From hiking trails off the beaten path to quirky bookstores and retro eateries, here are the best Phoenix hidden gems.
Phoenix has lots of hidden gems to explore. This booming desert city is filled with underrated and unusual sites – and lots of breathtaking wonders that only locals know about.
I grew up in Phoenix and the city continues to surprise me. And I still make new discoveries every time I visit.
Here’s my ultimate list of the top must-see Phoenix hidden gems. These are the coolest, offbeat spots in the city and some of my old favorites.
Add them to your itinerary for some authentic experiences and a unique look at this Southwestern city.
1. Her Secret is Patience
(photos courtesy Janet Echelman)
This stunning art installation at Civic Space Park is part moving optical illusion and part UFO floating over the downtown night sky.
The enormous kinetic sculpture measures 145 feet and sways gently in the evening breeze, rising some 100 feet above the grassy lawns.
Inspired by the line from Ralph Waldo Emerson “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience,” artist Janet Echelman was inspired by Arizona’s monsoon cloud formations to create this breathtaking piece.
Insider’s tip: Visit at night to watch the sculpture illuminated in a kaleidescope of changing colors according to season.
The sculpture was made from galvanized steel and cables, recyclable twine netting and colored lights by a team of engineers, architects and light designers.
The gently swaying 3D form is a beloved Phoenix hidden gem – and part of the revitalization of downtown.
American artist Janet Echelman is known for fiber sculptures that breathe new life into urban spaces and create immersive, otherworldy experiences. She was inspired to create a new type of sculpture after watching fishermen working on their nets.
Address: 424 N Central Ave. Hours: Open daily from 5am to 11pm. Phone: 602-262-7490
2. Dendiform column bank
This surreal building designed by famed architect Frank Henry is probably one of the most original banks you’ll ever see.
Surrounded by towering, mushroom-shaped columns, this Phoenix landmark was built in 1968. Today it’s a functioning branch of Chase Bank that draws in architecture lovers and photographers along with its steady stream of clients.
Pull over into the parking lot with its towering palms and stroll around to admire the architectural details of Henry’s mid-century style.
A dozen dendiform (tree-shaped) columns are strewn randomly around this award-winning building, creating an ambiance that’s somewhere between a 1950s drive-in and a sci fi movie set.
Insider’s tip: Grab a seat at one of the benches underneath the concrete mushrooms that surround a small water fountain. And admire what many call the most deeply original structure in the city.
The bank is a true stand-out with large stones embedded in its walls, sculptures of shapely women and windows that perfectly frame views of Camelback Mountain.
Frank Henry was a teacher at the nearby prestigious Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where he was admired by students for his originality and dry humor. He designed this bank as a young architect – and today it’s still one of his best-known creations.
Address: 4401 E. Camelback
3. Firefly Infinity Mirror Room
(photos courtesy Phoenix Art Museum)
This spectacular exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum will make you feel like you’re walking through a starry night in outer space.
Yayoi Kusama’s mixed media installation is a maze of LED lights in an enormous room lined with wall-to-wall mirrors.
And it offers a surreal experience as you’re fully immersed in a floating galaxy that seems limitless and without boundaries.
The exhibit is called You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies – and it definitely lives up to its long name.
Housed inside a 25-square-foot exhibit room, the black granite floor and plexiglass ceiling reflect the hanging strands of lights and make you lose all sense of space. Some 250 lights alternate color and add to the otherworldly ambiance.
It’s definitely an unforgettable exhibit – and it’s something you just have to experience for yourself.
Insider’s tip: The Phoenix Art Museum offers a pay-what-you-wish entrance on Wednesday from 3-9 pm.
The Japanese avant-garde artist’s exhibit is one of the most beloved exhibits at the Phoenix Art Museum. And it’s a great photo opp too with its ocean of twinkling lights and optical illusions.
Artist Yayoi Kusama rose to fame in the New York pop art scene of the 1960s. And she once famously offered to have sex with Nixon if he would stop the Vietnam War. Kusama returned to Japan for mental health reasons and her work is currently undergoing a revival in popularity.
Address: 1625 N Central Ave.
Hours: Open daily from 10am to 5pm, and until 9pm on Wednesdays. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
4. 40th St. Trailhead
Get off the beaten path at the 40th St. Trailhead – a less crowded yet stunning alternative to Phoenix’s busy hiking trails.
