Play tourist in Williams—where Route 66 retro kitsch meets Grand Canyon grandeur.
You've heard the refrain: "Travel like a local." But what if you want to enjoy just being a tourist and experience a destination's most iconic draws and historic places? There's a reason these spots are famous, right?
In Williams—"gateway to the Grand Canyon" and a Route 66 stopover—you'll find a mountain town rife with tourist delights.
BEARIZONA WILDLIFE PARK
1500 E Rte 66, Williams (928) 635-2289
Why it's famous: Where the buffalo—not to mention wolves and bears—roam
Okay, technically, they're bison, not buffaloes, but you'll see plenty of them, plus Rocky Mountain goats, elk—and those bears and wolves—at this 160-acre wildlife park. These big animals, all native to North America, roam freely in their pine-shaded setting, while you remain safely in your car as you drive slowly along a three-mile loop through their habitats.
Fort Bearizona, the park's more traditional zoo-like setting, lets you get close to foxes, otters, porcupines, bobcats, raccoons and other smaller creatures. Stay for lunch, browse the gift shop and check out the Birds of Prey show, when owls, hawks and other raptors soar.
GRAND CANYON RAILWAY
233 N Grand Canyon Blvd, Williams (928) 635-4010 or (800) 843-8724 Why it's famous: Nostalgic train ride to the spectacular canyon's edge
Sure, you can drive the 65 miles from Williams to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park on a ho-hum highway, but the two-plus-hour rumble on the Grand Canyon Railway is a trip back in time—and much more entertaining. Think Wild West shows, cowboy serenades and a train robber or two, plus the chance to ride in one of several restored passenger cars, pulled by vintage diesel or historic steam locomotives.
Got kids? Plan ahead for the railway's annual family-friendly Pumpkin Patch and Polar Express events, when even the wee ones will appreciate the journey, not just the destination.
Bonus: The railway also operates the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, a spacious and comfortable lodge with amenities that include an indoor pool, pub, pet resort and free wi-fi. Various packages that combine a stay with railway passes make it an attractive and affordable option for anyone interested in visiting the Grand Canyon during their trip.
RED GARTER INN
137 W Railroad Ave, Williams (800) 328-1484 Why it's famous: Infamous bordello turned boutique hotel
Long before Williams became known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, it was a booming railroad town, serving logging and ranching interests. In 1897, August Tetzlaff, an enterprising German immigrant, leased his two-story brick building to two (ahem) service industries—a saloon at street level and a brothel upstairs, where the West's infamous "soiled doves" plied their trade, sometimes hanging out the windows to wave at potential customers.
The cribs have since been transformed into Red Garter Inn—a cozy, four-room inn, complete with Victorian decor, private baths and a resident ghost or two. And the saloon? It's now Anna's Grand Canyon Coffee & Café, which serves a hearty breakfast.
THE WORLD FAMOUS SULTANA BAR
301 W Route 66, Williams (928) 635-2021 Why it's famous: The diva of dive bars
From the vintage neon sign sporting the words "package goods" above the door to the stuffed mountain lion prowling over the bar, the Sultana clearly signals that you shouldn't order a foo-foo craft cocktail here. Instead, opt for a local beer and a shot, then let this saloon's history slowly unfurl around you.
Built in 1912 as a pool hall with an adjacent theater that showed silent films, the Sultana boasts underground tunnels rumored to lead to old opium dens and to have once harbored bootleggers. Pool tables, corn hole and live music are today's entertainment. You'll also hear a plethora of languages, thanks to international visitors, who amble in for the atmosphere and a cold one.
417 E Rte 66, Williams (928) 635-0266 Why it's famous: Fifties soda fountain meets Route 66 memorabilia
Originally built in 1926 as a Texaco along the Mother Road, the gas station morphed into a soda fountain and diner in the 1950s. Today, a pink and white 1955 Ford Crown Victoria sits out front, while inside, checkerboard flooring, red dinette chairs and walls full of Route 66 and Coca-Cola memorabilia make you feel like you've stepped into the set of "Happy Days."
The retro menu features cherry phosphates, shakes and root beer floats, plus burgers and hot dogs. Newest addition? A full bar. Souvenirs? Route 66 Place, the diner's small gift shop, is laden with everything from mugs and t-shirts to whiskey flasks emblazoned with the iconic Route 66 highway sign.
About the Author
Nora Burba Trulsson
Nora Burba Trulsson is a long-time Arizona resident and a freelance writer specializing in travel, food, lifestyle, architecture and design topics. Her articles have appeared in Phoenix Home & Garden, Arizona Highways, Sunset, houzz.com, Valley Guide, Modern Luxury Scottsdale and other publications and websites.