calling this one the “dad vote”.

Dads have some traditional roles in vacationing.

We’re involved in the money. We typically play chauffeur. We make bad puns and get irritated in traffic.

These are the things we do. What do we want on vacation?

Ideally, to have some fun, enjoy spending time with our families and relax. Often, in the midst of vacation, all we really want is some peace and quiet. Perhaps try a cabin with a hot tub. And have a few moments to ourselves.

Gatlinburg clearly is the favorite here. The family is walking so we don’t have to drive all the time. Also, there are lot of benches where we can rest and check sports scores on the phone while the family spends 35 minutes inside another shop which sells all the same crap as the last four shops we went in.

Also, I’ve seen dads fly fishing in the middle of the river in Gatlinburg while their family shops.

That’s peak dad-ing. Do you believe in miracles?

The winner: Gatlinburg has come all the way back, baby.

A black bear mother with three cubs
You’re more likely to spot a bear in Gatlinburg. But, remember to keep a safe distance to help protect yourself and the bears (photo by Andrew/stock.adobe.com)

Is it better to go to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

This is it. We’ve done the science.

We’ve broken down the tale of the tape. We’re all tied up. We’ve eaten at a lot of pancake houses.

So, vacationers, it comes down to a little thing I like to call heart, chutzpah, and a little je ne sais quoi. Who’s the best?

It’s gotta be Gatlinburg, my friend.

Sure, Pigeon Forge has go-karts but when you visit Gatlinburg, you may have a better chance of wildlife viewing. In fact, bears might come to your hotel to get a sup of cider, which has happened before.

Read Also: Bears in Gatlinburg: 7 best places and tips to see a bear

That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

View the web story version of this article here.

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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4 thoughts on “Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge: Where should you stay in the Smokies?”

  1. We have been vacationing in this area for over 35 years and it just keeps getting better and better. Even considered moving here. We have stayed in everything from motels, lodges, cabins, hotels and chalets. Should be on everyone’s bucket list.

  2. My pParents honeymooned here in the early 50’s. They started bringing us kids for annual family vacations in 1964….. back when Dollywood was known as Goldfish Junction. Have seen more changes to both towns than there is time or space for. Suffice to say, these places are still both my favorite spots to visit, as often as I can – in any and every season of the year. They both have their strong points, so when I visit, I always spend lots of time at both, and take in as much as I can, again and again and again, over and over and over. I never tire of either.

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