With its charming downtown and small town feel, Prescott is perfect for a day trip. Here’s my ultimate guide to the best things to do in Prescott.
Prescott’s historic downtown and white-columned courthouse feels straight out of Gilmore Girls.
It’s called “everybody’s hometown” – and it’s especially spectacular at Christmas.
But there are none of the cowboy cliches you’ll find in some other Arizona cities.
Prescott boasts stately Victorian homes, bars that date back to the gold rush and some incredible antique shopping. It’s surrounded by lakes and some stunning hiking trails. And it’s all just a 90-minute drive from Phoenix!
So where do you begin exploring this small town Arizona gem?
Here’s my ultimate guide to all the unique must-does in the city:
1. Stroll the Downtown Historic Area
Start with a stroll through Prescott’s old fashioned downtown.
It’s packed with historic buildings, shady trees, quaint little shops and lots of great restaurants – all with that charming small-town feel.
Many buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. And there’s plenty of great antique shopping too. You should definitely set aside a few hours to wander through the quirky boutiques or indulge your sweet tooth.
The Western Heritage Center (at 156 C South Montezuma) makes a great starting point for your walking tour. There are lots of historical artifacts and fine art on exhibit that will make your Prescott experience come alive.
Memorabilia includes photos from a 1909 Model T parade that rolled through Whiskey Row and bits from the World’s Oldest Rodeo. Pick up a free map and history booklet too before setting out.
Prescott’s downtown comes alive for the holidays with hundreds of twinkling lights and great shopping for unique or antique Christmas gifts. There’s a good reason it’s called “Arizona’s Christmas City.”
Pro tip: You won’t find many parking spaces in downtown, so park on the outskirts and walk in. There’s also a spacious parking garage right behind Whiskey Row.
2. Have a drink on Whiskey Row
Whiskey Row is a block-long line of historic bars and saloons – and the former watering hole of the Wild West’s most notorious outlaws.
The city likes its booze.
When a great fire in 1900 nearly destroyed all of Whiskey Row, the patrons reportedly took their drinks across the street to watch the flames from the courthouse square.
Today, many of the historic buildings have been lovingly restored and converted to bars, boutiques and restaurants.
There are also plenty of breweries and hotels – and more great shopping if you’re looking for Native American crafts, jewelry or antiques.
The Palace first opened in 1877 and it’s now Arizona’s oldest saloon. This Western gem is a must-see in any pub crawl. It was once the preferred drinking and gambling spot for Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.
Get some photos of the swinging wooden doors and the bullet holes in the ceiling.
And take a peek inside a few of the different saloons along Whiskey Row. The decor and architecture are straight out of a Western movie.
The saloons date back to the early gold rush when the promise of riches attracted a medley of misfits from prospectors to gamblers and outlaws.
Pro tip: Carry some cash because many of the bars don’t take credit cards.
3. Wander around the Yavapai County Courthouse Square
With its laid-back vibes, the tree-lined courthouse plaza is a heartwarming reminder of what’s best in small-town American life.
Prescott was once the capital of the Arizona Territory. And this majestic 1916 courthouse with its white columns is still the legal center of Yavapai County.
The plaza surrounding the courthouse is filled with giant Western sculptures.
There’s a Rough Rider Monument in front of the courthouse of Bucky O’Neill atop a horse.
Grab a seat on one of the benches and people-watch as tourists, dog walkers and the occasional reenactment groups of cowboys and ranchers wander through in period costumes.
4. Visit the Sharlot Hall Museum
The open-air Sharlot Hall Museum is a 4-acre complex of historic buildings that includes a charming exhibit narrating Prescott’s history – from prehistoric times to the present day.
You’ll find everything from dinosaur bones to the first governor’s mansion (built in 1864) in this sprawling and kid-friendly museum. There’s also an aerial photo exhibit, a Yavapai-Prescott Indian basket display, and Fort Misery – Arizona’s oldest log cabin.
Sharlot was an educated pioneer woman ahead of her time with her ideas of preserving local history. In 1927 she donated many of her documents and artifacts to the museum.
