My first unchaperoned trip to London was something of a whim. (I had previously visited with a tour group in high school).
My wife Leslie and I were in Paris for our honeymoon.
Flush with cash from wedding gifts, we left most of our stuff in the hotel room in St. Germain and booked passage on the Chunnel to London with a return the next day.
It was 2000. The internet had dawned and I’d booked the trip online. However, I didn’t have a lot of access – or any access – to the internet in Europe. We didn’t know anyone. Didn’t have a room booked. In fact, we didn’t really know how to go about booking one.
But London’s a big city and we surely weren’t the first to arrive underprepared.
We figured we could wing it. And we did. It was great.
We arrived at Victoria’s Station and found a kiosk for travelers just like us. We made it to the palace in time to see the Changing of the Guard and heard the military band play a medley of Billy Joel hits.
Our room was in Marylebone near where some of the scenes for “A Hard Day’s Night” were filmed. We did a rush job of seeing as many sights as we could. And we were on the train back to Paris the next day.
At some point it occurred to me I’ve never failed to feel at home in Europe. Furthermore, I’ve never been afraid to wander off on some whim into giant cities, even in places where I don’t speak the language or don’t speak it particularly well.
It all seems so familiar, so comfortable.
It’s not a surprise, I suppose. I was raised on Mary Poppins. Peter Pan. Winnie The Pooh. Anne of Green Gables. The Little Prince. The Three Musketeers. Willy Wonka.
We learn German fairytales and study Shakespeare in school.
We’re raised – or at least I was – on European-tinged pop culture and literature.
The Village Shoppes in downtown Gatlinburg
For this reason, I think the faux-European architecture of The Village Shoppes in downtown Gatlinburg, TN is a stroke of genius.
In the late 60s, a pair of families took a parking lot in a small mountain tourist town and turned it into a mini-European village.
Why did they do it? I’m not sure. I don’t remember European living being a particular rage at the time.
Had it been a decade earlier, it’s possible they’d have chosen a Western theme. A decade later? Maybe a Polynesian one.
Instead, the Village owners bought the property in 1965. And they spent three years researching designs and compiling pictures with unique architectural and cultural ideas.
The result is a hodge-podge of design that makes the Village indistinctly European in the same way the Gene Wilder classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is.
Specifically, there are touches of Swiss, German, Celtic, English and French. And all are connected by classic Old World brick walkways.
It’s the perfect place to do your Gatlinburg shopping and dining. But it’s also a great getaway from the more neon elements of tourism in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Village owners – Jim and June Gerding, owners of The Pancake Pantry and David and Peggy Dych, owners of Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen – searched old homes, churches and buildings that were being demolished for items they could use in the construction.
“They acquired thick roofing slates, heavy carved doors, antique trim moldings, gas lighting fixtures and handmade bricks to complete a sense of the Old World,” The Village website explains. “Construction began in 1968, and the first 18 shops were completed in 1970. The remaining nine shops were added in 1982 to complete The Village Gatlinburg as we see it today.”
The unique stores of the Village themselves represent the melding of the Old World and the new, with a variety of oddly specific specialty shops, popular places and unique boutiques.
Certainly, not all of the stores in the shopping complex fall neatly into either category but many do.
Let’s start with a few from the Old World category.
11. The Spice & Tea Exchange of Gatlinburg
Shop here for that real authentic Old World feel and a taste of the spices and teas that drove European explorers around the world. Also, it’s perfect for creating your own gourmet gift.
The Spice Exchange is, in fact, a good example of the kinds of shops that are only available in The Village.
10. Zi Olive
A shop devoted to the finest gourmet olive oils and balsamic vinegars? Sure. Throw in some pastas, sauces, and wine and beer jellies and you’ve got a real taste of the Old World.
9. Boudicca’s Celtic Pub
Newly opened in late 2021, this Celtic Pub sits in the Village behind the Pancake Pantry. And it also features a variety of beers that can be enjoyed in the Public House style downstairs.
In addition, there’s also a family-friendly dining room upstairs with adults and kids menus featuring burgers, fish and chips and other pub food.
So, who is Boudicca? Only a warrior Queen of Briton from 43 AD who was apparently a cross between Merida from Pixar’s Brave and William Wallace who unified the tribes of Briton and fought the ruthless Roman hoards.
In fact, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about her. And the History Channel did a documentary so you know she’s a big deal.
Boudicca-themed merch also makes for the perfect souvenir for the Warrior Queen in your life.
8. Bonediggity Barkery & Gifts
Now we add some New World back into the mix.
As I assume you can guess from the name, it’s a bakery and gift shop for dogs. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think this is something the Swiss would embrace.
7. The Sock Shop
They sell socks. In fact, lots of them. Fun socks. Crazy socks. Cool socks. Toe socks. Knee socks. I don’t have a joke. Honestly, I’m perplexed. In other words, I didn’t even know socks could be cool.
6. Pop Culture Popcorn
25 distinct flavors of gourmet popcorn? Sounds American to me.
5. Maddi Mae’s Village Café and Creamery
This one straddles a bit of a line, but so does the New World borrowing from the Old. So, here we are with an American-style soda shop with a variety of ice creams, malts, shakes and floats.
Sure you can get an energy jolt from a Cappuccino or Cuban Espresso, but this little slice of heaven is straight out of an Archie comic and there’s nothing more American than that.
4. Pepper Palace
What says New World tourism than hundreds of hot sauces, salsas, spices, rubs and more, each designed to set your world on fire.
Cheese shop? Donuts? How about you pay us for some hot sauce to set your tongue – and the rest of your digestive tract – on literal fire?
3. Celtic Heritage Co
Going back to the Old World for our top three, the Celtic Heritage Co features items imported from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Indeed, it is a great place to dust off your hyper up-to-date Mike Meyers Scottish impression circa 1993. Wool sweaters, kilts, tartans and a fine selection of jewelry are also available.
2. The Cheese Cupboard and Hofbrauhaus Restaurant
Another of the early shops, The Cheese Cupboard opened in 1969 as Gatlinburg’s premier cheese shop. Certainly, a category for which I can’t imagine there was much competition.
“Since that time, thousands have enjoyed our large array of imported and domestic cheese, unusual crackers and wonderful chocolates straight from Switzerland and Germany,” owners say on their website. “We have snacks, cold drinks, gourmet mustards, hot sauces and even old-fashioned Kosher dill pickles.”
The restaurant, a German-style pub, features the famous Super Reuben and a variety of hot specialty sandwiches. Indeed, this German pub is the definition of an Old World atmosphere.
1. Donut Friar
Carolyn and James Ryan moved to Gatlinburg in 1969 and opened The Donut Friar. A happy little donut-serving holy man was somehow perfect for The Village’s European sensibilities.
For generations, the Ryans have served fresh donuts of all kinds. Favorites include chocolate and coconut glazed and rainbow sprinkle donuts. French crullers and Bavarian cream-filled cinnamon twists are also on the menu as well as cake donuts. And the cinnamon bread is to die for.
Of course, that’s just a small sample of the fun things available at The Village shopping area.
There’s also a small board game store – Gatlin’s Escape Games – and shops designed specifically with the art lover in mind.
And the Silver Tree – which sells Silver items that make me think of the Old World but also Paul Revere, so I left it out of either list.
Certainly, there are a surprising number of shopping destinations dedicated to specialty footwear and socks.
From all kinds of home decor to candles, to gourmet food, you can find the best gift idea or two right off traffic light number six.
What is your favorite destination at The Village Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments.