best things to do in scottsdale
Travel,  USA

14 Best Things To Do In Scottsdale

From glitzy shopping centers and art galleries to rugged hiking trails, here are the best things to do in Scottsdale. 

Scottsdale has so much to offer with its blend of ritzy desert resorts, winding hiking trails and cultural havens.

I grew up in Scottsdale and it’s such an underrated city that’s got both nature and luxury shopping malls, world-class museums and Native American heritage.

Scottsdale still surprises me each time I visit – and I’m always making new discoveries.

Visit this Southwestern gem for incredible hiking trails, architectural gems and Southwestern history. It’s a family-friendly city that’s a great retirement community – and a vibrant place with lots of buzzing nighlife.

Here are the best things to do in Scottsdale:

1. Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

This architectural masterpiece was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio in the Sonoran desert. And it’s a stunning example of his brand of modern organic architecture.

Today the former home of the master architect is open for tours as a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And it’s an absolute must-see for any architecture and arts lover.

The home blends seamlessly into the rugged landscape. And it showcases Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of architecture in balance with the local environment.

Inside it’s filled with mid-century modern furniture, gorgeous art and ingenious design that offers surprising twists around every corner.

Taliesin West was built in 1937 as Wright’s 600-acre desert oasis to escape the harsh Wisconsin winters. It served as his experimental lab and workshop until his death in 1959. And many of Wright’s most iconic buildings were born in Taliesin West’s drafting room, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Taliesin West sits in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. It’s built from the local Sonoran sand and stone for a perfect fusion of indoor spaces and the great outdoors.

The trailblazing architect is renowned for his use of natural light and Taliesin West fuses these natural elements and shapes found in the desert.

The site includes desert masonry where rocks are used inside concrete walls. There are also some Native American petroglyphs found at the site that inspired Taliesin West’s logo.

Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the incredible gift shop filled with truly unique items from Art Deco inspired throws and jewelry to lasercut wood lanterns.

Today, Taliesin West is a working architecture school and the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. So you can only visit as part of a guided tour.

An array of tours are available ranging from self-guided audio tours to the 90-minute in-depth guided tour with an expert guide.

2. Old Town Scottsdale

old town scottsdale

old town scottsdale

old town scottsdale

Old Town Scottsdale is a charming cluster of tree-lined streets filled with boutiques, restaurants and galleries – all with a Southwestern flair.

Take a leisurely stroll through this lively and very walkable districts with a history dating back to some 150 years.

Shop for some cowboy boots, turquoise Native American jewelry, Mexican blankets and prickly pear jam at the slew of shops and boutiques lining the Old West-themed district.

Old Town Scottsdale is incredible for authentic souvenirs and quirky keepsakes with an Arizona flavor.

Don’t miss the fine art galleries with paintings, sculptures and photography from an array of local artists.

There’s Southwestern-themed art work, desert landscapes and portraits of Native Americans – and lots of modern and experimental art too. Open houses are held every Thursday during Scottsdale Artwalk.

Insider’s tip: Take a historic Old Town walking tour to learn about the history of the area and the meaning of its iconic landmarks.

And stop for lunch at one of the many award-winning restaurants, bars and cafes that dot this historic Old Town.

From the old fashioned ice cream parlor at The Sugar Bowl (opened in 1958) to cozy patios strewn with fairy lights to lively bars with live music, you’ll find something to satisfy everyone.

Historic Buildings like the Old Adobe Mission, the Cavalliere’s Blacksmith Shop with its display of wagons and iron tools, and the Rusty Spur Saloon (with daily live country music and a Tex Mex menu) will transport you back to the Wild West.

3. Scottsdale Civic Center

scottsdale civic center

scottsdale civic center

scottsdale civic center

Please note: Scottsdale Civic Center is currently closed for renovations. It’s set to open in early 2023.

Scottsdale Civic Center has rolling lawns lined with fountains, sculptures, olive trees and flowers that often hosts live cultural events.

It’s a perfect spot for a shady stroll, an artsy afternoon and a quiet upscale lunch. An oasis in the hot city, the Civic Center has great eateries, paths for walking and benches set amid perennial flowers.

Don’t miss the ducks and swans swimming around the fountains, and the rose bushes just outside the Scottsdale Public Library. And head inside the library for a cafe and a cozy used bookstore where you can find out of print treasures for 25 cents.

There’s a golden floating pen sculpture at the library entrance. And there’s plenty of grassy hills to picnic and get lost in your book.

Scottsdale Civic Center is a great (and less crowded) spot to relax after a day of wandering Old Town Scottsdale, which is about a 10-minute walk away.

Insider’s tip: Visit on Sunday for live events and check the local papers for festivals, concerts and fairs going on.

Don’t miss Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, a vibrant 12-foot aluminium sculpture in red and blue down the road from the library.

A vibrant backdrop for wedding photos, the sculpture stands 12 feet tall. It was originally created in 1970 and called for peace amid the social unrest of the time.

Stop by AZ88 for cocktails and dinner in the spacious patio under red arch sculptures and sweeping park views.

Stop by the adjoining Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts for great art exhibits in its galleries and a fun gift shop full of artsy Arizona souvenirs. It’s also a great venue to catch some incredible shows ranging from classical music and musicals to modern dance and flamingo guitar.

4. Cosanti

cosanti arizona

cosanti arizona

cosanti arizona

Cosanti is the otherworldly gallery and studio of famed architect Paolo Soleri. It includes swirling, concrete experiments in architecture and a workshop where you can shop a stunning collection of bronze bells.

Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri built the imaginative structures of Cosanti in the 1950s. The unusual and surreal architecture served as the prototype for his Arcosanti, the experimental desert community in the Arizona desert that pioneered sustainable living.

Today Cosanti is an Arizona Historic Site that offers tours diving into Soleri’s pioneering vision of environmental and communal cities.

Stroll through the maze of concrete arches, earth-formed structures and workshops straight out of a sci-fi film. And browse the workshops and the hundreds of bronze and ceramic bells suspended from the tall ceilings by heavy chains.

The structures at Cosanti were built with the technique of earthcasting. Concrete was poured over mounds of packed earth. And then as the concrete solidified, the earth was excavated to form the standing structures.

Insider’s tip: Guided tours are held at Cosanti from Monday to Saturday at 9:15am and 10:45am. Bronze pours are done weekday mornings at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30am.

Soleri designed Cosanti to use solar heating and cooling based on a principle of recycling and frugality. The buildings are constructed in relation to the sun to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Cosanti is a powerful experiment in archology, or Soleri’s blend of architecture and ecology that strives to exist in balance with nature.

It’s both a beautiful and highly relevant concept in a world where climate change threatens entire cities.

5. Kierland Commons

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Kierland Commons scottsdale

Scottsdale is famous for its luxury shopping – from the upscale Scottsdale Fashion Square to the trendy open-air Scottsdale Quarter.

Head to Kierland Commons for a fresh take on luxury shopping – and a more Main Street and less crowded experience.

This stylish outdoor shopping center boasts upscale shops and lots of great eateries and bars.

Kierland Commons is a beautiful blend of retailers, green landscaping and cozy cafes. It’s a great place to stroll the tree-lined streets and window-shop and have lunch at a sunny restaurant patio.

Stores include favorites like Anthropologie, Cos Bar, Crate & Barrel and Madewell.

For lunch, head to The Greene House for a gorgeous patio and California dining, or the Parisian-style Zinc Bistro.

Kierland Commons is great for a leisurely lunch between sightseeing – and it’s magical during the holiday season, too.

6. Wonderspaces

Wonderspaces Scottsdale

Wonderspaces Scottsdale

Wonderspaces is a gorgeous interactive art exhibit with a rotating lineup of installations that engage all of your senses.

Tucked inside Scottsdale Fashion Square, Wonderspaces offers 14 different art installations that change frequently throughout the year.

They range from collaborative exhibits where you’re invited to add in your own colorful piece, to gigantic Thank You plastic bags that make a statement about the excesses of capitalism.

Wonderspaces aims to bridge the gulf between art and audience – and to bring accessible art to a wider public.

Don’t miss the signature cocktails at the bar after your visit – the prickly pear cider is always recommended.

There are some incredible light installations that make for great photo opps and immersive experiences. Kids especially love these colorful illuminated spaces.

With constantly changing exhibits, there’s always something new to see from a wide range of artists from around the world.

