Phoenix doesn’t have the best reputation. Known for heat, retirement communities, sprawl and golf, sometimes it feels like the best compliment this town gets is, ‘Well, it’s sunny.’ But give Phoenix some time, and you’ll find a place that’s surprisingly easy to fall for.
With regular triple-degree temperatures in summer and more than 300 days of whiteout sunshine a year, Phoenix is pretty damn hot and sunny. But it’s not the weather that makes Phoenix and adjoining Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa (collectively known as the Valley of the Sun) such a treasure hunt. What can make Phoenix initially off-putting is what makes it, at second glance, cool. Its huge sprawl is tough to manage at first, but within it are little clusters of gastronomic joy, jags of shopping fun, blips of nightlife cool. When you’re in the know here, you feel like you’re really in the know.
If we were to hand out the awards for amazing experiences in Phoenix, we think they would go like this:
Best Views and Serene Cultural Space Wrapped into One: reading on the top floor of Burton Barr Central Library
If cities were judged by their library, Phoenix would be the coolest town in the world. That’s our way of saying don’t miss the central library (1221 N Central Ave) in the Phoenix Public Library System. The Burton Barr is designed to make use of Arizona’s ample natural light, which floods through all the floors, including an extensive Arizona reading room and the top floor, which may be the best place to read in the state. The whole shebang is topped by a tensegrity structure roof, which basically means it looks like a Star Trek set. Walk up the stairs or take a ride in the great glass elevators to the top – the stair/elevator system is aptly nicknamed the Crystal Canyon due to its glittering, glassy presentation and sight lines across the building.
Most Unexpected Global Music Experience: listening to the sounds of a West African harp at the Musical Instrument Museum
This museum (4725 E Mayo Blvd) aims to exhibit at least one instrument from almost every country in the world (the really small ones such as Vatican City and Andorra don’t count). Visitors are given a headset and sent off on self-guided walking tours; in front of each display you can hear several samples of music played on everything from violins to giant Polynesian crocodile drums. Kids go gaga at MIM; there’s a hands on section where they can play drums, gongs and harps. Does it get noisy? A little bit.
Most Desertlike Place in the City: counting the stars as the sun sets over the Desert Botanical Garden
Pop into the Desert Botanical Garden to realize how much the desert truly flowers. This is one of the best collections of arid plant life in the world, ranging from towering saguaro cactus to spindly palo verde, sweet-smelling mesquite to bristly creosote. Throw in an excellent cultural trail on Native American life in the Southwest and you’ve got a must-visit. Plus the sunsets are probably the best Phoenix has to offer. The flowering season of March to May is the busiest and most colorful time to visit, but special events happen all year; in particular, concerts here are beautiful under the desert night sky.
Best Information about Southwest American Indians: Embarking on ethnographic adventures in the Heard Museums
The Heard Museums (in three locations at Heard Museum North, Heard Museum West and Heard Museum Downtown) are the best introduction to indigenous culture in Phoenix. Using a combination of professional and community curators, the museum explores the native cultures of the Southwest (and to a much smaller degree, the Americas as a whole) with sensitivity and thoroughness. There’s rooms of ethnographic displays, art galleries, a desert garden and an unrivalled kachina gallery (many of the pieces are a gift from Barry Goldwater). The focus here isn’t just history and anthropology; during our visit we caught a temporary exhibit on Native American pop art. Check the museum’s website for information on the many events held throughout the year here, including the Spanish Market (second weekend in November), which highlights Southwestern Latino culture; the Hoop Dancing Championships (first weekend in February), a competition that showcases indigenous dance; and the Guild Indian Fair & Market (first weekend in March), one of the largest Native American arts festivals in the world.
Best Place to Experience Art, Music and Surprisingly Strong Street Culture: strolling down Roosevelt St and Grand Ave on First Fridays
First Fridays – the tradition where galleries across a city throw their doors open on the first Friday evening of the month – are hardly unique to Phoenix. But the First Friday this town puts on is something else. Touted as the nation’s largest arts walk, Phoenix First Fridays (www.artlinkphoenix.com) are the monthly event you must not miss when you’re in town. This is now the nation’s largest self-guided art tour. An area that stretches from 7th St and Roosevelt St to Central Ave and along Roosevelt St and Grand Ave turns into a giant open-air concert. Some 70 galleries, design spaces, shops, kiosks, clubs and bars basically throw a hell of a party. Indeed, much of the area around Roosevelt St to Grand Ave (excepting Central Ave) used to be abandoned urban blah-space. The cheap property values attracted artists, and as is often happily the case in these situations, said artists led a wave of creative-culture-driven gentrification and urban renewal in central Phoenix.
You can download a map of First Friday businesses (and indirectly, the gentrification described above) from the Artlink website. A loose rule of thumb is that the area around Grand Ave is more adult-oriented, while the 7th St zone attracts teenagers and college students, but there’s a lot of overlap. Scottsdale throws its own arts walk (www.scottsdalegalleries.com) every Thursday from 7pm to 9pm. The party isn’t as wild as the Phoenix fun, but it’s still definitely worth a stroll through if you’re around.