Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

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

Phoenix and beyond

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 mess 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 urban area viewed from the air

Phoenix is the hub of the Valley of the Sun — a sprawling metropolitan area that covers Maricopa County and beyond. It’s a region of nearly non-stop residential and strip commercial development where one city can be all but indistinguishable from the next. But it is also an area rich in arts, culture, history, nature, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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

At the heart of it is downtown Phoenix. Once rather desolate, it is now a cultural hub.

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

Scottsdale has always been a cultural hub, with western galleries and auction houses crowding the downtown streets.


Phoenix area sights and activities

There’s always plenty to see and do in Phoenix and throughout the Valley of the Sun. And, while Phoenix has long been seen as a retirement destination, there is plenty here for visitors of all ages and interests.

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, a variety of arts venues 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.

Great art museums are easy to find in Phoenix

Phoenix is home to a wide variety of art museums and art centers.

The Musical Instrument Museum

guitar with inlaid Japanese-inspired designsThe Musical Instrument Museum is in a class of it’s own. Part history museum, part art museum, part performance space, this one-of-a-kind museum truly has something for everyone



History museums

The Valley of the Sun and surrounding mountains have bee inhabited for over a thousand years. Miners, mountain men, and the military had a presence in the area in the 1800s, followed by farmers and other settlers who created the modern Phoenix area.

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.


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.

Wilderness and recreation areas

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

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.

Tips for 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.

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:


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:


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  

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