Phoenix-Scottsdale is a sprawling desert conurbation best known for its golf resorts and towering cacti, but there is plenty to do for those looking for something a little different. The area is both a historic and modern epicenter of Native American culture in the Southwestern United States. And outside of summer, when temperatures are extreme, it is a great place for hiking and fresh farm-to-table food. Here are some of our favorite things to do while in the area.
This low-slung stone property is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterworks of midcentury architecture. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site and National Historic Landmark, it was built as Wright’s winter home and the headquarters of the Taliesin Fellowship, a community of artisans and their families who studied and worked there. It is now home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School of Architecture at Taliesin. As the most iconic building in Scottsdale, it is a popular tourist destination. To avoid the crowds, we visited on a weekday afternoon. It was busy even then but definitely worth seeing. Despite the agonizingly robotic docent leading our group, we still managed to enjoy ourselves. Watch our video highlights from our tour. Advance tickets required. Closed for tours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in June, July and August.
12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale. Tel. (480) 860-2700
The last thing I imagined would be one of my favorite activities in the area was the Musical Instrument Museum. It is located on the north side of Phoenix in a modern facility surrounded by desert gardens. The first floor of the museum contains a number of instruments owned by famous musicians like John Lennon and Johnny Cash, but the most engaging collection is on the expansive second floor. There is an exhibit representing almost every country in the world, along with many about regional music of the United States. On display are traditional instruments and videos of concert performances. As I wandered through the halls, I heard a subtle cross-fading of music from the different performances over the Bluetooth headphones that all visitors receive on arrival. All ages will find something to enjoy here. Open daily.
Musical Instrument Museum
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix. Tel. (480) 478-6000
The Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix is the largest Native American museum outside of Washington, D.C. Cultural artifacts from every tribe in the region, including an impressive collection of kachina dolls, are featured. I was especially moved by the exhibition on the history of Native American boarding schools, where many indigenous children were educated but stripped of their culture. The museum’s shop is also one of the best places to find authentic tribal artwork. The artists are all well-represented here and given a fair share of the sales. Open daily.
2301 North Central Avenue, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 252-8840
Just outside the airport are the remains of an ancient Hohokam town protected by the Pueblo Grande Museum. A Native American agricultural canal once stood in the footprint of the modern Grand Canal, which flows behind the fence. Time hasn’t been as forgiving to this site’s exposed buildings as it has been to better-protected cliff dwellings. Still, the small museum is well done, and it is a fascinating introduction to the indigenous culture of the Salt River Valley. May to September, open Tuesday to Saturday; October to April, open seven days a week (hours vary).
Pueblo Grande Museum
4619 East Washington Street, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 495-0901
GALEANA 39 is one of the best places in Phoenix to pick up something elegant to bring home. There are candles and home-décor items, and we came away with a fresh, locally ground Arizona chile powder blend. The store is located in a somewhat obscure spot, but it’s a pleasant diversion if you’re headed in or out of the downtown Phoenix area.
1736A East McDowell Road, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 559-7791
It’s not Palm Springs, but the Phoenix-Scottsdale area has a very respectable midcentury pedigree. The Red Modern Furniture store has an impressive collection of museum-quality midcentury pieces that you’ll want to ship home. The store’s owner also sells discounted midcentury items at Soda Pop Vintage, down the street.
Red Modern Furniture
201 East Camelback Road, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 256-9620
Flowers aren’t the first souvenir that usually comes to mind, but the photogenic Camelback Flowershop is well worth a visit. The shop produces beautiful florals for events, but it also sells a stylish mix of home goods and gifts. We purchased only caramels and some incense, but for a moment I did consider how to fit an orchid in my carry-on.
4214 East Indian School Road, Suite #101; Phoenix. Tel. (602) 840-4646
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a 30,000-acre nonprofit conservation area northeast of Scottsdale. There are more than 200 miles of trails through the saguaro-studded red McDowell Mountains. We enjoyed the intermediate-difficulty Sunrise Peak Trail because it was less crowded than the more centrally located Gateway Loop, and it offered expansive views of the city. It’s an excellent alternative to the busier Camelback Mountain trails. Watch a video of our hike at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
For a more leisurely but equally stimulating walk, visit the Desert Botanical Garden. The tall, organic-looking glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly standing at the entrance perfectly foreshadows the fantastic collection of large succulents and cacti that cover the grounds. There was ample information about the native saguaro, but I couldn’t resist spending my time in the dense plantings of tall euphorbias. Standing among them, I felt as if I were on another planet.
We arrived right when the gardens opened, and we had them almost entirely to ourselves aside from some songbirds and cottontail rabbits. When we departed around 10 a.m., the crowd was picking up and a line of school buses was pulling into the parking lot. See a video of our walk through the gardens.
Desert Botanical Garden
1201 North Galvin Parkway, Phoenix. Tel. (480) 941-1225
Outdoor enthusiasts who want a more vigorous hike should consider a day trip to the Superstition Wilderness Area, about two hours east of the city. The trails traverse more dramatic scenery than those closer to Phoenix, and the trail network is much larger.
It’s worth trying fry bread at least once when visiting the Southwest. The pillowy fried tortilla-shaped breads are a delicious staple of Native American communities, and the Fry Bread House in Phoenix has some of the best. The humble restaurant was honored by the James Beard Foundation with an America’s Classic award in 2012. I don’t recommend attempting to eat more than one. My bean fry bread taco was delicious but massive enough to require a post-lunch nap.
The Fry Bread House
4545 North Seventh Avenue, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 351-2345
This restaurant serves Oprah-approved pizza, and I agree that its tasty crusts, baked in a wood-fired oven, are the best in town. The restaurant also makes a simple but perfectly dressed salad of local greens that is a good prelude to an indulgent pizza lunch.
623 East Adams Street, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 258-8300
James Beard Award-winning chef Charleen Badman runs a delightful farm-to-table restaurant in old downtown Scottsdale. She sources perfectly fresh produce from local farms and turns it into creative American cuisine. Our beet salad was exceptional, as was the butterscotch pudding with nutmeg and whipped cream dessert. I also enjoyed the selection of surprisingly good local Arizona wines.
7125 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale. Tel. (480) 284-4777
Tacos Chiwas, located near the airport, makes for a convenient, quick meal. The small taqueria serves authentic Mexican street food-style tacos and delicious gorditas for lunch. The thick, handmade corn tortillas stuffed with carne asada and salsa verde were irresistible. Try the Chiwas taco if you are feeling particularly carnivorous.
1923 East McDowell Road, Phoenix. Tel. (602) 358-8830
The large patio at LON’s is the most romantic place to dine alfresco in Scottsdale. The restaurant is attached to The Hermosa Inn, and a stream of luxury cars always keeps the valet busy. LON’s serves Southwest-influenced steakhouse fare, and its drinks menu is encyclopedic. We ordered a tableful of small plates, all of which were tasty, if not memorable. Still, enjoying a margarita on a cool Arizona evening on a patio strung with lights was a highlight of our trip.
LON’s at The Hermosa Inn
5532 North Palo Cristi Road, Paradise Valley. Tel. (602) 955-7878