I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
December 3, 2015
Gatlinburg has got to be one of my favorite family vacation destinations. It has a little bit of everything, from gorgeous scenery and unparalleled hiking and camping opportunities to fabulous shopping, delectable dining, and all-around fun. Wondering what to do in Gatlinburg with your family? We just returned from a weekend there– Here are 30 of our favorite things to do in Gatlinburg with kids:
1. Treat the kids (and yourselves) to a family suite at the newly-renovated Greystone Lodge on the River. I can’t say enough good things about this hotel, which is situated alongside the river in the heart of Gatlinburg. Our roomy family suite included this awesome loft space for kids (which sleeps three and has its own television) and when we arrived, our kids were so thrilled with their sleeping quarters that they didn’t want to leave the room! If you stay at the Greystone Lodge during the Christmas season, your kids can enjoy even more Christmas treats, like nightly tuck-ins from Santa’s elves and evening story times with Mrs. Claus.
My husband and I were thrilled to have our own room and private balcony, as well as two bathrooms, a kitchenette (with microwave, fridge, sink and counter space) and dining area, and a large living area and separate balcony overlooking the river. Add to this complimentary breakfast, covered, numbered parking just steps away from our front door, and a location that allowed us to walk to nearly everything, and you have one absolutely perfect spot for family rest and relaxation.
2. Celebrate the season with the Smoky Mountain Winterfest. Gatlinburg and the surrounding towns of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge know how to make every season special, and winter is no exception. Lots of activities are planned to make the snowy season festive (you can see a full list on Gatlinburg’s events page), including Gatlinburg’s Winter Magic Tunes and Tales on Friday and Saturday nights through December 19th, Gatlinburg’s Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade on December 4th, and Gatlinburg’s New Years Eve Fireworks show and Ball Drop on Decemeber 31st. Take a night-time trolley ride through Gatlinburg to see the lights or go on your own self-guided tour by downloading the Gatlinburg app.
3. Ride the Aerial Tramway up to Ober Gatlinburg.
Sure you could drive, but trust me– You don’t want to miss this experience! No matter the season, the panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains are phenomenal and it is truly exhilarating to take the tram on this two-mile ride up the mountain. We did a LOT during our Gatlinburg weekend, and the tram was in both my kids’ top three experiences.
4. Once at the top, you can enjoy skiing, snowtubing, ice skating, and shopping at Ober Gatlinburg.
My daughter and I also tested out the Ski Mountain Coaster, a thrilling coaster ride down the mountain for one or two riders in cars that allow you to control the speed. It was super fun, but definitely not for the faint of heart!
5. Lose yourself inside Ripley’s Odditorium, three stories of fun filled with 500 oddities, artifacts, and exhibits from around the world. This was a must-do for us because my 8-year-old son is currently obsessed with Ripley’s Believe It Or Not books– but my husband and I frankly thought we’d have to suffer through it.
Oh, you guys. We had SO MUCH FUN here. We spent well over two hours exploring all this Odditorium had to offer and saw so many crazy and awesome exhibits. Dennis and I felt like kids again. You really won’t believe all that’s inside– It’s well worth the price of admission (Look for discounts on tickets- You can find them all over Gatlinburg. The cashier actually told the guy in line ahead of us to go across the street get a great discount at Walgreens on admission before buying his tickets!)
In addition to fun/creepy/crazy historic artifacts, there are LOTS of interactive activities for the kids. My children seriously could have spent all day here. PRO TIP: Ripley’s has 8 different attractions in Gatlinburg– Buy your tickets in bulk if you’re planning on visiting more than one and save money!
6. Take a donut break (or several) at The Donut Friar. The donuts at this tiny shop, located in The Village in downtown Gatlinburg, have to be tasted to be believed.
I especially loved the Bavarian Cream and rasberry-filled donuts. YUM. TIP: The Donut Friar only accepts cash. They do have an ATM on site and if you use it, they’ll give you a free cup of coffee to make up for the hassle.
7. Ditch your car and take the Gatlinburg Trolley. Gatlinburg’s streets are often crowded with cars and parking is expensive– Fortunately, the trolley system is inexpensive, convenient, and it will take you just about anywhere you want to go, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Dollywood! Fares range between $.50 and $2.00 each way; check out the trolley website for details. TIP: You can also use the trolley website’s GPS system to track the exact whereabouts of the trolley you want to take!