Tucked inside the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, this 13.2-kilometer loop is a moderate hike that’s popular for hiking, running and mountain biking.
And it’s very versatile. The trail starts off easy with a flat and rocky terrain, then grows steeper and more challenging until you reach a mountain peak.
There are easier stretches where you can enjoy a quiet morning stroll amid fragrant creosote bushes, patches of shady trees and looming saguaros.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the fragrant creosote bushes. They’re abundant in the Mojave desert and used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans. Rub some creosote leaves between your fingers to experience their unique resin scent.
Or challenge yourself with a steeper and more brisk uphill hike with spectacular views.
The trail is very dog-friendly and a popular hike for families.
But get there early on the weekends because parking fills up fast. And pack some sturdy shoes because it does get rocky in parts.
There are restrooms, a water fountain and a covered picnic seating area at the start of the trail.
This charming, historic square with tree-lined streets and Victorian homes is the last remaining block of the original town of Phoenix.
Dating to the late 1800s, Heritage Square includes the centerpiece Rosson House Museum and a slew of restaurants and quaint shops that tell the story of Arizona life before statehood.
Start at the 1895 Rosson House (aka Mayoral House) for an authentic look at the daily life of the era, complete with period furniture and household items. The home still boasts its original parquet wood floors, kitchen sink and Queen Anne-style wooden staircase.
Insider’s tip: Take an hour-long guided tour at Rosson House to uncover the stories and anecdotes behind this historic home.
Browse the Victorian gift shop and finish with lunch at award-winning Pizzeria Bianco.
Heritage Square holds an array of events throughout the year including cultural gatherings and vintage car shows – check their website for special happenings.
Address: 115 N 6th St.
Hours: Open Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm, and 12am to 4pm on Sundays.
6. Mariscos Playa Hermosa
(photos courtesy Mariscos Playa Hermosa)
This lively and colorful cantina serves up homestyle seafood that transports you to the Veracruz coast – and it’s one of the best spots for Mexican in the city.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa is a truly unique eatery with its vibrant decor, bright murals lining the walls and chairs painted with fruit and flowers. A cozy patio strewn with faerie lights is perfect on a cooler evening with friends and margaritas.
The restaurant has a seafood-heavy menu that’s been ranked as one of the best Mexican food restaurants in Phoenix. And that’s quite a feat because Phoenix has lots to chose from.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the live mariachi music on Wednesday nights – and make reservations to avoid the long lines.
The portions are generous and there’s lots of authentic regional Mexican cuisine on the menu that goes well beyond your typical nachos and tacos.
Dive into some scallops, calamari, shrimp, octopus, mussels or just about any seafood dish. Or kick back with some classics like the fish tacos or shrimp ceviche. There’s also a great selection of Mexican beers and tequilas.
The cantina was founded in 2002 by the Maldonado family, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. And it’s quickly become a favorite with the local community.
Address: 1605 E Garfield St.
Hours: Open from 11am to 8pm (and to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays).
7. Book Gallery
Book Gallery is a treasury of secondhand books and collectables tucked inside a nondescript strip mall.
Old comic books and classic toys are lovingly arranged in wooden cases alongside rare first editions and leather-bound classics. The displays of colorful vintage Americana are worth a visit in themselves.
The shop’s facade looks a bit plain, but inside it’s a 5,000-square-foot maze of tall wooden bookcases where a bibliophile can easily spend hours browsing.
If you’re looking for inspiration to get off your social media and Netflix, then an afternoon here will rekindle your love for the written word.
The cozy ambiance and unpretentious service makes Book Gallery a great spot to find some local souvenirs or cool off from the heat.
Insider’s tip: The owner Mike Riley is an incredible resource and the staff are all passionate about books. If you’re looking for a hard-to-find volume that’s not in stock, they’ll make every effort to source it.
Book Gallery is a great destination whether you’re looking for the latest bestseller, a rare out of print tome or an album on Arizona as a souvenir.
There’s a great selection of signed first editions and leather bound novels. The children’s and YA sections are also well-stocked with beloved classics.
Address: 3615 E Indian School Rd.
