Most non-Arizonans are surprised to learn that Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the United States, behind only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. It’s fair to ask how such a massive – and growing – settlement sprang up in a parched, sun-baked valley near the northern fringes of the Sonoran Desert. Once you arrive in Phoenix, you start to understand why.
The city of Phoenix sits near the geographical center of a vast metropolitan area known as the Valley of the Sun. Rimmed by multi-hued mountains on all sides and happy to live up to its name for eight or nine months out of the year, the Valley is an enchanting place – even when its endless suburban sprawl and persistent brown-and-tan hues ring eerie for visitors accustomed to greener, more densely populated cities.
If you’re planning a visit to Phoenix, adjacent Valley communities, or proximate wilderness areas, you’ve come to the right place.
What’s So Special About Phoenix? It’s More Than Dry Heat
One thing most people know (or think they know) about the Phoenix area is that it’s very, very hot for much of the year. They’re not wrong. I’ll talk plenty about climate and hot weather safety (especially in the desert wilderness) in the Logistical Considerations section below.
For now, I’ll say this: I visited the Valley during the hottest part of the year (summer) and I was fine. You’ll be fine too if you drink plenty of water, avoid excessive exertion during the middle of the day, and learn to love air conditioning. And you’ll have much less to worry about if you visit during the winter, when highs typically top out in the 60s and 70s, and evenings can be downright chilly.
On to the fun stuff. Since it’s surrounded by mountains and happens to be set within an easy day’s drive of some of the Lower 48’s most iconic natural landmarks, Phoenix is a perfect home base for an extended outdoor adventure vacation. It’s also the gateway to one of North America’s most fascinating and least understood cultural corridors – at least, to outsiders. In the Historic Sites and Attractions section below, I’ll allude to the region’s rich human history, which spans several pre-Columbian millennia. Some of that epoch’s most important signifiers – such as ancient pueblos and cliff dwellings – are found in remote sections of Arizona and New Mexico, hours by car from Phoenix, and aren’t exhaustively treated here.
If you’re interested in the Southwest’s indigenous prehistory, I’d recommend setting aside several days for a driving tour through the mountain ranges north and east of Phoenix. Like any major metropolitan area, the Valley has a huge selection of accommodations, from budget-friendly motels along the I-17 corridor to five-star resorts dotting the Valley’s affluent northeastern quadrant.
The short-term rental scene is fantastic here as well, with private rooms in Airbnb homes going for as little as $20 to $30 per night during the low season. While I’m striving to be as inclusive as possible here, this guide is designed for people who aren’t willing or able to spend $500 or more per night on top-of-the-line resort digs. The attractions and activities I’ve included reflect that.
Ready to plan your visit to Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun? Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your trip – and keep more of your hard-earned vacation money in your wallet, where it belongs.
Save Money With Discounts, Deals, and Resources
By West Coast standards, the Valley of the Sun is very affordable. If you visit during the summer, when tourist crowds thin, you’re likely to score deals on flights, hotels, rental cars, and incidental expenses like attraction admission and restaurant meals. And these helpful resources can further reduce your out-of-pocket expenses while you’re in town – or, for a reasonable fee, dramatically simplify and improve the logistical challenges of sightseeing in an unfamiliar place.
Visit Phoenix is the Valley’s largest official tourism booster. It’s a must-check before any visit to the region, even if you’re not planning to stay within Phoenix’s city limits. One of Visit Phoenix’s most useful features is the Trip Ideas portal, which arranges four-day itineraries around popular themes: Iconic Southwest, Outdoor Adventure, Day Trips, and so on. Cross-reference those ideas with the attractions and points of interest outlined in this guide to build a customized itinerary that calls your name.
Visit Phoenix also has a comprehensive events calendar, a huge list of area hotels and resorts, a vast restaurant guide appropriate for every budget and taste, and valuable resources for trip planners. It also boasts a slew of limited-time, seasonal, and semi-permanent deals and discounts with select hospitality and entertainment partners.
Before you finalize your itinerary, check these to make sure you’re getting the best possible deal on your hotel or big-ticket event. Do keep in mind that Visit Phoenix advocates for its partners’ interests, so it’s not a completely neutral or thorough clearinghouse for Valley tourists. Don’t act on its recommendations without first checking other resources, such as travel review websites and discount booking portals.
The Valley doesn’t have many multi-attraction pass options – there’s no CityPASS or Smart Destinations card available here. Pogo Pass, which offers regional passes in other parts of the South and Southwest as well, is the lone legitimate player that I could find. It’s a good deal: For about $50 per person, you get 12 months of admission-free access to some of the Valley’s top attractions. Highlights include:
- Phoenix Zoo
- Arizona Diamondbacks games (MLB)
- Phoenix Mercury games (WNBA)
- i.d.e.a. Museum
- Stratum Laser Tag and Family Entertainment Center
- Enchanted Island Amusement Park
- Arizona Zipline Adventures
I describe some of these attractions in greater detail below.
Phoenix Rising Tours
Phoenix Rising Tours is Phoenix’s hometown tour company. It’s the most cost-effective way to explore Phoenix’s central neighborhoods with an expert guide who’s spent years marinating in the area’s history and culture. You can choose from trolley ($29 for non-Arizona residents), bike ($25), and walking tours ($35). The bike tour, which focuses on downtown Phoenix’s vibrant street art scene, is particularly popular when the weather cooperates. The walking tour features coffee samples from some of Arizona’s finest purveyors.
It’s not exactly breaking news that Yelp is useful for hungry travelers seeking quick, tasty, affordable eats. That said, it really served me well in sprawling Phoenix, where scouring neighborhoods for hidden gems on foot is impractical at best.
When I landed, I Yelped restaurants near all the attractions I planned to visit and added the cheapest and best-reviewed to a hastily created notes document in my phone. This simple step probably added an hour of useful time to my visit and significantly cut down on my mileage. Google Maps‘ “Explore” feature, which includes reviews and star ratings, is useful too. If saving money is your overriding priority, use Groupon’s geolocation feature to find time-limited social deals near you.
Historic Sites and Attractions
Back in 1900, when San Francisco was already a thriving metropolis and Seattle a booming gold rush port, Phoenix was a dusty, two-bit cow town dismissed by outsiders as isolated and uninhabitable. But the fact that Phoenix is very much a creation of the 20th century (and its technological fruits, chiefly air conditioning) shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the Valley of the Sun has a long history of human habitation.
Native peoples hunted and practiced agriculture in the region for millennia; the descendants of Spanish colonists traded here for centuries. Given their industriousness and grit, it’s almost ironic that so many outsiders choose to retire here today. Interested in learning more about the Valley’s rich history, good and bad? Start with these attractions.
Interested in learning more about the Valley’s rich history, good and bad? Start with these attractions.
1. AZ Heritage Center at Papago Park
- Adult admission: $10 (summer) to $12 (winter)
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday, 12pm to 4pm
AZ Heritage Center at Papago Park provides a broad overview of the Phoenix area’s relatively recent history – mostly since the late 19th century – through interpretive exhibits and artifact collections. The adjacent Centennial Museum, built to commemorate Arizona’s statehood centennial in 2010, is more of the same. If you find yourself wondering just what this gigantic swathe of urban sprawl is doing in the middle of a parched desert, this is a good place to start.
2. Heritage Square and Rosson House Museum
- Adult admission: Free to enter and explore Heritage Square; $9 to tour Rosson House Museum (60 minutes)
- Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday, 12pm to 4pm (Rosson House Museum)
Heritage Square is Phoenix’s best-preserved historic enclave – the only part of town whose building stock consistently predates 1900. There’s no charge to wonder at Heritage Square’s immaculate Victorian architecture. To get into the Rosson House Museum, a house-sized time capsule from 1895, you’ll need to fork over $9 per adult. For that price, you get a 60-minute tour led by a knowledgeable local guide.
3. Pueblo Grande Museum and Ruin
- Adult admission: $6
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4:45pm; Sunday, 1pm to 4:45pm
Heritage Square is a newborn next to Pueblo Grande, a 1,500-year-old Hohokam ruin in the heart of Phoenix. A 7-mile trail winds through the partially excavated archaeological site, which includes a ball-sports arena, dwellings, and a ceremonial mound. The excellent museum provides backstory on the Hohokam people, who eked out a difficult existence on the floor of the Valley for centuries before conquest.
4. Tempe History Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 1pm to 5pm
Tempe History Museum pays tribute to the unique history of Tempe, which – prior to the Valley’s population explosion – was at one point quite distinct from Phoenix. The museum’s collection is organized thematically, with four permanent exhibits (“College Town,” “Surviving in the Desert,” “Building Our Community,” and “Living Together”) and one rotating temporary exhibit. There’s plenty of kid-friendly content here, so bring the family.
5. Pioneer Living History Museum
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 7am to 11am (summer) or 9am to 4pm (winter)
Tucked away in North Phoenix, Pioneer Living History Museum is a kid-friendly outdoor museum – a lovingly replicated, if slightly kitschy, replica of an Old West town. There’s 90 acres to explore here, which makes the $10 adult admission ($8 per child) seem like a bargain. Note the early summer hours – since the museum is outdoors, management closes up shop before the worst of the heat sets in.
6. Wrigley Mansion
- Adult admission: $15 to $26, depending on tour (food may be included)
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday, 2pm (tours on the hour)
One of the Valley’s first true Anglo estates, Wrigley Mansion is an early 20th-century relic that looks more California than Arizona. Though it’s best known as an upscale wedding venue and brunch hotspot, its 45-minute tours pack in a lot of 20th-century Arizona history – and a few dubious ghost stories to boot. The $26 lunch tour packages offer pretty good value in light of the inflated menu prices.
7. Mesa Historical Museum
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm
Mesa Historical Museum is an engaging, if unorthodox, homage to the history of Mesa – all 100 or so years of it. Much of the historical collection is sensitive and therefore not publicly displayed, but the rotating exhibits are a treat in and of themselves. They’re not always Mesa-related either – a recent exhibition, “Cat People of the Outer Regions,” was a wacky hodgepodge of feline art and errata.
8. Taliesin West
- Adult admission: $26 to $75, depending on choice of tour
- Hours: Daily, 8:30pm to 6pm (winter – other seasons’ hours may vary); special night tours start as late as 7:30pm
Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for his Prairie School triumphs, especially Wisconsin’s beloved Taliesin. But Wright spent much of his retirement in Scottsdale, at the foot of McDowell Mountain. His home base there was known as Taliesin West, and it’s a beauty. Some homers say it’s even more impressive than the original. Whatever your opinion, it’s worth an hour of your time. Choose the reasonably priced Panorama Tour, a high-level introductory to Wright’s work that doesn’t get too far into the architectural weeds.
Museums and Cultural Points of Interest
These are among the top museums and cultural attractions in and around the Valley of the Sun. Unless otherwise noted, all are air-conditioned. Take note, summer visitors.
9. Arizona Science Center
- Adult admission: $18
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
Located near Heritage Park, Arizona Science Center is Arizona’s premier public science museum. This kid-friendly learning hub features exhibits on aviation, electricity, solar power, the human body, weather, and much more, plus a world-class planetarium. If you’re over 21 and in town on the third Friday of the month, check out Science With a Twist, an adults-only night with drinks, dancing, and special science programming from 6pm to 10pm.
10. Phoenix Zoo
- Adult admission: $19.95 to $24.95, depending on season
- Hours: Daily, 7am to 2pm (summer); 9am to 5pm (other seasons)
Operated by the non-profit Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, Phoenix Zoo (not air-conditioned) is tucked away in spacious Papago Park, near Desert Botanical Garden. Megafauna like lions, bears, giraffes, and elephants mingle with humbler critters in an expansive set of outdoor enclosures and indoor conservatories. The black-footed ferret breeding center is a kid favorite – before you visit, check the live cam to see what the inhabitants are up to. And, once you’re at the zoo, don’t miss the stunning 4D theater. Be warned that extreme heat does sometimes force the closure of heat-sensitive animals’ outdoor exhibits – plan accordingly on warm days.
11. Desert Botanical Garden
- Adult admission: $24.95
- Hours: Daily, 7am to 8pm
Desert Botanical Garden (also not air-conditioned, for the most part) is dedicated to the amazing – and amazingly resilient – desert flora that inhabit the planet’s hot deserts. Two of the garden’s five trails are dedicated specifically to the Sonoran Desert, of which the Valley of the Sun is but a small part. The other three include endemic and non-native vegetation; one is dedicated to drought-adapted wildflowers that blaze with color after the winter rains. Don’t miss the cactus and succulent galleries – you might get a few cost-effective interior decorating ideas while there. One-time admission is pricey, so if you’re a frequent Valley visitor, the entry-level Aloe Vera membership ($79) is cost-effective.
12. Hall of Flame Fire Museum
- Adult admission: $7
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 12pm to 4pm
Don’t be fooled by the dated website. Look past the nondescript warehouse in an anonymous corner of wherever. If you’re even remotely interested in the history and science of firefighting, you need to visit the Hall of Flame Fire Museum. Here, you’ll find hundreds of pieces of firefighting equipment, including engines and ladders, from the early 18th century through to the late 20th century. Most inclusions come from this side of the pond, but there are a few comparatively exotic artifacts from Europe as well. Before you leave, pay your respects at the somber National Firefighting Hall of Heroes.
