Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

With a wealth of cultural and outdoor activities, Phoenix is more than a snowbird escape.

Every time I fly into Phoenix I’m struck by its absurd geography. The flat surface of the Salt River Valley has been all but paved over with highways, parking lots, and sprawling development. But this mass of development is punctuated by mostly undeveloped mountains. Camelback, Lookout, Piestewa and the other mountains of the Phoenix range pop above the sprawl as if a giant randomly poked his figures through the surface from below. I know it is the development that encircled the mountains, but it looks as if it occurred the other way, as if the mountains suddenly rose up through the urban sprawl, shaking it off like a dog emerging from the water.

Phoenix is the hub of the Valley of the Sun — a sprawling metropolitan area that covers the valley floor in Maricopa County. It’s a region of nearly non-stop residential and strip commercial development where one city is nearly indistinguishable from the next, But it is also an area rich in arts, culture, shopping and outdoor recreation.

Downtown Phoenix – once desolate — is becoming a cultural hub.

Downtown Mesa AZ - ExplorationVacationThe same is true for Mesa. Here the expansion of the light rail and the establishment of a major arts center is spurring a dramatic rebirth.

For purposes of this page I’ll try to stick to the Valley itself, but the Superstition Mountains, Tucson, Sedona, Jerome, and many other areas are only a day trips from Phoenix, allowing for an almost endless array of options. Check the Arizona page for information on these locations and more.

Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

The Phoenix metropolitan area is vast and includes many distinct municipalities. While light rail stitches a number of these together, visitors wanting to move beyond downtown Phoenix, the downtown arts district, ASU in Tempe, or downtown Mesa will need a rental car.

Phoenix area sights and activities

Art and culture

Culture probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Phoenix. At one time that may have been accurate, but today Phoenix is home to a diverse a vibrant cultural mix. You can get a glimpse of this diversity in the variety of work on display in local museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, and even right along the street!

The greatest density of art and culture can be found in and around the Roosevelt Row area of downtown Phoenix, the Old Scottsdale gallery district, and downtown Mesa. However, arts venue exist throughout the greater Phoenix area, as well as in neighboring towns beyond the Valley of the Sun.

Open gallery nights and other evening events are popular too. These include the Thursday night Art Walk in Scottsdale and the monthly First Fridays in Phoenix.

Some of my “don’t miss” venues are listed below.

The Phoenix Art Museum

Housed in a very cool modern building in the heart of the revitalized downtown, the Phoenix Art Museum has a lovely permanent collection and always seems to have a variety of interesting special exhibits.

The Heard Museum

The Heard Museum used to hold one of the country’s preeminent collections of Native American art. After scaling back a few years ago, it now holds one of the country’s finest collections of Native American art from the Southwest. In addition to displaying historic and contemporary art and artifacts, the museum sponsors Native American performances and competitions, educational programming, and special events that support continued development of Native art and culture.

Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Western Spirit is a relatively new museum, first opening in 2015. Its exhibits are theme-based and look broadly at the west and its people over time.

The Shemer Art Center

flower sculpture Shemer Center for the Arts Phoenix Arizona - ExplorationVacation Mostly a classroom space, the Shemer Art Center helps the community create art. It’s also house in a cool historic house.

The Mesa Art Center

Mesa Art Center Arizona - ExplorationVacationThe Mesa Arts Center is a state of the art facility with classrooms, a performance hall, and a museum. The museum, the Center for Contemporary Arts, hosts a variety of exhibits throughout the year.

Located right off the light rail line in downtown Mesa, the Arts Center is surrounded by gardens, fountains, and outdoor performance spaces.

The Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery of Western and Native American Art

Native basketry Basha Collection Chandler AZ - ExplorationVacation.netA huge collection of western art, modern kachinas, and Native American basketry is hidden away in the corporate offices of the Basha grocery store chain in Chandler.

The Eddie Basha Collection is the result of the collecting passion of two people. Zelma Basha’s amazing basketry collection inspired her nephew Eddie to begin his own collection of western and Native American art. Most of the collection is organized by artist, providing a comprehensive look at the work of some of America’s finest western artists. The collection really comes to life with the display of personal letters from the artists to Eddie Basha.

The gallery was the personal passion of Eddie Basha, but it appears that the Basha family appreciates the treasure Eddie left them and the collection remains on public display.

Museum of Music

Every time I am in Phoenix every person I met (my friends, but also cashiers, waitresses, B&B hosts, and random strangers on the street) recommended I visit the Music Museum. Even here in Minnesota I am regularly told I must visit MIM. Having finally gotten there, I understand the enthusiasm. It’s also an amazing concert venue.

Architecture modern and ancient

Because the Phoenix area has been inhabited since ancient times, the area has the remains of a few ancient Native American dwellings. There is also architecture from more recent times, including a few frontier buildings, a bit of Art Deco, construction by or inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, some beautiful examples of mid-century modernism, and a smattering of recent masterpieces.

