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A Guide To Arbors, Pergolas, Gazebos & Pavilions

I’ve had this discussion at a dinner party before – yes I am that interesting. Trouble is – nobody could agree. So in this article I’m going to nail the question once and for all: what is the difference between arbors, pergolas, gazebos and pavilions?

An arbor is a small, open structure with an arched or flat top. It stands freely on two or four posts over a pathA pergola is set up over a patio and has an open, slatted roof. A gazebo is freestanding with no walls and has a solid roof. Pavilions are open rectangular structures with solid roofs.

Let’s dive down into this subject in more detail, and definitively outline the differences between all these backyard structures…

Arbors, Pergolas, Gazebos and Pavilions

Arbor vs Pergola vs Gazebo vs Pavilion (Which One’s Best?)

Yup, there’s a lot of confusion online about these four garden structures. Which one is best? That would depend on the size of your crowd. If you are looking for a structure just big enough for a bench for two people, then an arbor is for you. If you are hosting a wedding, check out a pavilion.

Let’s go from smallest to largest.

An arbor is a small, open, structure. It may stand freely on two or four posts over a path. You use an arbor to invite entry into a yard or garden. The arched or flat top is perfect for holding climbing vines and flowers. Some arbors are large enough to hold a single bench, but traditionally they are simply entrance ways.

A pergola is often set up over a patio or porch. You can entertain several guests on deep-seated lawn furniture or have a gas fire pit under a pergola. A pergola has an open, slatted roof. To add privacy, fabric or lattice walls can be added. Pergolas are ideal in sunny, dry climates.

A gazebo is also a freestanding structure without walls, but it has a solid roof. Gazebos are designed to hold several people as well – sometimes an entire brass band! If you live in a wet climate, you may decide that a gazebo is for you.

Pavilions are open, usually rectangular, outdoor structures designed to host weddings, concerts, and other large events. A pavilion has a solid roof, but unlike its fancy cousin the gazebo, pavilions are plain and functional. These structures are large enough you can add rooms or an outdoor kitchen.

What is an Arbor?

An arbor is at an entrance. It is a landscaping focal point. It is a freestanding, open structure that typically supports vines or climbing plants. Traditionally, an arbor stands over the path at an entrance or gate to your yard or garden

Arbors are decorative, welcoming statements. With climbing vines or flowers, like roses, honeysuckle, or clematis, they are stunning accents to your garden and lawn. Often, couples are married under a flower-draped arbor.

An arbor may be deep enough for a small shelter or a bench, but traditional arbors are around two feet deep and only as wide as the path is. They have slatted roofs that can be flat or arched. The sides often have an open frame to help plants climb.

Arbors can help set parts of the garden apart. You might have a back garden filled with roses. An arbor can divide and define the space and welcome guests to the rose garden.

Arbors can be easily DIYed or built from a kit. Arbors are made with traditional cedar or with low maintenance vinyl. The kits come in many lovely designs, from traditional to modern.

Here’s a website with 20 gorgeous arbor ideas.

What is a Pergola?

A pergola is also a freestanding, open structure that supports vines or climbing plants. The roof is mostly open with slats or latticework. Pergolas can be open at the sides or made more private with fabric or lattice. Pergolas are architecturally striking.

Pergolas are often built over patios or porches. They can be attached to the house on one side or freestanding. Pergolas are usually permanent structures.

Pergolas are ideal for intimate gatherings of family and a few friends. Pergolas can hold a variety of deep seating furniture, tables, and a gas fire pit. The framework can support climbing vines or fabric walls. You can hang string lights and hanging baskets from the frame.

Pergolas traditionally have flat, open, slatted roofs. But some manufacturers have added louvers to the roof so you can adjust them for shade. Other roof options you can consider are fixed shades, fabric shades and retractable awnings. In the winter, just store the shades.

Pergolas are perfect for sunny, dry climates. They are also the best choice for windy areas – even for hurricanes. For damp, rainy climates, a pergola may not be the best choice.

Pergolas can easily be DIYed, built from a kit or custom-built by a contractor. There are many kit choices in either cedar, metal, or vinyl.

Japanese arbor

What is a Gazebo?

A gazebo is a freestanding, open structure that has a solid roof. A gazebo is wall-less but can be made more enclosed with lattice or fabric. Often, a gazebo is situated as a landscaping focal point or built in a spot with to die for views.

Gazebos used to grace town greens and house the local brass band. These days, gazebos can be built in your backyard as a cozy get away. Some gazebos are as solidly built as your house and sit on a foundation. Or gazebos can be portable – they even pop up.

A gazebo has a solid roof. Often, gazebos are built to coordinate – or even match – the roof style and materials of your home. A gazebo will shelter you in all weather, so they are a better choice than a pergola if you live in a rainy climate. Gazebos will even shelter you in snow.

Many permanent gazebos are custom-built to match your house, but you can buy kits too. Gazebos kits are easily DIYed. 

Some kits are for semi-permanent, heavy gazebos. These gazebo kits are incredibly fancy and fun. They come with options for gauzy side curtains, privacy panels, and lattices for climbing flowers. String lights. Bug screens.

Be sure to check your HOA rules before purchasing or building a backyard structure like a gazebo.

Other kits are for portable, lighter weight gazebos you can set up in your backyard for parties. Still other gazebos are designed to pop up while camping.

Traditionally, gazebos were built as hexagons or octagons. Today, only your imagination is the limit. Here’s a website with 80 gazebo designs you’ll drool over. We did.

What is a Pavilion?

A pavilion is a light, open building perfect for fairs, concerts, exhibits or weddings. A pavilion has a solid roof (who wants to get married in the rain?).

Pavilions are more functional and less fancy than gazebos. Pavilions are not deluxe – they can be nice-looking, but minimal. They can hold picnic tables for your family and lots of friends – or even the annual reunion.

Pavilions are usually rectangular, and they don’t have floors built in. But pavilions are large and typically need to have some type of foundation for stability. If you are considering a pavilion on your patio, double check that it has the thickness needed to support the weight of a pavilion.

Often, the size of a pavilion allows for some room additions, like a changing room or an outdoor office. Add an outdoor kitchen or fireplace and still have room for lounging out of the weather.

You can DIY a pavilion if you are an experienced builder. Otherwise, a contractor can build one for you. Pavilion kits are available, but these structures are large. You many need to hire someone with a background in construction to help. 

Check the fine print on the kit – sometimes the installation is included. Be sure to check with your HOA, if you have one, for size limitations.

Pavilions don’t have to be permanent. They can also be portable – think giant tents. 


When you’re next at a dinner party – hopefully a BBQ grill on a patio with an outdoor kitchen! – then you’ll now be a fountain of knowledge about the differences between arbors, pergolas, gazebos and pavilions.

The other guests will marvel at the command you have over this particular subject matter – and will be amazed how much you know about it.

They’ll forever refer to you as the ‘backyard structure expert’ and defer to your superior knowledge at every opportunity.


You’ll bore them all to death.

Either way – it’s good to finally know the difference. 🙂

Mark H.

Homeowner and property investor Mark H. aspires to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >