By: Elissa Richard
Just like the mythological bird that rises from its own ashes – from which the city borrows its name – the Greater Phoenix area has risen into something that couldn't have been envisioned just half-century ago: one of the most popular tourist destinations in America, attracting 13 million aspirant desert birds annually who flock to this desert oasis to spread their wings, relax, indulge, and renew. The most recent census deems Arizona the fastest growing state in the nation and this pulsating desert metropolis, now the fifth-largest in the US, is at the epicenter of an incredible real estate, business, and tourism boom. Unfolding on a scale that ensures its status beyond mere mirage in the midst of the eerily beautiful Sonoran Desert, Greater Phoenix – also known as the Valley of the Sun – encompasses a 2,000-square mile area that spills over from the capital city of Phoenix to include some two dozen outlying and burgeoning communities like chic Scottsdale and youth-infused Tempe.
If you find yourself with three days in the Valley, take in the compulsory highlights – the Desert Botanical Gardens, the Heard Museum, and Taliesin West – and plan a half-day encounter with the stunning Sonoran Desert environment, be it by hot-air balloon ride or via a jeep or Hummer tour. Of course, relaxation is key – schedule a treatment at a local spa or just sip margaritas poolside at your resort. Golfers certainly won't want to miss playing 18 holes at one of the Valley's famous desert courses, while night owls can cap off a long day with a pulsating evening of club-hopping in downtown Scottsdale. Five days is better still, allotting you time to wrap your mind around the local arts scene by visiting the Phoenix Art Museum, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and a handful of the abundant art galleries. Indulge in a more thorough sampling of the great outdoors – plan to head out hiking, biking, or horseback riding. You'll also have time to collect some shopping bags around Greater Phoenix and to go out for a night on the town on Tempe's Mill Avenue. A week will leave time for exploring some of the amazing Arizona attractions that lie within close proximity – the crowning glory of these being the breathtaking Grand Canyon, followed closely by sublime Sedona. Bid farewell to the notion that Phoenix and Scottsdale are some Wild West cow towns – though the spirit of the Old West still pervades, today this desert city is one of glitter and gleam.
Getting the lay of the land is crucial, as the area that encompasses Greater Phoenix is so vast you could drive for an hour from one side and still not make it to the other. Located in the broad Salt River Valley and saddled between a series of mountain ranges, visitors will find themselves lured from the downtown areas of Phoenix and Scottsdale to other places in the Valley, whether it be to bar-hop in Tempe, shop in Glendale, or enjoy the vast array of outdoor activities.
Phoenix proper, the Valley's hub, covers more than 500 square miles (making it larger than Los Angeles) and is anchored by the downtown district, called Copper Square. The rest of the region is split up into the East, Northeast, and West Valleys, and there is a good network of highways to navigate them, including the major Interstate arteries – I-10, which runs east-west, and I-17, which runs north-south. In the end it's not that difficult to get around, but your best bet in navigating is to call ahead for directions and to keep a map of the metro area on hand. Keep in mind that a car is pretty much a necessity to experience the area's broad menu of venues and activities; city sights are just too far apart to see on foot, and solid public ground transportation options are limited, with the exception of a free DASH shuttle bus (Mon-Fri 6.30am-11pm, runs every 6-12 min; 602/253-5000; www.valleymetro.org) that operates in downtown Phoenix on weekdays, and the tourist-friendly Scottsdale Trolley (daily 11am-9pm, runs every 10 min; free; www.scottsdaleaz.gov/trolley), which runs between major shopping areas in downtown Scottsdale.
Local tourist boards provide a wealth of information, including free guides and updated information on activities and events. Contact the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau (50 N. 2nd St., Phoenix; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm; 877/225-5749; www.phoenixcvb.com), or for Scottsdale-specific info, try the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (Galleria Corporate Center, 4343 N. Scottsdale Rd., Ste. 170, Scottsdale; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm; 480/421-1004; www.scottsdalecvb.com).
If you prefer to see the sights with somebody else behind the wheel, Gray Line (602/437-3484 or 800/777-3484; $52; www.graylinearizona.com) offers four-hour charter bus tours of the Valley, taking in attractions in Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe; they also conduct day tours to the Sedona ($95) and Grand Canyon ($148) areas. We definitely recommend setting aside a half-day for a guided off-road desert jeep or Hummer tour – the jeeps' traction will bring you into the backcountry along otherwise inaccessible dirt-paved roads. We particularly like Roadrunner Desert Adventures (480/213-9428; $125+; www.roadrunnerdesertadventures.com) for up-close encounters with the Sonoran Desert habitat and special stops at abandoned mines or ancient Native American ruins. Getting a birds-eye view over the desert and mountain ranges is simply not to be missed – try Hot Air Expeditions (480/502-6999 or 800/831-7610; $175+; www.hotairexpeditions.com) for a tranquil ride that affords fantastic vistas of the Sonoran desert – you're likely to spy coyote, jackrabbits, and other native wildlife before touching down for a champagne brunch in the desert. Note that most tour organizers also include pickup and drop-off at area resorts and hotels.
Phoenix Attractions & Museums
Downtown Phoenix lacks any real centralized, pedestrian area, although millions of dollars are being poured into the district in hopes of providing it more of a neighborhood feel, rather than the somewhat disconnected sprawl it currently represents. Still, visitors will be impressed with its urban gleam – glistening corporate buildings, pristine cultural institutions, and polished residences reflect the relative newness of this city.