8. Get your gumbo on at the New Orleans Sandwich Company. We’ve had dinner at this cozy little restaurant in downtown Gatlinburg both times we’ve visited– and both times, it was our favorite meal! A few weeks ago, I had the best Oyster Po’Boy I’ve ever eaten and my family raved about their meals as well. The prices are right and the portions are so big, two adults could easily share one entree. Added bonus: Your kids will love the entertainment– Give them each a dollar bill and let them decorate it– The owners will provide you with markers…
9. Check in with the rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center. It’s just a few minutes away from downtown Gatlinburg and it’s a great place to start if you’re planning on exploring the park. While you’re there, check out the movie playing in the center’s theater- It gives you a great overview of the park’s history, from the dawn of time to the present.
10. Go for a winter weather hike! We chose the Laurel Falls Hike, an easy, paved hike just a few miles away from the Visitor Center that ends with a lovely waterfall.
You can read more about our experience here.
11. Explore the life aquatic at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. This highly interactive, kid-friendly aquarium easily rivals the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga- I really can’t decide which one I like best! From the underwater tunnels that allow you to get up close and personal with sharks to the playful penguin exhibit to the live feeding shows, you (and especially your children) won’t want to miss this Gatlinburg staple.
If you’ve been to the aquarium in years past, you’ll be happy to know that there are lots of new exhibits to pique your interest, including this tank filled with fish that nibble at your fingers when you put your hands in the water! YUCK. (We loved it.)
12. Go toy crazy at The Lollipop Guild. We came to Gatlinburg a few years ago and were so impressed by the friendliness of the folks running this downtown Gatlinburg toy shop that we later ended up ordering from them online. When we returned a few weeks ago, we had another great experience shopping here. The owners, a husbandand wife, have been here since 2004 and they clearly love what they do. They have a great selection of toys, very competitive prices, and we can’t wait to go back.
13. Enjoy the view atop the Gatlinburg Space Needle. Take a glass elevator to the top of this 427-foot observation tower in the heart of Gatlinburg for breathtaking views of the town and the Great Smoky Mountains.
15. Get food for the whole family (even late at night) at the Mellow Mushroom. I’ve got to give Gatlinburg’s Mellow Mushroom a special shout out– After staying far longer than expected at Ripley’s Odditorium, we headed out into Gatlinburg to find some dinner at 9:30 on a Sunday night– Unfortunately, every kid-friendly restaurant had closed up shop– EXCEPT FOR THE MELLOW MUSHROOM! This delicious downtown staple is open until midnight on Sunday nights and weeknights and there were plenty of people there enjoying a late-night dinner, just like us. Its second-floor dining area gives you a great view of downtown Gatlinburg and the pizza, calzones, and hot pretzels are scrumptious!
16. Explore historic Cades Cove. This is the most visited section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park– It’s a 4,000-acre valley known for its natural beauty, the beautiful Abrams Falls, and the historic structures that still stand there today, built by some of the 132 families that lived in Cades Cove in the mid-1800s. You can explore Cades Cove via the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. NOTE: On Saturdays in December, the loop is closed to cars until noon, allowing bikers and walkers to take advantage of the road.
17. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen. There’s no way your kids will let you pass this delightful candy shop without stopping in for a store-made sweet treat. Ole Smoky is famous for its homemade taffy — the owners have perfected the recipe over the decades.
But there’s really something for everyone here. Lots of things, to be honest. These truffles are to die for, but my absolute favorite was the dark chocolate double-dipped maraschino cherries. My mouth is watering now just thinking about them.
18. Wet your pants (I am not even kidding) at Gatlinburg’s Mysterious Mansion. Oh y’all. I could totally write an entire post on this place, if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to give all the great surprises away. We took our kids here only because we had so much fun in October at the haunted houses in Chattanooga. We’d read rave reviews of the Mysterious Mansion and thought it would be entertaining. Let me just tell you– This is a haunted house to end all haunted houses. You will go through room after room after horrifying room and get lost, turned around, and utterly freaked out. An incredibly talented cast of ghosts, demons, and poltergeists are on hand to terrorize you as you make your way through the many levels of this haunted mansion. I literally felt like I was in a horror movie– and the surprises that awaited us were truly terrifying. The Mysterious Mansion is not for small children, but if you have tweens or teens, I HIGHLY recommend it!