13. i.d.e.a. Museum
- Adult admission: $8 (over age 1)
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm; Sunday, 12pm to 4pm
When you’ve run out of options to keep the kids occupied, and it’s too hot to do anything constructive outside, hit up the uber-kid-friendly i.d.e.a. Museum. Tailor-made for small children, it’s a hands-on wonderland that excites kids’ sense of play while reinforcing basic scientific and practical concepts. Who can argue with that? Recent exhibits include an interactive, totally not scary celebration of cartoon monsters and an age-appropriate examination of historic comic book characters.
14. Phoenix Art Museum
- Adult admission: $18
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm (except 9pm Wednesdays); Sunday, 12pm to 5pm
Phoenix Art Museum is a world-class classical and contemporary art museum befitting the country’s fifth-largest metropolis. Some of its most exciting exhibitions aren’t devoted to visual media at all: Visitors can take in ponderous samurai armor, vintage fashion threads, ancient kitchen pottery, and much more. There’s also plenty of early to mid-20th century photography paying homage to the mass settlement and growth of the American Southwest – an appropriate theme, given the setting. Museum admission is free from 3pm to 9pm on Wednesdays, from 6pm to 10pm on the first Friday of each month (when there’s a cash bar to boot), and during regular open hours on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month.
15. Heard Museum
- Adult admission: $18
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9:30am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 5pm
The Heard Museum is dedicated to “advancing American Indian art” – and it does so beautifully. The signature exhibit, Native Peoples in the Southwest, is an expansive examination of the region’s indigenous art and culture, with hundreds of individual artifacts and a full-scale recreation of a traditional Navajo hogan. Rotating exhibits take an expansive view of the museum’s charge, with themes ranging from the Santa Fe Railroad’s co-optation of Southwest Indian culture to the early 20th-century artistic super-duo, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
16. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 12pm to 5pm; Thursday through Saturday, 12pm to 9pm
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) is an ambitious temple to contemporary art in all its forms. Nothing is out of bounds here. Recent exhibitions have included interactive string light displays, visitor-led mural painting projects, and experimental furnishings that you definitely would not want to sit on. There’s plenty of ticketed programming as well, including curated conversations with prominent artists and booze-fueled solstice celebrations.
17. Mesa Arts Center
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Varies by attraction (museum open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10am to 5pm; Thursday 10am to 9pm; Sunday 12pm to 5pm)
Mesa Arts Center is Arizona’s largest arts complex. With multiple performance venues, public art displays, and gathering spaces, it bustles with activity from late morning through late evening most days. The five-gallery art museum here is given over entirely to contemporary art, and it’s always free to explore. The adjacent venues, which may charge for ticketed events, draw big-name visitors: Recent passers-through have included Rob Lowe (in town for a memoir reading) and Dennis Young (who gave a rollicking performance with his band).
18. Butterfly Wonderland
- Adult admission: $21.95
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 6pm
Butterfly Wonderland‘s whimsical name is misleading: It’s actually a full-bore tropical conservatory, complete with an extensive reptile exhibit, freshwater aquarium, honey bee exhibit, and poisonous desert critter sideshow (spiders, scorpions – you name it). The headline attraction is the Butterfly Pavilion, a spacious indoor area with thousands of delicate, free-flying butterflies of all sizes and colors. The butterfly emergence exhibit is pretty cool too – if you’re lucky, you’ll catch one emerging from its chrysalis in real time. A 3D theater experience is included in the price of admission. Butterfly Wonderland is part of the OdySea in the Desert attraction family. If you have the time and budget for more than one OdySea attraction, I’d recommend checking out OdySea Aquarium after you’ve had your fill at BW. Combo admission costs $51.95, which isn’t much of a discount to full price.
Urban Parks and Natural Areas
These urban parks and natural areas are not air-conditioned, but they’re all beautiful. Those not located in the heart of the Valley are within 30 minutes of downtown Phoenix. Unless otherwise noted, all are free to enter and explore. Some, like Papago Park’s Desert Botanical Garden, may have admission-restricted internal features. Hours are usually dawn until dusk. Heed posted hours and use caution at night.
19. Papago Park
Papago Park is to Phoenix what Central Park is to New York City. In other words, the two couldn’t be more different. Papago Park is a vast expanse of rugged desert in south-central Phoenix, within view of downtown. The admission-restricted Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo are here, but plenty of the park is yours to wander for free. Don’t miss the twin red stone monoliths near the park’s northern edge. Hole in the Rock, a curious relic of erosion, is worth a photo. (I regret not getting one, despite coming within a quarter-mile or so. That’s the downside of a packed schedule.)
In My Experience: News flash: It gets pretty hot in Phoenix. If you’re visiting during the summer months, try to schedule outdoor physical activity soon after the sun comes up or shortly before it sets. (Mornings are preferable.) If you do find yourself on the trail during the heat of the day, wear protective clothing, lather up with plenty of sunblock, drink more water than you think you need to, and watch carefully for signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion. I’ll explain more about hot weather safety in the Logistical Considerations section below.
20. Evelyn Hallman Park
Formerly known as Canal Park, Evelyn Hallman Park is a small but well-used haven in central Tempe. As one of the few areas of the Valley with an open-to-the-public surface water feature (another being nearby Tempe Town Lake), it’s a great place to disconnect from the desert. On nice days, the picnic area is heavily used.
21. LoPiano Bosque Habitat
Tucked between the Salt River and the 202 freeway, 13-acre LoPiano Bosque Habitat is a small, isolated floodplain enclave with a stunning variety of flora and fauna. Many of the species here are unique to desert riparian areas, making them by definition rare. The dense canopy makes for plenty of shade on hot summer days, though little else about the place encourages visitors to linger.
22. Hayden Butte
Also known as “A” Mountain, for the 60-foot concrete “A” adorning its slopes, Hayden Butte is an ever-popular hiking and running destination for permanent Tempe residents and Arizona State University students alike. Though dwarfed by Valley peaks, such as Camelback Mountain, Hayden is still the highest point for miles, and the views are worth every inch of the climb. Don’t miss the ancient petroglyphs – more than 500 in all, memorialized forever in the butte’s hard basalt.
23. Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area
Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is a rare ecological victory amid the Valley’s immense environmental challenges. Stretching for more than five miles along the Salt River, the restoration transformed the most urbanized portion of the Valley’s primary natural water source from “a dried-up riverbed full of trash” into a “lush riparian corridor.” That’s a slight exaggeration, as the Salt River is dry for much of the year, but the before-after juxtaposition is remarkable. This is a great place for a leisurely hike – just use caution during and after rainstorms, when the flood threat is very real (and very dangerous).
24. Eldorado Park
Like Evelyn Hallman Park, Eldorado Park is an otherwise unremarkable green space with a stocked lake and plenty of picnic space. The lake is one of the Valley’s few reliable fishing holes; most others are found higher up in the mountains, where surface water is more common. If you’re staying nearby, make Eldorado Park the midpoint of your morning jog.
25. Phoenix Mountains Preserve (Piestewa Peak and Lookout Mountain)
Phoenix Mountains Preserve is a discrete, disconnected series of open spaces encompassing several of the valley’s most notable peaks. Piestewa Peak and Lookout Mountain, in northeast Phoenix, are two popular, accessible examples. Lookout Mountain’s central location within the Valley makes it a particularly popular destination for amateur photographers – on clear days, you can see much of the built-up area, not to mention several nearby mountain ranges. Pay close attention to posted warnings, including parking restrictions on streets near the trailheads.
26. Camelback Mountain and Echo Canyon Recreation Area
Rising nearly 2,800 feet above sea level and some 1,500 feet from the valley floor, Camelback Mountain is the highest mountain in the immediate Valley of the Sun. It’s also one of the toughest to climb – the 1.5-mile Cholla Trail looks easy on paper, but the relentless climb, loose gravel, and smooth rock steps present serious challenges. Adjacent Echo Canyon Recreation Area offers another angle of attack, but it’s not much easier. On the other hand, the view from the top is outrageous.
Getting to the Cholla Trailhead
The Cholla trailhead isn’t the world’s most accessible. It’s at least a quarter-mile off the closest through street, Invergordon Road, up an upscale residential way called Cholla Lane. Locals clearly value their privacy: Street signs placed every few paces remind visitors that there’s absolutely no on-street parking or drop-offs on Cholla Lane or any of its tributaries. The closest designated parking area is nearly half a mile from the trailhead, down Invergordon Road a ways.
On the bright side, at least in my observation, the drop-off prohibition isn’t strictly enforced. During the five minutes it took me to snap photos at the trailhead, a light-colored Uber sedan rolled up and deposited two young women hikers – clearly out-of-towners – in what I can only imagine is a frequent occurrence.
27. South Mountain Park
South Mountain Park is the largest and wildest of Phoenix’s parks. With 16,000 acres and three small mountain ranges under management, it dwarfs every other urban park in the country. Highlights include extensive slope-side saguaro forests and breathtaking summit views – on a clear day, you can see virtually every developed nook and cranny in the Valley, which stretches endlessly to the north and east. By law, bikes and cars must share park roads equally, but you’ll want to be in great shape before you tackle those death-defying curves on two wheels.
Dealing With Wildlife on Phoenix-Area Trails
The Phoenix area’s wilder parks are rife with interesting critters. I didn’t see any scorpions or rattlesnakes in my travels, but they’re around. So are coyotes and cougars (mountain lions). Pay close attention to posted warning signs and know what to do if you encounter a dangerous animal in the wild. It’s not always intuitive. For instance, the best way to deal with a cougar is to try to scare it by waving your arms, baring your teeth, and making lots of noise – not, as you might expect, retreating or curling into a ball, both of which trigger cougars’ predatory instincts.
Regional Parks and Natural Areas
These outdoor areas rim the Valley. On a good day, they’re an hour or less from downtown Phoenix. They’re perfect for serious hiking and overnight camping, weather and regulations permitting. Bring plenty of water and food – unlike city park paths, backcountry trails don’t have water fountains. Unless otherwise noted, park admission is $6 per car. Parks are generally open between dawn and dusk.
28. McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Located northeast of Scottsdale, McDowell Mountain Regional Park has about 22,000 acres of open space and some 50 miles of multiuse trails – hiking, biking, even horseback riding. The main unit of the park is behind its namesake peak, so the main viewpoints all expose to the east, toward the Superstition Mountains. That means no Valley views. On the bright side, the Superstitions are stunning in their own right. If you have kids in tow, check out the nature center – mind the early summer closing hours though.
29. San Tan Mountain Regional Park
Sprouting from the valley floor southeast of Chandler and Gilbert, San Tan Mountain has much better Valley of the Sun views – and, with maximum elevations below 2,800 feet, doesn’t ask quite so much of summer hikers. Like McDowell Mountain, San Tan has an excellent, kid-friendly nature center.
30. White Tank Mountain Regional Park
Maricopa County’s largest regional park, White Tank Mountain, covers some 30,000 acres due west of Glendale. The peak tops out above 4,000 feet, making for a truly challenging (and likely all-day) hike for visitors committed to schlepping up from the valley floor. If you prefer a more leisurely visit, stick to the saguaro forests on the lower slopes. The nature center here hosts periodic live animal events, including rattlesnake feedings. Mesmerizing, as long as you keep your distance.
A Warning About Monsoon Season
I’ve been to Phoenix during the driest part of the year – May and June. Most years, monsoon season begins about six weeks later, in early to mid-July. From then until sometime in September, visitors to Phoenix risk experiencing one of the Southwest’s famed monsoon thunderstorms.
With frequent lightning and biblical rains, monsoon storms are no joke. Arizona’s soil isn’t very porous, so even a few minutes of rain can overwhelm the ground’s ability to absorb it, precipitating dangerous flash floods. Dry riverbeds, known as washes, are particularly vulnerable to flooding, while mountainsides are at higher risk of direct lightning strikes. If you’re caught in a natural area during a thunderstorm, move out of low-lying areas and seek shelter (large rocks or caves work best) on higher ground.
31. Estrella Mountain Regional Park
Located south of Goodyear, on the Valley’s southwestern fringe, Estrella Mountain Regional Park is a 20,000-acre expanse comprising – surprise, surprise – plenty of pristine desert and rocky crags. There are a few curveballs here though: Estrella is home to one of central Arizona’s largest wetlands (a rarity in the Southwest) and boasts significant frontage on the flood-prone Gila River. If you’re willing to drive a fair distance for a cheap outdoor meal, the huge picnic area calls your name.
32. Lake Pleasant Regional Park
Lake Pleasant Regional Park is an unexpected find in the high desert north of Phoenix: a 24,000-acre protected area encompassing the 10,000-acre reservoir that provides much of the Valley’s potable water. You can do pretty much anything water-related here, but the most interesting part of the park is arguably the Discovery Center, which relates the fascinating story of the uneasy public-private partnership that tamed the Colorado River and made life in the desert possible for so many modern-day Arizonans.
