Asheville or Gatlinburg… Which one should you visit for your next vacation in the mountains? ⛰️
Asheville and Gatlinburg, lie only 80 miles apart and about a 1 hour and 36-minute drive from each other, but they are no doubt 2 very different cities.
I have visited the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Smoky Mountain area my entire life and have fond memories of visiting it as a child and now as an adult taking my own kids.
Asheville, on the other hand, I had the pleasure to visit recently for the first time on a spring break trip with my husband and three kids.
I am excited to share with you the main differences between these 2 cities so that you can make an informed decision on which one to visit.
Not only will we talk about the main differences between the two, but also the best things to do in Asheville, the best things to do in Gatlinburg, which one is better for families, which one is better for couples, which one has the better food scene, and more!
Whether you are traveling solo, with your significant other, your family, or your friends; by the end of this guide you will be able to decide on the perfect mountain city for your vacation!
So what will it be, Asheville or Gatlinburg? Let’s go!!
What are the Main Differences Between Asheville and Gatlinburg?
Let me first say that there are quite a lot of differences between Asheville and Gatlinburg.
About the only thing these 2 cities have in common is that the mountains are their backdrop. While Asheville has the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gatlinburg has the Smoky Mountains.
Asheville is a beautiful, charming city in western North Carolina surrounded by the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains.
Although it is the largest city in western North Carolina, it still has a small-town feel.
In comparison to other Southern cities and towns, Asheville stands out for its eclectic/hippie vibe and artsy culture.
The food scene in Asheville is excellent and even recently has been named the #1 Foodie Destination in the U.S.! Asheville is also known for its beer scene and has one of the most breweries per capita of any other city in the U.S.
While Asheville is a city where people live, work, and go to school, Gatlinburg is definitely a tourist town.
Gatlinburg is located in eastern Tennessee and is the main gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And Gatlinburg along with its neighbor Pigeon Forge are about as touristy as it gets.
And many people will often refer to these towns as “tacky” because of the overabundance of gimmicky after gimmicky place on the parkway. But because of all these gimmicky and family-friendly attractions in Gatlinburg, you will never be bored.
Now that we’ve talked about the main differences between Asheville and Gatlinburg, let’s get into the best things to do in Asheville and Gatlinburg.
Best Things to Do in Asheville
Asheville is a fun city to explore in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Visiting Asheville means that not only do you get to explore a “city” but also the great outdoors.
Here are some of the best things to do in Asheville.
Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway
Many people vacation in Asheville because it’s a great base to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway has incredible scenic views and it’s also a great place to go hiking and biking.
Enjoy the Waterfalls at DuPont State Forest
For some of the best waterfalls near Asheville go to DuPont State Forest. At DuPont State Forest you can view Triple Falls, High Falls, and Hooker Falls.
Triple Falls is an excellent choice of a waterfall for those who don’t want to hike too far. It’s a fairly short walk from the parking lot and it’s the perfect spot to relax or play around on the water’s edge.
Visit the Biltmore
The Biltmore House is the largest privately owned house in the United States. It was completed in 1895 and was the home of George Vanderbilt and his family.
It is now open for tours daily and is the most popular attraction in Asheville. Visiting the Biltmore is also a very common day trip people make while staying in Gatlinburg.
The Biltmore mansion has over 175,000 square feet with 250 rooms. This mansion even includes a bowling alley, indoor pool, and gym!
But it’s not just the mansion you can visit at The Biltmore. On the Biltmore Estate, you can also stroll through the beautiful gardens and visit Antler Hill Village. Antler Hill Village includes Biltmore Winery, a farmyard, a fun playground for kids, shops, The Creamery (an ice cream shop), and a few restaurants.
Biltmore also has a few incredible hotels to stay at on the property including the luxurious The Inn at Biltmore Estate.
Ziplining is an adventurous activity in Asheville for the whole family.
There are a few places to go ziplining in the Asheville area, but Navitat Canopy Adventures is the most popular and highly recommended one. They offer mountaintop tours and treetop tours.
Dine or Tour a Brewery
Asheville is known as “Beer City” and has around 50 breweries. 🍺 Some of these breweries even offer tours and have delicious restaurants to dine at.
Highland Brewery was the first brewery to open in Asheville that kind of started it all. Sierra Nevada and Wicked Weed Brewery are other highly recommended breweries to try for their delicious food and beer.
