One of the nation's largest cities, Phoenix boasts some of the Southwest's best museums, attractions, and hiking—and the surrounding metropolitan area, known as the Valley of the Sun, has even more to offer. Whether you're looking to take a jeep tour through the Sonoran Desert or experience cultural art at the Heard Museum, Phoenix and the Valley have something for every age and interest.
Keep in mind that in the summer, temps get quite hot and afternoon monsoons can produce torrential rains (especially in July and August). Check each venue for more information about inclement weather and seasonal hours before you go.
Founded in 1929 in the home of Native American art collectors Dwight and Maie Heard, this museum rotates roughly 44,000 pieces of traditional and contemporary Indigenous art through its 12 galleries. On display, you’ll see Native American paintings, jewelry, pottery, textiles, photography, and more. The famous Barry Goldwater Katsina Doll Collection is a visitor favorite.
The Heard Museum also hosts an active schedule of special events, including the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in February and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in March.
One of only 24 botanical gardens accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Desert Botanical Garden has five major trails: Desert Discovery, Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert, Desert Wildflower, Sonoran Desert Nature, and Center for Desert Living. These routes showcase 139 rare, threatened, and endangered plant species, with information on how animals and people live in the Sonoran Desert.
The garden routinely features special art exhibits—like the works of Dale Chihuly—and offers a variety of programs, including its seasonal Butterfly Habitat, Music in the Garden series, and Los Noches de Las Luminarias during the holidays.
Considered one of the best music museums in the world, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) features more than 7,000 musical instruments from 200 countries and territories. You can listen to many of these via a pair of headphones handed out at admission; videos showing artisans and musicians at work crafting and performing enhance the experience.
Kids of all ages can try their hands playing the instruments they see on display in the Experience Gallery, while pop culture fans can marvel at the exact instruments used by their favorite musicians in the Artist Gallery. The museum also boasts a 300-seat concert hall where renowned singers and musicians regularly perform.
Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built his winter home and school of architecture in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in northeast Scottsdale in 1937. Today, Taliesin West is a UNESCO World Heritage site and National Historic Landmark. You can explore the property on a self-guided audio tour using your phone and a pair of headphones (available for purchase if you don't have your own), or a 60-minute guided tour. Tickets must be purchased in advance for either option.
Once a stagecoach route linking Theodore Roosevelt Dam to Phoenix, the Apache Trail (SR 88) was designated a USFS Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as an Arizona Scenic Historic Byway. Although flooding in 2019 damaged the stretch from the Fish Creek Hill Overlook to the Apache Lake Marina, it's still worth the drive to Tortilla flat for lunch and a scoop of prickly pear ice cream. Along the way, you'll pass Lost Dutchman State Park, Goldfield Ghost Town, Saguaro Lake, and Canyon Lake.
This 1890s mining town near the Apache Junction was set to overtake Mesa in population before its vein faulted and people scattered. Today, Goldfield is a great day trip for anyone wanting to experience the Old West. Admission is free to wander around and watch the weekend gunfights held October through May; however, many of the attractions, like the mine tour and narrow gauge railroad, have fees. Book the horseback rides and jeep tours that leave from Goldfield before you go.
The largest municipal park in the nation, South Mountain Park and Preserve covers more than 16,000 acres on the southern edge of Phoenix. Visitors can hike, bike, or horseback ride the park’s 50-plus miles of trails, or simply drive to Dobbins Point for an incredible view of the Valley. If you take to the paths, be on the lookout for wildlife and petroglyphs (prehistoric art etched into the rock walls). You can access the park at several trailheads as well as the main entrance off of Central Avenue. South Mountain Park’s trails are open daily 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
If you're a golfer, spending the day at one of the 100-plus golf courses in the Phoenix area is a must during your stay. While you can tee off at the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale—where the pros play the Waste Management Phoenix Open—the Dinosaur Course at Gold Canyon Golf Resort & Spa is one of the most scenic courses in Arizona.
Schedule your visit well in advance since it can be a challenge to get a tee time, especially during the winter. If nothing is available on the Dinosaur Course, try booking a round at Gold Canyon's other course, Sidewinder.
Soar Over the Valley in a Hot Air Balloon
Riding in a hot air balloon over rugged mountains and cacti-studded terrain is one of the best ways to experience the Sonoran Desert. Not only will you get a bird's-eye view of the Valley, you'll often spot animals you wouldn't see from the ground. Tour operators like Hot Air Expeditions will even treat you to a post-ride gourmet breakfast or round of hors d'oeuvres—with champagne, of course.
If you're afraid of heights, though, there are other ways to explore the Sonoran Desert. Instead, take a guided horseback ride into the desert or book a 4x4 tour.
The world's largest historical firefighting museum features more than 130 wheeled pieces—including horse-drawn and steam engines—as well as 10,000 artifacts ranging from helmets and badges to fire extinguishers. Don't miss the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes, which honors thousands of firefighters who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Built on the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Hohokam village, this museum explores Hohokam agriculture, canal building, crafts, trade, astronomy, and related topics. Outside, you can view an excavated ball court, a reproduction adobe compound, and other structures on the Ruin Trail. Hands-on activities for kids make this a good option for families wanting to delve into Phoenix's history.
This 43,000-square-foot Western museum explores life in the West through exhibits ranging from Native Americans and early settlers to water conservation and other issues facing those living in the nation's western-most states today. In addition, you'll see artwork by renowned artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Allan Houser, and Charles Bird King in the museum's eight galleries and in the Sculpture Courtyard. Special exhibits rotate every six to 12 months. Check the museum's calendar for programs and seminars held in the architecturally impressive auditorium.
The nation's largest privately-owned, nonprofit zoo is home to more than 3,000 animals, including zebras, sloths, Asian elephants, giraffes, and Komodo dragons. You can see the majority of them on the zoo's four main trails (Africa, Arizona, Tropics, and Children's), although some are raised as part of the zoo's conservation program and later released into the wild.
Plan to spend at least three hours just to see the animals, or longer to enjoy rides and attractions like the Red Barn, where kids can pet sheep and goats and climb on farm tractors. During the summer, get there early: Many animals head for shade and hide during the heat of the day. The zoo is open every day except December 25.
If you have kids, the Talking Stick Entertainment District has enough attractions and activities to satisfy even the pickiest traveler. For starters, animals lovers will marvel at OdySea Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the southwest, and its neighbor, Butterfly Wonderland, the largest butterfly atrium in the nation. The district also has a Topgolf, iFly Indoor Skydiving, Medieval Times, Pangaea Land of the Dinosaurs, go-kart track, bowling alley, virtual reality gaming experience, mirror maze and 3-D mini golf. The Arizona Diamondback and Colorado Rockies play spring training baseball at Salt River Fields, and families can stay at the district's Great Wolf Lodge and take advantage of the resort's indoor waterpark.
At 1.9 million square feet, Scottsdale Fashion Square is one of the largest shopping malls in the Southwest, and the place to go for designer threads. Between high-end stores like Prada and popular retailers like Anthropologie and H&M, you’ll find the first-ever physical location for the online powerhouse UNTUCKit and the only Gucci store in the entire state. In addition to its more than 200 stores and restaurants, Scottsdale Fashion Square features rotating art experiences and an art walk.