Phoenix-Area Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
Large swathes of the Valley feel anonymous and prepackaged: drab strip malls and insular gated communities with similar-sounding names and facades, one blending into the next. Unless you’ve been around long enough to recognize specific mountain ranges, it’s hard to get oriented on the Valley floor. But not impossible. If you’re in any of these notable Phoenix-area neighborhoods or cities, you’ll notice.
Located south and east of downtown Phoenix and Sky Harbor, Tempe is a youthful, vibrant enclave with a bustling nightlife scene and plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. It’s defined by its symbiotic relationship with Arizona State University, one of the country’s largest four-year colleges. After a hike up Hayden Butte, walk over to Mill Avenue and cool down at one of the countless bars and restaurants serving impossibly cheap refreshments, or rent a stand-up paddle board from Boat Rentals of America ($40 for two hours) and explore Tempe Town Lake.
Crowds and Parking in Tempe
During the school year, nearly 60,000 grad and undergrad students pack ASU’s Tempe campus. The city is built to handle the annual influx, but that doesn’t mean it’s not noticeable. If you visit Tempe while classes are in session, expect longer wait times at local restaurants and bars, more crowds at cultural institutions, and more car and pedestrian traffic in and around Tempe.
When classes are out – summer, winter, and spring break – downtown Tempe is a veritable ghost town. On a recent late May stay, I felt like I had the area to myself. I never had to wait for anything, and I could always find a parking space. If you’re looking for a quiet, conveniently located place to stay, off-season Tempe is a good bet.
34. Old Town Scottsdale
Also known as Downtown Scottsdale, Old Town Scottsdale is the oldest and most walkable part of Phoenix’s best-known suburb. Punch through the polished commercial veneer and you’ll find some hidden gems here – I spent a good portion of a visit to Scottsdale working and taking in live music at Sip Coffee & Beer House, which boasts an extensive, Southwest-centric craft beer menu (pints start at $4 or $5) and frequent open mic nights. Scottsdale Stadium, spring training central for the San Francisco Giants, is a stone’s throw away. If your budget allows, check out Scottsdale Fashion Square – not exactly thrift store central, but worth a look during clearance sales.
Mesa, an independent city, sprawls for miles east of Tempe. Once among the fastest-growing cities in the United States, Mesa is locally reputed as an affordable home base for families with children. The downtown core is in the midst of a multi-year revitalization effort that’s already brought dozens of new, independently owned businesses to town. It’s worth a visit, even if you’re staying elsewhere. In early spring, Oakland A’s fans throng Hohokam Stadium, their home team’s spring training center. If you don’t want to pay admission at one of the Valley’s established art museums, look into Mesa’s nationally renowned public art program.
South of Mesa, Chandler is another vast, rapidly growing Valley suburb with broad avenues and low living costs. For a low-cost bite (or higher-priced fashion threads), check out Chandler Fashion Center, conveniently located near the 101/202 freeway interchange. Or, plan a frugal visit using the local tourism bureau’s handy list of free things to do in Chandler. Before you leave, stop by centrally located Tumbleweed Park, a solid picnicking spot on cooler days.
The unofficial professional sports capital of the Valley, Glendale is a western Phoenix suburb that hosts the Arizona Cardinals NFL franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes NHL club, and the spring training homes of the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch. If you’re not a sports fan, there’s still plenty to do here, from weekly summer concerts at Murphy Park to periodic open-air street festivals at the Westgate Entertainment Complex.
38. Downtown Phoenix
nlike most other North American cities of its size, Phoenix lacks a compact, intensely developed central business district built around a historic “old city.” Downtown Phoenix is simply the most extensive of the Valley’s many dispersed business districts. It spreads nonchalantly over several square miles, merging at its northern edge with Midtown Phoenix (a distinct business and cultural district). Don’t let the suburban vibe fool you though: Aside from Tempe, downtown Phoenix is the Valley’s best cultural destination.
During baseball season, catch an Arizona Diamondbacks game at air-conditioned Chase Field, then head over to Central Avenue for a cheap bite. If you have time, hit up Roosevelt Row too. With murals, street art, frequent outdoor festivals, and dozens of independently owned galleries and eateries, the epicenter of Phoenix’s resurgent arts scene is reminiscent of Miami‘s world-famous Wynwood arts district.
Day Trips and Excursions From Phoenix
Have enough time to get out of town for a day or two? Visit one or more of these popular Arizona destinations. Many are located in the mountains or high desert, above the worst of the Valley’s summer heat.
Sedona is a really special place. Perched on a high desert plateau south of Flagstaff, and flanked by 2,000-foot red rock cliffs dotted with ancient indigenous ruins, it’s one of the most visually arresting places I’ve ever seen. Culturally, it’s one of the strangest: The 1960s counterculture, New Age movement, indigenous traditions, and Old West cowboy culture all coexist (mostly) peacefully here.
At 4,500 feet, Sedona is reliably 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Phoenix, so it’s a great summer escape. The increasingly upscale downtown is absolutely worth a stroll; just avoid splurging at overpriced trinket shops. If you’re up for a strenuous hike or white-knuckle drive, check out the Coconino National Forest’s unforgettable Oak Creek Canyon, on the ecological boundary between northern Arizona’s vast Ponderosa pine forest and the semi-arid plateau below.
Payson is an idyllic mountain community nestled below the dramatic Mogollon Rim, a 2,000-foot escarpment that splits the eastern half of Arizona in two. In fact, Payson is the anchor of a tourist-friendly region known locally as Rim Country.
At about 5,000 feet above sea level, just above the lower extent of the Ponderosa forest, its plentiful shade and surface water draw Phoenix-area vacationers in droves. The Tonto National Forest has hundreds of miles of hiking trails and dozens of low-cost campgrounds available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Check Payson Rim Country, the region’s official tourism site, for more information.
Southwest of Sedona, a bit higher up in the mountains, lies the sprawling alpine town of Prescott (“PRESS-kit,” say locals). The Prescott area is a collection of several distinct communities. Some cater to retirees and second home owners, while others house locals who can trace their family histories back generations.
Like Sedona and Payson, Prescott has cute, upscale retail districts and enough Old West kitsch to keep things interesting, but the real draw are the near-pristine forest and high desert areas nearby. If you have 30 to 45 minutes, take a quick loop on a city trail. For a half- or full-day adventure, escape into the nearby Prescott National Forest.