Stroll and Shop the River Arts District
The River Arts District covers about 1 mile along the French Broad River in Asheville. It has 25 or so buildings with over 300 artists.
If you are an art or graffiti lover, you’re going to love the River Arts District.🎨 All of the shops and buildings have painted murals on them. Inside the shops, you’ll find a variety of art including oil and acrylic paintings, photography, pottery, jewelry, and more.
Grab Dessert or Take a Tour at French Broad Chocolate Lounge
Chocolate lover? 🍫 Head to French Broad Chocolate Lounge and indulge in your favorite chocolate dessert.
They even offer chocolate factory tours here. This would be super fun for those in Asheville with kids.
Take it Back Old School at One of Asheville’s Retro Arcades
Asheville has a couple of retro arcades that are definitely worth going to! One is the Asheville Pinball Museum and the other is the Asheville Retrocade.
These places are so much fun! You pay a set fee and have unlimited use of their classic video games from the 80s and 90s.
Best Things to Do in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is a fun tourist town in East Tennessee with no shortage of attractions. It’s also the main gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so you can combine the great outdoors with fun attractions for a well-balanced vacation.
Here are the best things to do in Gatlinburg.
Explore the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
It goes without saying, that exploring the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the best thing to do in Gatlinburg. The Smoky Mountain National Park is not only the most visited National Park on the East Coast but also the most visited National Park in the U.S.
And Gatlinburg is the most popular place to stay when visiting the park.
There are so many fun things to do in the park…take in the incredible scenic views, visit Cades Cove, hike, and view the many waterfalls! Oh, and keep your eyes open for a bear or two! 🐻
Visit One of the Many Attractions on the Parkway
There is no shortage of attractions and activities on the Gatlinburg Parkway. On the parkway, you’ll find an aquarium, mountain coasters, mini-golf, a sky bridge, many Ripley attractions, treetop skywalks, and more.
Some of these Gatlinburg attractions include:
- Ober Mountain
- Gatlinburg SkyBridge
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
- Hillbilly Golf
- Moonshine Mountain Coaster
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not
- Space Needle
Eat at Pancake Pantry
You can’t go to Gatlinburg and not eat at Pancake Pantry. 🥞 Seriously, this place has been around forever and serves the best breakfast and a huge variety of pancakes.
Explore Gatlinburg’s Neighbor Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge is the town directly next to Gatlinburg. And if you think Gatlinburg has a lot of attractions, guess what? Pigeon Forge has even more!!
In Pigeon Forge, you’ll find a theme park, water park, dinner shows, comedy shows, go-carting, mountain coasters, snow tubing, a wax museum, shopping, and much much more!
Here are some, but definitely not all of the attractions in Pigeon Forge.
- Dollywood (theme park and water park)
- Dolly Partons Stampede (dinner show)
- Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Adventure
- The Island in Pigeon Forge
- Hollywood Wax Museum
- Titanic Museum Attraction
- Comedy Barn Theatre
- SpeedZone Fun Park
- Pigeon Forge Snow
- Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
Which is Better for Families?
Asheville and Gatlinburg are both excellent towns for a family vacation in the mountains.
However, they are very different.
Asheville has a more laid-back and chill vibe, while Gatlinburg is busy, touristy, and has more family-friendly attractions than you could ever find the time to do.
🏆 And because of this, Gatlinburg won my category for “Best Mountain City for Families.”
In Gatlinburg, families have many attractions and activities to choose from including Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Anakeesta, Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, Ober Gatlinburg, Hillbilly Golf, the Space Needle, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, mountain coasters, and much, much more!
Next door town Pigeon Forge even has more family fun. Some of the family fun in Pigeon Forge includes Dollywood, Dolly Partons Stampede (Dinner Show), Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Adventure, Hollywood Wax Museum, Titanic Museum Attraction, Wonderworks, comedy shows, go-carting, snow tubing, mountain coasters.
But besides all of these fun family attractions and activities, Gatlinburg is also the main gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kids will love the Smoky Mountains for all the hiking, the waterfalls, playing in the Little Pigeon River, and becoming a Junior Ranger.
Which is Better for Couples?
Asheville and Gatlinburg are both fabulous destinations for couples. So which city is better for couples depends on the kind of vacation you are looking for.
🏆 However, Asheville wins my category of “Best Mountain City for Couples.”
Why you ask?
Asheville is a foodie city and has so many amazing restaurants to try with your significant other. Not only does Asheville have delicious restaurants, but also about 50 breweries to try!
