The Difference Between a Pergola and Gazebo, Explained

Pergolas and gazebos have long been adding style and shelter to outdoor spaces, but which is right for your yard or garden?

pergola vs gazebo

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Many of us like to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Adding a pergola or gazebo to a yard or garden offers a stylish place to relax and spend time with family or friends. It can help protect people from the searing heat of summer and, depending on the design, can hold off the chill of autumn for a few more precious weeks.

The choice between a pergola and gazebo can be confusing if you don’t know the characteristics of each structure. This article shares the pros and cons of both to help you decide which is right for your outdoor space.

The roof design is the key difference between a pergola and gazebo.

There is one defining aspect of whether an outdoor structure is a pergola or a gazebo that just about everyone agrees on: roof structure.

The basic design of a pergola roof is usually an open horizontal lattice of interlocking beams (wooden, aluminum, steel, and PVC are all possibilities). It offers some shade, but negligible protection from rain. Retracting fabric canopies are frequently added for more complete shade, but don’t offer a great deal of weather protection. Alternatively, plants can grow up the supports and over the roof structure. These not only help with increased shade but often create a cooling atmosphere.

A gazebo roof offers complete cover. Sides may be open, but the roof is continuous. Styles vary considerably from pagodas to tiled pavilions to modern steel frame gazebos and fabric models. The roof is usually pitched so that any rain runs off, and it is fixed rather than retractable.

Most often a gazebo has a finished floor, often slightly raised from the surrounding area. A pergola usually sits on an existing deck, hard-surface patio, or lawn. Pergolas don’t usually include seating. Some gazebos are designed with benches built inside.

pergola vs gazebo

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A gazebo can provide more shade and shelter from the elements than a pergola.

Given that a gazebo’s roof covers the whole structure, it is easy to assume it provides more shelter than a pergola. It may, but the amount of shelter can vary considerably. Overall design makes a huge difference.

Lightweight pop-up gazebos, for example, are quick and easy to erect for a party, and offer protection in the event of a shower, but are not particularly sturdy. A solid wooden pergola with a canopy might be just as effective in that situation.

However, pergolas don’t generally have enclosed sides, whereas gazebos often do. They vary from mesh screens (great for keeping the bugs out) to wooden railings to roller shutters. Thus permanent gazebos can offer almost complete protection from the elements, but it very much depends on the features chosen.

Related: The Best Gazebos for Your Backyard, Deck, or Patio

Pergolas are often less expensive to build than gazebos.

When building a permanent garden structure, many will usually find that a basic pergola is cheaper. It’s also more likely that a pergola will be within the scope of a DIY enthusiast, thus saving labor costs. There are a couple of possible approaches, too. A wide range of pergola kits are available for self-assembly. Alternatively, for those who want to custom-build a structure, there are numerous plans available. Dimensional, pressure-treated lumber used for many of these is very affordable.

However, seasonal gazebos can be a low-cost option for the garden. While they may last several years, fabric covers tear relatively easily and might need to be replaced more often. Better models have polycarbonate roof panels, which are much stronger but still very light. In conjunction with steel frames, these can be fairly rigid structures and might still cost less than erecting a pergola.

Gazebo kits and plans are not difficult to find, but size-for-size the former are much more expensive than pergolas and the latter are considerably more complex.

pergola vs gazebo

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Pergolas can be attached to an exterior wall of a house. 

A gazebo is, by its nature, a stand-alone structure. While it might be placed reasonably near other buildings, it doesn’t rely on them for support.

Pergolas can often be built with an existing wall as one side. A support plate is fixed to the wall and the main roof structure extends out from it. The outer two corners are then supported by some kind of post or pillar. It’s not unlike adding a large porch without a solid roof.

You may not need a permit, but it’s worth checking local building codes when planning your pergola or gazebo. Size is rarely a problem, but proximity to the street or utility poles can be an issue. Better to check beforehand than have an official turn up after with a demand to remove it.

Related: The Best Outdoor Ceiling Fans for Porches and Patios

Both outdoor structures can add value to a home.

Anything that maximizes the use of a home’s outdoor spaces can make the property more attractive to buyers. How much value is added depends to some extent on where the property is located. Homes in the southern states, where the outdoors can be used for more of the year, are likely to gain greater benefit.

How much value does a gazebo or pergola add? We were unable to find precise figures, perhaps because of the enormous range of structures and almost endless variety of costs. However, general consensus puts return on investment (ROI) at somewhere between 50 and 80 percent. So for every $1,000 you spend, $500 to $800 would be recouped when the house sells.

While not strictly a profitable improvement, there is the benefit of the structure while you’re living there. Plus, the boost to the property’s curb appeal might make all the difference when compared to a home without a pergola or gazebo.

pergola vs gazebo

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One final note. 

There are a number of factors that need to be considered when discussing the pergola vs. gazebo question. Both can be very attractive and versatile structures. There is virtually no limit to design possibilities. It likely comes down to two things: the amount of weather protection desired, and the budget available.

Related: The Best Pop-Up Canopies to Protect You from Sun and Rain