Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

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With a wealth of cultural and outdoor activities, a thriving art and food scene, historical sites, and natural areas, Phoenix is more than a snowbird escape.

Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun

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.

You can skip directly to the information you need by following these links:

If you’d rather hear about the Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun, listen in on my conversation with Chris Christensen on his award-winning podcast the Amateur Traveler!

Amateur Traveler Episode 647 – Travel to Phoenix, Arizona

city of Phoenix at sunset with text

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Understanding Phoenix, Scottsdale, and the Valley

If you go by government definitions, Phoenix is at the heart of a huge metropolitan area that covers all of Maricopa and Pinal counties in central Arizona. (That’s because metropolitan boundaries are tied to county lines and Arizona has some large counties.)

At the heart of it all 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 and 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!

interior view of a sculpture gallery as seen from aboveThe 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 venues exist throughout the greater Phoenix area, as well as in neighboring towns beyond the Valley of the Sun. (To the north, Jerome, Prescott, and Sedona are all arts hotspots within an easy drive of Phoenix. To the southeast, Tucson also has a healthy art scene.)

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.

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.

Arizona Science Center

I’ve never visited the Arizona Science Center, but it has a good reputation — especially if you are traveling with children. It features a wide variety of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and natural history exhibits. The complex includes an IMAX theater and  planetarium.

Architecture

street lined with palm trees and contemporary buildingsWhile Phoenix has very few frontier-era buildings, architecture fans will find a bit of Art Deco, construction by or inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, lots of mid-century modernism, and a smattering of recent masterpieces.

Visitors might be surprised to discover that the city of Phoenix has 35 designated historic districts (you can see a map of them here) and has more than 200 historic sites and districts listed on the National Register of Historic places. However, spend a little time driving around the older areas of Phoenix and you’ll quickly discover block after block of homes built between 1920 and 1960.

Mid-century modernism is celebrated each winter during Modern Phoenix Week. This annual event features a large number of tours and lectures. It’s a great way to see some classic architecture and get in touch with Phoenix during an important growth spurt. However, tickets sell out quickly, so keep an eye out if you want to attend.

I’ve noted a couple of house museums above. The following highlights a few other buildings of note. Check the link to the list on the National Register (which includes all of Maricopa County, not just Phoenix.)

Gardens

white flowers and cactiA desert community may seem like an odd place to find spectacular gardens, but many Valley cities have wonderful landscaped areas. There are also a couple of wonderful gardens in the area.

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, rather than watching the animals. The zoo has lovely landscaping, cooling fountains, elaborate Christmas lighting, and a variety of special events, making it a good escape throughout the year.

Wilderness and recreation areas

rugged mountains rise above flower and cactus covered slopesThe 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. The city and surrounding communities have a large number of parks and recreation areas that let visitors experience the desert up-close. And, with so many options, there is sure to be a path suitable for everyone.

The Apache Trail Historic Road

15 mile/hour road sign on a twisting road with a lake and mountains in the distanceAt the far eastern edge of the Phoenix area, the Apache Trail Historic Road takes adventurous drivers through the Superstition Mountains. This is one of America’s great drives, but nervous drivers should stop at Tortilla Flat!

Spring training

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.

Getting to and around the Valley of the Sun

Airports

Getting around on the ground

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.

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:

Food, dining, and drinking

Phoenix is 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 list of a few favorites is coming!)

Lodging

Because driving distances can be so long, it usually makes the most sense to look for lodging in the part of town where you want to spend most of your time. There are major chain hotels of all levels of quality throughout the urban area.

However, if your lodging is more than just a place to stay, keep in mind that the area where you stay will influence your experience.

Inspiration and planning resources

Online resources:

Even with all the online resources, sometimes a good book is what you really need.

Every Arizona guidebook will cover Phoenix, but guidebooks focused specifically on the Phoenix area are few and far between:

 

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun”

  1. We are going to Scottsdale for two weeks this October. Hope to get great ideas from your postings here, for interesting places to visit. We have been there several times…but always looking for something new to see and do.

    1. Oooh. October should be beautiful. I’m guessing you haven’t been to Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s relatively new museum of Western Art. It has a pretty wide variety of exhibits, so I’m sure you’ll find something. Catch me later for some more ideas!

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