desert botanical garden
Travel,  USA

22 Best Things To Do In Phoenix (A Local’s Guide!)

Phoenix isn’t the cowboy kitschy, sleepy retirement center that it used to be. Here are the best things to do in Phoenix.

With its vibrant art scene, stunning landscapes and incredible culture, this Southwestern gem will surprise you.

I’ve called Phoenix home for over a decade and I keep discovering more hidden gems.

Here’s my local’s guide to the best that Phoenix has to offer.

The best things to do in Phoenix:

1. Catch the cacti in bloom at the Desert Botanical Garden

desert botanical garden phoenix

desert botanical garden phoenix

desert botanical garden phoenix

desert botanical garden phoenix

desert botanical garden phoenix

This 140-acre botanical garden features 50,000 different plants – including native and endangered plants. You’ll be amazed at how much can bloom and thrive in the desert.

Don’t miss the Sunday Concerts in the Garden series for a chilled afternoon amid the cacti.

And the garden really comes alive at night every December in the annual Las Noches de las Luminarias. Throughout the holidays the garden sparkles with more than 8,000 luminaria bags and thousands of white twinkle lights that light up the desert.

There’s also live music from mariachi bands to swing to Christmas classics. Sample some local food and wines at the vendors during your evening wandering the illuminated walkways. Though it does get cold on December nights so bundle up or indulge in some hot cider and cookies.

2. Tour Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

This architectural wonder in the desert is one of the best venues to explore the imagination of master architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright.

3. Hike the 40th St. Trailhead

40th street trailhead scottsdale

hiking trails in scottsdale

40th street trailhead scottsdale

40th street trailhead scottsdale

Get off the beaten path at the 40th St. Trailhead, a less crowded yet stunning alternative to Phoenix’s busy hiking trails.

It starts off easy with a flat and rocky trail, then grows steeper and more challenging until you reach the mountain peak.

And don’t miss the fragrant creosote bushes. They’re abundant in the Mojave desert, and used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans. Rub some between your fingers to experience their unique scent.

4. Visit Old Town Scottsdale

old town scottsdale

old town scottsdale

old town scottsdale

old town scottsdale

Old Town Scottsdale is a charming cluster of neighbourhoods full of boutiques, restaurants, bars and cafes – and some great shopping for Southwestern souvenirs and decor.

5. Dine on seafood at Mariscos Playa Hermosa

mexican restaurants in phoenix

This vibrant and bright Mexican cantina serves up home style seafood that will transport you to the Veracruz coast.

A small patio with faerie lights is perfect to enjoy the cooler Phoenix evenings.

6. Explore downtown Phoenix

downtown phoenix

downtown phoenix

Downtown Phoenix is a bustling center for museums, sports events and some great bars, art galleries and boutiques.

7. Take a stroll through the Scottsdale Civic Center

scottsdale civic center

scottsdale civic center

scottsdale civic center

scottsdale civic center

The Scottsdale Public Library is worth a visit – even if you don’t have a library card.

There’s a cafe inside and a cozy used bookstore where you can find treasures and out of print editions for 25 cents.

Outside, there’s a golden floating pen sculpture and plenty of grassy hills where you can get lost in your book. It’s a great spot to relax after a day of wandering Old Town Scottsdale, which is about a 10-minute walk away.

Don’t miss the fountains, ducks and rose bushes just outside the library near City Hall, or Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, a vibrant 12-foot aluminium sculpture in red and blue that’s outside the library at the surrounding Civic Center Mall.

Check the library’s website for children’s storytime events and art talks.

A vibrant backdrop for wedding photos, Robert Indiana’s aluminium “Love” sculpture towers nearby at 12 feet tall in vibrant red and blue.

The original sculpture was created in 1970 and called for peace amid the social unrest of the time.

8. Shop for souvenirs at Mexican Import

things to do in phoenix

mexican souvenirs phoenix

mexican souvenirs phoenix

This small gift shop, just off the main drag in Old Town Scottsdale, is a bright fiesta of color amid the surrounding Southwestern pastels.

Inside it’s packed with bright Day of the Dead ceramic skulls, colorful Frida Kahlo and Spanish tiles, red chile ristras and hundreds of curiosities as well as plenty of original Southwestern souvenirs.

There are also colorful Mexican blankets, ponchos and sombreros that will keep you warm at night, and novelty items like lollipops made with real scorpions or flavoured with prickly pear.

The selection is outstanding considering the small space, and there are lots of fun and colorful Day of the Dead miniature figurines that make great gifts.

9. Explore Cosanti

cosanti arizona

cosanti arizona

cosanti arizona

Cosanti is an experiment in architecture by famed Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri. It’s also a workshop space where you can shop a stunning collection of bronze bells.

10. Browse the shelves at Book Gallery

books gallery phoenix

books gallery phoenix

books gallery phoenix

Hidden behind a nondescript strip mall facade, this is a treasury of secondhand books and collectables.

The displays are lovingly arranged with rare editions and various Americana that are worth seeing in themselves.

Old comic books and classic toys are lovingly arranged in wooden cases alongside rare first editions and regal leather-bound classics.

