The Valley of the Sun is a top destination in the southwestern United States, especially in the winter months. People visit Arizona from around the world to enjoy this thriving desert landscape and bustling city with moderate winter temperatures.
The state is a road-tripping paradise with a lot of amazing places to visit in Arizona like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Tucscon. Phoenix is perfectly positioned in the center of the state to provide a great launching point for day trips and longer road trips.
Whether you’re going to Arizona to visit the sites in Phoenix or those around the rest of the state, there are so many incredible things to do. Here are the top sites in Phoenix that should be on the top of your list.
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Top 7 Things to do in Phoenix
There are a lot of fun things to do in the Phoenix metro area. Here are some of the popular places to visit to give you a feel for the city and the uniqueness of the area.
Mill Ave and Tempe Beach Park
Tempe is home to Arizona State University and there’s a lot to do in the downtown area. Stroll Mill Ave to people watch. Or pop into the fun and quirky boutiques. If you love ethnic restaurants, there are some incredible places here offering Irish, Lebanese, Ethiopian, and other foods, as well as more traditional and local fare. Go to Tempe Town Lake for sailing, kayaking, and even fishing. There are a lot of great festivals and events held in this area as well.
Big Surf Waterpark
When the temperatures start to heat up, locals and tourists alike head to the water. A popular place to go that has been around for more than 50 years is Big Surf. There are lots of slides, and some with warnings that they are not for the faint of heart! Or check out the wave pool where you can boogie board, surf, or even raft.
Wildlife World Zoo
This zoo features South American and African animals and it has the largest group of exotics in Arizona. It’s both a zoo and an aquarium and does a really great job providing a natural habitat for the animals with a very different feel from other zoos. You can see wild cats including jaguars, lions, cheetahs, tigers, and even some lesser-known ones like servals and ocelots. See kangaroo, rhinoceros, sea lions, and feed giraffes. You’ll gain an appreciation for the animal kingdom here.
Hiking in the Phoenix-Area Mountains
There are mountains all over the Phoenix valley, both surrounding the valley and right in it. The Phoenix area has a lot of protected park space and hiking in these areas is a great way to gain an appreciation for just how beautiful the desert can be. If you visit in the spring, you may even get to see the parks sprinkled with beautiful little wildflowers. Here are some favorite spots.
South Mountain Park and Preserve
South Mountain Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. A highlight of this park is the Dobbins Lookout near the top of the mountain, a scenic observation point with incredible city views. You can drive to it or of course, hike to it. There are over 50 miles of trails through this park with hikes ranging from easy to difficult.
This is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the area. The Superstitions, as it’s called locally, is in the far east valley and a great spot to enjoy the stunning sunrises the Phoenix area is known for. This park also has a number of hikes including one of the most difficult in the area called the Flat Iron. There are also stories about the Lost Dutchman’s buried gold treasure being hidden in the Superstitions, so maybe you’ll get lucky if you go!
Japanese Friendship Garden
If you’re seeking a peaceful enclave in the middle of the city, visit the Japanese Friendship Garden. It’s hard to believe you’re actually in the desert when you visit this beautiful and serene garden. Wander the path over stone footbridges to enjoy the lanterns, statues, and 12-foot waterfall. Participate in a traditional tea ceremony in an authentic tea house or feed Koi in the large pond. It’s a quiet break from the crowds in a beautiful environment.
The history of Arizona dates back much further than the western history we think of in the state. There is a strong Native American influence in this area and this museum is dedicated to the advancement of American Indian art. If you want to learn more about their culture, it’s a great place to visit. You’ll see Zuni jewelry, woven baskets, ceramics, Hopi katsina dolls, and more. They also often have really interesting temporary exhibits.
Desert Botanical Garden
You may think the desert is just shades of brown, but if you really want to fall in love with its many subtle colors, visit the Desert Botanical Garden. Take the meandering paths to see over 50,000 plants and learn just how beautiful the desert can be. They also host great events with live music, special educational exhibits, and beautiful nights with luminaria lining the paths around the holidays. The garden is a festive celebration of the desert and well worth visiting.
When to Visit Phoenix
Phoenix is in the low desert so it gets incredibly hot in the summer. You can expect highs of well over 100”F from mid-May through mid-September, hitting as high as 120*F. Monsoon season in July and August can cool things off somewhat, though the humidity increases as well. The advantage of visiting in the summer is you can get some great deals at some of the swankiest hotels during the summertime.
