Deep in the heart of the East Tennessee Mountains you’ll find one of America’s favorite resort cities: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It’s close to Knoxville and sits right along the edge of the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the city is a popular vacation spot in its own right. Whether you’re bringing the kids for a fun-filled, family-friendly getaway or you’re traveling with friends to experience the area’s natural beauty, don’t leave home until you’ve read this Gatlinburg travel guide. If you are looking for Gatlinburg vacation ideas, you are in the right place.
Gatlinburg Packing Tips
As you prepare for your Gatlinburg vacation, check the climate details for the time you’ll be there so you can dress for the weather. During the summer, expect daytime highs to reach well into the 80s. Fortunately, you won’t have to suffer much humidity thanks to the higher mountain elevations. Temperatures remain comfortably in the 80s during the day in early fall, but they drop back measurably by October and November.
By winter, snow is a definite possibility, making skiing vacations popular with many tourists. Highs range anywhere from the mid-30s to the mid-50s during the winter. By springtime, you can expect the temperatures to climb slowly and top out in the lower 60s in March. Towards the tail end of spring, temperatures are typically in the 70s.
The weather can change quickly in Gatlinburg at any time of the year, so it’s important to pack for almost anything. Savvy vacationers pack layers, making it easy to shed or add more if the temperature changes. Don’t forget to pack your rain gear, too.
With so many things to do in Gatlinburg, your vacation itinerary might fill up fast. Most people who visit the area have a couple of the biggest attractions high on their lists. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the biggest draws in the area, so this is a definite must-see while you’re there. Check out a full list of Gatlinburg attractions below.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A visit to Gatlinburg is not complete without a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of America’s most visited national parks. Pack a picnic and go for a hike for magnificent views. Many hikers like to watch for black bears or elk in their natural habitat. There are several waterfalls to experience, and one of the most popular among visitors is the Grotto, which visitors can walk behind to watch the cascading water. For those who don’t want to hike, a drive through the park is also a way to enjoy the beauty. In fact, many motorists like to tour Cades Cove, a valley that’s popular for wildlife viewing. An 11-mile road surrounds the cove, and the loop takes about two to four hours.
If you are heading to Dollywood around Christmas time, make sure to check out our guide for this magical destination during the most special time of the year.
This attraction offers an amazing view of Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains. Tourists can take a ride on the Gatlinburg SkyLift 1,800 feet in the air up the side of Crockett Mountain. It’s open year round, so visitors can take advantage of the view any time.
Rafting in the Smokies
Experience the Smoky Mountains in an adventurous way. Rafting in the Smokies offers courses along the Pigeon River for a range of skill levels, all with a certified, trained guide. This 10-acre attraction also offers a zip lining package for the ultimate adventure through the Smokies!
Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery
Visitors who enjoy an adult beverage can experience genuine moonshine in downtown Gatlinburg. During a visit to the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, guests will learn about the rich history of making moonshine, take a self-guided tour of the distillery, and sample some of the old family recipes of East Tennessee. 15 different flavors of Ole Smoky Moonshine are sold in mason jars, making it a popular souvenir. In addition to the moonshine, the distillery offers live bluegrass music every day. All ages are allowed to visit the distillery.
Westgate Wild Bear Falls
Families tend to enjoy spending a day at this mountain-themed water park. Westgate Wild Bear Falls indoor water park features a 900-foot lazy river, body slides, tub slides, hot tubs, swimming pool, and a toddler-only area. Since the park is indoors, Westgate is open throughout the year.
Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area & Amusement Park
Experience winter activities year round at the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area & Amusement Park. Visitors can enjoy the Ski Mountain Coaster, ice skating, shopping, and dining. In the winter months, visitors can hit the slopes for skiing and snowboarding. On average, the ski season goes from mid-December until mid-March, but this can vary depending on the weather. Ski equipment is available for rent and ski lessons are available for beginners.
For visitors who love arts and crafts, a trip to the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community should make it on your itinerary of things to do in Gatlinburg. At Alewine Pottery, guests can not only see how the pottery is made and learn all about the crafting process, but they can go home with a souvenir as well. Founded in 1983, the shop also offers entertainment that includes live music featuring local artists, steaming mugs of hot coffee and free popcorn for guests. The shop was founded by Robert Alewine, who recreates the colors of the mountains in his work.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Ripley’s is one of Gatlinburg’s largest attractions. It offers many interactive exhibits that allow visitors to get up close and even touch some creatures of the sea. The Penguin Playhouse allows guests to take a look at the penguins as they crawl through the see-through tunnels.
