Among the arid mountains and landscapes of the Sonoran Desert lies Phoenix, the most populated capital city in the United States. Just beyond this desert metropolis sits its sibling cities and towns that make up the sprawling urban area of Greater Phoenix.

American Southwest culture can be found everywhere here, yet each of Phoenix's neighborhoods, plus the cities in its greater area, comes with its own distinct vibe – artsy, family-friendly and historical.

Here are Greater Phoenix’s best neighborhoods to explore.

Downtown Phoenix

Best neighborhood for culture and history

Skyscrapers sprout around Downtown Phoenix, where apart from the briskly walking office workers and university students, the streets are remarkably quiet.

Opportunities to delve into the city's many different cultures abound in this neighborhood. At the African American-run George Washington Carver Museum and the Irish Cultural Center, you can learn how each group has established themselves in Phoenix. Relax as you walk alongside trees, ponds, and Japanese architecture at the Japanese Friendship Garden, or visit the Heard Museum, which not only houses stunning Native American artworks but displays emotional accounts of American Indian boarding schools – a crucial part of American history to be reckoned with.

West of Downtown, seek relief from the heat at the copper-domed Arizona State Capitol. Here you can discover how the Territory of Arizona became the last state of the Lower 48 and learn about the historical impact of the bombed USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. In front of the Capitol lies the massive Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, full of war monuments commemorating veterans.

Arizona State University’s Downtown Campus features the eccentric public artwork, Her Secret is Patience. Made of twine and shaped like spiraled summer monsoon clouds, it floats in the sky and sways when the wind blows. Close by, colorful, zany murals, perfect for taking photos with, are splattered along Roosevelt Street (known locally as Roosevelt Row.)

The Phoenix Hostel and Cultural Center hosts local social justice events such as political poetry readings and documentary screenings that raise awareness for women, people of color, and queer people.

Pedestrians walk through a bustling Old Town Scottsdale street known for its souvenir shops
Pedestrians walk through a bustling Old Town Scottsdale street known for its souvenir shops © Getty Images

Old Town Scottsdale

Best neighborhood for the arts

Old Town Scottsdale is a hub of artistic activity, containing the Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, where Native American and Western artworks have been curated into collections that highlight the beauty and mystery of the American West. Nearby, you can take in unpredictable sculptures and architecture at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Old Town even has a free trolley service so you can cruise through the neighborhood and check out the eclectic range of public artworks on display.

There's more further north – the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright set up his winter home, Taliesin West, on the outskirts of Scottsdale, which is tourable today. It is a Unesco World Heritage site thanks to its historic influence on modern American architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Wright also mentored an Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, whose earthy works (the most famous being the bells made of ceramic and bronze) can be found at the Cosanti Gallery.

At the Musical Instrument Museum, you can admire a collection of over 4300 musical instruments from around the world, including Vanuatuan tree trunk drums and Croatian bagpipes. You can even watch live concerts from one of the 300 seats at the museum’s theater.

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Woman looking at abstract sculpture of musical instrument at Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
A woman admires a sculpture in the courtyard of the Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix © Getty Images

Downtown Tempe

Best neighborhood for nightlife

Downtown Tempe's Mill Avenue lights up at night with its many lively restaurants and bars and you can satisfy your shopping cravings at specialty stores here too. North of Mill Avenue, you can walk or bike along the oasis of Tempe Town Lake, where the city lights illuminate the water at night. Take a moment to admire the strange juxtaposition of a large lake at the base of desert mountains and shiny contemporary office buildings.

By day, join casual hikers as you ascend Oidbad Du’ag or ‘A’ Mountain, which is considered sacred to the indigenous Akimel O’odham and Piiposh. From the top, catch elevated views of Tempe Town Lake, glossy modern buildings and airplanes taking off at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. 

South Mountain Village

Best neighborhood for sightseeing

Get in touch with the desert that Phoenix calls home by staying in the foothills of South Mountain Park, one of the biggest city parks in the United States. Drive up to Dobbins Lookout for a wide view of the Phoenix metropolis or hit the park’s many hiking and biking trails meandering through cacti, desert scrub and rock piles.

Mystery Castle at the base of South Mountain is filled with quirky family history. An eccentric Seattle businessman built it for his daughter in the 1930s, inspired by memories of building sandcastles with her on the beach, and now tours of the knick-knack-filled rooms are open to the public.

Driving through South Mountain Village, you’ll notice Phoenix’s vast canal system running parallel to the road, feeding many local farms. At the Farm at South Mountain, you can enjoy a stroll around the fruit and vegetable gardens and eat at the on-site restaurant.

Because South Mountain Village is a residential neighborhood, staying at affordable homestays is your best bet.

Mystery castle in Phoenix.
Visitors explore the weird and wonderful Mystery Castle in Phoenix © Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

West Mesa

Best neighborhood for families

Mesa is the second most populated city in Greater Phoenix and West Mesa has a multitude of family-oriented attractions.

A variety of museums along Mesa’s Main Street are very kid-friendly. The Arizona Museum of Natural History features artifacts from ancient civilizations throughout the Americas and the towering Dinosaur Mountain with lifelike models that roar and move. Nearby is the i.d.e.a. Museum, where toddlers can engage in hands-on art activities in a colorful play town.

For the sports-loving family, Sloan Park is a must, as baseball fans can watch the annual spring training of the Chicago Cubs. Older children will enjoy the nearby Riverview Park, which features a massive rope climbing frame.

At Golfland-Sunsplash, families can cool off during the summer on the water park rides or tackle its miniature golf courses year-round. Five minutes drive away, Organ Stop Pizza is a great place for a family dinner with live music, as an organist leads an enormous ensemble, complete with theatrical special effects from flag displays to soapy bubbles.

As the world’s first Autism Certified City, Mesa has many attractions and hotels that provide accessible services for visitors with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Such hotels include the Sheraton Mesa and Hyatt Place. and 

You might also like:
15 best free things to do in Phoenix
The ultimate guide to a weekend in Phoenix
 

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