What really brings tourists to downtown, though, are its two stellar museums – the Heard Museum and the Phoenix Museum of Art. The Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave.; daily 9.30am-5pm; 602/252-8848; $10; www.heard.org) is a great introduction to the area's native heritage and features a wonderful Native American art and archaeology collection, including an impressive collection of several hundred kachina dolls (colorful Hopi-designed religious figurines) and displays dedicated to the plight of and featuring works by the indigenous people of the Southwest, including Navajos and Hopis – groups that still reside on nearby reservations today.
A few blocks south, the Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave.; Tue 10am-9pm, Wed-Sun 10am-5pm; 602/257-1222; $10; www.phxart.org) has garnered recognition for its exhibits and growing collection of more than 17,000 works covering Asia, the Americas, and Europe. As the largest art museum in the Southwest, its highlights include the Thorne Miniature Rooms, portraying historic interiors, and the Western American Art room, featuring works by members of the Cowboy Artists of America, an art organization dedicated to depicting the lifestyle of the cowboy and the American West. Tip: The museum has free admission Tuesdays from 3pm to 9pm.
To explore the contemporary edge of the Phoenician art scene, a slew of urban galleries beckon – and if you happen to be in town on the first Friday of the month, artlink's First Fridays (starts at Phoenix Public Library, 1221 N. Central Ave.; 6-10pm; 602/256-7539; free; www.artlinkphoenix.com) event makes for a fantastic introduction to the region's emerging and established artists exhibited in the area.
On the eastern edge of downtown, Heritage Square (115 N. 6th St.; hours vary for each building; 602/262-5071; www.ci.phoenix.az.us) comprises a full city block of Phoenix's last remaining structures from its original settlement site, providing a nice contrast to the über-modern city that now surrounds it. Stately Victorians, dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, now house a quaint assortment of museums, shops, and restaurants, including a tearoom, an 1895 home (open for tours), and a toy museum. Across the street, history buffs will appreciate the Phoenix Museum of History's (105 N. 5th St.; Tue-Sat 10am-5pm; 602/253-2734; $6; www.pmoh.org) displays that retrace the Valley's trajectory from a Hohokam Indian village to a modern-day metropolis. Also in this area is the immensely popular Arizona Science Center (600 E. Washington St.; daily 10am-5pm; 602/716-2000; $9; www.azscience.org), a worthwhile stop (particularly for those with kids in tow) for the more than 300 interactive, hands-on exhibits along with a state-of-the-art planetarium, an IMAX theater with a five-story screen, and a science store.
Horticulture enthusiasts shouldn't miss Papago Park (Van Buren St. & Galvin Pkwy.; daily dawn-dusk; 602/261-8318; free admission to trails, charges for picnic rentals; www.phoenix.gov/PARKS), east of downtown Phoenix. The 50-acre Desert Botanical Gardens (1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Papago Park; daily Oct-Apr 8am-8pm, May-Sept 7am-8pm; 480/941-1225; $10; www.dbg.org) is home to 139 rare plant species from around the world and laced with walking paths popular to desert animals and birds. A visit at dusk is particularly pleasant, when the garden cacti are illuminated by soft lights and night-blooming flowers begin to show their colors. The Phoenix Zoo (455 N. Galvin Pkwy., Papago Park; hours vary by season; 602/273-1341; $14; www.phoenixzoo.org) is another area of interest in the park for its tremendous range of animals (more than 400 species of mammals alone) and habitats, from the American Southwest to the African savannah. Kids will love the Children's Trail, with a butterfly garden, playground, and an old-fashioned farm.
Scottsdale Attractions & Museums
Phoenix's northeastern neighbor, Scottsdale (located about 12 miles from downtown Phoenix) is more than a posh resort town where beautiful people, hoity-toity boutiques, extravagant homes, luxurious spas and resorts, above-par golf courses, and chic nightlife converge – it's the ideal locale for visitors to set up home base in the Valley, providing all of the comforts of big-city living and easy access to outdoor pursuits.
Today's glitzy shops and multi-million dollar mansions might have you curious about Scottsdale's city slogan, "The West's Most Western Town," but Wild West buffs can make better sense of the motto by visiting Old Town. This walkable, kitschy, Old West-themed neighborhood of souvenir shops, old style saloons, and Southwestern restaurants intermixes with some authentic early-20th century historic buildings including a mission church, schoolhouse, and blacksmith shop that provide a glimpse into the Scottsdale days of yore.
West of Old Town, downtown Scottsdale's Arts District is a thriving visual arts center and home to a huge concentration of Scottsdale's more than 125 art galleries and studios. Gallery-hop in the Main Street Arts & Antiques District (Main St. btwn Scottsdale Rd. & Coldwater Blvd.) for an eclectic mix of galleries, shops, and antique stores – some galleries worth a stop include Duley Jones Gallery (7100 Main St.; 480/945-8475; www.duleyjones.com) and Legacy Gallery (7178 East Main St.; 480/945-1113; www.legacygallery.com). Or, saunter over to the vibrant Marshall Way Contemporary Arts District (Marshall Way btwn Indian School Rd. & 5th Ave.) to peruse its arts and crafts galleries, upscale jewelry stores, and spas – don't miss Robert Roman Gallery at artspace (4235 N. Marshall Way; 480/947-4014; www.robertromangallery.com) or Calvin Charles Gallery (4201 N. Marshall Way; 480/421-1818; www.calvincharles.com).
