There’s a joy that comes with being someplace like Gatlinburg with time to burn and a little money in your pocket. We recently spent a day in Gatlinburg with my kids starting with Ripley’s Aquarium, followed by some shopping at The Village and dinner at one of my favorite local restaurants. It was a good day, a full day. A day in which the entire family had a good time.
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What are the best things to do in Gatlinburg?
As a local, I have barely scratched the surface of what’s available in Gatlinburg. And so how do visitors do it all? You can’t. But you can prioritize what you want to do and let the things that don’t make the cut go. Below, I will break it down for you based on recommendations, the things I think you should put at the top of your list.
But first, a caveat, there is no right or wrong to this. What I rank No. 1 may well be the last thing on Earth you want to do. Also, keep in mind that in my Pigeon Forge list, I kept things very narrowly to the specific, legal boundaries of Pigeon Forge.
For Gatlinburg, I will get a little wider and include some things from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nothing crazy – we’re not including Cades Cove or anything across the mountains into North Carolina. But you can’t plan a Gatlinburg vacation and ignore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Without further ado, here are my suggestions for the best things to do in Gatlinburg.
1. Visit the Chimney Picnic Area
Located just up Highway 321 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Chimney Picnic Area is my favorite place to picnic in the Smokies. The rushing West Prong of the Little Pigeon River runs alongside the area providing great scenery as well as first-rate wading and adventuring for the family. This has been my family’s favorite spot to go hang out and grill for decades. With the sound of the water and the shade of the tall trees, it’s also a great spot to string a hammock and relax.
2. Eat some pancakes
If Gatlinburg had a main food group, it would probably be pancakes. There’s no better way to start your day than with a plate full of delicious flapjacks. You can’t go wrong if you visit the Log Cabin Pancake House, Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin or the Pancake Pantry. Crockett’s Breakfast Camp is also a great place for a delicious pancake breakfast, even though they don’t have pancakes right there in the name.
3. Visit Ripley’s Aquarium
I admit that I’m partial to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. It’s the perfect place for the family to get away in the mountains. Even with crowds of people, the serenity of watching the fish and sharks is fantastic, and the underwater tunnel can amaze you no matter how many times you ride under a large shark. The penguin parade is fun and the kid’s area is gloriously hectic. However, the aquarium is showing its age in some areas. The whole thing could use a makeover and expansion, but it’s still the premier man-made attraction in Gatlinburg. It remains a great time for the whole family. If you visit the aquarium, make sure you consider a combo pass to save on multiple attractions. It can help in stretching your vacation dollar.
4. Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This scenic drive is located just outside Gatlinburg in the national park. It includes scenic views, wildlife viewing – during the right time of year it’s a great place to see black bears – and a variety of trails to some of the most popular waterfalls in the mountains, including Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Throw in the historic buildings and occasional ghost stories, and you’ve got something for everyone. Keep in mind that this one-way road is closed during the winter months.
5. Visit Anakeesta
Billed as Gatlinburg’s amusement park, Anakeesta offers something for the entire family … at a price. The still-growing attraction offers scenic mountain views from the AnaVista Tower, shopping and dining. It also has fun add-on adventures, such as one of the best zip lines in the area and a mountain coaster. You can also consider the Astra Lumina experience as an add-on. It’s the first of its kind in the United States. The prices are a little steep and it will be a much better attraction as it continues to expand in the coming years. But Anakeesta offers something that not a lot of other Gatlinburg attractions offer, which is a place to chill.
From the seats near the fire pits to the dining areas overlooking some of the best views around, Anakeesta is a great spot to visit when you don’t have to do anything else that day. Just relax. Also, the chondola ride down the mountain at night is legit one of the best experiences on the mountain. Coming down through the dark to the lights of Gatlinburg below? It’s peaceful. Soothing. It may also be the most relaxed I’ve been in a long time. Check Tripster for discounts on general admission when you plan your trip.
6. Hike to Laurel Falls
Among the most popular tourist destinations in the park, Laurel Falls is located on the Laurel Falls Trail, which starts about 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There is parking available at the trailhead, but remember that you will need a parking pass when you park in the national park for more than 15 minutes. Also keep in mind that since this is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies, you will likely see a few other guests along your way. Try to visit during off-peak times.
7. Visit the Gatlinburg SkyBridge
The SkyBridge is a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience that you should try at least once. It’s located at the Gatlinburg SkyPark, which also offers walking paths, an observation tower and a SkyCenter where you can soak in the views with a craft beer and a snack. The bridge offers iconic views of downtown Gatlinburg TN, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and more. It isn’t entirely made of glass, but there are 30 feet of glass panels on the bridge which offers spectacular views and a blast of adrenaline.
With its panoramic views, it’s certainly a great place to watch the sky at dusk. There’s plenty of room up there. The bridge is wide enough for people to pass each other comfortably, allowing everyone to take the bridge at their own pace.
