The Best Things to Do in Phoenix, Arizona

When in Phoenix, Arizona, make sure to check out the desert and its impressive Saguaro cacti
When in Phoenix, Arizona, make sure to check out the desert and its impressive Saguaro cacti | © Larry Geddis / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Elizabeth Rose
25 September 2020

Phoenix, Arizona, often called The Valley of the Sun, is the fifth-largest city in the United States. Known for mild winters and sizzling summers, in this Sonoran Desert city, you’ll find plenty to do – whether it’s exploring the desert with its stately Saguaro cacti or cooling off in a world-class museum. On an early morning, you can find yourself high over the desert in a hot-air balloon or taking a hike on an urban mountain peak. The ideal time to come to Phoenix is between late October and late May, when you’ll find outdoor recreation at its peak, Spring Training baseball in full swing and margaritas flowing poolside at elegant resorts. Plan your desert city adventure from our list of top things to do and see in Phoenix.

Wander the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

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The DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN in PHOENIX ARIZONA has the largest collection of desert plants in the US
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The Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden, located near Phoenix Zoo in Papago Park, is a 140-acre (57ha) botanical garden where you can wander five themed trails and discover unusual desert plants, specialty gardens with bubbling fountains and seasonal art installations by world-renowned artists tucked into the landscape. The garden is home to thousands of species of cacti, trees and flowers from all around the world. Special events and attractions such as the fall Butterfly Exhibit and the holiday Luminaria lightings will keep you coming back. The garden also features an attractive gift shop where you can find some desert garden merch to bring home with you.

Explore the Heard Museum

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The facade of the Heard Museum, specializing in American Indian culture & art, located near downtown Phoenix, Arizona, USA
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Founded in 1929, the Heard Museum in Phoenix is known for major annual events such as the March Indian Fair and Market. The Heard, as it’s called, is dedicated to the advancement of Native American art and culture. Year-around, you’ll find quality permanent collections, world-class exhibitions and classes. Watch for exciting events like the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest and Katsina Doll Marketplace. On-site, you’ll find a Native American sculpture garden and the Courtyard Cafe – known for Southwest-inspired, locally sourced casual dining.

Catch a Spring Training baseball game in Scottsdale

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During February and March, the Valley of the Sun is a popular destination for Major League Baseball fans. The Cactus League, as it’s called, consists of 15 baseball teams bringing their pre-season games to 10 stadiums throughout the Phoenix area. The San Francisco 49ers play at the scenic Scottsdale Stadium, for example. During Spring Training, you’ll find the 49ers’ orange and black jerseys throughout the restaurants and bars of Scottsdale. It’s a crowded and fun party atmosphere so make your reservations and ticket purchases ahead of time.

Fly in a hot-air balloon with Rainbow Ryders

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Hot air balloons rise in the sky in Phoenix, Arizona.
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Float over the desert landscape in the basket of a colorful hot-air balloon. You can go aloft at sunrise or sunset (in winter months) to drift over rocky crags and cacti galore. When your experience of a lifetime has ended, enjoy a post-flight celebration with Rainbow Ryders’ signature Prickly Pear Mimosas, local Arizona treats and a commemorative flight certificate. Fun for families (children must be over 5 years of age) and romantic couples as well. Riders must be able to stand throughout the flight.

Shop at the Cosanti Bell Foundry

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The place where Arizona artisans hand craft and sell Cosanti bells to support Arcosanti, an otherworldly experimental town not far from Phoenix, is open to the public. Originally the gallery and studio of Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri, this beautiful and funky indoor-outdoor space with flowing concrete walls and rooms is where the bronze and ceramic bells, jewelry and other ornaments are created. It’s a peaceful, tree-shaded place, attractive to visit – even in the hot summer.

