This article is published in partnership with Hotels.com who asked if we would share our ‘grownup guide’ to Phoenix, Arizona, following a recent visit.
Henk and I never seem to tire of visiting the southwestern United States; we’ve been there several times, and on each trip we discover something new and amazing. But although we have visited Arizona and toured much of the state, we hadn’t really spent much time in Phoenix. So we were thrilled when Visit Phoenix invited us down for a visit, as this gave us a chance to really explore the city, and put together a ‘grownup’ guide of things to do around Phoenix.
First, Decide Where to Stay in Phoenix
Phoenix knows how to spoil its visitors when it comes to accommodations, with stylish properties that boast every amenity a guest might want. You just need to decide what type of property suits your style.
If you like modern hacienda-style architecture, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is a luxurious low-rise property set on beautiful grounds with multiple pools (including a ‘grownup’ one) and two golf courses for those who love the links.
If you are looking for a hip downtown hotel that doubles as a contemporary art gallery, the FOUND:RE has an industrial chic aesthetic that was one of our favourite places to stay in Phoenix. Just a few blocks from Roosevelt Row, it offers the perfect location for exploring downtown Phoenix.
For quintessential desert luxury at the foot of Camelback Mountain, there’s The Phoenician, which recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation to the entire property, offering a brand new spa, multiple pools and a stunning outdoor terrace as just a few of the property’s standout features.
(Henk and I actually divided our time between all three of these properties and loved each of them.)
Things to Do Around Phoenix for the Nature and Adventure Lover
Phoenix has no shortage of things to do if you love the great outdoors, and there’s something for every level of activity.
Explore the Desert Botanical Gardens
If you are just looking to admire some of the desert flora and fauna and not really break a sweat (remember, Phoenix can be pretty hot even in October when we visited), head to the Desert Botanical Gardens, which boasts more than 50,000 desert plants from around the world, not just the Phoenix area.
There are 5 themed trails that each have unique features, the most popular of which is probably the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. This trail takes you past some pretty impressive cacti and plants like the Creeping Devil, which literally moves across the desert by re-rooting its leading edge and leaving its dead ‘tails’ behind.
You’ll also find all kinds of art scattered throughout the gardens, from the whimsical to the sublime. I was surprised to see a couple of pieces of Shona stone sculptures from Africa, a distinctive style unique to Zimbabwe that I had learned about here in Ontario when I visited an outdoor Zimbabwean art gallery about 2 hours from Toronto.
Keep your eyes open on the trails and you might even spot some desert wildlife, too: we were lucky to see an actual roadrunner on our visit (and no, he looks nothing like his Loony Toon alter ego!)
TIP: Tickets to the Desert Botanical Gardens cost between $25 – $30 US, depending on the date. On the second Tuesday of every month admission is free for everyone (but also quite busy). The best time to visit to avoid the heat and the crowds is in the morning on weekdays.
Go Hot Air Ballooning
If you are into soft adventure with dramatic views, consider a hot air balloon ride over the Phoenix area. We have gone ballooning in the past in Myanmar and Florida and loved it, and our flight in Phoenix was no exception. The views from the balloon as you float over the cacti-studded desert are breathtaking and except for the ‘whoosh!’ when blasts of flame are released to keep the balloon aloft, the ride is serene and peaceful.
Our balloon ride became more of an adventure when we had to contend with uncooperative air currents and make a rather bumpy landing on a hillside. But our pilot was a seasoned pro and knew what he was doing and the hops and bumps we made before coming to rest added more excitement to the experience (and no cacti were harmed in the landing!). Plus our soft adventure with a not-so-soft-landing certainly gave us something to talk about at our champagne breakfast that followed!
Hike Camelback Mountain
The most famous natural landmark in Phoenix has to be Camelback Mountain, which is a very popular destination for hikers of all ages. Henk and I were staying at The Phoenician which backs right onto Camelback Mountain, so we decided to take advantage of our proximity and go on a guided morning hike.
We decided to take the Cholla trail which is rated as a double black diamond, but the really difficult part (where you need to ‘scramble’) is a fair distance up the mountain, and completely optional. We hiked the rocky trail to the base of the steepest ridge and got a good cardio workout but the climb was still very manageable. Our reward was a wonderful view out over the entire valley, even without reaching the summit.
TIP: ‘Scrambling’ refers to hiking that requires you to use your hands to help you negotiate some steep or challenging sections.
Things To Do Around Phoenix for the Culture Vulture
If you love to explore museums, visit historic attractions or discover new neighbourhoods, check out these not-to-be-missed places that reflect Phoenix’s unique southwestern vibe.
See American Indian Art at The Heard Museum
The Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix focuses on Advancing American Indian Art and has over 44,000 pieces in its collection. Some of the museum’s highlights are in the permanent Home exhibit where you can see priceless examples of Navajo weaving and a vast collection of Hopi Kachina dolls.
