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Shade Structures Showdown: Pergolas vs. Canopies – Which One Wins?

Shade Structures Showdown: Pergolas vs. Canopies – Which One Wins?

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We all want to spend more time outdoors but struggle with too much sunlight. In that case, you’ll want a structure that’ll block out the rays without being an eyesore.

However, with many options on the market, it can be difficult to choose.

So, if you’ve narrowed down your options to pergola vs. canopy, you might be looking for the major distinctions and similarities between the two, so let’s jump right in!

What Is a Pergola?

Pergolas are outdoor structures that can provide shade and come in many shapes and sizes. In most cases, the structure consists of supporting columns and beams that carry the weight.

We plant the poles into the ground to keep them in place. Then, we connect the columns with rafters to secure them to each other.

Finally, an open grate roof goes on top of the whole structure. These grates will allow some sunlight to shine through.

You can attach pergolas to houses or install them as stand-alone features. Either way, they can provide more than just shelter from the sun.

After all, pergolas should be sturdy enough for you to hang items off the beams. This includes swings and even hammocks.

Most of the time, the structures won’t have any walls, but they’ll usually have a couple of entrance and exit points.

Pergola Types

There are a few different types of pergolas you can install in your backyard.

Attached Pergola

As you can tell by the name, these pergolas attach to a wall. Instead of relying on posts, the structure will rest on a wall for support.

This type can be a good fit when the area you plan on covering is close to your house. This is because you can cut down on materials if you use a preexisting structure.

On top of that, attached pergolas have a way of blending the outdoors and indoors together. They do this by creating a seamless transition as you walk out of your home to the backyard.

For this reason, many people prefer the pergola for patios or even home entrances.

Freestanding Pergola

The freestanding pergola doesn’t rely on any other structures for support. Instead, it’s a stand-alone feature that’s mostly decorative.

With this type, you can create a small private pocket in your backyard. This is a great way to section off the space if you have a large yard.

Freestanding pergolas are also excellent pool covers, as they can provide some shade while still letting a bit of light through. In addition, they’ll give you extra privacy!

Awning Pergola

Both attached and freestanding pergolas use some sort of column system for support. Meanwhile, awning pergolas don’t share this trait.

This type is basically a group of grates with a frame that keeps them together. These structures rely on any nearby objects for support.

You can place awning pergolas on top of doors and windows or use them as decorative pieces.

Arched Pergola

Traditionally, pergolas come with flat roofs. The grates criss-cross over each other to create a smooth surface.

Yet, that’s not the only available option. With any of the previous pergolas, you can opt for arched roofs.

The increase in height can make the space under the pergola feel much larger. On top of that, it adds an interesting design element to the structure.

Paneled Pergola

Instead of using grates to create a roof, you can choose to install panels. These are adjustable surfaces you can open and close.

The main benefit of this type is that you can control the sunlight level throughout the day. However, the panels obscure the view and don’t blend as well outdoors.

What Is a Canopy?

Canopies are one of the most convenient ways to get a little extra shade in your backyard.

The main bulk of a canopy consists of a frame. This is the skeleton of the structure that provides support.

Frames come in a few configurations, depending on the size and shape of your backyard.

Once you install the frame, you drape fabric on top. That creates an almost tent-like construct.

The main difference is with a canopy, the fabric doesn’t cover the sides and hit the ground. Instead, it’s primarily focused on the top part to protect people under it from the sun.

Canopy Types

We categorize canopies based on the overall construction into three groups.

Instant Canopy

If you only need to use the canopy for a short while, you may want to go with the instant variety.

The setup principle is similar to umbrellas, and you’ll probably receive it in a compact package. Then, as soon as you unfasten the lock, it unfurls to give you shade.

The support system is where you start to see the difference between canopies and umbrellas.

Compared to the umbrella’s central pillar, canopies have columns on the outside. That gives the overall construction a lot more stability.

This aspect is crucial if you live in a particularly windy area. You may also need to take other precautions.

Still, the main appeal of instant canopies is how portable they are. Just as easily as you set them up, you can fold the structure back into its package.

Then, it becomes much easier to store or transport to a new location.

Pole Tent Canopy

When looking for a more permanent structure, you can check out pole tents. This is the stationary version of the instant canopy.

They both rely on a series of poles on the outside diameter to maintain their shape. The only difference is that pole tents are more difficult to disassemble and pack up.

In addition, the fabric on the top will rely on the poles to open up. As the pillars spread out, they create tension that forces it to unfold.

Since they don’t need to move often, pole tent canopies tend to be heavier and more durable than instant ones.

