The Best Things to Do and See in Phoenix, Arizona

With its mountain skyline, Phoenix, Arizona, has a lot to offer
With its mountain skyline, Phoenix, Arizona, has a lot to offer | © Andrew Zarivny / Alamy Stock Photo
Gabby Shacknai

Whether you’re up for a hike in the desert or keen to explore the local art scene, you’ll find something to suit your tastes in Phoenix, Arizona. Read on for our pick of the 12 best things to do and see in this dynamic city.

Opened in 1962, the Phoenix Zoo is the largest privately owned, non-profit zoo in the United States and is home to over 1,400 animals, including more than 30 different endangered species from around the world. The zoo contains 125 acres (51ha) of animal exhibits, a children’s area, a petting zoo, as well as a narrated tram ride, and visitors of all ages can ride the camels. In the winter months, you can also attend “ZooLights”, featuring 3.8 million lights and 700 sparkling displays. All of the zookeepers and staff are friendly, and the exhibits are well-kept, making this spot one of the best tourist attractions in town.

The largest museum for visual art in the southwestern United States, the Phoenix Art Museum is truly one of a kind. Founded in 1959, the museum features works of art with an emphasis on American, Asian, European, Latin American, and modern art, as well as fashion design, and possesses an expansive collection of renowned pieces from the Renaissance to the present. In addition to the extensive permanent collection, the museum also hosts many traveling exhibitions. Check their website for details on what’s on and when.
Heritage Square serves as a window, through which visitors and locals can peer into Phoenix’s Victorian past. The square, which was initially on Block 14 of the original Phoenix townsite, dates back to the late 19th century and features several historic homes, including the Rosson House, a late 19th-century home that is open for daily tours. This place is a fun visit for anyone, but architecture junkies will especially love it. The tree-lined square is also home to major festivals and special events that bring thousands of people to the area each year.
The overall mission of The Heard Museum is to educate the public about the heritage and living cultures of Native American peoples, particularly those of the southwest. Since its founding in 1929, the museum has grown in both size and reputation and is now internationally recognized for the high quality of its collections, festivals, and educational programs. The Heard Museum perfectly combines both new and old and gives a fascinating history lesson about Native American culture through art, photographs, jewelry and more.

The Musical Instrument Museum displays a wide array of instruments from over 200 countries, including some that musically-inclined guests can try out. It also provides visitors with audiovisual presentations and headsets, to give them an idea of what the rarer instruments sound like when played. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to experience this museum, as many visitors say that just a couple of hours isn’t enough to get through the massive collection.
Whether for its intensive, professional Grand Prix Racing program or just for a defensive-driving class, the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving offers a completely unique experience. Opened by racing driver Bob Bondurant in 1990, it maintains more than 200 race-prepared vehicles, sedans, SUVs, and open-wheel cars for visitors to drive and is the largest dedicated facility of its kind in North America. The school also boasts a 1.6-mile (3km) track and a group of world-class trainers and instructors, including Bob himself.
The increasingly popular Desert Botanical Garden spans 140 acres (57ha) of land and showcases the natural beauty found in desert plant life through its various exhibits. Many visitors are surprised and delighted by how much wildlife is living within the flowers, trees and cacti on display, and the Botanical Garden is home to even non-garden related events such as performances of Shakespearean plays on outdoor stages and “Music in the Garden”. Join the garden’s email list to save on some more-highly priced events.

The interactive and engaging Arizona Science Center is focused on inspiring, educating, and entertaining visitors. Located by the Heritage and Science Park in Downtown Phoenix, this museum has more than 164,000 square feet (15,236sqm) of space, which houses the 200-seat Dorrance Planetarium as well as a 5-story IMAX theater. Although this museum is a real winner with kids, people of all ages – even those who don’t usually get excited by science – will have fun, especially on annual themed events such as “Weird Science Halloween” and “Snow Week”.
For those who happen to be in Phoenix on the first Friday of any given month (summer months excluded), First Friday is a must. These nights allow visitors to enjoy the spirit and culture of central Phoenix through touring art galleries, venues, record stores, food trucks and much more. The Phoenix Art Museum offers free admission to its exhibits and stays open until 10 pm, and countless food trucks and independent vendors make First Fridays, which are now among the nation’s largest art walks, truly unforgettable. Third Fridays are a more recent addition to #PHXFridays and showcase exhibitions in dozens of galleries in the area.
Located about thirteen miles northeast of the city center, Camelback Mountain is one of Phoenix’s most iconic sights (no prizes for guessing why it’s so-named). In non-summer months, when the heat isn’t prohibitive, visitors can hike one of two routes to the 823-meter (2700ft) summit – either the 1-mile (1.6km) Echo Canyon Trail or the slightly shorter Cholla Trail. Although short in distance, both tracks are extremely steep, so be sure to take a bottle of water with you. And if you hike up in winter, a sparkling, albeit disheveled, Christmas tree will await you on the summit.

Tucked against the northern edge of the South Mountain Park, about 8 miles (13km) south of the city center, is the most bizarre castle you’re ever likely to visit. This fantastical structure was the brainchild of Boyce Gulley who fled from his Seattle-based family in 1930 upon learning that he had tuberculosis. Until his death in 1945, Gulley built the 18-room Mystery Castle for his daughter Mary Lou with his own bare hands, using whatever materials he could obtain for free or on the cheap, including stone, old car parts and railway lines, telephone cables and even goat’s milk. Tours of this weird and wonderful castle run daily.
South Mountain preserve is one of the biggest city parks in the United States, covering 16,000 acres (6475ha) – or 25 square miles (65sqkm) – of the untamed Sonoran desert. The best ways to explore its rugged expanses are by foot or bike, and there are over 50 miles (80km) trails of varying levels of difficulty and length to choose from. There are also incredible views to be taken in – especially after dark – from the highest point accessible by road, the 710-meter (2329ft) Dobbins Lookout. The park’s highest point, the 820-meter (2690ft) Mount Suppoa, is harder to reach (it’s only hikeable) but worth it for the same reason.

Additional reporting by Mark Nayler

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