The museum offers daily guided tours and you can visit for a self-guided tour anytime.
5. Get book smart at Peregrine
Photo courtesy Peregrine Book Company
The Peregrine Book Company is a must-stop for any bookworm – and a rare independent bookstore with lots of personality.
Set aside an hour to browse through this community bookstore. You’ll be spoilt for choice amid quirky staff picks, new and used books, stuffed animals, toys and curiosities. There’s also a great selection of indie magazines and books from small publishers.
Peregrine hosts a slew of events featuring local and regional authors, along with bookclubs and workshops.
With its tall shelves and old woodwork, Peregrine is a charming spot to get lost among the stacks.
The building that now houses this independent gem once housed the Arizona Mining Supply Corporation. When mining died down, it became a hardware store that closed in the 1980s. It’s now beautifully restored and transformed into a cozy bookworm hangout.
There’s a great selection of books on local Arizona history and lore. And check out their book clubs if you’re in town for the evening.
6. Spend a merry Christmas in Prescott
Photo courtesy Dave (cropped)
Prescott is dubbed “Arizona’s Christmas City” – and its small-town charm really gets glittered up for the holidays.
The courthouse sparkles with hundreds of lights and there’s a decked-out Christmas tree in the plaza.
And there’s lots of great shopping if you’re looking for unique gifts- whether that’s a rare antique, some turquoise jewelry or soaps infused with local herbs.
An array of events puts everyone in the holiday spirit. Christmas in Prescott is a great chance to experience a nostalgic, small-town holiday.
Here are some best things to do in Prescott in December:
Photo courtesy Michael Wilson
The Christmas Lights Parade: this parade (held in late November) is a must-see for families young and old. There’s music, caroling and a reading of The Night Before Christmas.
The Annual Christmas Parade and Courthouse Lighting: this spectacle is usually on the first Saturday of December. It brings together the entire community with colorful floats and holiday cheer.
The Sharlot Hall Museum has an annual Frontier Christmas event – it’s best to check their website for details.
And then there’s the Acker Night music showcase – a unique holiday event that promotes Prescott’s thriving local music scene, from punk rock to cowboy ballads.
The musical evening is held in honour of benefactor James S. Acker, a local businessman who allocated part of his estate to promote the town’s music scene.
The World’s Largest Gingerbread Village event features hundreds of handcrafted gingerbread structures displayed in a whimsical village. And it all smells amazing.
It’s best to check Prescott’s city website before your trip to plan your holiday visit.
7. See the old Victorian homes
Many of Prescott’s stately Victorian homes are on the Historic Register. And they’re a fine sight with their grandiose facades and lavish ornamentation.
Originating in Queen Victoria’s England, Victorian homes are often spacious with steep pitched roofs, bright exteriors, decorative woodwork and iron railings.
You’ll find lots of historic homes build before the 1940s in the sidestreets surrounding Courthouse Square. Aside from Victorian, there are also a few Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Queen Anne styles to admire.
Stroll down Washington, Mount Vernon, Pleasant, Union, Alarcon or McCormick Street. Or just take an hour to wander and explore Prescott’s sidestreets off the beaten path.
To join an organized tour, check the Prescott Historic Preservation’s Facebook page for upcoming events.
Things to do in Prescott at night:
8. Book a haunted tour
A Haunting Experience Tours offer two-hour guided walks around downtown’s “storied and haunted sites.” Eerie stops include the Palace Saloon where spirits reportedly still linger from Prescott’s Old West past.
Another stop is the Hassayampa Inn, reportedly haunted by a young bride who hung herself from the balcony after her husband disappeared during their honeymoon.
The guide blends local legend with history and creepy ghost stories. You’ll hear stories of the famous outlaws and madams that once wandered the streets. Some are so grizzly that the tours aren’t advised for children under 13.
Romantic things to do in Prescott:
9. Stay in a wooden cabin
Photos courtesy Airbnb
Prescott is surrounded by lakes, hiking trails and forests. If you’re visiting with a loved one, a cozy wooden cabin makes an unforgettable romantic getaway.
