Pergolas, pavilions, and gazebos all serve similar functions in a backyard or patio space, but each of these outdoor rooms is distinct. We have created this handy infographic to show you: so what is a pergola? What is a gazebo? What is a pavilion? And what is the difference between them?
Each of these three spaces has some fundamental characteristics, though the distinctions between these structures blur in certain ways.
Also, over the years designers and builders of these outdoor rooms have riffed on the original ideas and expanded them in a variety of ways. Today, all three of these categories are constructed in several different styles, from modern to traditional. The types of materials commonly used has also increased dramatically in conjunction with style.
Finally, with so many different styles available, the potential price points have expanded as well, both at the high end and at the low end.
In this article, we will discuss in depth the primary characteristics and use cases of pergolas, gazebos, and pavilions. Read on to find out more!
- 1 What is a Pergola?
- 2 What is a Pavilion?
- 3 What is a Gazebo?
- 4 Conclusion
What is a Pergola?
Pergolas are most easily classified by their open-roofed designs and simple post and beam structures. Posts hold up roof rafters running one direction, with cris-crossing slats running the opposite direction.
What is a Pergola good for?
Pergolas are great for caps along walkways, or for providing shelter around seating and eating areas. The open-roof design makes outdoor cooking easy and safe and provides a dynamic view through the top of the pergola.
Pergolas provide shade and define space, but also give expansive views and ideal settings for both quiet relaxation and for gatherings with friends and family.
Some pergolas are capped with shade canopies, while others are covered with vines. This look can be spectacular!
What are the Best Vines for Pergolas?
Can’t you plant grapes and other vines on a pergola? Yes!
Plants like wisteria grow beautifully along pergolas, and grape vines work wonderfully in conjunction with these structures.
You need to train the vines, but once set up, the vines creep up and over the roof. They provide stunning beauty, shelter from the sun, and a perfect Mediterranean vibe no matter where you are.
Most pergolas will be able to support vine growth, but you should be sure to check that your particular pergola is compatible with the heavy weight of vines.
What Materials are Used?
Pergolas are sometimes custom built, and also available as kits. The kits commonly come in three different materials, wood, metal, and vinyl. Each material has advantages and disadvantages.
Wood is the classic material for pergola kits. These units exude the Mediterranean lifestyle and are commonly found at wineries all over the world. Wooden kits can be a great investment, and if you are curious, check out our wooden pergola kit guide here.
Metal pergola kits are the most solidly modern of any of the structures on our list. These units tend to be strongly minimal in design, and generally fit best in a modern backyard environment. They are often the least expensive of any of the outdoor living spaces available and are frequently capped with canvas as opposed to natural vines.
Take a look at our metal pergola kit guide for more information.
Vinyl is a great material for those who like the painted look, but don’t want to deal with the upkeep of keeping a pergola painted or stained year after year. PVC is one of the most durable materials around and is commonly featured on the exterior of houses. Vinyl offers practically no maintenance and long-lasting beauty.
However, many don’t like the “fake” experience of vinyl, which is a downside.
For more information on vinyl pergolas, view our vinyl pergola kit guide.
What About Lighting?
Creating interesting lighting environments using a pergola as a base structure can be great fun, and also incredibly rewarding.
String lights, hanging lights, chandeliers (depending on the pergola height!), and any other lighting systems you can imagine can look great, and really make your pergola into an expression of your individuality: from classic to elegant, to quirky and fun!
When you have a “roof” to suspend objects and lighting from, you can get really creative with your designs.
Be sure to check out our Pergola lighting guide for more information on how best to illuminate your pergola.
What is a Pavilion?
Pavilions traditionally have a sloped roof, sometimes in a pyramid shape, and other times in a triangular shape. These outdoor structures have been in existence for hundreds of years, and excel at providing shelter from the weather and the heat of the sun, but also preserving the sense of freedom of being outdoors.