Another popular exhibit is Stingray Bay, where guests can touch a stingray and learn more about this sea animal. The Gallery of the Seas features octopus, jellyfish, sea stars and other creatures. Visitors can step aboard the 340-foot guide path and watch the wildlife swim above. Guests also have the option to ride the Glass Bottom Boat to see the more than 8,500 animals that reside in the Shark Lagoon. For guests who want an extra experience, behind-the-scenes tours are available.
Hollywood Star Cars
If you’re fascinated by old school cars, then spending a few hours at the Hollywood Star Cars Museum makes for an entertaining morning, afternoon, or evening. This is the place to see many of the cars from famous television and movie scenes. The museum has recreated many of the settings from the big screen, too. Anyone with even a passing interest in famous cars may want to tour this museum. The curators here are constantly searching to add more famous cars to the collection.
Park your rental vehicle for the day and get around Gatlinburg on the city’s trolley system. Fares start as low as $0.50 and the kids are sure to love the experience of riding the trolleys. With numerous routes through the entire city, it’s fairly simple to get wherever you want to go. You can even hop on the trolley with the green route to explore the historic nature trail.
Gatlinburg Space Needle
Take a trip up 400 feet in the Gatlinburg Space Needle. The structure features two glass elevators that take you to the observation deck up top. Once there, get ready to be impressed by the 360-degree panoramic view of the entire area of Gatlinburg, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. No matter the season, the view is stunning. You can even get a closer view of the countryside by using the free viewfinders available on the observation deck.
Gatlinburg’s Mysterious Mansion
If you and you and your travel buddies are brave enough, you might drop in to Gatlinburg’s Mysterious Mansion. This is one of the older, scarier haunted houses in the area. The tours of the house are self-guided, and you’ll have to meander your way through the various secret passages, winding staircases and dark corridors in the house. As challenging as it is to navigate the dark house, you’ll also be faced with confrontations from the mysterious creatures hiding in the mansion.
Rowdy Bear Mountain
Rowdy Bear Mountain offers thrill rides that include the First Mountain Glider and the Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster. The glider combines free falling and hang gliding while the gravity-propelled alpine mountain coaster winds through the woods at speeds up to 35 mph. Coaster wristband unlimited ride specials are offered.
Where to eat
After a busy day checking things off your itinerary, you’ll probably be hungry. Fortunately, you have plenty of options to grab a bite in Gatlinburg. From pizza and pancakes, to barbecue and good old-fashioned Southern comfort food, it can be hard to narrow down just where you want to eat in town.
Gatlinburg caters to a variety of appetites and cuisines, including barbecue, seafood, Mexican fare, steak, pizza and pancakes. Here’s a breakdown of our top recommendations for Gatlinburg eats:
- Kid-Friendly Brunch: Crockett’s Breakfast Camp
- Pet-Friendly Steakhouse: Howard’s Steakhouse
- Southern Comfort Food: Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen
- Lunch With a View: Cliff Top Grill & Bar
- American BBQ: Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que
- Cuban & Caribbean Cuisine: Smokies Cuban Cafe
Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries
No matter which restaurant you decide, if you’re over 21, you’ll want to stop at one of the breweries, wineries or distilleries in town to wash it all down. Take a sip of authentic Gatlinburg-style moonshine, attend a wine tasting or test some local, micro-brewed craft beers.
Most of the local breweries, distilleries and wineries are conveniently lined up along the Parkway. Enjoy tours and tastings of aged whiskey, craft beer, local fruit wines and completely legal distilled moonshine. You can visit the Gatlinburg official website for a complete list of breweries, distilleries, and wineries, but here are some of our personal favorites:
- Best Wine: Tennessee Homemade Wines
- Best Beer: Smoky Mountain Brewery
- Best Whiskey: Ole Smoky Whiskey Barrelhouse
Gatlinburg Must be the Place
In Gatlinburg, there’s not just one time of the year that makes for a perfect vacation. Regardless of the weather and the season, you can fill your vacation to-do list with so many attractions that you might not know where to begin.