An hour away from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon lies a nondescript town tucked between several hills, cushioned from the arid Arizona landscape by several low-rising mountains and sparse forests. You might not think much of this town when passing through – but should you sit a spell and share a conversation and a beer with one of the town’s eclectic residents, you would learn that the town of Williams is a living relic of America’s Heyday.
Known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, Williams is one of the original pit stops on historic Route 66, which still runs through the center of town to this day. Capitalizing on its colorful history, the town of Williams has frozen in time, with many of the building still standing as a living, breathing gateway to the past.
Take the Red Garter Inn, for example. Originally a brothel, then later a prohibition saloon before finally settling into a lawful, proper role as an inn, the building remains almost identical to its façade during its wilder days over 100 years ago. Visit the Red Garter Inn’s Instagram page and compare their historic images with its current appearance, and you’ll find scarce a difference between then and now. The rooms have been thoughtfully decorated to reflect its culture and history, and every piece of décor is reminiscent of a wild west that we are no longer privy to experiencing, save through experiences like these.
With its proximity to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Sedona (all within a 1 hour radius of the town), Williams is a fantastic location to explore some of the best that Arizona has to offer. If you only have 48 hours in Williams, here is what you must do!
Grab a room at the Red Garter Inn
Yes, the inn might, as their sign slyly suggests, be slightly haunted. But other than the occasional ghost, the Red Garter Inn is easily the best and most central location that you could stay at in Williams. Directly across the street from the Grand Canyon Railway, above the best little breakfast cafe in town, in the same building as both Station 66 Bistro and Historic Brewing Co, and just one street away from Route 66 (William’s main street with all of their primary shops and attractions), the Red Garter is the most centrally-located lodging in WIlliams.
The most charming part about the Red Garter? The rooms! Each one tastefully appointed in classic Western style, the Red Garter is a time capsule into the past. In the Madam’s room where I stayed (directly at the top of the stairs, where the Madam – or ‘pimp’, to put it simply – could monitor the comings and goings of the ‘girls’ and their ‘suitors’), the owners of the Red Garter have even procured a gorgeous, antique brass bedframe used in an actual, historic brothel in New Orleans!
There are only four rooms to choose from, so be sure to book ahead to secure your room in the best, most historic inn in Williams!
DAY ONE – 7:00am: Grab a hearty breakfast at the Grand Canyon cafe
Tucked beneath the Red Garter Inn, Anna’s Grand Canyon Cafe features Southwestern twists on classic dishes, with hearty servings that will energize you for your day of exploring! I personally recommend the Denver Omelet made with egg whites, with a side of French toast!
My roommate ordered the breakfast burrito, which was absolutely gigantic and, by all accounts, delicious the whole way through. The servers are all very sweet and love chatting with tourists, so don’t hesitate to ask them for any advice on what to do/see around town!
8:30/9:30am: Ride the Grand Canyon Railroad to the south rim
Ditch the car and take a ride on the Grand Canyon Railroad to the historic village at the heart of the Grand Canyon South Rim! Departing daily at 9:30 (except in winter, when it departs at 8:30am), the train arrives at the Historic Village at 11:45am at the Grand Canyon Depot, which was built over 100 years ago in 1910!
11:45am-2:30/3:30pm: Explore the wonders of the Grand Canyon
The train returns to Williams at 3:30pm (or 2:30pm during the winter months), so you have about 3 hours to explore the wonders of the South Rim! There is a free shuttle bus that will take you to all of the major points around the South Rim, so don’t worry about leaving your car in Williams! Grab a bite to eat at the locally-sourced Yavapai Tavern, hike around the Rim, or take a quick jaunt below the rim if you’re feeling particularly adventurous!
The Yavapai Tavern features local craft beer and food that is all locally sourced from the Grand Canyon/Williams/Flagstaff area, with cuisine that has a clear Southwestern flair. The pork tacos were particularly delicious, and if you’re going anytime soon (this was written in December, 2021), you should absolutely splurge on their maple pecan old fashioned! The bourbon is house-aged with a roasted-pecan mixture for several days before serving, making it the perfect bourbon cocktail to accompany your holiday mood!
The Bright Angel Trail is the most easily accessible, and provides sweeping and breathtaking views right off the bat. Afterwards, take the time to visit the General Store for some souvenir shopping – their prices for Grand Canyon apparel and souvenirs are actually quite reasonable, and it’s since become a tradition for me to grab a dry-fit hiking shirt every time I go to the Canyon!
2:30/3:30pm: Return to Williams
Before hopping on the train, go to the Yavapai cafe to grab a coffee and a pastry – their croissants and pastries are absolutely delicious, and comfortingly similar to the traditional French pastries that I cherished so much in France. Then rest your feet and relax for the scenic 2-hour train ride back to WIlliams.
5:45pm: Grab dinner at frontier family fun
A new establishment in the heart of historic downtown Williams, this southwestern barbeque restaurant has a little something for everyone. Instagrammable and delicious cocktails? Check. Delicious food? Check. Large portions? Double check. Games? Triple check!
There’s several yard games spread out throughout the outdoor patio area of the restaurant, including cornhole, giant connect four, and spikeball. In addition, there’s several unique fixtures that are sure to delight the kids and the kid within, including an impressive gem-mining station and a shooting range!
As a North Carolinian, I take my barbeque and brisket very seriously. I can tell you, as a self-avowed barbeque expert, that Frontier has absolutely aced their barbeque game. They give you the option of 4 different sauces to slather your barbeque in, and in my ‘professional’ opinion, I believe that if you want barbeque that tastes like my mama makes it here in NC, you should use a combo of the sweet and vinegar sauce! For the best bang for your buck, definitely get the meat platter (which could easily be split between 2 people). On the smallest platter option (for only $21!), I got 3 hefty ribs, a generous helping of barbeque, and several thick slices of brisket, along with several sides and cornbread to boot! My favorite side was definitely the brussels sprouts – crispy and seasoned to perfection, I could’ve eaten an entire bucket of these. My favorite meat, hands-down, were the ribs. I dream of those ribs. They haunt my waking dreams, and have bewitched me, body and soul. Trust me: get. the. ribs.
The seasonal cocktail menu was probably crafted by someone who, like me, loves to relive our childhoods by making drinks that evoke a sense of home, youth, and tradition, because every single one of their seasonal cocktails are clever twists on drinks we loved as children, including a flaming s’mores cocktail (pictured). In addition to their seasonal cocktails, the restaurant’s mixologist has created his own twist on classic cocktails like Bloody Marys, Old Fashioneds, and Sangria. No matter what you choose, the portion size is generous, the pour is heavy, and the quality is top tier!
The beer and food is all locally-sourced, with the beer coming from Frontier’s sister company, Historic Brewing Co. And with reasonable prices for the entire menu, what more could you really ask for?
7:00pm: Get a nightcap at historic brewing co or grand canyon wine co!
Love sampling flights of local craft beers and wines? Williams has several great venues that offers you your choice of beer flights or wine tastings, all in a cozy, warm atmosphere housed in historic buildings. Historic Brewing Co is a beer garden and tasting room all rolled into one, with plenty of seating space, cozy lighting, and knowledgeable bartenders who’ll be sure to help you find your new local favorite brew!
And if you’re more of a wine connoisseur, the Grand Canyon Wine Co will be your snug home away from home. Born from a desire to show off the bold terroir of Arizona wine regions, Grand Canyon Wine Co’s passion is to show off the unique complexity and boldness of Arizona wine in a down-to-earth, educational, and memorable setting. Their tasting room is a snug, comfortable space to safely indulge in a sampling of local wines, with wine by the bottle, glass, and flight!
All made locally with locally-sourced ingredients, you can rest-assured that your patronisation of these companies will benefit local families in both Williams and the surrounding area! And with both just steps away from the Red Garter Inn, you don’t even need to worry about calling an Uber back to your cozy Western-style haven.
DAY TWO – 8:00AM: step into brewed awakenings for breakfast and coffee !
Located right on historic Route 66 and only a few minutes walk from the Red Garter, Brewed Awakenings is a local favorite, and for good reason! This gorgeous, cozy cafe – housed in a historic, red-brick building – offers a little bit of everything, with ingredients all locally-sourced. Their breakfast is housemade upon order, and features Southwestern specialties like breakfast burritos, as well as healthy options like yogurt parfaits, granola breakfast bowls, and a delightful quinoa oatmeal! The beans for their coffee are all locally roasted in nearby Flagstaff, and the cafe is family-owned!
9:00am: head over to bearizona for a wildlife safari adventure!
Suitable for adults and children alike, Bearizona offers a combination drive-through and walk-through safari experience, featuring animals that are native to Arizona! You’ll be astounded by how close the tundra wolves will come to your window, and you’ll be delighted by the laissez-faire, relaxed personalities of the bears! We even saw an adorable, chonky bear relaxing on a single tree branch, 20 feet in the air, with his feet hanging down while he snoozed, completely oblivious to the humans below!
You have the option of either driving through the park first, or doing the walk-through section first, and you’re not limited to only one trip through the drive-through section! My contact at Bearizona advises that if you’d like to see the animals when they’re most active, you should either come at 9:00am, right when the park opens, or in the late afternoon, at around 2-3pm. Pre-covid, Bearizona had several schedule animal shows but now, they are sporadic, so be sure to ask park workers if there will be a live animal show that day!
12:00pm: Cozy up in canyonlands restaurant, conveniently located right inside of bearizona!
After a full morning of driving through the safari park and exploring the walkable animal enclosures, head over to Canyonlands Restaurant for a delicious meal in the coolest setting! The internal architecture is set up to look like the inside of a cave, complete with stalagmites, stalactites, and even a stuffed cougar crouched right overhead! Pro tip: grab a seat near the back of the restaurant or on the second floor balcony to have an amazing overhead view of the jaguar exhibit right outside!
Canyonlands features traditional bar food – such as pretzels, chili fries, wings, burgers, sandwiches, and fries – as well as healthier options like salads. Their beers are all locally sourced as well, mostly from local Historic Brewing Co, based in Williams! Pro tip: get a drink after 4:00pm to get the happy hour special!
1:30/2:00pm: Explore the shops at Bearizona
Let’s be honest: one of the best parts about going on vacation is checking out local makers markets, souvenir shops, and boutiques (at least, it’s one of my favorite things)! In Bearizona, there’s the large souvenir shop that’s attached to Canyonlands, and contains literally anything and everything you could imagine, from toys to shirts to cooking tools to various fascinating totchkes, this gigantic shopping wonderland has a little bit of everything.
More of a local artist enthusiast? Head to the small gift shop tucked right in front of the entrance to the Bearizona park for an eclectic shopping experience. Most of the items are produced and sold to Bearizona by local Native American tribes, and are emblematic of their culture! There’s a wide variety of items to be found in this small boutique, from hand-carved knives fixed to deer horns, to wall hangings, sand paintings, hand-tooled leather bags, or even a hand-hewn axe, this shop will, at the very least, be an interesting window-shopping experience!
4:00pm: Explore williams!
Saving the best for last, a few hours spent exploring historic Williams on Route 66 is an absolute must. There are so many shops housed on this historic stretch, each with its own unique artifacts and items just waiting to be discovered! If you’re anything like me, then you seek out antique shops and boutiques that feature unique, local artisans, and Williams has all of this and more. Grab an old-fashioned soda at Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe; peruse handmade Native American jewelry and art at Thunder Eagle; transport yourself to the past by exploring the Cars of the Mother Road; get souvenirs for your family at White Horse Trading and Gunsmoke Gift Shop; and take a ride on the Route 66 Zipline!
There’s plenty to explore on Williams’ main streets, and a little something for the whole family to enjoy!
6:00pm: Take a journey to rustic italy at station 66 bistro
If you’re a fan of wood-fired pizza and craft beer, then look no further than Station 66 Bistro! Located right on Route 66, this restaurant truly knows the meaning of quality and comfort. Recalling a time of tradition, their iconic Neapolitan-style pizzas are cooked-to-order in a brick, wood-fired oven, making them come out crisp and full of flavor! Pro tip: come here just before sunset and request a seat on their rooftop patio for sweeping views of Route 66, Williams, and the sunset!
Their bar is well-stocked with Arizona wines, craft beers, and unique cocktails. Pizza not your thing? Not to worry! They have plenty of awesome pasta and salad options, and their cheesy bread is absolutely to die for. We ordered the bistro supreme pizza, and with all of the fresh, crisp toppings, it truly tasted gourmet!
7:30pm: Take a ride on the polar express train! (only from november-december)
Coming during the winter months? Then you absolutely cannot miss out on a trip to the North Pole aboard the Polar Express! For fans of the classic children’s book-turned-hit film, the Polar Express experience at the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams is a faithful adaptation that will take you back to your childhood. Pro Tip: book your tickets as early as you can – tickets sell out fast, especially closer to Christmas!
While this ride is primarily intended for families and children, we had an absolutely fantastic time just as two young adults. It truly transformed us back into giddy children eager to meet Santa, and restored a sense of childlike wonder that you can only really regain when around children. The oohs and ahs from the children in the train car were absolutely heartwarming, and got us into the Christmas Spirit, even though we went in early November!
Be sure to check into the box office about an hour before your booked ride, as the lines can get rather long. You will receive a golden ticket for the train (which I kept as a cute souvenir), and the train station’s gift shop has plenty of fascinating items to peruse while waiting for the train. Once you board the train, the ‘Chefs’ will put on skits, dances, and sing-alongs as you roll along towards the North Pole. At the end of the ride, you may even be lucky enough to be gifted with a magical bell like the child in the book!
9:00pm: finish off your trip with one last drink at historic brewing Co.
Still have some energy left in the tank after your trip to the North Pole? Then head over to Historic Brewing & Barrel Co. to sample a few more local craft beers and maybe play a few rounds on their shooting range! Open until 11:00pm, getting a brew at the best local haunt is the best way to cap off an adventure-filled vacation in Williams!
If you’re interested in reading more about the fascinating history of the historic town, check out Williams Tourism’s page!