Perched high on a steep hillside not far from Prescott, tiny Jerome began life as a 19th-century mining boomtown, fell into steep decline during the early and mid-20th century, and then successfully reinvented itself as a quirky, artsy hamlet with a hard-edged survivalist sensibility.
Take the winding drive up the mountainside, spend 30 minutes wandering the community’s topsy-turvy streets, and snap a few pictures of the expansive view of the Verde Valley below. Then head back down to much larger Cottonwood, which has a well-preserved downtown and plenty of places to spend the night.
43. Sonoran Desert National Monument
Spanning three mountain ranges and two basins south-southwest of Phoenix, Sonoran Desert National Monument is a vast tract of pristine, ecologically varied desert land. From rocky hillsides hosting some of Arizona’s most extensive saguaro cactus forests to bottomland washes that turn into raging rivers – and then burst into bloom – after heavy rains, there’s no better place to see the Sonoran Desert as it once was.
The best way to experience the monument is on horseback, but there’s plenty of hiking here too. Don’t forget your water; it’s hot out here. And use caution south of Interstate 8, where drug and human smugglers covertly traverse the desert.
44. Picacho Peak State Park
Located about two-thirds of the way to Tucson, right along Interstate 10, Picacho Peak State Park is among Arizona’s most popular desert state parks. The $7-per-vehicle entry fee is well worth it: The impossibly steep namesake peak harbors an expansive saguaro forest, dramatic rock formations, surprisingly diverse microflora, and other surprises. Come during monsoon season for a glimpse of the rare Sonoran Desert Toad, a hardy amphibian that hides out for most of the year.
45. Superstition Mountains
East of the Valley’s sprawl lie the Superstition Mountains, whose dramatic desert peaks rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the desert floor. Their dramatic tan cliffs make for treacherous climbing; the winding drive along Arizona Highway 88 is a safe (if nerve-wracking) alternative. Apache Trail, gateway to the mysterious Lost Dutchman Mine, is one of the most popular and convenient attractions in the area. Goldfield Ghost Town is worth visiting too.
46. Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is by far the most recognizable geological feature in a state with more than its fair share of natural landmarks. It’s also by far the most distant of the excursions listed here. But it’s well worth the visit. You’ve seen pictures; it’s even more impressive in person.
Coming up from Phoenix, the most convenient place to start your Grand Canyon excursion is Grand Canyon Village, in Grand Canyon National Park. Park entry is $30 per car (good for all occupants) or $15 per individual without an accompanying vehicle. If you plan to hike down into the canyon, this is probably where you’ll start. Check the National Park Service website for hiking details, and keep in mind that you’ll need two full days for a round-trip hike down to the river. Grand Canyon Village is within walking distance of some of the most scenic points on the South Rim, which is open all year.
For a less crowded experience, head to the higher, wilder North Rim – less than 10 miles as the crow flies, but hours by car. Due to its altitude and isolation, the North Rim is open only during the summer.
No matter what’s on your itinerary, here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your time in and around Phoenix.
When to Visit
Aside from personal considerations, the timing and duration of your visit to Phoenix will most likely turn on two major factors: weather and crowds.
Like most of the southern half of Arizona, the Valley of the Sun has a warm, arid climate. Average monthly highs top 80 degrees from April through October. Average highs rise above 105 degrees in July, the hottest month, and dip below 70 degrees in December and January only. I hit my personal record temp on my recent visit to Phoenix: 111 degrees.
The Valley’s low elevation and prevalent concrete are notorious for trapping heat at night. In summer, temperatures can remain above 90 degrees well into the early morning hours, straining human bodies and electrical infrastructure alike. One evening in late May, upon stepping out for a late dinner at 9pm, I clocked a 101-degree reading – just marginally down from a high of 106 degrees earlier in the day.
Though it’s not quite as dry as Las Vegas, America’s most arid major city, Phoenix’s eight inches of average annual rainfall officially qualifies it as a desert. The upside to this is that it’s easy to avoid rain here: Precipitation occurs pretty much exclusively in winter and the abbreviated late-summer monsoon season. Much of the annual total accrues from just a handful of downpours during these periods.
The downside is that Phoenix is one of the sunniest major cities on earth. No matter when you visit, you can expect blazing – and, for the fair-skinned, sunburn-inducing – rays. With minimal shade-giving vegetation in natural areas, the Phoenix sun is many a hiker’s nemesis.
All this to say that the Valley is not an ideal summer destination, especially for those used to more temperate climes. Yes, it’s a “dry heat,” but low humidity only goes so far when the mercury tops 100 degrees. If you’re planning a lot of outdoor activities at low elevation, such as overnight camping or long-distance hikes, visit in early spring, late fall, or winter.
Crowds and Other Considerations
Millions of people live and work year-round in the Valley, but crowds and traffic tend to be more manageable during the summer months, when locals who can afford to jet off to cooler climes do so in earnest. Conversely, the cooler months (November through March) tend to be busier in areas popular with tourists and seasonal residents, such as Sun City and North Scottsdale. Several Major League Baseball teams make their winter homes in the Phoenix area, so there’s a mini-surge of activity during spring training season, which roughly coincides with college spring break season – late February through March.
What to Bring
Your Phoenix packing list should include:
- Sun Protection. Brilliant sunshine is a fact of life in Phoenix, even when it’s not blazingly hot. Don’t forget to pack a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunblock. If you’re flying, make sure your sunblock containers are less than three ounces.
- Hydration Gear. The dry desert air is a frighteningly effective evaporator. Even if you’re not sweating, you lose moisture with every breath you take. Keep a refillable water bottle with you at all times. If you plan to hike or otherwise exert yourself, consider a hydration pack (such as a Camelbak). At minimum, you’ll want a gallon per day on the trail, and much more in hot weather.
- Sandals or Flip-Flops. For most of the year, sandals and flip-flops are the footwear options of choice in Phoenix. Bare feet stay cooler and drier in the hot sun.
- Umbrella. Yes, really. For the vast majority of the year, Phoenix is bone-dry. Most rain falls in July, August, and January through March. Summer rains are the ones to watch: Monsoon-induced thunderstorms can be extremely violent. If you’re caught outside in one, you’ll want an umbrella, no matter how warm it is.
- Trail-Ready Footwear. If you plan to do any off-road walking or hiking, bring sturdy-soled shoes or hiking boots. It’s well worth the added pack weight – I’m pretty sure-footed, but hiking steep Camelback Mountain in tennis shoes was a questionable decision that I’m lucky not to have suffered for.
