All About Gazebos, Pavilions, and Pergolas

Arched wooden pergola.

Have you been dreaming of ways to make your backyard more inviting and livable? Perhaps you have a deck where you enjoy spending time, but it gets hot in the afternoon sun with little or no shade. Or maybe your backyard doesn’t currently have many comfortable features beyond a few chairs or a basic patio. Landscape structures can offer new options for relaxing on your own property. In fact, you may find that creating a calm oasis in your backyard with a gazebo, pavilion, or pergola makes it difficult to spend time anywhere else!

The question is, which structure is the best choice for your unique property? And what are the differences between these three main types anyway? Here at Backyard Unlimited we often hear from customers just beginning a backyard improvement project who don’t know what best suits their personal style while solving all challenges presented by their particular outdoor living space. Understanding the key differences between gazebos, pavilions, and pergolas will help you choose the best structure for your individual yard and lifestyle. Let’s take a closer look at each.


Typically compact (though they don’t necessarily have to be) and perfect for out-of-the-way corners in your yard, gazebos are arguably the most familiar and popular backyard landscape structures for relaxation.

Imager (40)

Gazebos have been around for a long time and may date back thousands of years to ancient Egyptian culture according to some sources. They have at least been fixtures in American gardens since the colonial era, and they’re often a feature in traditional town squares around the country. Their structure is naturally inviting, and their typical octagonal shape encourages people to gather and talk with one another.

History and “public life” aside, gazebos remain popular backyard landscape structures because they provide deep shade and present an intimate gathering space that also looks beautiful in your garden or beside your pool. Permanent, hardtop gazebos like those we build for our customers here at Backyard Unlimited can be designed as open structures that offer a relaxation experience like a freestanding porch, or they can be completely screened in to provide excellent protection from pesky bugs like mosquitos and flies. Screened-in gazebos are perfect for outdoor dining for this reason, even if placed next to ornamental ponds or other garden features that tend to draw insects.

It’s true that gazebos are traditionally octagonal in shape. Our most popular styles hold to that standard and tend to feature ornate Victorian-inspired details like turned posts and scrolled braces that call back to romantic formal garden designs from the past. Modern gazebos can also be rectangular though, and don’t need to look like they were transported to your yard from a fairy tale if that’s not your style! Above all, gazebos are incredibly flexible in terms of options, and our interactive gazebo builder tool allows you to see for yourself all of the fantastic ways you can make your gazebo unique.


Imager (12)

Pavilions are often known as large public structures located in places like parks, but they have long been constructed in backyards, too. Taking the gazebo concept and simplifying it a bit in overall shape and design, pavilions provide strong shade with a hardtop roof, but otherwise generally remain open to the elements. Pavilions are never screened in, though they are occasionally built up next to another structure or walled in on one side for enhanced weather protection or privacy reasons.

Above all, pavilions are meant to blend into the landscape more so than gazebos while providing a comfortable, shaded spot to gather with friends and family. And these days, they’re often built over outdoor kitchens or next to pools to provide eating and relaxation space that doesn’t block views or conversations between people doing different activities. It’s true that we have seen pavilions used in more creative ways, such as for covered parking or as a structure over a backyard spa – your imagination is the limit for pavilion design!


Imager (2)

Don’t need the deep shade provided by a traditional roof, or just like a more open look? A pergola may be your ideal backyard structure. Common in desert regions for many years where protection from rain isn’t a huge concern, pergolas have been growing in popularity across the US in recent times. The reasons are obvious just from looking through our photo galleries — pergolas are stylish, provide good, dappled shade, and blend in with the surrounding landscape better than most other structures. In fact, the pergola is a hybrid of a traditional garden arbor and a pavilion, and pergolas are often built to purposely allow vining plants to grow over the structure.

As we mentioned, pergolas do not provide full covered protection from the elements, but they do offer a great shade option beside pools or over outdoor dining tables on pre-existing decks and patios. That’s right – pergolas are easy to add on in places you may not have thought a new structure could be accommodated. Like pavilions, they are never screened in, but there are plenty of ways to give your pergola more protective capabilities, as well. Add curtains, shade canopies, and privacy walls in addition to tons of other options and accessories to really make your pergola your own.

How to Choose the Right Structure for Your Property – Things to Consider

Imager (13)

Clearly, there are many possibilities when it comes to landscape structures, and that can make it difficult to choose which is right for your particular property. Of course, maybe more than one type is right, and you can always mix and match structures in different areas of your backyard! But let’s focus for a moment on a few things to consider as you begin the design process. First, you’ll want to have a rough idea of what your primary use of your new structure will be.

As we’ve already touched on, outdoor dining space is one of the most popular uses for gazebos, pavilions, and pergolas. Thinking about how you most like to enjoy a meal will point you in the direction of the right structure for outdoor dining. For example, if you prefer cooking indoors and then taking your plate outdoors to sit and eat, you may most enjoy a pavilion or pergola constructed right outside your kitchen door. If pests are a concern and you absolutely hate swatting at bugs as you attempt to enjoy your dinner, you might prefer a gazebo that’s screened in to guard against unwanted mealtime invaders. If you’re considering the addition of an outdoor kitchen where you can both prepare meals and eat in the same area, again, a pavilion or pergola is going to be your best choice, as gazebos tend to be smaller and more closed in.

Think about the features your property already has, like ornamental ponds, a swimming pool and/or spa, children’s play areas, or other outdoor structures like sheds and detached garages. Do you have a patio and/or a deck? Do you want to add any of these things that you don’t currently have today in addition to a gazebo, pavilion, or pergola? Make a “pros and cons” list about your yard and outdoor spaces as they exist today and think about the challenges presented by other facts about your property like proximity to nosy neighbors or busy roads. Use your list and the following considerations to guide you.

Covered vs. Uncovered Space

Both gazebos and pavilions offer covered space beneath hardtop roofs, while pergolas do not have closed roof designs. You can add shade canopies and curtains to pergolas to increase shade, of course, but remember that these are not as protective as a roof. Pergolas are also friendly to vining plants, but these can take years to grow over the structure and provide deeper shade.

Screened vs. Open Air

Gazebos are often screened in to provide a pest-free zone for relaxing and dining, though they can also be constructed in an open-air style that allows breezes to pass through unimpeded. Pavilions and pergolas are never screened in and are meant to provide less overall protection from the elements.

Shape and Style

Do you find yourself drawn to the romantic and typically ornate style that gazebos offer? In the end, your choice of landscape structure may come down to aesthetic preferences instead of purely practical needs, and that’s fine! Pavilions and pergolas are stylish choices, of course, and they can be customized to suit your unique tastes, but if you enjoy classical elegance or appreciate old-timey Americana, a gazebo is probably more your style.

Still need help making up your mind or simply want to chat with a backyard design expert? Looking for other landscape structures that can make working in your yard or garden more enjoyable and convenient, too? Come out and visit our Rocklin, CA showroom (an easy drive from both Sacramento and San Francisco) or get in touch with us today!