The funky and thoroughly modern Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E. 2nd St.; Tue-Wed 10am-5pm, Thu 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm, shortened hours in summer; 480/994-2787; $7, free on Thu; www.smoca.org), or SMoCA, is the crowning glory of the local arts scene, rotating exhibits that feature works of the best and brightest contemporary artists in a sleek minimalist space. Try and coordinate your visit with the free, weekly Scottsdale ArtWalk (Thu 7-9pm; www.scottsdalegalleries.com) when multiple galleries along Main Street and Marshall Way open their doors to the public with artist receptions and special exhibitions, and the SMoCA keeps late hours and offers free admission.
The creative flair of the area is again evidenced by Taliesin West (12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.; 480/860-2700; www.franklloydwright.org), the Southwestern counterpart to celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Taliesin in Wisconsin. Founded as his winter home, studio, and architectural school in 1937, today it houses the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and is the headquarters for the Wright Foundation. Guided tours (various daily from 9am-4pm; $18-$45) – the only way to visit the property – provide insights into Wright's architecture philosophies and examples of their structural manifestations. The prominent architect's mark on Valley architecture is apparent, both via his direct influence (like at the Arizona Biltmore resort) and through the prolific works of his students found about town.
Situated just south of Scottsdale is the fast-growing city of Tempe, site of Arizona State University. It has the fun, youthful vibe typical to a university town and Mill Avenue's (see Nightlife) collection of fun and funky boutiques, eateries, pubs, and clubs is one of the few areas in the Valley, aside from downtown Scottsdale, where people ditch their cars and pound the pavement. There are also a handful of museums, galleries, and sights of interest around the college campus area; the most impressive is the Gammage Auditorium (1200 S. Forest Ave.; box office Mon-Fri 10am-6pm; 480/965-3434; www.asugammage.com), a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece that plays host to regular theater performances. Another, rather unexpected, attraction here is the 2-mile stretch of Tempe Town Lake (80 W. Salido Pkwy.; 480/350-8625; www.tempetownlake.com); created in 1999 by the damming of the Salt River, it today invites exploration via pedal boats ($12/hour rental), kayaks ($10/hour rental), and other watercraft.
Hiking, Biking & Outdoor Pursuits
If it's the unique desert environment that you're seeking to commune with, set your eyes on one of the mountains rising up on the horizon and head out in search of stellar hiking, biking, rock-climbing, horseback riding, and more – rarely further than a 15 minute drive from almost anywhere in the Valley. Whatever activity you pursue, plan to head out in the early morning hours before it gets too hot; don't forget to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Rarely are such awesome natural settings found so close to urban centers, but outdoor enthusiasts in the Greater Phoenix area are in luck. The city's most popular natural areas and preserves include Echo Canyon Recreation Area (E. McDonald Dr. & N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix; 602/262-4837; www.phoenix.gov/PARKS), site of the iconic Camelback Mountain; Papago Park (see "Phoenix Attractions" above), home to the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Gardens, and popular for mountain biking; Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area (2701 E. Squaw Peak Dr., Phoenix; 602/262-7901; www.phoenix.gov/PARKS), site of Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak) which welcomes a half million hikers to its trails each year; and South Mountain Park and Preserve (10919 Central Ave., Phoenix; 602/534-6324; www.phoenix.gov/PARKS), another ideal mountain biking spot and the largest municipal park in the US, encompassing more than 16,000 acres.
For bike rentals, try Arizona Outback Adventures (16447 N. 91st St., Scottsdale; 480/945-2881 or 866/455-1601; $30+; www.azoutbackadventures.com), or, for guided outings, we like ABC/Desert Biking Adventures (7119 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale; 602/320-4602 or 888/249-2453; $75+; www.desertbikingadventures.com) – they offer downhill mountain, cross-country, and paved "bike-seeing" tours. Guided outdoor adventure for everyone from beginner to expert is also available from 360 Adventures (3268 E. Vineyard Rd., Phoenix; 480/722-0360 or 888/722-0360; $100+; www.360-adventures.com) – sign up for half-day to multi-day guided rock-climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and canyoning trips.
Our favorite independent hike is to the city's highest point at Camelback Mountain, so named for its humped, camel-like shape. Hiking or jogging the 1.2-mile Summit Trail to the top of Greater Phoenix's highest mountain is a popular local pastime – while it can be strenuous, the 2.4-mile round-trip trek is well worth the effort for the astounding views of the surrounding valley and metropolitan area, and for close encounters with the multi-armed saguaro cacti, which can grow up to 50-feet high and live as long as 200 years. The "Praying Monk" formation at Camelback, meanwhile, makes for one of the most rewarding rock-climbing terrains in the region.
If the Wild West has awakened your inner cowboy, head to MacDonald's Ranch (26540 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; 480/585-0239; $35/hour+; www.macdonaldsranch.com) where professional wranglers offer guided horseback rides and cowboy cookouts.
Ranked in the top golf destinations in America – the National Golf Foundation dubbed the Greater Phoenix area "The Golf Capital of the World" – the Valley touts some 200 diverse fairways for every style and budget. Virtual year-round sunshine coupled with fantastic desert scenery, golf schools, and high-caliber instructors is what lures the nearly two million golfers who tee off in Greater Phoenix each year. Even if you don't play, you can experience the fervor by attending one of the numerous tournaments throughout the year; Scottsdale's prestigious PGA Tour's FBR Open (late-Jan/early-Feb) is the most famous, attracting one of the game's biggest audiences worldwide. Keep in mind that although area courses are numerous, tee times at the most popular courses can book up quickly, especially during the winter high season – be sure to reserve ahead of time. Tee time reservation services can assist you in this – try Golf Xpress (602/404-4653 or 888/679-8246; www.azgolfxpress.com); they also rent golf clubs ($25+ w/pickup and drop-off).
Our top links picks include the dynamic Monument and Pinnacle courses at Troon North Golf Club (10320 E. Dynamite Blvd., Scottsdale; 480/585-5300; www.troonnorthgolf.com) – the high-desert ravines and rolling foothills at the base of Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale are thrilling, but with greens fees of $245 to $295 in high season (Jan-Apr), the kicks don't come cheap. The Phoenician's 27-hole USGA championship course (6000 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale; 480/423-2450 or 800/888-8234; high-season $199; www.thephoenician.com) offers three nines - Canyon, Desert, and Oasis – each with distinct surrounding landscapes. For less expensive greens fees at quality courses, try Tempe's Pete Dye-designed ASU Karsten Golf Course (1125 E. Rio Salado Pkwy., Tempe; 480/921-8070; high-season $92; www.asukarsten.com), a public course with an easygoing atmosphere and a fair level of difficulty; they also have one of the best pro shops in town. Finally, Papago Golf Course (5595 E. Moreland St., Phoenix; 602/275-8428; www.phoenix.gov) is considered one of the best municipal courses in the country and offers the best deal around with greens fees from just $30 in high-season – reservations are highly recommended and can be made up to a week in advance.
For golf gear, In Celebration of Golf (7001 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; 480/948-1766 or 800/ 310-9459; www.celebrategolf.com) is a 15,000-square-foot shop with everything from an antique golf shop mock-up to a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility.
Spas are a major part of the Valley's "pamper-me" culture and we recommend you put a treatment high on your "to do" list. If you're not staying at a resort with an on-site spa, you can still get a day pass to visit one. Note that for the cost of a treatment at any of these spas, you'll be privy to use of the spa facilities which oft include pools, whirlpools, steam rooms, fitness centers, and relaxation areas.
Our top spa pick is Sanctuary Spa at Camelback Mountain (5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley; 480/607-2330 or 800/245-2051; open to non-resort guests Mon-Thu only; $85+; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com), Asian-inspired and featuring a Zen meditation garden and indoor and outdoor treatment rooms. For treatments with a more "local" slant, get smothered in an adobe clay body mask and moisturized with cactus and aloe at the Spa at Camelback Inn (5402 E. Lincoln Dr., Scottsdale; 480/596-7040 or 800/922-2635; $75+; www.camelbackspa.com). Another favorite is Golden Door Spa (34631 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Carefree; 480/595-3500; $70+; www.goldendoorspas.com/boulders), 33,000-square-feet of pampering at The Boulders Resort with 24 treatment rooms, a labyrinth, spa café, hydrotherapy tubs, and a fitness center – we're especially keen on the signature turquoise wrap, with its blue-cornmeal and ionized turquoise clay, as well as the hydrating aloe wrap, perfect for dry, sun-affected desert skin. Finally, Arizona Biltmore Spa's (2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix; 602/381-7632; $95+; www.arizonabiltmore.com) treatments borrow from cultures including Chinese, Native American, French, Swedish, and Pacific Islander, providing everything from a "desert rain body treatment" to a "Fiji Island sugar glow."
Greater Phoenix abounds with spectacular oasis-in-the-desert accommodations, some of which are so downright fabulous that you'd half expect them to be a mirage. In fact, the area has one of the greatest concentrations of four- and five-star resorts in the United States, and many of these expansive properties practically act as communities themselves, with golf courses, tennis courts, shops, restaurants, spas, meeting spaces, and of course, accommodations; visitors truly needn't step off the breathtaking grounds if they so choose. Scottsdale has the most extensive repertoire of luxury hotels and is our preferred place to set up home base for a visit to the area, thanks to its proximity to attractions as well as ample dining and nightlife options. Keep in mind that, aside from business travelers, most visitors steer clear of the rather lackluster downtown Phoenix area. Many golf, spa, tennis, and outdoor sports packages are on offer through resorts, so if you're coming with a specific agenda in mind one of these might be well-suited to you. What makes the Valley truly unique is that unlike so many other vacation destinations that encourage adventures into the great outdoors, after spending a day out getting dirty in the desert, you can retreat to total luxury at one of the country's premier resorts.