Tour the Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Resort

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Biltmore Resort and Spa, Phoenix, Arizona
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A Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired gem, the Arizona Biltmore, now a classy Waldorf Astoria Resort, is a fantastic place to stay where you can enjoy amenities such as pools and views of Piestewa Peak with a margarita in hand at Happy Hour. But architecture and history buffs can also visit, wander the grounds and take a guided tour. There’s even a Happy Hour History Tour. Enjoy the period art, and look for details even in the concrete blocks used to construct the hotel. Frank Lloyd Wright spent several months here in 1928 as a consultant during the creation of the masonry ‘Textile Block’ construction.

Hike the White Tank Mountain Trails

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In the Phoenix West Valley, you can hike rugged or easy interpretive trails, see the desert in bloom and get up close and personal with a giant Saguaro cactus. After it’s rained, you might even find the waterfall flowing at the end of the popular Waterfall Trail. When you return to the trailhead, be sure to look out over the Valley of the Sun. You can see clear to downtown Phoenix. Learn about the early people who left their marks on rocks as petroglyphs, and check out the Visitor Center with its live rattlers, exhibits and a desert-item book and gift shop.

Experience Arizona's history at the Arizona State Capitol Museum

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Capitol Building in Phoenix Arizona
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Phoenix is the Capitol of Arizona, the Copper State (and also known as the Grand Canyon State). Visit the Arizona Capitol Museum to learn about the history of Arizona through hands-on activities as well as exhibits with historical photos and artifacts. The Arizona State Capitol Museum was the state capitol building when Arizona became the 48th state in 1912. You’ll feel like you are going back in time as you walk the four floors of the old building with all its offices and legislative chambers. When in the rotunda, look down to see the huge state seal. You’ll find interesting exhibits such as a collection of artifacts from the USS Arizona, which sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stop by the shop before you leave for a true Arizona souvenir.

Tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West compound in the desert of northern Arizona
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In the cactus-studded desert on the edge of Scottsdale, Arizona, you’ll find Taliesin West, founded by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Now a national landmark, the once-home and school was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and his students. Wright lived at the property during winters from when he was 70 years old in 1937 until his death in 1959. You can take a tour of the grounds and studio by appointment and experience how beautifully the architecture complements the surrounding Sonoran Desert.

See the animals at Phoenix Zoo

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Not far from the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park, you’ll find Phoenix Zoo, caring for over 3,000 animals and representing 400 species, both from the Sonoran Desert and from around the world. The zoo participates in wildlife preservation activities, including breeding and raising endangered species for them to be released into the wild. You’ll find surprises at every turn, such as the huge Komodo dragons, slow-moving sloths and orange orangutans. Kids will love the Endangered Species Carousel with its beautiful replica animals and can sign up for age-appropriate educational programs. Watch out for seasonal events like ZooLights, a Phoenix holiday tradition.

Climb to the top of Camelback Mountain

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Camelback Mountain at sunset in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
© John Sirlin / Alamy Stock Photo

Located in the Paradise Valley area of Phoenix, the steep trails of Camelback Mountain can be accessed at two locations. The Cholla Trailhead is located at 6131 E. Cholla Lane, and the Echo Canyon Trailhead is accessed via 4925 E. McDonald Drive. Camelback Mountain, which is shaped like a camel, is considered one of the nation’s top hiking destinations but be forewarned: these are tough hikes. Think steep climbs, no shade and uneven, rocky surfaces. But the view of the valley from the top can be absolutely awesome on a clear day. Officials suggest you check the weather and temperature reports before taking off on your hike, bring water, and, during warmer months, hike only in the early morning or evening.

Play an instrument at the Musical Instrument Museum

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Fun for kids and adults alike, the highly interactive Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is a huge draw. Not only are there exhibits, but the MIM also puts on small concerts, which include groups from around the world. Kids will love the Experience Gallery where they can play such unusual instruments as the Javanese gamelan and the West African djembe. There are a Mechanical Music Gallery and groupings of instruments by country, including melodious marimbas from Guatemala.

These recommendations were updated on September 25, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.