300 days of sunshine a year and legendary sunsets make Phoenix the US’s sunniest metropolis. As the sixth largest, and one of the fastest growing cities in the US, Phoenix has changed a lot since my grandpa took me to the Park n’ Swap every spring break in the 80s. The revitalization of downtown, the focus on local businesses, the vibrant cultural and sport scenes, the fascinating history, and of course, the weather, draw visitors and new residents every day. Here’s our Phoenix travel guide to the Valley of the Sun. And don’t forget your sunscreen!
What to See
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What is now the Phoenix metropolitan area, was inhabited by the Hohokam people until around 1450. They built a major urban civilization and developed a canal system that is still in use today. Most history buffs already know that the Heard Museum and the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park are must-sees to learn about Phoenix’s story and the people who shaped it.
For a more cinematic taste of Phoenix and the Old West, head over to the Superstition Mountains. Goldfield Ghost Town, dating back to the gold boom of the 1890s, sets the stage for tales of Cowboys and Gold Miners with historic buildings, a museum, an educational train ride around the town, mine tours and of course, gunfights.
Just down the road, you’ll find the Superstition Mountain Museum, a multifaceted museum featuring surviving buildings of the fire-destroyed Apacheland Movie Ranch (the set of 17 TV series, 29 movies, and countless commercials between 1956 and 1976), exhibits on history, folklore, and life in the region, and artifacts around the legend of the Lost Dutchman. Oh, and an Elvis Chapel.
Photo by Broderick Delaney CC BY
Brand new to the Phoenix museum scene is Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, dedicated to presenting the complete story of the west through the diverse perspectives of the many cultures, environments, and experiences that make up its history and present. Opened in January in the Arts and Culture district of historic downtown Scottsdale (incidentally “The West’s Most Western Town”), the rotating exhibits include art, special events, and interactive and experiential activities. Current highlights include work by cowboy artist and author Will James, and the acclaimed Inspirational Journey: The Story of Lewis and Clark, featuring the artwork of Charles Fritz.
Photo via Frances’ Facebook
But don’t worry, Phoenix isn’t all desert and Wild West. For those looking to do a little shopping, Phoenix is a great place for unique finds. Scottsdale’s Biltmore Fashion Park, a large shopping center with all the expected chains, has reserved a portion of its real estate for UNION, a co-op of exclusively Arizona owned boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.
For a local favorite, don’t miss Frances in midtown. Owner Georganne Bryant is dedicated to enriching the Phoenix community, and not only curates the contents of her boutique, featuring local designers and artists, but also presents an annual craft fair and co-created a guide to local dining and shopping. The constantly updated inventory includes everything from clothes and shoes to stationary and children’s toys. Afterwards, head down the street to the crowd-funded independent book store/bar Changing Hands & First Draft Book Bar.
At Roosevelt Growhouse, find out what it means for urban farming to meet cooperative retail. With a community garden out front, the retail space GROWop specializes in hand selected vintage and found items, including clothes and accessories for men and women, and work by local artisans.
Photo by Classic Film CC BY
Photo by Stephanie Clifford CC BY
Take a break at the Japanese Friendship Garden, a stunning oasis tucked away in Phoenix’s Margaret T. Hance Park downtown. Ro Ho En (the parks Japanese name) was built as part of the shared cultural vision of Phoenix, and its sister city Himeji. Over 50 landscape architects from Himeji contributed to the park since its inception in 1987. The 3.5 acre grounds include more than 50 plant species, 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, foot bridges, lanterns, a waterfall, a Tea House, and 5/8 acre Koi pond full of hungry fishies.
What to Do
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Phoenix is a dream for sports fans. It’s one of the handful of cities with teams in all four major professional sports leagues, there are over 200 golf courses in the Valley, and this year it hosted the Super Bowl. If baseball is your thing (or if beer in the dreamy Phoenix March sun is your thing), take advantage of the Cactus League, spring training for 15 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams. The league has the highest concentration of professional baseball facilities in the US — the stadiums are small and intimate (lots of chances to get an autograph!), tickets are cheap and everyone’s in a good mood.
Take some time out from the city to explore the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Countless guided tours are available, whether you prefer bikes, Jeeps, hot air balloons, or horses. Local, family owned Desert Wolf Tours has several tours to choose based on your needs, and is one of the only tour outfits where you can drive yourself. Their tours cover ruins, ghost towns, mines, and of course, beautiful scenery and wildlife. Try the Sunset Tour and watch the desert come alive at night (Tip: Don’t forget your jacket — temperatures can drop around 30 degrees without that famous Phoenix sun).
Photo via The Trunk Space’s Facebook
Music lovers have plenty of options in Phoenix as well. Go traditional with the opera or symphony, or check out the longstanding roots and blues club, the Rhythm Room, or the indie mecca Crescent Ballroom. The unassuming Trunk Space (don’t get distracted by cartoonist Luster Kaboom’s Nerd Monster mural and miss the door) is constantly surprising with innovative programming and an “originals only” philosophy (no covers allowed!). Local and touring bands play music from practically every genre, but any other kind of performance, from vaudeville to experimental theater, is also welcome.
Where to Eat
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Locals don’t mind waiting in line for the made-from-scratch breakfast staples at Matt’s Big Breakfast in the heart of downtown Phoenix. High quality ingredients prepared fresh and simply make for food that is at once comfortingly familiar and surprisingly delicious. Add a bottomless cup of freshly ground Arizona-roasted coffee from ROC2, and you have everything you need to start your day.
Photo via Green New American Vegetarian’s Facebook
A lot of cities have really excellent vegan restaurants, but it’s rare to find a vegan comfort food restaurant that pleases both veggies and omnivores as much as Phoenix’s Green. Chef Damon Bratsch has turned his passion for comfort food and vegetables into the kind of menu that keeps you coming back over and over again just to see if he pulls it off (and he really does). Crab puffs, buffalo wings, mac n’ cheez, chili, and burgers, naturally followed up by ice cream and other sweets at sister-restaurant Nami next door — all of it delicious and 100% animal-free.
Photo via Posh Scottsdale’s Facebook
If you like surprises and long, leisurely meals, head out to Scottsdale to Posh. The concept is “improvisational cuisine,” and it works a little like Choose Your Own Adventure. Instead of a menu, you receive a checklist, on which you can specify how many courses you’d like (and how much it should cost), whether you want wine pairings, and specifics like how you like your meat cooked, if there’s anything you don’t eat, don’t want today, or are particularly craving. The chef gets your list, and makes you up to seven surprise courses tailored just for you. Tip: if you have dietary restrictions, make a reservation and let them know, so they can stock the kitchen accordingly.
Photo by Evan P. Cordes CC BY
Where to Sleep
Photo via BeSpoke Inn’s Facebook
Find the happy place between resort and B&B at Scottsdale’s BeSpoke Inn, Café & Bicycles. Stay in one of the unique and completely charming rooms designed and built by hoteliers Rob and Kate, swim in the infinity pool, enjoy daily brunch the café (Virtù HONEST CRAFT Restaurant), and use your complimentary British Pashley bike to get around town.
Photo by Irish Fireside CC BY
History lovers who want to stay central should check in to the Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix. Built in 1927, this hotel has hosted celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, as well as some legendary ghosts. The uniquely historic exterior is carried on in the individually appointed rooms, and the best views can be found on the rooftop pool.
For more hotel options in the Valley of the Sun, click here.
Featured image courtesy of Heather Riccobono