7. Pinnacle Peak Park

Pinnacle Peak Park

Pinnacle Peak Park

With its towering saguaros, rugged rock formations and stunning landscapes, Pinnacle Peak Park is an easy hike that offers breathtaking views of the Sonoran Desert.

The 1.75-mile (one way) trail winds around the mountainside strewn with boulders towards the cone-shaped summit. It offers views of the McDowell Mountains and the Four Seasons Resort below.

It’s a rugged and rocky hike that has its challenging segments and reaches some 2.889 feet high at its peak.

There are information plaques along the trail about the regional animals, flora and fauna. And you can even spot some wildlife like coyotes, reptiles and snakes along the path.

Insider’s tip: Arrive early to grab a parking space because they fill up fast – especially on weekends.

Certain parts of Pinnacle Peak Park are great for rock climbing, while others are ideal for a sunny picnic and an easy hike.

There’s a great visitor’s center at the entrance along with bathrooms, picnic tables and bike racks.

Pinnacle Peak Park is a great, less crowded alternative to Camelback Mountain. And it’s especially stunning at sunset.

8. Butterfly Wonderland

Butterfly Wonderland

Butterfly Wonderland

Butterfly Wonderland is a gorgeous conservatory that houses thousands of exotic butterflies from all over the world.

The dazzling butterflies fly freely around a glass atrium that mimics a tropical rainforest habitat. They swirl around, sip nectar from colorful flowers and may even land on you – though handling or chasing them is forbidden.

You can observe these colorful creatures up close or even watch them emerge from a chrysalis at the Butterfly Emergence Gallery. It’s a photographer’s and nature lover’s dream.

Insider’s tip: Stop by the cafe for lunch and don’t miss the gift shop for books, butterfly-themed jewelry and unique souvenirs.

Head to the interactive insect exhibits and the educational 3D movie theater to learn about the lives and migration of various butterflies.

And don’t miss the edible insects station where you can indulge in bags of chocolate covered ants or scorpion lollipops from a vending machine.

9. Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

(photo courtesy Scottsdale Arts)

From philharmonic concerts to flamenco guitar and South African gospel choirs, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is an incredible venue with a lively and diverse calendar.

Catch a Broadway showcase, a ballet or a mariachi concert for a great night out in the heart of Scottsdale.

This gorgeous and intimate theater is nestled right inside the Civic Center. It’s also about a 15-minute walk from Old Town Scottsdale – and next to some of the city’s best restaurants. The Civic Center is perfect for a day of sightseeing the very best of artsy Scottsdale.

There’s also an incredible gift shop with quirky and unusual items that make great souvenirs.

Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the art gallery inside and the stunning glass sculpture Spirit of Camelback by Kana Tanaka hanging in the foyer.

The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts hosts diverse and thought-provoking performances from artists around the world.

And it’s one of the best venues in the Southwest for eclectic performances that are sure to inspire and broaden your horizons.

10. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

scottsdale museum of contemporary art

scottsdale museum of contemporary art

(photos by Sean Deckert (top) and Charles Darr)

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) has an incredible collection of daring modern art, architecture and design – with many pieces on a Southwestern theme.

SMoCA’s permanent collection includes modern art icons like the abstract sculptures of Jean Arp and Barbara Hepworth and a colorful lithograph by Roy Lichtenstein. Select pieces from the permanent collection are shown every few years – so check the museum’s website for info on current displays.

And there’s an intriguing smaller collection of architecture and design. It includes a miniature rainbow-colored kaleidoscope house and handspun Navajo rugs and Hopi baskets.

It’s a cutting-edge museum that showcases thought-provoking pieces on subjects like immigration, global warming and homosexuality in the military.

Insider’s tip: Check the museum’s website for an array of classes, workshops and lectures for a deeper dive into creativity. And check out Scottsdale Public Art for cultural events and workshops around the city.

The museum features artists from around the world and a stunning collection of local and regional artists from across the Southwest, including Native American and Latino creators.

There’s a constant rotation of temporary exhibits which means you’ll see something new with every visit. From a Tucson-born artist’s survey of Southwestern swap meets to pastel, abstract murals set amid regional plant life, SMoCA is always a must-see.

11. McDowell Sonoran Preserve

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

(photos: Ray Redstone, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a 30,500-acre protected landscape dotted with cacti and criss-crossed by more than 225 miles of recreational trails.