19. Get your breakfast on at the Pancake Pantry. Nashvillians know all too well that the Pancake Pantry is a true breakfast treat– We have one of our own and the line to get a table generally goes out the door. Little did I know that the original Pancake Pantry (open since 1960) is located in Gatlinburg– It’s actually Tennessee’s first pancake house, and there’s a reason it’s still going strong after all these years.
20. Thrill the boys (big and small) in your family with a stop at Hollywood Star Cars. Don’t pass this museum off as just another kitschy attraction– Hollywood Star Cars is one of the most highly-rated attractions in Gatlinburg. This constantly growing collection of cars from movies and television includes The Munsters’ Drag-u-la, The Dukes of Hazzard’s General Lee, the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine, the Beverly Hillbillies’ jalopy, and much more.
21. Shop ’til you drop in The Village and The Marketplace in the center of Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg is home to scores of charming shops that literally offer something for everyone. Two of the most charming shopping destinations are The Village (which houses Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen and The Donut Friar), which is just past stoplight #6 on the Parkway and The Marketplace, located at 651 Parkway.
22. Look for bears along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Visitors love this 5.5-mile, one-way loop road through the Smoky Mountains, and many report seeing black bears along the way! You can leave the trail to walk to Grotto Falls or look at one of three historic homesteads located just off the road. Although bears do sleep for long periods during the winter, they do not truly hibernate, so you just might spot one even in the winter months.
23. Visit the world’s largest (and only???) Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. Those of you with a taste for the unusual won’t want to miss Gatlinburg’s Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum, which houses more than 20,000 salt and pepper shakers from the 1500s to the present day. Visitors rave about this museum on review sites- and you can’t beat the price- Just $3 per person!
24. Thrill your little ones with a trip through Ripley’s Mirror Maze. Before entering this maze, you should know that it takes less than ten minutes to walk through. That said, if you have younger children, mark my words– They will LOVE it. We’ve gone through the Mirror Maze on both of our Gatlinburg visits, if that tells you anything! And while we’re on the subject…
25. Expand the boundaries of your children’s minds with a visit to the Guinness World of Records Museum. This was another attraction that had my eight-year-old son, in particular, totally enthralled. If you have kids like ours who LOVE the popular Guinness Book of World Records, they probably won’t leave you alone until you’ve visited this museum. If you’re choosing between this museum and the Odditorium, definitely opt for the Odditorium. This museum is a little on the old and kitschy side. But if you’ve got a Ripley’s ticket package, your kids will definitely enjoy both attractions.
26. Experience a Gatlinburg dining tradition at Best Italian. Ask any diehard Gatlinburg fan what their favorite restaurant in the area is and there’s a good chance they’ll say Best Italian. This restaurant has been around for 30 years and it’s always busy. “Best” of all, the ambiance of the restaurant is cozy enough for a romantic dinner date, but reasonable enough for your entire family to enjoy a big, Italian-style dinner.
27. Try to escape The Cellar. Tweens and teens will love this interactive live escape game, located at the base of the Gatlinburg Space Needle. You and your fellow game players will have 60 minutes to escape this “cellar” by finding clues, solving riddles, and completing puzzles. I’ve heard a lot about these escape games and can’t wait to try it when my kids get a bit older.
28. Travel back in time for hilarious live stage entertainment at the Sweet Fanny Adams Theater.
Reviewers love this family-friendly vaudeville show, modeled on the genre made popular in the 1890s. It’s a fun night out your family won’t soon forget.
29. Beat the winter chill at Fort Fun. Want to burn off some energy on a cold, wet day? Check out Fort Fun, which has plenty of indoor activities for kids of all ages. Choose from laser tag, indoor mini golf, bumper cars, a laser maze, a motion ride, a 3D theater, gem mining, and a video arcade– You can pay for each activity individually, buy a pick-6 pass, or buy a pass that covers all Fort Fun has to offer.
30. Belly up for a hearty breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. This popular breakfast spot is ranked as one of the best restaurants in Gatlinburg and features a diverse menu with portions even a lumberjack can appreciate. Bonus points for its frontier-style atmosphere.
Got more fun Gatlinburg ideas? Leave a comment and tell me about them. We can’t wait to go back!
Thanks to the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau for graciously hosting my family during our visit! We can’t wait to come back!