What to Do and See in the Phoenix Area

20 Must-See Attractions

Cactus garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
••• Cactus garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Michael Benanav / Getty Images

If you had only one day in Phoenix, what would you do or see? Believe it or not, I get asked this question fairly often. Interesting to ponder, but impossible to answer. There are just too many factors. Will there be children along? Do you like to walk or drive? Is it summer or winter? Do you like museums or shopping? Greater Phoenix has so much to offer. There are so many options—how do I recommend just one or two attractions or activities?

I have picked out 20 destinations/activities that I think are unique or not to be missed when visiting the Phoenix area. You'd never get these done in even a week, but some attractions will appeal to you more than others. Visiting when it's hot outside? The selections I've marked with a double asterisk (**) are indoor, cool, and comfortable. The others may not be appropriate in summer heat, or only if you are able to visit very early in the morning. They are all suitable for both adults and children, but some may be more kid-oriented than others.

One more thing. These places of interest are not listed in any particular order. It was tough enough to come up with only 20, so please don't make me rank them!

Heard Museum**

Every major city and most minor ones have museums. The Heard Museum is unique, however, not only in the exhibits that are displayed but the style and grace with which it displays them.

I never tire of visiting the Heard Museum, with its more than 32,000 pieces of cultural and fine art. There are permanent exhibits, like the famous Barry Goldwater collection of Kachina Dolls, as well as special exhibit year-round. Some of the special annual events include the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest which is held each February, and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market each March.

There's a light rail station nearby.

Desert Botanical Garden

The Desert Botanical Garden has one of the world’s finest collections of desert plants. It is one of only 44 botanical gardens accredited by the American Association of Museums. At the Desert Botanical Garden, you will find 50 acres of beautiful outdoor exhibits. Home to 139 rare, threatened and endangered plant species from around the world, there is no finer place to enjoy desert beauty than the Desert Botanical Garden. The Garden is located in Papago Park in Central Phoenix.

Chase Field and University of Phoenix Stadium**

Chase Field was the first baseball facility in the world to combine a retractable roof, air conditioning, and a natural turf field. Chase Field's retractable roof can be closed in less than 5 minutes! If you are a baseball fan, a visit to this state-of-art facility will be a special treat. If you aren't that interested in going to an Arizona Diamondbacks game, or if one isn't scheduled when you'll be in town, you can still see the stadium.

Just go to lunch or dinner at Friday's Front Row Sports Grill, open 363 days a year. If the Arizona Diamondbacks are playing that day, you have to call them to buy tickets to eat there. Chase Field is located in downtown Phoenix. There's a light rail station nearby. What? You say it isn't baseball season? On the other side of town, the Arizona Cardinals play NFL football at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. That's also where the Fiesta Bowl is played, as well as the Super Bowl when it is our turn. It is another amazing and unique facility, and, yes, you can take a tour even when it isn't football season.

Musical Instrument Museum**

In North Phoenix, we have an amazing destination for music lovers, world culture enthusiasts, and people who just plain enjoy listening and learning.

It's a colorful and impressively designed major collection of musical instruments from all over the world, complete with audio vignettes for your listening pleasure. MIM is a place for all ages. If you'd rather sit in one place and be entertained, MIM also has a concert hall where they present musical performers from around the world. There's not a museum like this one anywhere else, and it's always on my list for visitors to the area. As for locals, you have an advantage, because you can go whenever you please—it will take a couple of visits to see the whole museum at a reasonable pace.

Climb Piestewa Peak or Camelback Mountain

Piestewa Peak, formerly known as Squaw Peak, is part of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The elevation of Piestewa Peak is 2,608 feet; the total elevation gain for the Summit Trail is 1,190 feet. That might not sound high, but hikers of all levels can get a great workout climbing this mountain, and get a great view of the city when they get to the top. If you decide to hike the Summit Trail, though, you won't be alone. According to the City of Phoenix. it is one of the most heavily used trails in the nation with 4,000 to 10,000 hikers per week. Dogs and bicycles are not permitted on the Summit Trail. Camelback Mountain has two major trails. Neither one is especially long, but they are considered moderate to difficult hikes. Echo Canyon is the most popular and is steeper. Cholla Trail is not as steep, but rockier.

Scottsdale Art Walk

There are more than 100 art galleries in Scottsdale. You can enjoy Scottsdale ArtWalks every Thursday evening, year-round (except on Thanksgiving) from 7 to 9 p.m. Each week, Scottsdale Gallery Association members host special exhibits, many with artist receptions, and join together for an informal come-and-go “open house” throughout the district. Casual and eclectic, it’s a great time to visit the galleries and learn about featured artists. Several times per year, the Scottsdale Gallery Association holds Special Event ArtWalks with live music along the streets and special themed events.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, an Arizona State Park, brings together plants from the Earth's many and varied deserts and dry lands. Approximately 3,200 different desert plants can be found within the arboretum, and most of them can be seen along the 1.5-mile main trail. During wildflower season, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is especially beautiful, displaying all the wonderful colors of the desert. Are you a bird lover? More than 250 species of birds have been recorded at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Arizona Capitol Museum**

I don't know exactly why this museum doesn't get more attention—I love this place and it's free! There's no better way to learn about the history of Arizona, from territorial days, through the creation of the state, and into the current century. Visit the first Governor's Office, the original Congressional chamber, and other cool places. This museum is located in the government complex near Downtown Phoenix. It's actually right next door to our current House and Senate buildings. While you are there, stop across the street and walk around Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza with memorials to various historical figures, individuals and organizations, as well as a 9-11 Memorial.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West**

A few miles northeast of Scottsdale, Arizona there is a living memorial to a great American architect. Nestled in the foothills of the rugged McDowell Mountains and surrounded by the spectacular Sonoran Desert lays a sprawling complex called Taliesin West. It was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin West today houses The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, The Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation, and The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. To get the full impact and understanding of the project and the man, I recommend you take one of the tours.

Golf at Gold Canyon Ranch, Dinosaur Course

This golf course, located in Apache Junction, is one of the best golf courses in Arizona. The good news is, it is a public course. If you enjoy golf, you'll be challenged while you enjoy the spectacular scenery. The Dinosaur Course is the more challenging and the better of the two courses, in my opinion. It is also tougher to get a tee time there than on the other course, Sidewinder. That's just one of more than 200 golf courses in the Phoenix area.

Drive Apache Trail**

The Apache Trail will be one of the most memorable drives you'll ever take. Your adventure will begin in Apache Junction, about 25 miles east of downtown Phoenix. The 46 miles between Apache Junction and Roosevelt Lake provides not only the most scenic part of the trip but also the most challenging driving. Please don't close your eyes! Along the way, you'll pass (or you can stop) at the Lost Dutchman State Park, Goldfield Ghost Town, Saguaro Lake, the Canyon Lake Recreation Area, the Theodore Roosevelt Dam site, and the Tonto National Monument. The Apache Trail has been designated a USFS Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as an Arizona Scenic Historic Byway. It's a great day trip! Seriously, if you are a nervous driver or passenger, this drive might not be for you.

Tovrea Castle

In the middle of Phoenix, atop a hill, there sits a building that looks something like a wedding cake. For many years people drove by, wondering what that building was all about. After the City of Phoenix purchased it, they developed it so that your questions could be answered. You can take a tour of the grounds and the building, learn about the families that lived here and discover how they influenced the history of Phoenix.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art**

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (friends call it "SMoCA") focuses on modern and contemporary art, architecture and design. There are five galleries that showcasing changing exhibitions and works from the Museum's growing permanent collection. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art features an outdoor sculpture garden. Sometimes you can event get in for free! The Museum presents a variety of educational programs and special events for adults and families, including lectures, docent-led tours, workshops, and classes.

South Mountain Park

At over 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park and Preserve often is considered the largest municipal park in the country. There are more than 50 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking. Dobbins Lookout, at 2,330 feet, is the highest point in the park accessible by trail. If you aren't into hiking, biking or riding, you can simply drive to Dobbins Point to get a fantastic view of the Valley of the Sun. It's just over 5 miles from Central Avenue to Dobbins Lookout.

Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot

About one and a half hours north of Phoenix are two National Monuments that are well worth a day trip from the Phoenix area. Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot are managed by the National Park Service, and there is a small fee for entry. The museum at Montezuma Castle provides good information but needs a bit of refurbishment. The Visitor Center at Tuzigoot, however, is very well done. Both monuments are very interesting, but for the younger crowd, Tuzigoot will be the more popular of the two since you can actually walk up, in and around the structure. Hiking is involved unless you stay in the museums, so if that isn't appealing to you, you might have to skip this trip.

Shop at Scottsdale Fashion Square**

Scottsdale is known for many things, and shopping is one of them. A list like this would not be complete without a recommendation for a shopping destination. There are newer malls in the Greater Phoenix area, but none are as appealing as Scottsdale Fashion Square. In a city that's not known for haute couture, you'll be able to satisfy that urge here. When the rich and famous, locals and visitors, need an upscale mall, this is where they go!

Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo is one of the younger zoos in the country. Not only is it a successful zoo, but it is a privately owned, nonprofit zoo. That means that it operates strictly without any government funding. The Phoenix Zoo is totally supported by donors and private organizations. Recognizing the important role that zoos must play, the Phoenix Zoo has been very active in wildlife conservation programs. The Zoo is open every single day of the year, including December 25th. In the summer I advise that you get there as early as possible since many animals head for shade and hide during the heat of the day (smart).

Rawhide Western Town

Rawhide has got to be the best place to take kids from back east that want to be cowboys and cowgirls. At Rawhide you can experience the Old West: gunfights, stunt shows, stagecoach rides, desert train rides, enjoy the petting ranch, bull riding, gold panning, camel rides, see a working blacksmith, browse western shops (if you need chaps or spurs, this is the place), play games, and ride a horse. Many of the activities at Rawhide have a fee or you can buy a Town Pass and, er, go to town! During the year there are also a variety of holiday western-themed events here. Most of the activities are outdoors. Of course, you could just go to Rawhide for the dinner and music, and leave the kids at home. The town closes for a few weeks during the summer, so check the schedule. Rawhide is located south of Phoenix, in Chandler.

Butterfly Wonderland**

Many cities have places where you can see and walk among butterflies. Our own Desert Botanical Garden even has a butterfly garden, once in the spring and once in the fall. What makes this place unique is that it is the largest butterfly atrium in the United States. Grab the kids, bring the camera and check out the thousands of pretty little flying insects. Butterfly Wonderland is located in North Scottsdale.

Hot Air Balloon Ride

We have an abundance of sunshine and clear sky, making the Phoenix area a popular one for hot air balloon rides. If you have ever dreamed of floating over the Valley of the Sun you can do that here all year long.

Enjoy your visit to the Phoenix area!