Many parks use pavilions to house picnic benches and outdoor cooking areas, and these structures can be of great use in your backyard or patio space!
What is a Pavilion Good For?
Pavilions are great for providing sheltered locations to eat, cook, and sit. The sizes of pavilions around the world can vary wildly, from small backyard structures designed to house a table and chairs, to large areas in public parks and gardens designed to host hundreds at weddings, festivals, and events.
What are Pavilions Made Of?
Pavilions come in two common materials: wood and metal.
Wooden pavilions are the traditional choice, and these buildings often are timber-framed. That is, the structure of the building is the ornamentation itself, and the structural features are not hidden from view.
Instead of hiding the ceiling of the structure behind sheetrock or some other material, the beams and rafters are visible, supplying a focal point and making these structures feel powerful and solid. For more information on wooden pavilion kits, check out our guide.
Manufacturers are making many new designs using metal frames, typically blending the roof lines of a gazebo with the square post design of a pavilion. These metal pavilions sometimes have solid metal roofs, and other times have canvas roofs. These units are easy to assemble, and are often portable!
What about Lighting?
The interior ceilings of pavilions are great sources of inspiration for cool lighting. The prominence of the solid timber framing makes a great backdrop for soft lighting, and for magical experiences to transpire after the sun sets.
Pavilions are common in outdoor wedding setups, as shown here.
They are great because they provide a solid roof and rain protection while allowing those inside to experience nature from the open walls. There is a great balance between indoor and outdoor with these buildings.
What is a Gazebo?
Of the three outdoor living structures on our list, gazebos most resemble a traditional room space. Traditionally featuring railings and balusters, these spaces feel more enclosed than pergolas and pavilions do, and provide excellent environments for everything from quiet contemplation to boisterous laughter with friends and family.
What is a Gazebo Good For?
Gazebos are all about the conversation!
The octagonal shape results in everybody in the gazebo facing each other, encouraging interactions and conversation. Often these outdoor rooms have screens installed over the panels of the “walls”, and a screen door to keep the bugs out. With a screen system, the conversation can go long into the night, in the fresh air and moonlight.
Gazebos are very romantic, and many a wedding has featured the lucky couple, holding hands, standing in a gazebo, ready to be married.
What are Gazebos Made Of?
Gazebos are traditionally made of wood, but many manufacturers are building metal gazebos/pavilions as well.
Wooden gazebos are often made in kits, commonly sold in home improvement stores and online. These DIY gazebos take a few days to assemble and can last a lifetime. Take a look at our guide to wooden gazebo kits here.
Many manufacturers are making metal gazebo/pavilion structures out of metal frames with metal roofs known as hardtop gazebos, and frames with canvas roofs (pop-up gazebos). These units are generally not octagonal in shape, and usually, have square or rectangular post bases, but occasionally have octagonal or hexagonal roof lines.
We know, it’s confusing to us too!
What about Lighting?
Gazebos can make wonderful backdrops for some stunning lighting fixtures. All that is required to make your gazebo into an amazing nocturnal retreat is a few string lights and some creativity.
Some gazebo kits include ready-designed mounts inside for chandeliers, ceiling fans, and the like, but many don’t.
With the increase in popularity of solar lighting fixtures, it is pretty easy to get a great a nice chandelier even without having an electrician come through!
The terms pavilion, gazebo, and pergola are distinct, though they are often used interchangeably. We hope we have clarified the main focal differences and given you some ideas for how you might fit one (or more!) of these outdoor living spaces in your backyard or patio area.
Each provides its own uses, and depending on your needs, could be a huge asset to your outdoor space, and a new place to make memories with friends and family for years to come.
Arya Smith says
Thanks for helping me understand the difference between these things. It got me when you talked about the pergolas because, like you said, it can be best used for cooking outside since it has an open-roof design. This will be perfect for us because my husband would love to host a barbecue party in our backyard this summer. Since his birthday is almost near, we might consider having this installed.