The Majestic Mountain Retreat is a secluded gem that’s been featured on CNBC’s Cash Pad. You’ll get sweeping forest views and a gorgeous outdoor dining area – all at 6,500 feel elevation. There are no neighbours in sight. But there are plenty of hiking trails – and shopping and dining is a 15-minute stroll away.
C7K Modern Mountain Luxury is an ultra-modern cabin near Prescott with a 700 square foot deck, hot tub and incredible views. Nestled in the Bradshaw Mountains, you’ll be immersed in pines and junipers with Lynx Lake and plenty of hiking nearby.
Treehouse is a woodland paradise up a 15-foot ladder with a cozy twin bed, a heater, a desk and dresser. You’ll have access to bathrooms and a kitchen, but otherwise this treehouse is a real getaway straight out of a children’s book.
Outdoor things to do in Prescott:
10. Greenways Trail
Take this winding 2.5-mile trail straight from downtown Prescott and be surrounded by nature right in the heart of the city.
This gorgeous hiking trail winds along Granite Creek and Miller Creek. It’s great for cooling off in the shade or taking in the pines and sparkling water in the summer.
11. Fort Whipple Museum
A must for any history buff, the Fort Whipple Museum spans some 150 years of history – from the wild West to Buffalo Soldiers to World War I.
The Fort Whipple Museum sits on the grounds of a modern-day VA Medical Center. And it was once one of the military’s largest hospitals for respiratory ailments.
The museum contains some fascinating exhibits about World War I treatment programs for veterans suffering from the effects of mustard and chlorine gas.
Fort Whipple also served as the main tactical base for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of 1864-1886. And the museum chronicles its transformation from frontier fort to modern-day medical center.
There are exhibits of Army weaponry, military maps, photos and memoirs by soldiers stationed at the fort during the Civil War.
The exhibits tell the story of those who guarded the gold fields and the early settlers of the Southwest. At one point, the fort was the headquarters for a fifth of the entire U.S. Army.
12. Watson Lake
Watson Lake is an incredible destination for camping, boating, fishing and starry nights around a bonfire. There’s some great hiking too in the surrounding Granite Dells.
Rent a kayak or canoe for an afternoon of exploring the rugged landscape and shimmering blue waters. Or hike to Watson Dam to take in the waterfalls.
Watson Lake is surrounded by enormous granite boulders and bedrock formed over centuries of erosion. It’s a unique and breathtaking landscape that’s ranked the best thing to do in Prescott.
There’s a lookout point a Watson Lake Park and a hiking trail that goes around the lake. You’ll be surrounded by views of Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte.
Watson Lake is also great for bird watching and endorsed by Audubon as a premier spot.
13. Lynx Lake
Lynx Lake is a prime spot for hiking, mountain biking, trout fishing and picnicking.
The sweeping 55-acre man-made lake is surrounded by campgrounds. And it makes a perfect weekend getaway from the city.
There’s a boat rental at the lake – and a restaurant and a store nearby. Try kayaking or paddle boarding to cool off in the hot Arizona summers.
Lynx Lake is surrounded by cool pine forests that are incredible for horseback riding. Or you can pan for gold or fish for rainbow trout.
There’s also a walking trail around the lake through the cool ponderosa pine forest.
14. Goldwater Lake
Prescott boasts more lakes than any other Arizona city. And Goldwater Lake is another gem if you’re looking for a day in the great outdoors.
Although swimming is not permitted (like in most Prescott lakes), Goldwater Lake is great for kayaking, hiking and fishing – when it’s not too noisy.
There’s an easy scenic trail that loops around the lake. Though it gets more challenging around the dam, so bring some good shoes.
And there’s a covered picnic area with grills, a playground and plenty of benches in the shade.
Pro tip: If Watson Lake is too crowded, try Goldwater Lake in the high season to avoid the crowds.
15. Prescott National Forest
Prescott National Forest boasts some 850 miles of trails. It also contains eight Wilderness Areas that are a dream for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and horseback riding.
And it’s a great destination to escape Arizona’s hot summers. Prescott is generally cooler than Phoenix because of its high elevation at 5,300 feet.
