Edward Abbey famously called it "an oasis of ugliness in the midst of a beautiful wasteland" and, at first blush, Phoenix, Arizona does seem like a city defined by such sharp contrasts. A hard, bright light falls on the concrete grid which presses up against the undulating waves of the Salt River and Superstition Mountains. It's a city whose ancient irrigation networks, built by the Hohokam people, were later used to grow a lush network of post-war golf courses and subdivisions sprawling across the Valley of the Sun. But there's more here than meets the eye.
Spend a little time in Phoenix and you'll soon start to see the city cast not in black and white, but in appealing shades of soft desert pastels – a shimmering mirage that's not so easy to pin down. All it takes is a couple of days – and the right itinerary – to get properly introduced to the Sonoran city that's perpetually reinventing itself. Here's how to spend the perfect weekend in Phoenix.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
You'll definitely want to rent a car at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Phoenix grew up in the age of the automobile and, like Los Angeles, often feels less like a cohesive city and more like a collection of neighborhoods that each have their own flavor, from mid-century cool to classic college town. Start your stay downtown with some of the must-see sites to get oriented. If you haven't eaten yet, you might want to swing by Matt's Big Breakfast for fuel – it's a Phoenix institution.
Phoenix, Arizona art museums
The best place to begin is The Heard Museum, a prime introduction to Phoenix's original inhabitants – the Native American tribes who first called the Salt River Valley home. The Heard collection features Indigenous art and artifacts, from ancient baskets and jewelry to modern beadwork and haute couture. One of the most powerful exhibits, though, is an installation on the boarding schools Native children were forced to attend as part of assimilationist government policy up until the 1970s.
Work your way south to The Phoenix Art Museum, which has a wide range of artists from Southwestern greats like Georgia O'Keeffe to international favorites such as Claude Monet and Diego Rivera. It also has some exciting of-the-moment exhibitions, like Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror room, You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, and quirky curiosities like Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s miniature replicas of real rooms around the world.
The Roosevelt Arts District
Stop for lunch at Trapp Haus BBQ on East Roosevelt Street, where you can spend the afternoon strolling and checking out the hip galleries, shops, and murals in Phoenix's buzzy arts district. On the first Friday of every month from 6 to 10pm, the neighborhood's 70 galleries and venues host a self-guided art walk, but there's a lot to see any day of the week.
Be sure to check out Monorchid, a coffee shop cum gallery and lounge where you can also shop small for local clothing, home goods, and more. If you get thirsty – Phoenix does have over 300 days a year of sunshine after all – grab a beer at Greenwood, a female-owned brewery on East Roosevelt that captures Phoenix's chill retro style.
If you want some downtime before dinner, head back to your hotel if you're staying nearby and take advantage of the pool after a day on your feet. For dinner there are endless good options, from low-key, high-flavor Chihuahuan fare at the award-winning Tacos Chiwas to flawless Native American fine dining at Kai on the Gila River Indian Reservation just 20 minutes south of downtown.
Vintage vibes and desert scenery
Head to an early brunch at Windsor Restaurant & Bar, a retro-cool rumpus room of a restaurant, all earth-tone plaid and giant succulents on the patio. Those who aren't driving might enjoy a drink like the No. 57 cocktail, a blend of cucumber vodka, fresh carrot juice and ancho reyes that will have you up on the right side of the bed. Stretch your legs afterwards with a quick walk through the neighborhood Windsor is named for – it's just a few blocks, but you'll get a feel for the pastel charms of mid-century Phoenix.
Now that you're warmed up, drive east to Camelback Mountain, one of the most iconic natural features on the Phoenix skyline. It's an official city park, and boasts impressive views of the Salt River Valley from the summit, which you can reach in about 2–3 hours via a choice of challenging trails. If you aren't up for the hike, you can get equally great – or better! – views from a morning hot air balloon ride over the Sonoran Desert.
Catch your breath and a jolt of caffeine while crate digging at Mojave Coffee and Records at 48th Street, a local favorite with a '70s vibe, where the vinyl is always spinning. When you're ready to forge ahead, drive to the Desert Botanical Garden that's less than 15 minutes away. Its delightful array of regional blooms and quirky cacti will give you a fast and dirty introduction to the unique Sonoran ecosystem.
Meet Tempe, Arizona
If you need another indoor break after the Botanical Garden, head south to Tempe to check out the student scene around Arizona State University and browse the stacks at Changing Hands Bookstore, which has been part of Phoenix's literary scene since 1974. Or, if you have time, check out the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which features exhibits on everything from dinosaurs to the Hohokam people, and is especially great if you're traveling with kiddos.
If you're not too dusty, stick around Tempe for dinner. Ghost Ranch has a buzzy reputation with regional favorites on the menu like chimayo chile enchiladas and date cake with horchata semifreddo and chili chocolate. Wash down the day with a Prickly Pear Frose 'Rita for a shot of local flavor, or a Phoenix Beer Company IPA.