- Seasonally Appropriate Outerwear. During the summer, you’ll probably never need to wear a long-sleeved shirt outside in Phoenix and surrounding areas. In my experience, Phoenicians don’t run their air conditioners cold enough to necessitate outerwear indoors either – though that’s likely a matter of personal taste. In spring and fall, you’ll want a light jacket, hoodie, or cardigan for chilly mornings. In winter, when nighttime lows can dip down into the 30s, you’ll want something heavier for activity early or late in the day. And keep in mind that it’s much cooler in the mountains, even in summer. If you plan to venture above 4,000 feet, long sleeves are recommended year-round.
- Comfortable Backpack. Unless you’re not planning to venture far from your home base, bring a sturdy, comfortable backpack capable of carrying some or all of the supplies listed here. If you’re flying, use it as your carry-on. Packs are especially useful for extended hikes, when you’ll need more water than you can carry in your hands.
Getting There and Getting Around
Here’s what you need to know about getting into and around the Phoenix region.
Arriving in Phoenix
The majority of Phoenix visitors arrive by air or car:
If you’re not coming from elsewhere in the southwestern United States, you’ll most likely arrive in Phoenix by air. Phoenix’s main international airport is Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), a massive facility conveniently located a few miles from downtown Phoenix.
With four terminals and direct service to virtually all major North American cities, Sky Harbor is a hub for Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, an important node for Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, and a key destination for most other regional and budget carriers based in the United States. I’ve reliably found direct flights from Minneapolis to Phoenix for about $200 round-trip. On Southwest and other discount carriers, it’s easy to find one-ways from most major U.S. airports for well under $100.
Phoenix is a popular stop on road trips through the desert Southwest. It’s served by I-10 (central Arizona’s main east-west Interstate) and I-17 (Arizona’s main north-south Interstate), plus a bevy of major U.S. and Arizona highways. By road, Phoenix is about two hours from Tucson (southeast), five hours from Las Vegas (northwest), five hours thirty minutes from San Diego (south-southwest), and six hours thirty minutes from Los Angeles (west). If you live in any of those cities, or anywhere else within a six-hour radius of Phoenix, it’s probably more cost-effective to drive into town.
Covering the Cost of Your Trip
I travel often enough for business and leisure to justify the annual cost of a premium travel rewards credit card. By strategically using my card to pay for big-ticket travel expenses, including airfare, I was able to shave at least $20 off the total cost of my trip. If you travel often and haven’t yet explored your travel credit card options, I strongly recommend checking our best travel rewards credit cards roundup.
Getting Around in Phoenix
Here’s what you need to know about navigating the Phoenix area.
Public Transportation in Phoenix
Don’t let the endless sprawl fool you; Phoenix has a first-rate public transportation system operated by Valley Metro.
Valley Metro operates several dozen regular bus lines, about a dozen express and RAPID (limited-stop, dedicated right-of-way) bus lines, and one light rail line. Most buses run along major thoroughfares in and around Phoenix. Service frequency ranges from 10 minutes or less to 30 minutes or more, depending on the route, day of week, and time of day. The network has 12 transit hubs, anchored by Central Station in downtown Phoenix.
Valley Metro’s fare system is fairly straightforward, though all prices are subject to change:
- Regular Bus and Light Rail: $2 single rides, each way
- Express and RAPID Buses: $3.25 single rides, each way
- One-Day Pass: $4
- Seven-Day Pass: $20
- 15-Day Pass: $33
- Monthly Pass (31 Days): $64
Valley Metro’s network is in the midst of a long-term expansion. The organization plans to add more than 50 miles of light rail track in the coming years, substantially increasing its rapid transit capabilities.
Unfortunately, for the time being, Valley Metro is at its best in central Phoenix and adjoining, close-in communities, such as Tempe and Scottsdale. In outlying areas, long travel times and unfriendly pedestrian environments hamper its effectiveness. As a practical matter, it’s very difficult to get around the Valley of the Sun using only Valley Metro vehicles.
Personal Vehicles in Phoenix
The Valley of the Sun is car culture’s endgame: broad thoroughfares, wide turn lanes, high speed limits, few pedestrians, and – in most places – ample parking. Unless you plan to limit your activities to pedestrian-friendly areas like Tempe, you’ll almost certainly find yourself driving or riding in a private vehicle at some point.
If you’re bringing your own car to Phoenix, check ahead with your hotel to ensure that you can park freely on the grounds. Most hotels allow this, though you may have to pay for garage parking in downtown Phoenix. If you’re staying at a short-term vacation rental or in the home of a friend or family member, confirm with them that there aren’t any local residential parking restrictions that you need to know about. Most apartment complexes have ample off-street parking, but single-family homes and duplexes in congested Phoenix neighborhoods may lack driveway or alley access. In those areas, residential permit parking may come into play. Street parking isn’t permit-restricted in the majority of Phoenix, but there are at least 25 exceptional enclaves. You can see where street parking permits are required on Phoenix Transportation’s website.
Rental Cars in Phoenix
If you’re flying into Phoenix, I’d strongly recommend renting a car while you’re in town, especially if you plan to hike in the mountains around town or take a longer excursion beyond the metro area. I use Hotwire, a blind-booking site, to get the best possible deal on rental cars – in Phoenix, that’s reliably $30 per day or less for a compact car. I’ve seen daily rates for subcompact cars as low as $15 per day on Hotwire.
Though larger rental car companies, such as Enterprise, have outposts scattered throughout the Valley of the Sun, the most popular rental car hub by far is Sky Harbor’s airy rental car center. The center has every major rental car company that serves Sky Harbor under the same roof, which makes it super easy to find your provider. Shuttle buses ferry passengers back and forth between the airport’s terminals and the center in intervals of 10 minutes or less.
A Note on Sky Harbor Airport’s Rental Car Center
Depending on your terminal, Sky Harbor’s rental car center is a quick five- to ten-minute jaunt by bus. Getting to the center is easy – just head outside to the rental car shuttle pick-up area and hop on the first bus (after verifying with the driver that they’re heading to the center, of course). Getting back is slightly tougher. Buses are terminal-specific, so you need to verify that your bus is heading to the correct place. The center’s outdoor plaza clearly marks each terminal’s pick-up area, but it doesn’t hurt to check with the driver too.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
If you plan to confine your travels to central portions of the Valley, you might not need a personal vehicle to get around town. Like most big cities, Phoenix has good ridesharing and carsharing coverage.
- Uber and Lyft: Uber and Lyft are quite popular in Phoenix. Because I had a rental car, I didn’t use either service much, but I periodically checked the apps. No matter the location or time of day, there always seemed to be an available ride within a few minutes of me. To be fair, I didn’t venture to the outskirts of the Valley, where I imagine coverage is thinner. As elsewhere, fares vary by ride distance, length, and local demand. Volume-driven demand surcharges are common in the late evening (especially around entertainment districts), during rush hour, and at peak times for arriving flights (near Sky Harbor). Without demand surcharges, regular Lyft and Uber rides are lower than in many other big cities, but keep in mind that the average ride is longer in sprawling Phoenix. If you don’t mind sharing a ride and enduring slightly longer journeys, use Lyft Line or UberPOOL to reduce fares.