Mid-century modernism is celebrated each winter during Modern Phoenix Week. This annual event features a large number of tours and lectures. Tickets sell quickly, so keep an eye out if you want to attend.

Taliesin West

Frank Lloyd Wright built his winter retreat and architectural lab Taliesin West in the wilderness that today is part of very urban Scottsdale. Architects still study here and the site provides a wonderful insight into Wright’s thinking, as he carried out a number of architectural experiments here.

My favorite feature is the pipe that carries away the water that leaks through the living room roof. Apparently this seemed a more reasonable solution than actually fixing the roof.

The Biltmore Hotel

Designed by a student of Wright’s, the Phoenix Biltmore has the feel of a Wright building, with a few features that don’t quite seem consistent. For years the choice of visiting celebrities, the bar is a great spot for a drink.

Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park

A very well-done archeological museum is located at the site of a very ancient pueblo in what is now modern Phoenix.

Gardens

The Phoenix area is a wonderful place for fans of desert landscapes and hiking, with many parks within the city and trails winding throughout the surrounding mountains. I hike for the scenery and the plants, so that’s the focus here.

Desert Botanical Garden

In the heart of the valley, the Desert Botanical Garden combines the best of domestic landscaping with the native desert.

The Heard

The Heard North in Scottsdale has a beautifully landscaped area right around the museum and access to a larger area of native species. This branch of the Heard has closed.I do not know if the garden is being maintained.

Wilderness and recreation areas

The Phoenix area is home to large number of parks and recreation areas that let visitors experience the desert.

Camelback Mountain

Anyone who has ever flown into Phoenix has seen Camelback Mountain, the city’s signature natural feature. Despite its very urban location, Camelback Mountain offers a number of hiking options. Note, however, that it can get very busy during winter and spring.

South Mountain Park/Preserve

At the other end of Phoenix, South Mountain Park offers 16,000 acres of hiking over three mountain ranges. This is a popular spot for sunset viewing, but expect crowded roads during peak periods.

Usery Mountain Regional Park

Located in northern Mesa, Usery Mountain Regional Park offers visitors a wide range of hiking options in a beautiful desert location.

Saguaro Lake

A little farther afield, Saguaro Lake offers a range of water-based activity in a striking setting. There is a full-service marina on the lake, as well as a paddlewheel boat that gives tours.

Professional Baseball

Spring training banner Mesa Arizona - ExplorationVacation.netI’m not much of a sports fan, but I do like a baseball game now and again. Phoenix is the home base for the Cactus League’s spring training, assuring plenty of winter baseball activity. Cactus League teams include the (World Champion!) Chicago Cubs, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers.

With so many teams in the area, it is possible to spend all afternoon and evening at a game.

Games are played at a variety of stadiums located throughout the valley.Wherever you are, there is probably a game nearby.

The Phoenix Zoo

Phoenix has a lovely, kid-friendly zoo. I visited with my friend and, honestly, we spent most of our time riding the tram and catching up.

Phoenix travel basics

Getting around

light rain Mesa Arizona - ExplorationVacation.netPhoenix is infamous for its long distances (urban sprawl) and dependence on private automobiles, but the valley does have a transit system that includes a light rail line with a connection to the airport. While there are plenty of areas in the valley that you simply can’t get to without a car, you CAN enjoy a car-free visit.

If you do need a car, here are some tips for getting the best deal:

Dining

Phoenix is becoming a good place for foodies. While there are still plenty of mediocre spots around, there are many, many wonderful places to eat at all price ranges. They aren’t always located where you might expect though. . . don’t be surprised to find a great restaurant tucked into a strip mall.

A few favorites of mine include:

Chelsea’s Kitchen

I love dining here!

America’s Taco Shop

Owned by America Corrales, this small local chain focuses on serving a few items really well. Fast and inexpensive, it’s a great spot for a light lunch or dinner.

Lons

You don’t have to be at the Hermosa Inn in order to eat at their acclaimed restaurant. We had friends join us for a lovely dinner on the patio for our anniversary one year. Everything about it was perfect.

The Farm at South Mountain

This pecan grove has been expanded into an organic garden and restaurant. On a beautiful day, there is no better place for lunch.

Blanco

Prado

Drinks at the bar at the Biltmore

Lodging

We are usually in Phoenix to visit family and friends, which often involves staying with said family and friends or just grabbing cheap lodgings somewhere near. However, we have stayed at a few places we would recommend:

Find the best deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say about Phoenix hotels at TripAdvisor.

Arizona travel journals and other posts

The sections above include pieces from my journal. The journal posts below allow you to follow my travels as they occurred.

Planning resources

 

Arizona dreaming - ExplorationVacation.net

All Arizona posts

Updated January 2015

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