The staff is friendly and chatty, and helpful without being intrusive. If you’re looking for some inspiration to spend less time with the TV or social media, then just spend an afternoon here browsing and rekindle your love for the written word.

The children’s and YA sections are well-stocked with beloved classics and old favorites.

11. Explore the masterpieces at Phoenix Art Museum

phoenix art museum

phoenix art museum

phoenix art museum

phoenix art museum

phoenix art museum

A three-floor world class collection of masterpieces, including Monet and Delacroix, along with modern art and paintings that vividly portray Native Americans and the landscapes of the Southwest. Various temporary exhibits keep things interesting year-round.

If you think Arizona’s landscapes are picturesque, you’ll love this vibrant collection of paintings that portray Native Americans, cowboys and other classic scenes of the Southwest.

The art here dates from the early 19th century to the 21st century, and is an eclectic collection of diverse styles from John Mix Stanley’s classic realist landscapes, to Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s bronze statues depicting Native Americans to colorful and abstract paintings.

The collection showcases both regional artists of the past and contemporary creatives.

And if you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, don’t miss Gunnar Widforss’ stunning landscapes that show the depth and scale of the canyon.

12. Take a boat ride at Tempe Beach Park

tempe beach park

tempe beach park

tempe beach park

Rent a paddle boat or a kayak for a ride in the salt river, or just kick back in the grass and enjoy the view over an ice cream.

The park is a short walk from Tempe’s Mill Ave., and makes a great spot to unwind after a day in the city. It’s popular with university students and families alike.

You can have a picnic or get more active and rent a bike to cycle down the paths and enjoy great views of Tempe’s tall office buildings.

The park also hosts a slew of events from 5k runs to high school sport competitions to music festivals, and is especially nice in the summer when the water makes it feel cooler. Check their Facebook page for upcoming events.

13. Have an artsy weekend with First Friday Roosevelt Row

phoenix art

roosevelt row phoenix

roosevelt row phoenix

Once a run-down and shady part of downtown, Roosevelt Row is born again as a walkable artists’ district full of colorful murals and quirky galleries. The A.R.T.S. Market on the first Friday of the month is a great place to start exploring.

14. Shop and lunch at Kierland Commons

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Scottsdale is infamous for its shopping mall culture, but Kierland Commons is a fresh take with its Main Street feel and great restaurants. A beautiful blend of retailers, green landscaping and cozy cafes.

15. Stroll Mill Avenue

mill avenue tempe

A great pedestrian-friendly street full of AUC collage students and the accompanying cafes, boutiques and bars.

16. Uncover the past at the Arizona Capitol Museum

 

arizona state capitol

This beautiful building topped with a copper dome houses a collection that chronicles the state’s quirky and colorful past, from its times as a territory to statehood.

It’s a quaint museum full of interactive exhibits, and a fun Arizona Flag made from 113,998 lego bricks.

There’s a section on the state’s constitution and how it still drives modern politics.

There’s also an exhibit of salvaged items from the USS Arizona after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

One of the most interesting exhibits is on the Merci Train, which showcases the items that Arizona received when France sent 49 cars to all the states filled with gifts after World War II.

17. Browse with a brew at First Draft

first draft scottsdale

first draft scottsdale

This unique and fun book bar offers a great selection of novels and Southwestern souvenirs, along with a friendly bar where you can drink as you shop.

18. Catch the sunset at Papago Park

papago park

papago park

In the heart of the city, this park features hiking trails from beginner to advanced, and the iconic hole in the rock that’s often called one of the best spots in Phoenix to catch the sunset.

Visit around the golden hour and the otherworldly red butte formations take on a magical glow that’s perfect for photo shoots and budding landscape photographers.

It’s an easy hike to the hole in the rock. And there will often be photographers, tourists and locals gathered at the spot in anticipation for the magic moment. It’s better to go in the winter months when the days are short because the park closes daily at 7pm.

19. Get retro at MacAlpine’s Diner

MacAlpine's Diner

MacAlpine's Diner

MacAlpine's Diner

This circa-1928 soda fountain is a great place to indulge in some ice cream and pie in a wooden booth amid some incredible vintage decor. There’s also an antique shop and great selection of old Arizona plates, classic candy and magazines.

20. Spot Governor Hunt’s Tomb

hunt tomb arizona

This small, white, pyramid-shaped tomb is an architectural oddity amid the Arizona landscape. It’s also the final resting place of Arizona’s first governor – a charismatic figure who allowed women to vote years ahead of the country.

21. Take a daytrip to Goldfield Ghost Town

Goldfield Ghost Town

Goldfield Ghost Town

Goldfield Ghost Town

This ghost town about an hour outside the city is an 1890s town that fell into near-oblivion. But it was lovingly restored in the 1980s by treasure-hunt enthusiast Robert Schoose.

Goldfield is full of souvenir shops, ice cream parlours and cafes. Yet the town has an authentic feel – and beautiful views of the Superstition Mountains.

22. Cool off at Lake Pleasant

lake pleasant

lake pleasant

lake pleasant

This refreshing spot, about an hour north of Phoenix, is great for cooling off in the summer and sailing, fishing and boating.

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