See Scottsdale, Arizona
You can also choose your own adventure and instead head north from the Botanical Garden to Scottsdale, where you can see a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright. One of his masterpieces, Taliesin West, was where Wright himself lived and worked in the 1940s, and has since been made into an official National Monument. You can definitely see the influence of its warm hues and angular, mid-century forms on spaces all around Phoenix.
If you have enough time, you can even fit in a tour of Scottsdale's charming Old Town to learn more about this corner of Maricopa County that dates back to the mid-1880s, when settlers started planting citrus groves in the desert. There's plenty of history to take in.
Nightlife in Phoenix, Arizona
It's worth rallying from a big day to check out the nightlife in Phoenix. Downtown, catch a concert at Crescent Ballroom where artists like Tennis, Barns Courtney, and The Residents have been known to come through on tour. Nearby, the Crescent’s cousin Valley Bar is the spot to find more local entertainment, from DJ sets to comedy routines, or readings by area writers.
Head back up to Roosevelt Row to test your luck at Cobra Arcade Bar, inspired by the owner's '80s childhood in suburban Glendale and stocked with hundreds of vintage arcade games, plus craft beer and cocktails. Or you can check out Undertow, an immersive tiki bar where the cocktail menu reads like a choose-your-own adventure book.
Dive bar fans who stuck around Tempe will appreciate Palo Verde Lounge, a spot that attracts everyone from college kids to neighborhood regulars, which sometimes doubles as a punk and hardcore venue. For the opposite vibe, head to The Womack, a Mad Men-style cocktail lounge that's lined with chic metallic wallpaper and parquet, in north Phoenix.
If you're making a long weekend of it and you're feeling outdoorsy, spend your third day going a little further afield. There are some stunning options that might help you pick where to spend your time – all in a reasonable drive from the Phoenix metro area.
Learn more about the Indigenous peoples who called the Sonoran home at several sites within an hour or two of Phoenix. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, an hour away, was an ancient spiritual and trade center, and is still one of the largest prehistoric structures that survives in the Southwest. Montezuma Castle National Monument is just an hour-and-a-half away and showcases beautiful cliff dwellings near an ancient oasis. Within two hours' drive is Tuzigoot National Monument, a village once home to the Sinagua People, that's over a thousand years old.
Also two hours from Phoenix is Tonto National Monument – one of the birthplaces of the American Western when 19th century writers like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour were first introducing audiences to the genre (and Arizona) with novels like Under the Tonto Rim. The surrounding Tonto National Forest is still one of the country's urban forests thanks to its proximity to Phoenix, and is a great place for hiking and camping.
One hundred miles to the north, Coconino National Forest contains stunning swaths of ponderosa pines, alpine peaks, and stunning vistas like Cathedral Rock. Or if you're up for a drive or want to use Phoenix as the launching point for an Arizona road trip, it's only a three-and-a-half hour drive north to the Grand Canyon. You can even arrange a tour of the Grand Canyon from Phoenix if you want to skip the driving and stay focused on the scenery, including historic Route 66.
Where to stay
There are an endless number of flavors for lodging in Phoenix, depending on your travel style and budget. Downtown, the Hilton Garden Inn is a handsome art deco classic that still retains its historic charm inside and out. Nearby, the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Phoenix is a hip, well-located spot with a rooftop pool and bar that sometimes hosts slick DJ shows. In the arty Roosevelt Row District, The Metcalf House is a member of the HI family of boutique hostels with a serious southwestern vibe.
Beyond the city center, The Camby is a luxe pick in view of iconic Camelback Mountain, with especially delightful restaurants and bars. Arrive Phoenix is a bright, Instagramable vintage motel with serious style in uptown. In Tempe you'll find the Graduate Hotel, which has lots of fun touches inspired by Arizona State. And for golf and gardens, you'll want to stay at the the Arizona Biltmore Resort, another art deco gem with a spa, and two 18-hole courses that's hosted presidents and celebrities, including Marylin Monroe.
What to pack for Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix is warm and sunny – if not downright hot – much of the year. Be sure to pack sport sunblock that covers both the UVA and UVB spectrum, an SPF lip balm, not to mention after sun relief gel in case you get a burn or a bug bite. Glide anti-chafe balm comes in handy in all sorts of nooks and crannies after long days of walking. A sheer moisturizer is also helpful to combat the dry desert climate in any season, as are polarized sunglasses to shield your eyes.
It also can't hurt to pack sun protective clothing like a light dress with pockets that can dress up or down, or a button-down shirt with a UPF 35 rating. Comfortable walking shoes that can go from day to night will fly in Phoenix – though fine dining restaurants typically have a no-hat-no-shorts dress code, it's still not the most formal city. And if you don't already have one, a travel water bottle is a must for staying hydrated while you see the Valley of the Sun.
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Article first published in August 2011, and last updated in November 2020.