Upstairs there is a particularly moving exhibition called Away from Home that tells the history of American Indian boarding schools and how they were established in an attempt to assimilate Native American children into white culture. Like the residential schools in Canada, this concept was deeply flawed and this exhibit commemorates this largely untold part of American history.
The Heard also hosts special temporary exhibitions throughout the year like the Grand Procession, a collection of contemporary Plains Indian dolls that was on display during my visit (and was absolutely stunning).
TIP: The Heard Museum holds a huge art fair every year during the first week in March where visitors can purchase authentic artwork from more than 600 artists. If you are looking to buy, the is THE place to be.
Discover the Musical Instrument Museum
One of the most interesting museums in Phoenix (and one of only a few like it in the world) is the Musical Instrument Museum, which was not on my radar initially but turned out to be one of my favourite things that I saw in Phoenix.
The museum is much more than just a collection of instruments from around the world: the interactive displays take visitors on a cultural tour of the globe via music and artefacts from everywhere from Papua New Guinea to Scotland. There is also a ‘legends of music’ gallery that features memorabilia originally belonging to iconic musicians in every genre.
And don’t miss the hall of ‘curiosities’ near the entrance on the first floor that showcases the largest, the oldest and the most unusual pieces in the museum’s collection. The Musical Instrument Museum is definitely worth a visit, even if the only thing you play is the radio!
Tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Studio
Architecture lovers will definitely want to visit Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘desert laboratory’ just outside of Phoenix. Recently named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with 7 other Wright buildings, Taliesin West was Wright’s winter home and the place where he established a School of Architecture that still operates here today.
Taliesin West was definitely more of an ‘experimental’ complex for Wright, and unlike the other homes he designed like Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, and the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, where Wright left no detail to others and where budget was no object.
At Taliesin, Wright was more laid-back (if that expression can ever be used to describe the control freak that he was!) Students were invited to live on the property as well as study, constructing shelters of their own design, and in doing so creating an artistic community in the desert. Wright held lavish parties here as well for the local glitterati, and his wife Olgivanna taught the student apprentices to sing and dance as part of the entertainment at these events.
Since Taliesin was a ‘low budget’ construction for Wright, he played around with economical solutions in its construction, in many cases using native rubble in the walls and canvas for the roofs.
He even mastered the design for a cheap ‘Taliesin’ armchair made using only 1 sheet of ‘folded’ 4-by-8 plywood, also called the ‘origami’ chair because of this technique. (Ironically, modern reproductions of this ‘cheap’ chair can sell today for more than $5,000 dollars.)
Of course, Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncompromising personality still shows itself at Taliesin. One example of this is found in the living room where two round vases seem to be ’embedded’ into the window glass, half inside the room and half outside the glass. The story goes that the vases were placed in these openings before the window glass was installed, and rather than move the vases, Wright insisted they not be touched as “they are perfect where they are”. So the glass had to be cut and installed around them.
For those who know – and love – Frank Lloyd Wright for all these reasons, you’ll want to put Taliesin on your Phoenix must-visit list.
Check Out the Artsy Vibe in Downtown Phoenix
Downtown Phoenix is developing a youthful, artsy vibe thanks to a large student population and young urban professionals who are choosing to live in the centre of the city. So it’s no surprise that there are plenty of ‘Instagrammable’ locations in the arts district known as Roosevelt Row, where visitors will find plenty of colourful street art as well as art galleries, trendy coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
If you happen to be visiting on the first Friday of the month, check out the Artlink First Fridays Art Walk when the city’s three arts districts really come to life with more than 70 venues participating in this self-guided art and culture tour.
TIP: Artlink hosts a free trolley tour every First Friday, with hop-on hop-off shuttles connecting all 3 downtown arts districts.
Things to Do Around Phoenix for the Food (and Drink) Lover
If you came to Phoenix to eat and drink, you won’t be disappointed. From trendy container market/bars to rustic BBQ joints to high-end dining, the city has something to suit every appetite.
Enjoy Modern Latino Cuisine at The Mission Kierland
Modern, creative cuisine that fuses Spanish, Mexican, Central and South American flavours is what The Mission Kierland is all about. Where else could you find a chorizo porchetta (OMG good) sharing the menu with Green Chili Duck Confit? And of course, you’ll need to start with some hand-made-at-the-table guacamole and a killer margherita.
Bring Your Appetite to Beckett’s Table
Three words: mac and cheese. Beckett’s Table is all about comfort food, but an elevated take on comfort food, with sophisticated flavours and quality ingredients that will have you wanting seconds. (we actually did order a second mac and cheese appetizer!)