Hours: Open daily from 10am to 6pm, and 12pm to 5pm on Sundays.
8. Pioneer Living History Museum
(photos courtesy Pioneer Living History Museum)
This sprawling open-air museum features reconstructed log cabins, old western shops and antiques that will transport you to the Wild West.
Stroll through this 90-acre museum and admire original buildings that date back to the 1870s. Displays include the quaint cabin where Arizona’s first senator was raised and reproductions of blacksmith and carpenter shops.
Insider’s tip: Visit on the weekend for the most lively action and reenactments.
Reconstructions of workshops like the minor’s cabin and stage shop offer an incredible look at the everyday life of Arizona’s pioneers.
The museum boasts 30 different historic buildings (both original and reconstructed) that date from the 1880s to the early 1900s.
Don’t miss original structures like the gorgeous Victorian House with its white picket fence. And visit the Phoenix Bakery, built in 1881 – and the first in the territory to offer delivery via a horseless carriage.
For history buffs, the Flying “V” Cabin dates back to 1880 and was used during the region’s last Apache War.
Address: 3901 W Pioneer Rd.
Hours: Open Wednesday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm.
9. First Draft
This book bar is a lively spot for a drink and a browse through the stacks while sipping your favorite craft beer.
First Draft brings all the finer things in life together and serves up wine, beer and espresso right inside a well-stocked bookstore.
Bring your laptop and get some work done at the bar, or dig into your new novel over a glass of wine.
First Draft is a real cozy space to unwind and peruse the overflowing stacks of books, Southwestern souvenirs and curiosities. There’s also a great selection of regional books on Arizona and cookbooks that will inspire you to dig into some Southwestern flavors.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss Wine Wednesday for a dollar off wine by the glass and half off bottles of wine.
An array of unique gift items like cactus-printed tea towels and plates make great Arizona souvenirs. There’s also an array of events, book signings and a First Draft Book Club you can join.
Ask the staff for recommendations and their expert pairings of beers and wine along with their favorite current reads.
There’s also a cozy sitting area with a fireplace that’s great on a cold Arizona day to relax with a glass of red and a cheese platter.
Address: Inside Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W Camelback Rd #1
Hours: Open daily from 10am to 8pm.
10. MacAlpine’s Diner
This 1920s soda fountain is a retro-lover’s delight with wooden booths, vintage decor and classic ice cream sundaes and pies.
Opened in 1929, MacAlpine’s Diner and Soda Fountain has been serving up old-time American classics for generations. The incredible vintage decor, bar stools and retro napkin dispensers will transport you into another era.
There’s also an antique shop attached to the diner with a great selection of old Arizona licence plates, classic candy and magazines you can browse after your lunch. Don’t miss the eclectic collection of furniture, vintage clothes and jewelry next door.
On the menu are American classics like sloppy Joes, meatloaf and potato salads. Service is friendly and waitresses are all dressed in a 1950s theme.
Insider’s tip: Try a milk shake or a root beer float made in front of you on vintage machines.
There’s also a tempting selection of classic deserts including pecan pie, fudge and chocolate sundaes. Pies are made from Amish recipes – and there are 99 soda flavors to choose from to satisfy any sweet tooth.
MacAlpine’s is a real historic Phoenix landmark that’s been running for more than 80 years. Originally opened as Birch’s 7th Street Pharmacy, guests have included architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Wayne Newton.
Address: 2303 N 7th St.
11. Hunt’s Tomb
This pyramid-shaped tomb atop a hill in Papago Park is a real oddity in the desert landscape – and it’s the final resting place of a charismatic Arizona governor.
Hike up the hill for beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, downtown and the Phoenix Zoo. And stop at the pyramid to pay tribute to George W.P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor and a pioneering figure who allowed women to vote years ahead of the country.
Hunt did his household’s grocery shopping in an era when such chores always fell to women. He weighed almost 300 pounds and called himself “the old walrus.”
Hunt’s white 20-foot tall pyramid was originally built in 1931 to entomb his wife. But the governor joined her three years later after his death in 1934. His wife’s family is also buried at the site.
Insider’s tip: Hike up to Hunt’s Tomb from the nearby Hole in the Rock.
Today the stark pyramid (covered in two layers of white ceramic tile) stands out from Papago Park’s crimson sands.