8. Play arcade games
There is almost no limit to places where you can play games, win tickets and test your skills along the strip. My favorites are at the Gatlinburg Space Needle and Fannie Farkle’s. I like Fannie Farkle’s because they also serve a world-class smoked sausage and the best corn dog in North America.
9. Go shopping
Filled with a massive variety of shops, stores and curio sellers, Gatlinburg is a great place to gift shop. The Village is my favorite place for the variety and unique experience, but there are countless interesting shops all along the heart of downtown Gatlinburg.
10. Visit the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community
The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community has more than 100 shops featuring regionally made items spread over the 8-mile Loop Road. It reportedly makes up the largest group of independent artisans in North America. You’ll find anything from homemade candy, rugs, leather, jewelry and more at these specialty shops. It’s surely worth a visit.
11. Dine at one of Gatlinburg’s best restaurants
Whether or not you consider yourself a foodie, a large part of any vacation is the local restaurant scene. Whether you want some good seafood or an excellent steak, be sure to try one of these options during your visit.
12. Take in a museum
Gatlinburg has a long list of popular museums which are more tourist attractions than museums. For example, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! remains the most popular, although I doubt many of the younger generations have any idea who Ripley was or why he curated oddities from around the world.
I suspect – other than the displays in Ripley attractions explaining the past – most who pass through the doors have little recollection of the carnival barker legend behind the name. Other popular museums include the self-explanatory Hollywood Star Cars Museum and the iconic Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
13. Go mini golfing
My mind is a series of odd partitions. I separate things the way they should be organized even if the real world doesn’t work that way. The truth is when I think of mini golfing, I don’t think of Gatlinburg. In my mind, the realm of mini golfing belongs to Pigeon Forge, so that’s where I go when I want to play mini golf. I have mini golfed in Gatlinburg. However, it wasn’t the main object on the day’s itinerary.
Notably, Hillbilly Golf is famous all over the United States. There are some indoor mini golf venues available, which is good when the weather is bad. And of course, Ripley’s has a few options as well. I have to admit, objectively, that Gatlinburg has great mini golf options – but I will always go to Pigeon Forge first. In my mind, that’s the natural hierarchy.
14. Ride the Gatlinburg Trolley
I recommend this activity during the holiday season. For 10 months out of the year, you couldn’t pay me to ride the Gatlinburg Trolley. It’s not that I’m against public transportation per se, but when I visit, I’m not on vacation. I’m there to do a specific thing or two or three and get out. The idea of riding through Gatlinburg traffic, stopping as people get on and off would drive me crazy. However, at Christmastime, when Gatlinburg is lit with the holiday spirit? Then the ride is the whole point. There’s certainly no better way to see all the sights than riding the trolley.
15. Gatlinburg Space Needle
The Space Needle is cool. It offers great views of Gatlinburg and the mountains, and it’s a unique experience to do once. But if you want to get the best views, some of the other attractions on the list (such as Anakeesta, SkyPark and Ober) offer better views. You see, despite the significant height, the needle is located down in a valley, dwarfed by the mountains to either side. It once had the title of the tallest tower, but it has been usurped by Anakeesta’s tower. Still, it’s fun. It’s worth checking out at night for the views of Gatlinburg’s lights. But it’s not the best commercial view in town. Still, if you want to check it out, you can also sometimes find a deal on Groupon.
16. Ober Mountain
For decades, Ober Mountain (formally Ober Gatlinburg) has been one of the most popular attractions in the Smokies. And it still has a lot to offer, from the Aerial Tramway to the alpine slide to the mountain coaster. It offers plenty of activities for the whole family.
But there’s a reason Ober is getting outdone – at least in my perception – by Anakeesta, which offers far less to do. Ober feels like it’s fading. I was disappointed on our last trip. To me, things felt run down and there weren’t nearly enough employees. The ones who were there – for the most part – didn’t exude customer service. I’m not out on Ober, especially now that it is under new management. It still offers a lot of fun things to do, with more and more attractions being added to its offerings.
That being said, Ober remains the premier destination for winter sports in Gatlinburg. From indoor ice skating and ice bumper cars to skiing and snowboarding to snow tubing and sledding, Ober remains a great spot when it’s cold enough for man-made snow. It’s also East Tennessee’s best and only ski area.
17. Sample some moonshine
Gatlinburg is known for its moonshine distilleries. In fact, Ole Smoky is the most visited distillery in the world. You can try samples at most locations for just $5, which will go toward the price of a purchase made in-store. While Ole Smoky moonshine is one of the most well-known places to try a few samples, there are several places to get moonshine up and down the Parkway. Sugarlands is another popular option, for example. Not into moonshine? There are also plenty of wineries as well.
What is your favorite thing to do in Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments!