Whether you're just passing through or new to the Valley of the Sun, there are plenty of things to do and around Phoenix to entertain people of all ages and interests.
From the cultural art of the Heard Museum to a hot air balloon ride over the Arizona desert, adventures abound in Phoenix, no matter what time of year. However, keep in mind that Phoenix summers can be rather warm and winter nights can get pretty chilly, so plan activities accordingly.
While some attractions offer indoor escapes from the heat, others offer open-air environments where you can spend a pleasant afternoon outdoors. Check each venue and activity for more information about inclement weather and seasonal hours.
The Heard Museum is unique not only in the exhibits that are displayed but the style and grace with which it displays them. It has more than 32,000 pieces of cultural and fine art, with 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. You can also gain free entry to the museum on the First Friday of each month as well as on International Museum Day.
The Desert Botanical Garden has one of the world’s finest collections of desert plants and 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.
The Garden is located in Papago Park in Central Phoenix, so it's easily accessible from almost anywhere in the city. Special events also take place regularly throughout the year, including the seasonal opening of the Butterfly Habitat, the Music in the Garden event series, and the Christmas tradition of Los Noches de las Luminarias.
Chase Field was the first baseball facility in the world to combine a retractable roof, air conditioning, and a natural turf field, and the retractable roof can be closed in less than five minutes!
If you are a baseball fan, a visit to this state-of-art facility is 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, but if the Arizona Diamondbacks are playing that day, you have to call them to buy tickets to eat there.
If you're traveling in the off-season, you can also catch other sporting events around the city. On the other side of town, the Arizona Cardinals play NFL football at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. That's also where the Fiesta Bowl is played, as well as the Super Bowl when Phoenix hosts. The facility is incredible and you can take a tour even when it isn't football season.
In North Phoenix, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) makes for a great destination for music lovers, world culture enthusiasts, and people who just enjoy listening and learning. It has 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 performances from around the world. As for locals, you have the advantage of being able to visit for free, which is great because it will take a couple of trips to see the whole museum at a moderate pace.
There are more than 100 art galleries in Scottsdale, and 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.
Additionally, the Scottsdale Gallery Association holds Special Event ArtWalks with live music along the streets and special themed events several times a year. Each spring, you can also attend the annual Scottsdale Arts Festival, which brings together all the best art for a showcase and weekend-long celebration of local talent and community.
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 along with a terrific view of the city at 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: Echo Canyon is the most popular and is steeper while Cholla Trail is not as steep but rockier.
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. If you're a bird-lover, there have also been more than 250 species of birds recorded at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which makes for a great bird-watching destination in the spring and fall.
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 with gunfights, stunt shows, stagecoach rides, desert train rides, a petting ranch, bull riding, gold panning, a working blacksmith, and western shop. Many of the activities at Rawhide have a fee, but you can buy a Town Pass and explore all areas of the town for one flat rate.
During the year there is also a variety of holiday western-themed events here—including the 4th of July and Halloween celebrations—and most of the activities are held 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.
Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, is home to the official state history museum, the Arizona Capitol Museum. This free museum features a complete history of the state from territorial days through the creation of the state and into the current century.
The museum is located in the government complex near Downtown Phoenix, right next door to the current House and Senate buildings. You can visit the first Governor's Office and the original Congressional chamber at the museum, and while you are there, stop across the street to walk around Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. This public park is filled with memorials to various historical figures, individuals, organizations, and events, including one commemorating the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
A few miles northeast of Scottsdale, Arizona, there is a living memorial to the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Nestled in the foothills of the rugged McDowell Mountains and surrounded by the spectacular Sonoran Desert, this sprawling complex called Taliesin West was designed and built by Wright in 1937.
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, you can take a tour of each of the facilities, or all three!
If you'd rather spend the day golfing, the Dinosaur Course at Gold Canyon Ranch is located in Apache Junction and is one of the best courses in Arizona. If you enjoy golf, you'll be challenged while you enjoy the spectacular scenery on this public course.
The Dinosaur Course is the more challenging and the better of the two courses available at Gold Canyon Ranch. However, it is also tougher to get a tee time there than on the other course, Sidewinder. If you visit the course and feel like the wait time will be too long, there are over 100 golf courses in the Phoenix area you can try instead.
Many cities have places where you can see and walk among butterflies, and Phoenix's 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.
If you're just passing through the Phoenix area, taking a drive along the Apache Trail will be one of the most memorable drives you'll ever take. 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.
Along the way, you'll pass 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.
The Apache Trail makes for a great day trip for the family, but it's also one of the best motorcycle rides in central Arizona if you'd rather go it alone or with one other person.
In the middle of Phoenix, atop a hill, there sits a building that looks something like a wedding cake. After the City of Phoenix purchased it, they developed it so that people could tour this historic landmark. Year-round at Tovrea Castle, 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.
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) focuses on modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design. There are five galleries that showcase changing exhibitions and works from the museum's growing permanent collection.
SMoCA features an outdoor sculpture garden, and sometimes you can even get in for free. Throughout the year, the Museum also presents a variety of educational programs and special events for adults and families, including lectures, docent-led tours, workshops, and classes.
If you have a bit of extra time to kill (and there's a performance happening), you can spend the day at SMoCA, then head next door to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in the evening to catch a show.
At over 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park and Preserve is often considered the largest municipal park in the country with 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 five miles from Central Avenue to Dobbins Lookout.
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 to each. The museum at Montezuma Castle provides good information about the building's history while the Visitor Center at Tuzigoot features a more complete guide to the region. 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. Keep in mind that hiking is involved unless you stay in the museums.
The Valley of the Sun provides the perfect opportunity to experience the unique joy of riding in a hot air balloon year-round. However, you should keep in mind that traveling in these marvelous crafts can be rather expensive and spaces fill up quickly during the tourist season. If you don't feel like going up in the air yourself, each winter, the city also plays host to one of the biggest hot air balloon races in the country, the Arizona Balloon Classic.
Scottsdale is known for many things, and shopping is one of them. There are newer malls in the Greater Phoenix area—and plenty of outlet malls throughout the Valley to choose from—but none are as appealing as the Scottsdale Fashion Square. In a city that's not known for haute couture, you'll be able to satisfy that urge here, and you may even run into a celebrity on the square.
The Phoenix Zoo is one of the younger zoos in the country, which has become quite successful. Opened as a privately-owned, non-profit facility, the Phoenix Zoo operates strictly without any government funding and is supported by donors and private organizations. Recognizing the important role that zoos must play in society, the Phoenix Zoo has been very active in wildlife conservation programs. The Zoo is open every day of the year, including December 25th. In the summer, it's advised that you get there as early as possible since many animals head for shade and hide during the heat of the day.