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 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.
The 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.
Great art museums are easy to find in Phoenix
Phoenix is home to a wide variety of art museums and art centers.
The Phoenix Art Museum
Housed in a cool modern building in the heart of the revitalized downtown, the Phoenix Art Museum has a fascinating permanent collection. It also offers a wide variety of interesting and unusual special exhibits, including regular photography exhibits drawn from the vast collection of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
- In the City of Phoenix – including the art museum
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
The Heard Museum
The Heard Museum used to hold one of the country’s finest collections of American Indian 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. But it’s still an amazing collection. And, along with the permanent cultural exhibit, the Heard offers a full-range of art exhibits featuring the best work of Native American artists past and present.
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.
Besides the two mostly-permanent historical exhibits on the second floor, visitors can generally expect to find an exhibit of contemporary bronzes, Western movie posters and memorabilia, Hopi pottery, and the Spirit of the West collection of cowboy memorabilia. These are supplemented by a variety of other themed exhibits that change a once or twice a year.
The Eddie Basha Collection of Western and American Indian Art
A huge collection of western art, including cowboy art, bronzes, contemporary kachinas and other American Indian art, and historic basketry is hidden away in the corporate offices of the Basha grocery store chain down in Chandler, Arizona.
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 American Indian art. Most of the collection is organized by artist, providing a comprehensive look at the work of some of America’s finest Native and cowboy artists. In addition, a display of personal letters from the artists to Eddie Basha brings the collection and the artists to life.
The gallery was the personal passion of Eddie Basha, but the Basha family understands that Eddie left them a real treasure and the collection remains on public display.
The Arizona State University Museums
Arizona State University in Tempe has two art museums, the ASU Art Museum in the Nelson Fine Arts Center and the Ceramics Research Center at the Brickyard. Hours can be more limited at these museums than most others.
The museum in the Nelson Fine Arts Center features a wide-ranging and always-changing schedule of contemporary art exhibits on the University campus.
The Ceramics Research Center houses a world-class ceramics collection that draws scholars from around the world, but can also be viewed by the general public. Along with the main research collection, the museum has several small exhibits in various classrooms and work spaces, and hosts special exhibits in its large main gallery.
The Brickyard is located in downtown Tempe.
The Shemer Art Center
Mostly a classroom space, the Shemer Art Center in Phoenix helps the community create art. However, the Shemer also holds shows featuring local and regional artists in lovely bright galleries in a historic house.
The Mesa Art Center
The Mesa Arts Center is a state-of-the art facility with classrooms, a performance hall, and a museum/gallery. The gallery, 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 Musical Instrument Museum
The 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
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.
A mix of art and history
A few of the art museums in Phoenix also have a significant historical component. Most significant of these are:
- Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. Here the collection includes significant pieces of historic Hopi pottery, artifacts from the western frontier, western movie memorabilia, and a large permanent exhibit of historic items related to western exploration and Native American life.
- The Heard dedicates a significant amount of space to its People of the Southwest exhibit, which includes a mix of historic and contemporary pieces, and to its boarding school exhibit, which is largely a history exhibit.
Those wishing to dive into Arizona’s history will find a number of options at smaller museums around the Valley of the Sun. A few that I’ve visited and found worth an hour or so include:
The Superstition Mountain Museum celebrates the area’s history through exhibits on mining and replicas and movie sets depicting and Old West town.
The Arizona State Capitol Museum and plaza
House museums, including the
Phoenix and the surrounding area has been inhabited for over a thousand years. Several museums bring this history to life.
- Pueblo Grande
- Deer Valley Interpretive Center
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.
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.
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.
- Plants Alone are Fine too (Winter 2014)
- Chihuly in the Garden on a Sunny Day (Winter 2014)
- After Dark in the Garden with Chihuly (Winter 2014)
- A Day in the Garden with Chihuly (Winter 2014)
- Chihuly’s Grand Garden Art (March 2009)
Wilderness and recreation areas
The Phoenix area is home to large number of parks and recreation areas that let visitors experience the desert.
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.
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 paddle wheel boat that gives tours.
I’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.
- The Single Best Thing at the Zoo (March 2009)
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.
Phoenix 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:
- Leave the Airport to Save a Bundle on Your Rental Car
- Save Money with Phoenix’s Light Rail and Sky Train
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:
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.
- America’s Taco Shop (February 2013)
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.
- Patio Dining (September 2009)
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.
- Lunch in the Groves (March 2009)
Drinks at the bar at the Biltmore
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:
- Zen Yard Guest House (February 2013 and 2014) in the northern part of Phoenix itself provided warm hospitality in a convenient central location.
- Marriot Desert Ridge Resort (September 2009) has everything you could ask for in a luxurious southwestern resort. We really aren’t the resort type, but an off-season Priceline reservation here was almost enough to make me change my ways. Find the best deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say 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.
- Central Arizona (February 2014)
- Winter in Phoenix (February 2013)
- Fall in Phoenix (September 2009)
- Spring in Phoenix (March 2009)
All Arizona posts