Is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg (left) and Pigeon Forge (right) are both very popular areas to visit in East Tennessee (stock photos)

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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.

It’s 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.

Pigeon Forge
An aerial view of Pigeon Forge, Tenn (stock photo)

Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: The Breakdown

So is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge? 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 in 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. Gatlinburg was built with a vague notion of European influence.

It’s a town built for walking, for talking and for sitting down at a meal and having a conversation. While there are plenty of things to keep kids entertained, Gatlinburg at its heart, is for adults – 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 race 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. It’s cruisin’ the strip, seeing things and being seen. It’s a happening, hillbilly style.

Dollywood in Pigeon Forge
Dollywood is the undoubtedly the main attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: The featured attractions

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

In Pigeon Forge, 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 Splash Country, in addition to the theme park itself, Dollywood is not only a massive attraction for Pigeon Forge – it’s a massive attraction for East Tennessee.

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

For years, Gatlinburg’s signature attraction has been Ober Gatlinburg 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, we’ll give Gatlinburg an honorable mention.

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 strip.

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

The winner: Gatlinburg wins the point this round.

Read Also: Tips on how to avoid traffic in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg

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 get into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and maybe drive over to the North Carolina side, Gatlinburg is the 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 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
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.

Pigeon Forge has more 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 bit of 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, in my opinion, not just the same old thing. But you can get that stuff in Gatlinburg, too.

Gatlinburg also gets a huge bonus for the best candy shop in the area, Aunt Mahalia’s.

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 items, 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.

Ole Red
Monroeville performs live at Ole Red in Gatlinburg in 2019 (photo by Alaina O’Neal/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 back-up 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.

It does not, however, 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!

Which has the best restaurants: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Gatlinburg has The Melting Pot and the Pancake Pantry.

Pigeon Forge has Paula Deen.

The winner: Gatlinburg wins in a landslide!

Read Also: Unpopular opinion: A review of Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen

SkyBridge in Gatlinburg
The SkyBridge is located at SkyBridge Park in Gatlinburg (Chansak Joe/shutterstock)

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 morons doing baseball slides with keys in their pocket. There’s fear and then there’s fear.

Read Also: Cracking the Gatlinburg SkyBridge glass floor isn’t the fastest way to win friends

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

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

Which gets the dad vote: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

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 our families and relax. Often, in the midst of vacation all we really want is some peace and quiet and 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 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.

Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: Which is better?

This is it. We’ve done the science.

We’ve broken down the tale of the tape. We’re all tied up.

So it come 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, bears come in your hotel to get a sup of cider.

Read Also: Black bear surprises guests in lobby of Appy Lodge in Gatlinburg

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

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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