Unless you love intense heat or a crazy hotel deal, you’ll want to travel from October through April. Winters are much cooler with daytime averages in the 60s and 70s and it rarely hits freezing at night. January can have some rain but otherwise, it’s generally dry and very mild during this time of year.
How to Get Around Phoenix
Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the United States and it’s very spread out. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great public transit system and most of the places you’ll want to visit aren’t walkable. Your best bet is to rent a car to get around.
The good news is that the streets are very grid-lined so it’s really easy to get around. In Phoenix, Central Street runs north and south, and to the west are the Avenues and to the east are the streets: first street, second street, and so on. So, it’s pretty easy to orient yourself to get around without getting too lost in most areas.
The metro Phoenix area is a foodie’s paradise. You can find nearly every cuisine you can imagine with a lot of Southwestern and Mexican. There are lots of great restaurants at any price point from upscale eateries to fantastic dive spots and everything in between. Want Moroccan, Bosnian, Cambodian, Turkish, or another kind of ethnic restaurant? You’ll find them all in Phoenix. Here are some of the top spots to eat.
Cibo is a popular Italian hangout that’s located in a restored bungalow in a historic downtown district. You can get tasty brick-oven pizzas with ingredients imported from Italy and sandwiches made from incredible bread from their oven. They have amazing antipasti, homemade burrata mozzarella cheese, handmade pasta, and Nutella crepes. Cibo also offers incredible gluten-free options in a kitchen that’s very careful about avoiding cross-contamination.
Be prepared to wait a bit for this breakfast eatery but it’s so worth it! Snooze offers a creative twist on breakfast with a number of Benedict options, pancake flights, breakfast sandwiches, and even some traditional classics. They have plant-based and gluten-free options as well and several places throughout the valley.
Locally-sourced American fare with a touch of Arizona is what Ocotillo offers in a modern industrial location. They rotate the menu seasonally, offering the freshest ingredients beautifully served. If you’re looking for food that is lovingly and creatively prepared, this is the place for you.
Rice Paper Vietnamese Restaurant
There are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in the valley so it’s hard to pick just one! Rice Paper offers traditional dishes and some creative ones, including a large list of hand rolls. They are in a convenient central location in Phoenix in a modern place offering great food.
Lon’s at the Hermosa
For a dining experience, you won’t soon forget, check out Lon’s in the beautiful Paradise Valley neighborhood. Everything about this place is stunning from the beautiful gardens to the gorgeous interior. If the weather is good, dine outside on the patio and enjoy the impeccable service and delicious food in the garden. The greens and many of the vegetables are grown in their own garden.
Head downtown to this old Rat Pack hangout. Walk-through the kitchen to enter the restaurant with walls covered with red velour wallpaper. This is no budget evening but will be one of the best steaks of your life.
Bitter and Twisted
If you’re looking for a fun night on the town, look no further than Bitter and Twisted. It has a swanky and retro vibe with a large book of the most exquisitely crafted cocktails. They offer traditional drinks too, though why would you? Don’t miss out on their popcorn!
Top Day Trips
If you have some extra time and want to head out of the city, here are some great places to visit.
This former artist enclave is one of the most popular destinations in all of Arizona. Hike the many trails around the striking red-rock buttes and enjoy the views of some of the named rocks like Bell Rock, Coffee Pot Rock, Snoopy Rock, and Cathedral Rock. Tour the art galleries and enjoy the many restaurants. If you want to connect with your spiritual side, visit one of the vortexes, spiritual energy centers.
This small college town has a quaint and historic town center with many fun little shops and restaurants. Visit the Lowell Observatory to learn about our galaxy or get outdoors and hike Mount Humphrey, the tallest mountain in the state. Take on the Flagstaff Extreme Adventure course for an adrenaline rush or hike through a lava tube. If you’re interested in the Native Americans, visit nearby ruins Wupatki, a large complex of striking red rock, or Walnut Canyon, a cliff dwelling. The Arizona Snowbowl offers some great ski trails in the winter, and some amazing views from the lifts in the summer.
Why You Should Visit Phoenix
The Phoenix area offers a wide variety including many fun uniquely Phoenix things to do. Learn all about how beautiful the desert can be while learning about the Native American presence and dining at the incredible local restaurants. A lot of conventions and conferences are located in the many Phoenix hotels due to the incredible weather much of the year, so enjoy a great deal in the off-season or a spa day to relax from all the fun you’re having during your visit.
Guest Author: Sam from My Flying Leap. Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures, you can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip.