Gatlinburg, Tennessee “Myrtle Beach in the Sky”

If you’ve been to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina you’ll understand the reference. For those of you who haven’t been to Myrtle Beach, the best way I can describe it is touristy and crowded. An estimated 14 million people visit Myrtle Beach every year (compared to around 12 million people for Gatlinburg). As for the “in the sky” reference, the elevation of Gatlinburg is 1,289 feet, while that for Myrtle Beach is a mere 26 feet.

Although Myrtle Beach is a year-round destination, the majority of tourists visit during the summer months to go to the beaches, play golf (including miniature golf), go shopping at the outlets and other often cheesy beach-themed shops, go to the aquarium, and eat at some of what seems like hundreds of restaurants, most of which are either chains or serve fried seafood. If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of Myrtle Beach. Traffic is horrendous and there are much better places I’d rather go to in South Carolina. However, obviously plenty of people like going there, so to each his own.

So back to Gatlinburg. Yes, it’s crowded just like Myrtle Beach. We were there during the pandemic and even then there were mobs of people everywhere; most were wearing a mask but not all. There are places to play mini golf and a few 18-hole golf courses a bit further from all of the chaos. There are also a crazy amount of attractions all piled-up on top of each other in such a small area. For example, there’s not one but two places you can go up ski lifts to take in the view, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, a Dukes of Hazzard store and museum, an indoor waterpark, a winery, a moonshine distillery, the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, just for starters. That’s not even including all of the t-shirt and gift shops, candy shops, restaurants, and hotels.

I like what Wikipedia says about Gatlinburg:  “Downtown Gatlinburg may come as somewhat of a shock for those on their way to a nature getaway in the national park – from the Space Needle to the amusement rides, the town hasn’t necessarily chosen to embrace its “nature” side. That said, there is plenty of lodging, restaurants, and other amenities to make this town a useful base for exploring the park.” True enough, to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you almost always have to go through downtown Gatlinburg first. Traffic during the day and evening is so bad you could probably walk faster than you could drive. Then there’s the issue of parking- expensive and not much of it.

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The Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg

So with all of these options of attractions and things to do in Gatlinburg, guess what we chose to do while we were there? Absolutely not one single thing that I mentioned here other than go to restaurants and a little bit of shopping. Most of the attractions seemed too tacky and just not how I would choose to spend my time. When I was younger I visited some wax museums and Ripley’s museums but I don’t care to spend my money or time at any of them now. No offense to anyone that enjoys this kind of museum or attraction. If you’re a huge car fan and love movies, then the Hollywood Star Cars Museum would probably be a lot of fun for you. That’s just not my cup of tea. Besides, we spent all day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (you can read my post about that here), so that just left time for dinner and whatever time we had left after that before heading back to our hotel.

I probably would have gone to Anakeesta had the pandemic not been going on. This is an outdoor play area as much for adults and it is for children. You choose whether you take a chair lift or enclosed gondola to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top, there’s an observation tower, a treetop skywalk, ziplines, a mountain coaster, gem mining, and shops and restaurants. However, although they were scanning people’s temperatures upon check-in at the base, they weren’t cleaning the chair lifts or gondolas after every group, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we skipped it.

You may be thinking I really don’t like Gatlinburg, but honestly this wasn’t my first time here, although it was my daughter’s first visit. I feel like it’s one of those places that everyone should experience once in their lives, like Las Vegas or New Orleans. It’s difficult to explain places like this to someone who has never been there, other than you really just have to go and see for yourself. I do have some positive things to say about Gatlinburg, like the restaurants and shops we enjoyed.

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This was at a restaurant where our server told us there was a bear in the parking lot just across the street, apparently a regular occurrence!

Some locally-owned restaurants that we really enjoyed include:

Tom & Earl’s Back Alley Grill, a casual pub-type setting with salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. We thought the food was very good and affordable.

Mama’s Chicken Kitchen, a restaurant that shares space with J.O.E. and POP’s Sub Shoppe and specializes in fried chicken. This is especially good when you’ve spent an entire day hiking and burned what feels like a million calories because this isn’t healthy food by any stretch.

Gatlinburg Brewing Company, a brewery with a limited menu (so they don’t have the huge range of items on the menu you typically find at a brewery). They specialize in pizzas and have pre-selected ones or you can create your own. Good selection of beer as well.

Sonador– a Mexican restaurant with a huge menu. Our food was quick, very good, and reasonably priced. They have your typical American-Mexican menu offerings but there are some items you may not normally see at a Mexican restaurant. My daughter had a burrito with grilled chicken, pineapple, onions, and mushrooms and said it was one of the best burritos she’s ever eaten.

There are numerous chain restaurants here, so if that’s your thing, you’ll be happy. There also seem to be plenty of pancake restaurants. If you’re looking for healthy food options, you’ll have to look a bit harder because much of the food here is fried, as is tradition for the area, but it is possible to find salads, healthy sandwiches, and other healthy or at least healthy-ish meals.

Some shopping areas and shops we liked include:

Village Shoppes- there are 27 shops here including an art gallery. Some shops are touristy but others are worth going to. I was told the Donut Friar is good but we didn’t go since we had already had dessert when we were there.

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community– numerous artists and artisans selling paintings, baskets, woven products, metal works, and so much more. This isn’t the kind of shopping area where you can walk from shop to shop; you have to drive around because they’re so spread out.

Mortons Antiques and Coins– one of the better selections of antiques I’ve seen. My daughter loves antique tea sets, so she drags me into an antique shop at every opportunity.

Have you been to Gatlinburg? If so, what did you think of it and what did you do when you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna