Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a beautiful city that has grown to become one of America’s most popular vacation destinations in the past few decades. Gatlinburg is a thriving family destination that has something for everyone with some of the best restaurants, amusement parks, and scenery that Tennessee has to offer. It is known as a spectacular family destination as well as a wonderful place for couples to getaway.
Gatlinburg is quite literally littered with things to do from horseback riding, shopping outlet malls, amusement rides, mountainous scenery, indoor and outdoor water parks, museums, zip-lining, whitewater rafting, hotels, resorts, cabins, condos, restaurants, vegas style shows, comedy barns, and so much more.
So by now you are no longer searching for something great to do in Gatlinburg, but trying to figure out where to start. With so many options, I know it can be overwhelming when trying to plan your trip to Gatlinburg. But don’t be like this guy, running away from vacation bliss and suffering from staycation-itis because he just had too many options.
That’s what I’m here for. We will point you to some of the best deals that Gatlinburg has to offer for each individual attraction. Let us help you to find the best deals and to travel for a fraction of the cost of what others are paying. Fortunately for you, I have been to Gatlinburg multiple times and will give you the inside scoop on how to get the most value out of your vacation.
Greystone Lodge on the River
We stayed at the Greystone Lodge on the River and couldn’t have asked for a better location or accommodations. The hotel recently underwent a massive renovation, and everything felt new and modern. Our room was in towers, which was great because our balcony overlooked the river. It was all quite charming.
Though there is a trolley system to take you around, we found that everything in town was within walking distance. In fact, Ripley’s Aquarium was right next door to the Greystone, so this was our first stop. They played the theme music to Jaws in the shark area which I highly appreciated…until I got super creeped out. Look at this beast’s teeth.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the World’s Most Fun 1.4 million gallons world-class aquarium. Featuring 11 ft sharks and over 8,000 exotic sea creatures from around the world. You will experience Piranhas in “Tropical Rain Forest”, discover indo-pacific fish in “Coral Reef”, travel through the world’s longest underwater aquarium tunnel on a 345-foot glide path through “Shark Lagoon”, pick up a horseshoe crab in “Discovery Center”, meet giant Pacific Octopus in “Gallery of the Seas”, touch a stingray at “Touch A Ray Bay”, sit in one of two classrooms for a presentation, see one of the hourly dive/feeding shows, plus much more.
The Space Needle is Gatlinburg’s premier landmark attraction. The Needle climbs 407 feet and towers over Gatlinburg downtown areas. Day or night you can ride the elevator to the observation deck at 342 feet for a breathtaking panoramic view the city of Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Extreme Fun! Oddities and Artifacts of the Strange! See the museum that inspired the hit TV show. Hundreds of exciting and bizarre exhibits collected from the far corners of the world. Join us for your challenge to simply… BELIEVE IT OR NOT!
The Village Shops
We also enjoyed exploring the main drag (which is Parkway), where I stumbled upon the cutest shops in the Village. I immediately yelled, “It’s Diagon Alley!” (I insist you click on that link and try to tell me otherwise.) Tommy must still be bitter about not receiving his letter to Hogwarts because he disagreed, though he finally gave in a little and acknowledged it “felt European.” Correct, like Diagon Alley.
As the sun went down, we hopped onto the Sky Lift for more of an aerial view. There’s also a cable car that takes thrill-seekers to the Ober, which is a legit alpine coaster. Real talk: I am a coward, so I was too afraid to try it, but it looks fun.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Speaking of views, the next day we drove into the National Park for a morning hike. The drive up the Smoky Mountains was gorgeous, and as we climbed higher into the sky, we had to pull off for a photo. Being from the Midwest, my experience in “hiking” involves Metro Parks and nicely paved trails. The scariest thing we’ve encountered was a garter snake. But this experience was the real deal. As we approached the Grotto Falls marker we saw the following warning:
The word “bear” was nearly enough to have me scrambling back to the car, but we were halfway up the trail, and peer pressure won out. I’m glad this was the case because it was the most peaceful, scenic hike I’ve ever taken. The falls at the top was also a payoff and a lovely place to catch my breath.
Christ in the Smokies Museum
In the center of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at Christ in the Smokies Museum & Gardens (located on the former Christus Gardens property) you will have the remarkable experience of walking through a Biblical world of 2000 years ago, seeing life-size, life-like representations of important scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.
Coffee & Dessert
Back in town, I felt the need to refuel with my favorite things: caffeine and sugar. We went back to the Village Shops and tried Coffee & Company at the suggestion of the Visitor’s Bureau. And because the experts never steer me wrong, I went with the barista’s recommendation of the pumpkin white mocha. I don’t even like pumpkin coffee, but this was ridiculously good.
I followed my nose into the nearby Donut Friar and ice cream cone from Kilwin’s for post-hike rewards. I know it seems that everything I consumed was somewhat standard for a tourist destination, but I was pleasantly surprised to find some foodie gems throughout Gatlinburg.
On our first day, we stopped at the Park Grill for lunch, and I was excited to see a Moonshine Chicken sandwich on the menu. I’d never had moonshine before, but the restaurant was highly rated, so I threw caution to the wind. Verdict: amazing. The chicken was sweet and savory (my favorite combo) and topped with a pineapple ring. On the side were rings of the onion variety (also amazing). Thom also enjoyed his burger. It was made to order and had that nice, smoky hickory flavor we all love.
Thomas Kinkade Art Gallery
Right by the restaurant is the Thomas Kinkade Art Gallery which we had to check out. Believe it or not, Gatlinburg has a thriving arts scene. Its claim to fame is having the largest group of independent artisans in North America, and this includes an eight-mile loop of the Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail. In fact, on our drive back from the hike, we encountered craftsmen doing intricate woodwork. There are also painters, weavers, silversmiths and much more. It was nice to see that though there are a lot of tourist attractions in town (all the Ripley’s and various entertainment venues), there is a swell of local, independent places you can focus on.
Smoky Mountain Brewery
In this spirit, we had our final dinner of the trip at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. We are STILL reminiscing about its DELICIOUS pizza and beer flights. Admittedly, those beers contributed to the demise of my cell phone, but part of me is like IT WAS WORTH IT.
Sugarlands Distilling Co.
Also worth it was my first time trying moonshine! There are free moonshine tastings scattered about, but we found ourselves in the Sugarlands Distilling Co. and had an absolute blast. Our host was a knowledgeable and hilarious guy named Toaster, and he poured shot after shot of booze ranging from some that go down like whiskey to the more dangerous ones that went down like Kool-Aid. While we tossed drinks back, Toaster suggested compatible mixers and even tips on how to cook with moonshine.
If you’re interested in a trip, a great place to plan is at the Gatlinburg CVB site. They have guides spanning families to nature lovers to adventure seekers–it really has a little bit of everything. We saw couples, families, and groups of friends having a night out on the town. It’s also an easy drive from Columbus–a clip at six hours.
All in all, Gatlinburg was nothing like I expected. Yes, there are touristy attractions afoot, but there are also huge pockets of indie shops, restaurants, and merchandise. I’d recommend spreading your money there. The locals have an outpouring of love for their city and are willing to steer you in the direction of awesome places off the beaten path. I imagine it would be a gorgeous autumn trip.
Have you been to Gatlinburg? What are your recommendations?
- Gatlinburg Attractions
- Greystone Lodge on the River
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg
- Space Needle
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
- The Village Shops
- Ober Gatlinburg
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Christ in the Smokies Museum
- Coffee & Dessert
- Park Grill
- Thomas Kinkade Art Gallery
- Smoky Mountain Brewery
- Sugarlands Distilling Co.
- Final Word