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Introducing Greater Phoenix

The Southwest's most populous city isn't great with first impressions, but give this desert metropolis a chance. Just when you've dismissed the place as a faux-dobe wasteland of cookie-cutter subdivisions, bland shopping malls and water-gobbling golf courses, you're pulled short by a golden sunset setting the urban peaks aglow. Or a stubborn desert bloom determined to make a go of it in the dry, scrubby heat. Or maybe it's the mom-and-pop breakfast joint drawing crowds and thumbing its nose at the ubiquitous chains that dominate the landscape.

It's these little markers of hope – or defiance – that let travelers know there's more substance here than initially meets the eye. And with more than 300 days of sunshine a year – hence the nickname 'Valley of the Sun' – exploring is an agreeable proposition (except in June, July and August when the mercury tops 100°F, or about 40°C).

Culturally, Phoenix offers an opera, a symphony, several theaters, and three of the state's finest museums: the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Museum of Musical Instruments. The Desert Botanical Garden is a stunning introduction to the region's flora and fauna. For sports fans, there are professional baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey teams, and the area is dotted with more than 200 golf courses.

Greater Phoenix – also referred to as the Valley – may be vast, but the areas of visitor interest are limited to four communities. Phoenix is the largest city and combines a businesslike demeanor with a burgeoning cultural scene and top-notch sports facilities. Southeast of here, student-flavored Tempe (tem-pee) is a lively district hugging two-mile-long Tempe Town Lake. Further east it segues smoothly into ho-hum Mesa, which has a couple of interesting museums. North of Phoenix, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale are ritzy enclaves. While the former is mostly residential, Scottsdale is known for its cutesy old town, galleries and lavish resorts.