- Zipcar: Phoenix doesn’t have great Zipcar coverage. Hubs are chiefly found in Tempe, mostly near ASU, and in and around downtown Phoenix. If you’re staying in one of these areas, short-term Zipcar rental is a viable transportation option. Depending on your plan, Zipcar costs up to about $80 per day (though pricing is subject to change). Occasional drivers need not pay an annual or monthly membership fee. For existing Zipcar members who plan to stay in built-up sections of the Valley, Zipcar is cheaper than a traditional car rental. However, if you don’t plan to use it when you return home, it’s probably not worth the hassle and cost of signing up.
The Valley’s popular bikesharing program, Grid Bikes, has more than 100 hubs in the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Practically speaking, the Phoenix network is separate from the Tempe and Mesa networks, as the most proximate Phoenix and Tempe hubs are nearly 10 miles apart. The Tempe and Mesa networks, though separate, have much closer centers of gravity.
Grid operates year-round, though obviously it’s not fun to bike in the summer heat. The best payment option for short-term Valley visitors who plan to bike frequently is the 7-Day Pass, which includes 180 minutes of free biking time.
If you just want to take the odd ride, a pay-as-you-go membership might work better. You can reserve bikes up to 15 minutes in advance using the Social Bicycles mobile app. Grid’s website has a free download and use instructions.
Where to Stay
The Valley is a huge, diverse place. Your choice of home base should turn on numerous factors: your main reason for visiting, your budget, your lodging preferences, the sights and experiences you want to take in, and more. These are some of the region’s most popular lodging spots:
As noted, Tempe is a convenient yet low-key home base for the off-season. I spent less than $100 per night for a basic room at an upscale hotel right across from ASU’s campus, and – as elsewhere in Tempe – I basically had the place to myself. Tempe is also the obvious choice for travelers who have business at ASU or in the rapidly growing tech cluster near campus.
Downtown Phoenix (Central City)
Phoenix’s main business district is a spread-out agglomeration of low- and mid-rise office buildings interspersed with condominium, apartment, and hotel complexes. Aside from the obvious benefits of central location, downtown Phoenix is great for conventioneers, business travelers, and sports fans.
Nightly room rates are a bit higher downtown than elsewhere in the city, but you get what you pay for: walking-distance access to dozens of restaurants, multiple entertainment venues, and Chase Field (home of the Arizona Diamondbacks). Expect to pay at least $120 per night for a higher-end place along Central Avenue. Look for budget-friendly ($80 and under per night) on the business district’s outskirts.
Sky Harbor Area
Like most major airports, Sky Harbor has a healthy collection of affordable hotels nearby. Most are found on either side of Van Buren and 44th Streets, north of the terminal area. I found places for as little as $40 per night here – a steal if you’re just passing through or spending a quick night before your flight out.
Old Town Scottsdale
Old Town Scottsdale is an upscale, reasonably pedestrian-friendly area with ample hotels, even more condos, and a handful of older resorts. If you’re in town for spring training, look for a place within walking distance of Scottsdale Stadium, where you can watch practice and catch exhibition games. I found two-star places for as little as $50 per night here in the summer, but rates are likely to be higher in winter and spring. Nicer resorts, such as The Saguaro, charge $100 and up year-round.
Scottsdale North (North Scottsdale)
Scottsdale is huge. North Scottsdale is at least 20 minutes by car from Old Town, and it might as well be a world away. Upscale resorts and spas abound here, as do higher-end traditional hotels. But there’s also an executive airport and several business parks in the area, both of which draw more functional accommodations.
For a lower-key experience, check out the two- and three-star motels and extended-stay hotels near the intersection of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road. And don’t forget to check out Taliesin West while you’re up here.
About halfway between North Scottsdale and Old Town is Central Scottsdale, an upscale district with high-end retail and quiet residential subdivisions. Central Scottsdale is a good home base for ardent golfers and more adventurous types looking for easy access to the Superstition Mountains. I found three-star hotels, such as Hampton Inn, for less than $100 per night here during the summer. Fancy resorts, such as the McCormick and Meridien CondoResort, lie to the south, and they’re of course much more expensive.
North Phoenix & I-17 Corridor
Phoenix proper stretches for more than 20 miles north of the central business district, all the way to the sparsely inhabited desert foothills that constrain the Valley’s relentless growth. The I-17 corridor cuts a built-up swathe through North Phoenix’s interminable residential subdivisions, sprouting fast-food joints and functional hotels at every interchange.
It seems like every national hospitality chain has an outpost somewhere along I-17. There are dozens in all. The corridor is ideal for business travelers seeking convenient, no-frills accommodations and leisure travelers plotting escapes into the mountains north of the Valley.
Located west of Phoenix proper, Glendale is an unassuming suburb whose main claim to fame is University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals NFL team (and host of Super Bowl XLIX, played in February 2015). The Phoenix Coyotes, an NHL team, also play in Glendale. Most of the city’s hotels and resorts are found in and around the upscale Westgate Entertainment District, north of the stadium area.
Other Places to Stay in the Phoenix Area
This is by no means an exhaustive account of all possible areas to stay in the Valley of the Sun, nor does it include outlying communities known for upscale destination resorts.
Since lodging is a crucial consideration for any traveler, you’ll want to do additional due diligence before choosing your Phoenix-area home base. With the above as your guide, use an online booking aggregator, such as KAYAK or trivago, to check pricing and availability in each area. If you’re a frequent traveler with a distinct hospitality family preference, use their website to narrow your selection further – and, if available, consider applying for their branded hotel rewards credit card to reduce or negate the cost of your stay.
Most of my visits to Arizona begin in Phoenix, thanks in large part to Sky Harbor’s vast array of direct, low-cost flight options. But I almost always find time to visit Tucson, a little over 100 miles southeast of central Phoenix.
The Tucson area has about a million inhabitants, but it feels positively petite compared with the endless Valley of the Sun. Its culture is distinct as well: a hodgepodge of Anglo Old West, Mexican, and indigenous influence. Like Tempe, Tucson is a college town, with all the good and bad that comes with that.
I’m always glad to have the opportunity to compare and contrast Arizona’s two largest cities. I’d highly recommend that you do the same if you can spare the time and expense when you’re in Arizona.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Phoenix?