If you're able to splurge on some extravagant creature comforts, head straight to the swank Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain (5700 E. McDonald Dr.; 480/948-2100 or 800/245-2051; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com), situated on a 53-acre property in the northern reaches of the area's iconic Camelback Mountain. 98 quaint casitas provide spacious quarters designed to blend with their desert environment; there's also a mountain-side infinity-edge pool and an Asian-inspired spa. Another good luxury option is The Phoenician (6000 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale; 480/941-8200 or 866/716-8136; www.thephoenician.com), arguably the king of local resorts and sprawling over 250 acres of landscaped grounds (that include a private 2-acre cactus garden) at the foot of Camelback Mountain, with a magnificent marble lounge, bubbling fountains, a multi-million dollar art collection, and some truly unforgettable views of the surrounding Valley of the Sun. The historic Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa (2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix; 602/955-6600 or 800/950-2575; www.arizonabiltmore.com) has hosted hundreds of celebrity guests (Marilyn Monroe loved sunning by the Catalina Pool) including every president that's served in office since Herbert Hoover. The "Jewel of the Desert" is set on 39 paradise-like acres in the heart of Phoenix and boasts a distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced design; it offers every conceivable resort amenity plus some you'd never think of (how about a 92-foot long water slide and life-size lawn chess?) along with the championship golf courses and world-class spa. Finally, scenesters may be more inclined towards Scottsdale's über-trendy Mondrian Hotel (7353 E. Indian School Rd.; 480/308-1100 or 800/697-1791; www.mondrianscottsdale.com) as an alternative to the mega-resorts of the area, where lots of high-tech goodies like plasma TVs, deluxe CD sound systems with iPod connections, and property-wide Wi-Fi complement the happening on-site Skybar lounge and Asia de Cuba restaurant. The property is just a short stroll from the arts district and surrounding nightlife, ideal for those who want to be near the action.
Mid-range choices include The Hermosa Inn (5532 N. Palo Cristi Rd., Scottsdale; 602/955-8614 or 800/241-1210; www.hermosainn.com) which operates out of an authentic Arizona hacienda built in the 1930s by cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his home and studio. It offers 35 stylish, individually decorated adobe casitas on 6.5 acres and as one of the smaller resorts in the Valley, appeals to folks looking for seclusion and serenity rather than lots of bustle or activities. Another fine choice is The Buttes (2000 Westcourt Way, Tempe; 602/225-9000 or 888/867-7492; www.marriott.com), where stunning views and avant-garde architecture can be enjoyed only three miles from the airport at this Marriott-operated hotel. The Buttes' rooms have views that overlook the Phoenix/Tempe skyline or the surrounding mountains, while their The Top of the Rock restaurant is a favorite with locals. The Pointe Hilton Resorts at Tapatio Cliffs (11111 N. 7th St. Phoenix; 602/866-7500 or 800/ 947-9784; www.pointehilton.com) is a veritable desert oasis at 400 acres with 585 two-room suites; it comes complete with flower gardens, a "water village" of swimming pools and terraced waterfalls, and some of the most spectacular views in the Valley. A championship golf course and spa treatments are also available, as are four superior restaurants.
Aside from the relatively inexpensive chain hotels and motels that dot the Valley, there are a handful of good options for travelers on a budget. We like downtown Phoenix's 121-room Hotel San Carlos (202 N. Central Ave.; 602/253-4121 or 866/253-4121; www.hotelsancarlos.com) – its elegant Italian Renaissance décor provides a nostalgic glimpse of the glamour of the 1920s and '30s when Hollywood stars once made regular stops here. The rooftop pool and deck is a big draw. Another good pick is the Wingate Inn (2520 N. Central Ave; 602/716-9900 or 800/228-1000; www.wingateinns.com), centrally located in downtown Phoenix and offering basic, clean accommodations perked up by plenty of freebies ranging from Wi-Fi Internet to breakfast to airport shuttle service. Also worth a try are the studio-style rooms at Phoenix's Extended Stay Deluxe Phoenix/Biltmore (5235 N. 16th St.; 602/265-6800; www.extendedstaydeluxe.com), where discounts are offered to those planning lengthier stays.
The biggest problem for diners is the dizzying number of hot, happening, haute choices – from upscale fusion cuisine to soul food, Native American to five-star French – the Valley has it all and then some. Of course, Mexican and Western influences reign supreme here, with an abundance of stellar steakhouses and menus boasting spicy Southwestern foods.
If "spectacular" is your requirement for both food and setting, we've rounded up a threesome of restaurants that are definitely worth the splurge – and worth planning ahead for by making a reservation well in advance. T. Cook's (5200 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix; 602/808-0766; www.royalpalmshotel.com), located in the Royal Palms Resort at the base of Camelback Mountain, serves fire-roasted specialties that send even the most demanding food critics into swoons of lip-smacking ecstasy. The dining area is surrounded by lush gardens with palm trees that reach right through the roof of this special-occasion restaurant. We also recommend Mary Elaine's (6000 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale; 480/423-2530; www.thephoenician.com) at The Phoenician – double-check your bank balance, put on your best duds, and get ready for the five-star New French dishes like herb-crusted rack of lamb or sautéed foie gras in a brioche crust. Finally, elements (5700 E. McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley; 480/607-2300; www.sanctuaryoncamelback.com) at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain is acclaimed for its stunning location and equally stellar cuisine. The menu is updated seasonally and the take on American cuisine, coupled with Asian accents, makes for a mouth-watering culinary treat. The breathtaking restaurant views over the surrounding valley promise superlative dining ambience – come at sunset and request a window table.
For casual dining options at more moderate rates, check out the fun atmosphere and modernized Western-style grub at Roaring Fork (4800 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; 480/947-0795; www.roaringfork.com), with unique menu items like salmon smoked in a chipotle-honey vinaigrette and pork porterhouse steaks. Raves are routine for the outdoor flagstone patio of Old Town Tortilla Factory (6910 E. Main St., Scottsdale; 480/945-4567; www.oldtowntortillafactory.com), with its soothing fountains and extensive menu of Native American and Mexican delights based on corn, chiles, beans, citrus, and tortillas. For younger crowds, Houston's (6113 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; 480/922-7775; www.houstons.com) is a Scottsdale yuppie magnet, offering up a fresh, hip atmosphere and some great value American dishes like burgers, spinach dip, soups, and salads.
For great bites and bargain prices, head straight to Los Dos Molinos (8646 S. Central Ave., Phoenix; 602/243-9113) – locals mob this historic hacienda in South Phoenix for scrumptious nouvelle Mexican fare where the heat factor has been described as "hellish," "incendiary," and "volcanic." Be prepared to down lots of water (or, better yet – margaritas) and to wait for up to two hours for a table. Chompies (9301 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale; 480/860-0475; www.chompies.com) is a popular New-York-deli-style spot that's thrived in the desert for more than two decades; it has added some Southwestern twists to its more classic repertoire of sandwiches and entrées – the fresh breads and pastries are hard to pass up. Finally, we propose the Fry Bread House (4140 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix; 602/351-2345) for its Indian fry bread – think chewy, crispy, piping-hot pillows of delectable dough – with an assortment of toppings like hearty green or red chili.
The nightlife is sizzling in this desert city, with much of the action centered on downtown Scottsdale, downtown Phoenix, and Tempe's Mill Avenue. Note that most bars and clubs close down at 2am in the Greater Phoenix area. For up-to-date event info, check out listings in The Arizona Republic (www.azcentral.com) or in the free alternative weekly Phoenix New Times (www.phoenixnewtimes.com). Echo Magazine (www.echomag.com) is another great resource for tuning into the Valley's gay and lesbian scene – your hotel concierge can direct you to the nearest distribution points.
It would be a serious faux pas to miss checking out at least a few of the season's trendiest, albeit ever-changing, hotspots of downtown Scottsdale, with more than 50 nightspots – including dance clubs, wine bars, jazz lounges, and more – many within walking distance of each other. Our top pick for dancing is Axis/Radius (7340 E. Indian Plaza; 480/970-1112; www.axis-radius.com) – this two-clubs-in-one, joined by a glass catwalk, fills up fast and usually has a line outside. Kazimierz World Wine Bar (7137 E. Stetson Dr.; 480/946-3004; www.kazbar.net), dubbed "Kazbar" by locals, is a great date spot with romantic candlelit décor and more than 1,850 types of wine on the menu. Popular Martini Ranch's (7295 E. Stetson Dr.; 480/970-0500; www.martiniranchaz.com) slick Southwestern décor sets the scene for nightly live bands and a bustling poolroom. We also like Sugar Daddy's (3102 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 480/970-6556; www.sugardaddysaz.com) for their fantastic 5,000 square foot outdoor patio and live music, but love it for the complimentary limo pickup and drop-off service in a 7-mile radius. Urban cowboys and cowgirls, meanwhile, put on a fine show of two-steppin' to live country-western music at the Handlebar J Restaurant and Bar (7116 E. Becker Lane; 480/948-0110; www.handlebarj.com) in northern Scottsdale.
The downtown Phoenix bar scene is somewhat more subdued than that of Scottsdale, revolving largely around sporting events and performing arts schedules. Phoenix is one of the few US cities to have four major sports teams, and sports bars predictably abound. Two of the most popular are the high-energy Alice Cooper's Town (101 E. Jackson St.; 602/253-7337; www.alicecooperstown.com), owned by the Phoenix-bred rocker for which it is named and known as the place "where jocks and rock meet"; and Majerle's Sports Grill (24 N. 2nd St.; 602/253-0118; www.majerles.com), a more traditional neighborhood-style sports bar packed with big-screen TVs and situated just a block from the US Airways Center where the Suns play (the bar is operated by former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle). North Phoenix, meanwhile, touts Char's Has the Blues (4631 N. 7th Ave.; 602/230-0205; www.charshastheblues.com) – this intimate "House That Blues Built" features such local headliners as the Carvin Jones Band, Sistah Blue, and Hans Olson. If it's scenery you're after, consider drinks and jazz music with a view at Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs Resort's Different Pointe of View (11111 N. 7th St.; 602/866-6350; www.pointehilton.com), perched on a mountaintop 1,800 feet above the city.
Downtown Phoenix is also the hub of the cultural and performing arts scene with venues like the ornate Spanish baroque-revival Orpheum Theatre (203 W. Adams St.; 602/534-5600; www.phoenix.gov/STAGES), modern Dodge Theater (400 W. Washington St.; 602/379-2800; www.dodgetheatre.com), and the Herberger Theater Center (222 E. Monroe St.; 602/254-7399; www.herbergertheater.org) offering everything from Broadway-style productions to ballet, concerts, and opera. Additionally, the Phoenix Symphony holds orchestra concerts at Symphony Hall (75 N. 2nd St.; 602/495-1117; www.phoenixsymphony.org).
Tempe's Mill Avenue is a laid-back bar and clubbing strip that caters to the city's young and somewhat rowdy ASU students. Just stroll along the pedestrian-friendly street and eventually a tune, atmosphere, or crowd is bound to pique your interest. Two of our favorite nightspots include The Library Bar & Grill (501 S. Mill Ave.; 480/929-2922; www.thelibraryusa.com) where rock-and-roll, free-flowing drinks, and a mostly female, scantily clad waitstaff meet; and Rúla Búla (401 S. Mill Ave.; 480/929-9500; rulabula.com), an authentic Irish bar featuring live Irish music, traditional pub grub, Irish staff, and of course, thick pints of Guinness.
Shoppers in the Greater Phoenix area will discover an impressive selection of upscale malls and shopping areas, where you can peruse everything from designer couture and original artwork to handcrafted Native American and Southwestern goods.
Two of our favorite spots add ambiance to the mix of shops: The Borgata (6166 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale; 602/953-6311; www.borgata.com) features 40 one-of-a-kind stores that are laid out in a mall designed to resemble a medieval Italian village, while the Western-themed Old Town Scottsdale neighborhood is the place to go for turquoise jewelry, cowboy paintings, Navajo rugs, Mexican crafts, or some other token of the Southwest.
Mall rats should head straight to Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall (7014-590 E. Camelback Rd.; 480/947-9050; www.fashionsquare.com) in downtown Scottsdale, where more than 225 department and specialty stores comprise the biggest shopping mall in the Valley. Phoenix's upscale Biltmore Fashion Park (2502 E. Camelback Rd.; 602/955-8400; www.shopbiltmore.com), meanwhile, caters to the sophisticated and chic with more than 60 boutiques and specialty shops (Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, and Betsey Johnson among them) anchored by Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue in an open-air setting.
Art and antique collectors won't want to miss downtown Scottsdale's Main Street Arts & Antiques District (Main St. btwn Scottsdale Rd. & Coldwater Blvd.) or Marshall Way Contemporary Arts District (Marshall Way btwn Indian School Rd. & 5th Ave.), where dozens of galleries and a smattering of antique shops converge. Of interest for antiques aficionados is Historic Downtown Glendale (www.visitglendale.com) – widely touted among the top antiquing spots in America, it covers ten square blocks comprised of two gaslight districts (Historic Caitlin Court and Old Towne).
If you are planning a longer stay in the Valley area, there are numerous worthwhile attractions to be discovered just a bit further afield. The historic Apache Trail (or Hwy. 88) can be accessed from the town of Apache Junction, just 36 miles east of downtown Phoenix. The 48-mile-long route was once used by Apache Indians and is marked by breathtaking scenery, ghost towns, and ancient Indian ruins, all in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains – it's well worth devoting an entire day to (many opt for more), but make sure to time your stops accordingly if you want to make it back to Scottsdale or Phoenix proper for the night. Although the trip can certainly be made by car, it's not a trip for the wary, as some of the terrain is rugged, complete with unpaved roads and hairpin turns. If you prefer, you can hire a jeep tour to do the driving for you; Apache Trail Tours (480/982-7661; $70+; www.apachetrailtours.com) runs half-day and day-long tours.
Also out this way is the town of Superior (65 miles east of downtown Phoenix), where an extraordinary stroll awaits at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum's (37615 Hwy. 60; hours vary by season; 520/689-2723; $7.50; www.ag.arizona.edu/bta) beautiful preserve of native vegetation and fantastical rock structures.
If you opt instead to head about 2 hours (115 miles) south of downtown Phoenix on I-10, you'll come to Tucson (Visitor Center, 100 S. Church Ave.; 520/624-1817 or 800/638-8350; www.visittucson.org), also known as the "Old Pueblo." It's Arizona's second largest city, and regarded by tourists for its old quarter, museums, and outdoor recreation options like those found in the Saguaro National Park (3693 S. Old Spanish Trail; 7am-sunset; 520/733-5153; $10/vehicle; www.nps.gov/sagu).
Driving 4 hours (230 miles) north of Phoenix proper will bring you to the South Rim of the majestic Grand Canyon (South Rim; daily 24 hours; 928/638-7888; $25/vehicle; www.nps.gov/grca); one of the "Seven Wonders of the World" and the premier place for unforgettable adventures into the great outdoors.
Closer by is the picturesque Red Rock Country of Sedona (116 miles north of downtown Phoenix; Visitor Center, 331 Forest Rd.; 928/282-7722 or 800/288-7336; www.visitsedona.com) that serves as a spiritual retreat, resort town, and artistic center. Nearby in the mining-town-turned-artists-haven of Jerome (110 miles north of downtown Phoenix; www.jeromechamber.com) awaits funky stores and historic buildings. Also of interest this way is Montezuma Castle National Monument (95 miles north of downtown Phoenix, Camp Verde; daily 8am-5pm, 6pm in summer; 928/567-3322; $5; www.nps.gov/moca), where some of Arizona's more accessible Sinagua Indian cliff dwellings are found.
For organized tours, try one of Gray Line's (602/437-3484 or 800/777-3484; www.graylinearizona.com) Grand Canyon ($148) or Sedona ($95) day trip excursions, or contact Open Road Tours (602/997-6474 or 800/766-7117; $80+; www.openroadtours.com) for information on their day and multi-day trips to Tucson, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Mexico, and more.
When To Go
Phoenix can be downright treacherous in the summer heat, and although everybody from locals to in-the-know visitors will say, "But, it's a dry heat," the truth of the matter is that standing under the sun in 105+ degrees Fahrenheit weather is swelteringly hot nonetheless. June through August will have you panting and seeking out AC – not the best way to explore the nature you came to see; however, this low season also means you can score some fantastic deals on lodging. The desert is also prone to dramatic thunderstorms in late summer, which, while breathtakingly beautiful to observe, can be nail-bitingly frightful to drive through. The best of Phoenix's 300+ sunny days a year are rather best enjoyed during the January to March high season, when daytime temps linger in the high 60s and low 70s, ideal weather that has long made the region a popular winter playground. Keep in mind however, that if you'd like to combine your trip with a visit to the Grand Canyon, winter may very well mean snow and blocked access to the park. Spring is our favorite time to visit, with fewer crowds, desert plants in full bloom, and the best bang for your buck on everything from resort rates to greens fees. At all times of year, as is typical of desert climates, you can expect fluctuations averaging about 30 degrees between high daytime temps and nighttime lows – bring a lightweight jacket or a sweater for the cool evening hours, particularly during the winter months. Hats, sunglasses, and sun screen are a must while under the desert sun year-round.High Season:
Best Bang for your Buck:
Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport (www.phxskyharbor.com) is a major hub for international and domestic airlines, with non-stop flights available from more than 100 cities in the US and beyond. It's serviced by nearly two dozen airlines, including United (www.united.com), Delta (www.delta.com), and American (www.aa.com), among others; it also operates as the hub for popular low-cost carrier Southwest (www.southwest.com). Although Scottsdale does have a small airport, it's only open to charter and private planes. Flight time to Phoenix is 1.5 hours from Los Angeles; 3.5 hours from Chicago; close to 4 hours from Atlanta; and about 5 hours from New York.
While there is no direct rail service to Phoenix, Amtrak (800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) will sell you tickets to their stations in Tucson or Flagstaff and provide bus connections to Phoenix from there. Greyhound buses (2115 E. Buckeye Rd., Phoenix; 602/389-4200 or 800/231-2222; www.greyhound.com) also operate in the area; their main bus depot is located just west of the airport.
Booking air and hotel together (and other trip essentials such as airport transfers, car rentals, and even tours and activities) can save a bundle of cash – online travel discounters such as Orbitz.com (www.orbitz.com), Expedia.com (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com) are a good place to start your search. eLeisureLink.com (www.eleisurelink.com) also occasionally turns up good deals to the Greater Phoenix area.
Getting into Phoenix
The airport is located about a 10 minute drive from downtown Phoenix and about 20 minutes from Scottsdale. For sheer convenience, we propose renting a car right off the bat (even if it does mean paying a bit extra in airport taxes and fees) – airport car rentals are available from major agencies including Alamo (www.alamo.com), Avis (www.avis.com), Budget (www.budget.com), and Hertz (www.hertz.com), among others, all of which operate from the airport's efficient rental car center.
Other ground transportation options include the 24-hour airport-to-door van service operated by SuperShuttle (602/244-9000 or 800/258-3826; $6-$35; www.supershuttle.com). Taxis can also be hired outside of all three terminals – rates are about $10-$13 to downtown Phoenix and $20-$30 to Scottsdale. A final option is hopping on the Valley Metro (602/253-5000; $1.25; www.valleymetro.org) Red Line or Route 13 bus, which operates between Sky Harbor and downtown Phoenix and Tempe. Plans are also in the works for a new METRO light rail service (due to open in December 2008; www.valleymetro.org) that will link the airport to high-traffic areas like the downtown Phoenix area and Tempe.
Beyond the airport, you'll need to keep in mind the Valley's 2,000 square-mile sprawl makes a car and a map an absolute must. There is much to be desired in the way of public transportation in the Greater Phoenix area, although Valley Metro (602/253-5000; $1.25; www.valleymetro.org), Phoenix's public bus system, does operate select routes of interest to tourists. Other exceptions include the free DASH Shuttle (Mon-Fri 6.30am-11pm; 602/253-5000; www.valleymetro.org) if you're planning on roaming downtown Phoenix – it runs every 6 to 12 minutes and can save you lots of parking headaches; and the Scottsdale Trolley (daily 11am-9pm, runs every 10 min; www.scottsdaleaz.gov/trolley), downtown Scottsdale's free shuttle bus service runs between Scottsdale Fashion Square, the Fifth Avenue shops, the Main Street Arts and Antiques district, and Old Town.
If visiting the Wild West is calling out your inner renegade, consider snatching up a Harley or other bike or ATV rental through EagleRider Motorcycle Rentals (2945 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 480/970-0120 or 800/514-7004; www.eaglerider.com).
Taxis are also available for hire, but be prepared for high fares, since distances in Greater Phoenix can be so far between – AAA Yellow Cab (480/303-0200; www.aaayellowaz.com) is one reputable service. Alternatively, consider hiring a car service, a particularly good value for longer distances – we propose Your Ride Transportation (602/454-7433; www.yourridetransportation.com) or Southwest Luxury Sedan (602/889-5137 or 877/211-5466; www.southwestluxurysedan.com).