There are plenty of campgrounds that range from developed to rugged and rustic.
Prescott National Forest also boasts lakes and streams that are perfect for fishing, boating and panning for gold.
This lush, rugged forest is comprised of some 1.25 million acres that border three other National Forests. Established in 1898 to protect the forest from timber cutting, it’s a mountainous landscape dotted with pine covered hills.
16. Phippen Museum
The Phippen Museum is great for Western, cowboy and Native American art – from grandiose sculptures to dainty watercolors and textiles.
The exhibits are a fascinating and eclectic look at the Southwest, from a tribute to the cowgirls of the early 1900s to a display on the process of making bronze sculptures.
If you’re a collector, the museum is also an opportunity to get some incredible art from renowned artists for reasonable prices.
Named for painter George Phippen, the museum features a Cowboy Hall of Fame gallery, two studio replicas and rotating special exhibits. The permanent collection includes art, documents and historic memorabilia. And there are more metal sculptures dotted along the museum grounds to wander through.
The Phippen Museum hosts sales, art talks and special events that are worth checking out on the museum’s event page.
Guided tours are available with prior arrangement.
17. Elks Opera House
This historic – and beautifully restored – opera house is a great way to spend a night on the town. You can catch anything from an Eagles tribute band to Ella Fitzgerald tribute. There’s also stand-up comedy, special events, local bands and movies.
The Elks Opera House was built in 1905 and still retains plenty of atmospheric charm.
Greaters are dressed in period costumes from the Wild West. The crowd is often lively and gets up to dance in the aisles.
A large elk adorns the facade, right in the middle of downtown.
Inside, the 500-seat venue is luscious with flowing curtains, balconies and red carpet.
You can take a guided tour of the opera house or attend a performance.
18. Museum of Indigenous People (formerly the Smoki Museum)
Photo courtesy Museum of Indigenous People
The Museum of Indigenous People is small but extensive with a collection of Native American pottery, basketry, beadwork, paintings, carvings, jewelry and more.
There are also educational panels on racism and cultural appropriation – many of which still stir controversy. The panels are especially poignant because up until the 1980s white Arizonans in costume performed Native American-style dances on the site. Natives themselves, however, were banned from performing.
Today the museum works to preserve and promote authentic Native American culture with a slew of exhibits and events.
The museum contains some 2,000 artifacts. Exhibit are pre-historic, historic, and contemporary, spanning the southwestern U.S. to northern Mexico. And there’s a small shop called Trading Post with crafts and jewelry made by Native Americans.
There are also pottery classes, guest artist series and storytelling sessions throughout the year where native storytellers tell folktales. You can also sign up for classes in anything from textile art to flute making.
Where to stay in Prescott
If you’re looking for a hotel in Prescott, you’re spoiled for choice amid quaint, historic gems that ooze Wild West history.
Here’s a pick of the top hotels in Prescott:
Hotel Vendome is a 20-room boutique hotel built in 1917. And it boasts some real historic charm with its clawfoot tubs, wine bar and beautiful veranda – all in the heart of downtown. It has its share of ghost stories and local lore, too. But be warned: this isn’t a modern luxury hotel and the rooms are small and cozy.
Hassayampa Inn is called the Grand Dame of Prescott, built in 1927 to boost local tourism and entice visitors. It’s elegant and nostalgic with a restored 1920s style lobby and all the modern amenities you’d want. The rooms are small but standard for the hotel’s era.
Where to eat in Prescott
Prescott is great for craft beers and sumptuous comfort food. The city boats historic gems and quaint eateries with friendly service.
Here are the top restaurants in Prescott:
Dinner Bell Cafe is a charming American diner with all the reliable classics on the menu. Serving locals since 1939, Dinner Bell does great traditional breakfasts and hand-crafted sandwiches. The atmosphere is pure small-town charm and the back patio overlooks Granite Creek.
Papa’s Italian Restaurant is a family-owned business serving its Italian comfort food in Prescott for over 30 years. And it consistently ranks as the best restaurant in town. All the Italian classics are seasoned to perfection, from pasta and pizza to calzones and tiramisu.