The design of the tomb was inspired by the Egyptomania of the 1930s and the favorite emblem of the freemasons (who included Hunt as a member).
A plaque on the pyramid notes that Hunt was a descendant of a “Revolutionary War patriot,” and was elected seven times as governor, setting “a national record.”
Address: 625 N Galvin Pkwy.
Hours: Open daily from 6am to 7pm.
12. New Windsor Hotel
This historic landmark is the only 19th-century hotel in Phoenix – and it’s a local treasure with its pink facade and retro neon sign.
Businessman A.D. Walsh built the hotel in 1893 – and it’s been through a few name changes and remodels since.
It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s. And it’s still a functioning low-budget, single room occupancy hotel today largely used by the elderly poor.
Insider’s tip: The neon vertical blade sign lights up splendidly at night and a sign proclaims that rooms are “air cooled.”
The hotel was built when Phoenix was a small town with some 5,000 people. But it came at just the right time as the city bloomed, grew and became the state capital.
The two-story brick hotel took inspiration from Victorian architecture with its trims, though it was later renovated in a more Art Deco style. And it was a rare hotel with air conditioning – a cutting-edge technology at the time.
Address: 546 W. Adams St.
13. Rice Paper on 7th
This hip Vietnamese eatery serves up great bowls of pho, drinks and street food favorites in a lively atmosphere in downtown Phoenix.
There’s a huge array of Vietnamese spring rolls on the menu. And there’s a very cool patio with plenty of cozy seating surrounded by planters of fresh lemongrass.
Rice Paper on 7th has an incredible menu of spring rolls to satisfy any craving, including lots of seafood and vegetarian options.
The spring rolls are always fresh. And the pho broth is cooked for up to 24 hours for maximum depth of flavor at what some call the best Asian eatery in town.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss Wacky Wednesday with half off spring rolls and half off all bottles of wine.
Bestsellers like Garlic Noodles and the mouthwatering Fire Cracker Shrimp are highly recommended.
And there’s a nice beer list to satisfy your thirst with craft beers on draft and a few Asian favorites on the menu.
Address: 2241 N 7th St.
Hours: Open daily from 11am to 9pm.
14. Tovrea Castle
Built by an Italian immigrant in the 1920s, this four-story castle is an odd curiosity looming over the Sonoran Desert.
It’s the uncanny dream of Alessio Carraro who created this 5,000-square-foot wonder as a resort hotel at his upscale subdivision Carraro Heights. But the Great Depression hit and the resort was never opened.
Tovrea Castle was sold to a stockyard magnate and used as a private residence until it was bought in the 1960s by the City of Phoenix. The Italian-inspired castle was then restored and opened for tours.
But it’s not easy to get inside this architectural wonder. The two-hour, docent-led tours sell out months in advance so plan your visit ahead. Due to overwhelming demand, the Tovrea Carraro Society is currently distributing tickets via a lottery system.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the castle’s collection of 400 saguaros and 1,000 other cacti, originally planted by a Russian gardener nicknamed Mokta.
The tour goes through the historic main floor and basement and over the castle grounds and cactus garden. There’s also a small gift shop with souvenirs.
This 3.5-acre traditional stroll garden includes a Koi pond and tea house that’s a verdant oasis in the city.
A joint project between Phoenix and its sister city of Himeji, Japan, the Japanese Friendship Garden was designed by landscape architects from Himeji.
The garden boasts stone footbridges, beautiful lanterns and some 50 different varieties of plants and bamboo. There are also flowing streams, a 12-foot waterfall and Koi pond with 300 fish.
Insider’s tip: Don’t miss the traditional Japanese Tea House, which hosts a monthly tea ceremony by reservation.
But keep in mind this garden isn’t that big – it only takes about 15 minutes to walk through.
It’s more of a spot to sit, relax and contemplate – there are plenty of benches along the path and a tranquil atmosphere.
The garden is designed in a hide-and-reveal style where the entirety of the landscape is never visible from a single vantage point. You’re meant to wonder and uncover hidden views as you stroll along the paths.
The garden hosts workshops and events including aikido in the garden, meditations and ikebana and wabi sabi classes.
Address: 1125 N 3rd Ave.
Hours: Open daily from 9am to 4pm. Closed Mondays.