Frame Tent Canopy

Frame tents are also stationary canopies, but they have a little more backbone. Aside from the outer poles, they have an additional frame.

This gives the fabric a surface to stretch over rather than relying on tension. For this reason, frame tents usually outlast the other two canopy types.

What Is a Pergola Canopy?

Both pergolas and canopies are a way of adding shade to your backyard. So, it would make perfect sense for you to mash the two ideas together.

A pergola canopy combines elements from its parents to create a new, improved product.

The main structure resembles pergolas, a base frame with beams and grates. Still, on top of all that, we drape fabric to tie in canopies.

This design gives you the option to switch between the two whenever you like.

Pergola vs. Canopy: What’s the Difference?

Now that you have a bit of information on both structures, let’s jump into the comparison.


When it comes to appearance, pergolas and canopies are on even ground since they both come in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

The most notable difference is the roof. While pergolas have grates, canopies use fabric.

Other than that, pergolas are much better at blending into their environment. They create a nice balance between the outdoors and indoors.

Canopies, however, are better at standing out. You can customize the roof fabric and choose any color or design you like.


Materials are another area where canopies and pergolas are different.

First off, canopies only come in a couple of frame options. Usually, you can choose between wooden and metallic base structures.

As for the fabric on top, there are a few more choices. For instance, you may opt for cloth, vinyl, or a more sheer lining.

With pergolas, there’s more variety regarding the base material. That’s because they come in wood, steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and vinyl.


The assembly process will depend on the type of pergola or canopy you choose.

Instant canopies have the easiest setup by far. Besides that, most of the other models are about the same to assemble.

It’s possible to install either structure on your own at home. However, it’s going to be a challenging, time-consuming task.

So, it’s best to hire a professional to get it done as quickly as possible.


Because of their unique roofs, canopies and pergolas have distinct applications.

Canopies are much better at protecting users from the weather since they can block out the sun much more effectively and keep out the rain as well.

However, the closed roof traps warm air and can increase the ambient temperature. This isn’t ideal for people living in hot and humid climates.


Comparing the cost of pergolas and canopies is a little tricky. After all, there are so many variables that can affect the price.

Some of these factors include materials, size, and manufacturers.

You can find both structures at a wide array of price points. Still, generally, pergolas have a tendency to be slightly more expensive.


Canopies do a great job of providing shelter from the sun. However, they don’t do much else since you can’t add accessories.

Pergolas‌‌ can be incredibly versatile.

For example, one of the most popular additions is mood lighting. You can hang string lights on the pergola frame to add a little sparkle to the ambiance.

Besides that, the frame can handle the weight of multiple gadgets. That means you can hang fans and other devices for air conditioning.


No matter which structure you choose, it’ll require maintenance. That said, canopies typically need a little less care than pergolas.

This is especially true if you pack up the construct after every use. Aside from that, they’ll both need regular cleaning and the occasional paint job.

If you opt for wooden frames, you’ll need to apply polishing wax every once in a while.

Canopies may also need a regular fabric change. After a certain amount of time in the sun, the cover will start to degrade and break down.

So, you’ll need to switch them out to keep enjoying the shade.


Even though you’re installing a structure in your own backyard, you may need permits. Any major structure in the neighborhood will usually need Homeowners Association approval.

Still, for the most part, instant canopies don’t require permits. Since they tend to be a little smaller and removable, they don’t pose much of an issue.

However, if you plan on building a large structure, chances are you’ll need paperwork. The exact process changes from city to city, and it could take a bit of time.

How Can You Choose Between Pergolas and Canopies?

While there are differences between the pergolas and companies, there are also similarities. For this reason, a final decision may be a bit challenging.

Who Are Pergolas Best For?

If you’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing solution to your sun problem, pergolas may be the way.

All in all, a pergola might be the way to go if you want something artistic, cozy, and long-term. However, it also means that you could need to splurge a bit to create the dream setup you’re looking for, especially if you need to go heavy on the accessories.

This may be ideal if you plan on spending your night outdoors.

Who Are Canopies Best For?

Canopies may be the way to go if you’re looking for a quick, easy way to block the sun. With the fabric covering, the sunlight should no longer pose a problem.

These structures are also ideal if you need a budget-friendly and portable option.

Yet, you can’t upgrade canopies easily since it’s difficult to add accessories. On top of that, the fabric covering may need frequent replacement.

Final Thoughts

If you’re debating pergola vs. canopies, there are a few aspects to consider. At first glance, both structures might look like they share a slightly similar appearance and function.

Still, canopies can do a much better job protecting you from the weather. Pergolas, on the other hand, are more decorative and customizable.

Either way, before you start the construction, you might want to check if you need any permits.


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