The Biltmore Estate is also a romantic place to take a stroll and then go wine tasting at the Biltmore Winery. 🍷
Art lovers will love exploring the River Arts District. And there’s no shortage of shopping either in Asheville. Biltmore Village is a great place to walk, browse, or shop.
And last but not least, Asheville is a wonderful destination for the outdoor-loving couple. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as its backdrop, Asheville is the perfect spot for hiking, biking, or watching the sunset.
Which Has the Better Dining?
Both of these southeastern mountain towns have delicious dining options.
🏆 But, Asheville wins my category for “Best Mountain City for Dining.”
Asheville is a true foodie town, so if you are a foodie put Asheville on your must-visit city list.
Some of the top restaurants to dine at in the city include Curate, Nine Mile, White Duck Taco Shop, and Sunny Point Cafe.
Which Is Cheaper to Visit?
Which city is the cheapest to visit is not really a straightforward answer. It really depends on what you plan on doing on your vacation.
As far as hotels and accommodations, you are looking to spend about the same amount of money.
When in Gatlinburg though, you could easily spend a lot of money if you do a lot of tourist attractions. These attractions can definitely add up pretty quickly.
If you’re on a budget, you could easily visit either of these towns. Just make sure to plan ahead and stick to your budget.
PRO-TIP: A great way to save money and almost a necessity (because there’s nothing else around) when visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway, is to have a cooler and pack lunches, drinks, and snacks. And it’s fun to have a picnic in the mountains.
Visiting Both Asheville & Gatlinburg
Can’t decide between Asheville or Gatlinburg? Why not visit both? You could easily combine both these towns into one vacation.
If you have a week for vacation, I recommend spending 4 nights in Gatlinburg and 2 or 3 nights in Asheville.
Distance from Gatlinburg to Asheville
The most direct route from Gatlinburg to Asheville is approximately 81 miles and a 1 hour and 37-minute drive.
Now, there are other scenic drives to go from Gatlinburg to Asheville, but this will add more time to your trip.
But for those interested in the scenic route, you could start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg and travel all the way through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park until you reach the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. From here you can take a more direct route to Asheville or continue on a more scenic route on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
What Airport Do You Fly Into to Go to Asheville & Gatlinburg?
When visiting Asheville, North Carolina you can fly directly into Asheville via Asheville Regional Airport (AVL).
Gatlinburg, Tennessee does not have an airport, and the closest airport to fly into would be McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is about 40 miles from Gatlinburg and is about a 1 hour and 30-minute drive.
So, if you’re looking to fly in for a quick weekend getaway, Asheville, maybe the better option for its ease and convenience of getting to by plane.
If you take the scenic drive between Asheville and Gatlinburg, you will encounter some of the most jaw-dropping scenery you have ever seen. Leaving Asheville, travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway and then head towards Cherokee the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From here, you will travel through the scenic Smoky Mountain National Park until you reach Gatlinburg.
Asheville, North Carolina is definitely worth visiting. It’s a beautiful charming town surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has an eclectic vibe, artsy culture, wonderful restaurants, and an abundance of breweries. There are many fun, outdoor activities such as hiking and biking near Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Gatlinburg is definitely worth going to as it is a charming town surrounded by the Smoky Mountains. It has an abundance of attractions and activities to keep families entertained. It is also the main gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Asheville is in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Smoky Mountains are about a 1.5-hour drive from Asheville.
Three full days would be the perfect amount of days to see Asheville. This gives you time to explore the Biltmore, the downtown area, the River Arts District, and go hiking and sightseeing along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park has a few entrances. The closest entrance to Asheville will be the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, NC. This is 55 miles and about a 1-hour 14-minute drive. Sugarlands Visitor Center is the most popular visitor center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park located at the Gatlinburg entrance. This is 84 miles and about a 1 hour and 50-minute drive.
Final Thoughts: Asheville vs Gatlinburg
Asheville and Gatlinburg are only 80 miles apart but they definitely provide two very different experiences for a vacation in the mountains. ⛰️
While Asheville is a “city”, Gatlinburg is more of a “tourist destination.” And while Asheville is more “upscale”, Gatlinburg can be seen as more “tacky.”
I personally love both cities! But Gatlinburg is a place I will return to time and time again! There is just something about this town that is nostalgic and fills my heart with happiness. ❤️