It’s the largest urban preserve in the United States. And it’s one of the best places to learn about the unique plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve offers trails for hikers of all levels. Enjoy stunning views of the valley and the surrounding mountains strewn with towering Saguaros and yellow wildflowers.

The Granite Mountain Loop offers an easy stroll through the surprisingly-verdant desert. And the Bajada Nature Trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible – and great for kids with games and activities along the path.

For experienced hikers, head to Gateway Loop, a moderately challenging 7.1-km loop with some inclines, a rocky terrain and great views.

Insider’s tip: Check the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, the protectors of this preserve, for great events including educational walks and naturalist lectures.

And don’t miss Tom’s Thumb Trailhead for stunning rock formations and canyons that draw in climbers and photographers alike. The massive granite clusters – and the aptly-named lump of granite known as Tom’s Thumb – offer some of the city’s most stunning landscapes.

There are lots of informative signs along the trails about the surrounding desert plants and local wildlife. You might even spot rarities like bighorn sheep and Mexican wolves.

Facilities include washrooms and water fountains.

12. McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

things to do in scottsdale

things to do in scottsdale

things to do in scottsdale

(photos courtesy Marine 69-71, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re visiting Phoenix with kids, head to this free railroad park for an afternoon of miniature train rides and exhibits of model trains and historic carriages.

Ride the Paradise & Pacific Railroad and take a spin on a vintage 1950s Allan Herschell carousel that’s a favorite with kids. There’s also a majestic Magma Arizona Railroad Engine from 1906.

Don’t miss the 10,000-square-foot model railroad building packed with model railroads and fun interactive exhibits that chronicle railroad history. These meticulously designed miniature landscapes feature model trains circling around. And  there are lots of fun buttons to press that activate various features of the exhibit.

And head to the Scottsdale Railroad Museum, right inside the park, for decades of railroad history and a look at how trains shaped Arizona’s history. The museum features the Roald Amundsen Pullman Car, which was once used by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

There’s also a Merci Car exhibit that features a rail car that carried thank you gifts from the French to Americans for their support in World War II.

There’s also a playground and picnic area that makes the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park a great family outing. Finish off your day at the Western-themed playground with its ladders, slides and trains.

13. Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West

(photos courtesy Scottsdale’s Museum of the West) 

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West boasts artworks, sculptures and artifacts that chronicle the Wild West heritage of the American Southwest and its indigenous people.

This 43,000-square-foot museum covers 19 Western states, including Arizona and Texas, and the history and culture of Western Canada and Mexico. It features a series of changing exhibits on themes like women of the West and masterworks of Hopi pottery.

The museum chronicles the art of Indigenous Peoples, Spanish and Mexican settlers and Western pioneers in rotating exhibits, interactive displays and events.

Don’t miss the beautiful outdoor sculpture courtyard filled with bronze pieces by renowned Western artists. The artwork is set amid ponderosa pines and local plants.

And the building is worth noting in itself. Built to conserve resources, it features natural materials and textures. For example: a weeping wall in the courtyard collects rainwater and recycles it for the air conditioning system.

There’s also a great museum store filled with unique items like pottery, jewelry and children’s toys all with a Southwestern flair.

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is near Old Town Scottsdale and the Civic Center. It makes a great stop along an artsy tour of the historic district.

14. Scottsdale Public Art

scottsdale public art

scottsdale public art

If you’re an art lover, don’t miss Scottsdale’s vibrant sculpture installations, exhibits and special events that make the city a vibrant cultural hub.

Scottsdale Public Art holds a diverse array of events from artist talks featuring Latina artists discussing their works to workshops on crafts like photo bookbinding. Check their calendar of events to infuse some local culture into your Scottsdale sightseeing itinerary.

And don’t miss the Interactive Art Map of Scottsdale to plan your tour of Scottsdale’s most striking outdoor sculptures and murals. It includes everything from the bronze horses splashing out from a fountain in Old Town Scottsdale to the 14-foot high aluminum horses (shown above) that form a part of an innovative flood control system.

Use the interactive map to plan your tour of both permanent and temporary artworks. It’s your key to the best of Scottsdale’s iconic sculptures – and some real hidden gems.

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