As good as the appetizers are (did I mention the devilled eggs?), be sure to leave room for Beckett’s mains: pan seared scallops, shrimp and sausage grits, beef bourquigon shepherd’s pie – all the items on the menu push familiar dishes out of their comfort zone with interesting twists and ingredients that you will love.
Jalapeno Bucks: A Meat-a-tarian’s Tex-Mex Heaven
Peanut butter and jam BBQ brisket sandwiches. Homemade sauces whose recipes will remain a family secret to the grave. Burritos, ribs and pulled pork served on outdoor picnic tables. This is Jalapeño Bucks in a nutshell, a roadside destination that has become a favourite in the Phoenix area, and is now a popular stop for lunch on Mesa, Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail. The Tex-Mex options here are meat-centric, huge, and sure to satisfy every lover of the grill. My one piece of advice? Come hungry, because you definitely won’t leave that way!
The Churchill: Social Enterprise Meets Urban Food Truck
The Churchill is more than just a collection of funky shipping containers assembled to create a modern downtown space: it’s a social enterprise as well. We actually met with co-founder Hartley Roadie who explained that he wanted to give back to the community by offering young entrepreneurs and restaurateurs the opportunity to open an affordable ‘storefront’ downtown. He did this by constructing The Churchill, which feels like a cross between a permanent food truck festival and an indoor/outdoor beer garden. But regardless of how you might describe the Churchill, the food options served here are proven winners, (like Commander Hamburger’s famous Stetson Chopped Salad that was delicious). The Churchill vibe is definitely urban cool with artisan shops, craft beers, cocktails and music to complement the food options.
Il Postino Really Delivers
The name Il Postino means ‘the postman’ in Italian, which is no coincidence since the first location of this resto/wine bar is an historic 1940s post office in the Arcadia neighbourhood in Phoenix. But it’s the food at Il Postino that is the real story, options so good that we couldn’t decide between the weekend brunch egg-centric dishes or the restaurant’s famous gourmet bruschetta mix-and-match boards. So we did both. I mean, with choices like prosciutto, fig and mascarpone bruschetta and white truffle scrambled eggs, it really is impossible to just choose one.
Mowry & Cotton at the Phoenician
Mowry & Cotton is located in the luxurious Phoenician property, and while the revolving seasonal menu is as top-notch as the newly renovated hotel itself, the atmosphere is definitely unpretentious. The American cuisine served here reflects that, with items that are perfect for sharing, like the selection of tasty flatbreads and the cheesy corn and chorizo dip. Choose one of their fish or meat dishes and enjoy the bold, familiar flavours of ‘fire, coal and smoke’ that the menu promises. Whatever you order, it’s all good here.
Dine Under the Desert Stars with Cloth & Flame
For a truly one-of-a-kind dining experience when you are in Phoenix, check out Cloth & Flame, a company that specializes in orchestrating upscale alfresco dinners in remote, romantic locations. Imagine enjoying craft cocktails 5 miles out in the desert with the Superstition Mountains as a backdrop, as the sun sets, the sky turns to indigo and the stars come out above you. Then seat yourself at an elegantly decorated communal table under twinkling lights for a 5-course meal you won’t soon forget. Grownup dining in the Phoenix area doesn’t get more enchanting than this.
Drink Up at These Trendy Bars in Phoenix
Do you love the speakeasy scene? Then you’ll probably love UnderTow, which has a similar feel. Located in what was formerly a quick oil change garage, the entrance is where you would expect it to be from the name UnderTow: under the floor!
Pirate-meets-tiki-bar-themed with a tropical vibe, intimate lighting and funky cocktails, this is the perfect pre-dinner drink lounge. Or post-dinner. Or both.
Don’t let its location inside a Marriott Residence Inn fool you: Little Rituals Bar is not your typical hotel lounge. Chic, urbane and appropriately dark and moody, Little Rituals is one of the best new cocktail bars in the southwest, and one look at the imaginative drink menu will confirm that. The bonus: the small-plate nibbles that accompany the drinks are equally tasty.
Bitter and Twisted Cocktail Parlour is a downtown bar with a funky edge, making this place a Phoenix hotspot that attracts everyone from the Friday after-work crowd to savvy weekend hipsters. Ironically housed inside an historic building that was once the Arizona Prohibition Headquarters, Bitter and Twisted prides itself on imaginative cocktails served in equally creative glassware that includes Coke cans and rubber duckies. The soaring space, delicious drinks and globally-inspired eats all combine to put the ‘happy’ into Happy Hour here.
Phoenix: A Grownup Getaway
After spending almost a week exploring things to do around Phoenix, Henk and I finally feel like we know this city a little better. With its world-class cultural and natural attractions, luxurious hotels that spoil you and a food scene to satisfy every taste, we realized that Phoenix is much more than a gateway to Arizona; it’s a great grownup getaway all on its own.
We’re just sorry it took us this long to figure it out.