PHOENIX – With hundreds of golf courses and 300 days of sunshine a year, it’s easy to cast metropolitan Phoenix as a retiree’s paradise that leaves everyone else out in the cold. But within the desert beats the heart of an actual urban core that has come into its own. There’s an emerging restaurant-and-retail scene along with classic attractions such as the view from Camelback Mountain, plus newfound treasures like peeking inside a little-known house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
A house built by Frank Lloyd Wright that dodged the wrecking ball is Phoenix’s latest tourist attraction. The David and Gladys Wright House, named for the architect’s son and daughter-in-law who lived there, is in the Arcadia neighborhood. There are free public tours daily. The spiral walkway offers a spectacular view of Camelback Mountain. Events on the grounds range from an Easter egg hunt to yoga classes.
Changing Hands Bookstore, about 8 kilometers north of downtown near a light rail stop, opened in May 2014 but already feels like the place where everybody knows your name. Patrons can grab a book with some beer or wine at the store’s First Draft Book Bar.
Next door, the Southern Rail restaurant, named for its proximity to the light rail and its “low-country” cuisine, serves tasty Southern and Creole-influenced food such as red beans and rice and fried chicken.
Another new hub is DeSoto Central Market in downtown. The property, once a vacant brick building and former car dealership, is now a market with food stalls, bar and patio. It’s known for happy hour, live music and swing dance nights. Drool-worthy delicacies include fried chicken-skin po’boys at The Larder and The Delta.
The 57-hectare Desert Botanical Garden boasts more than 50,000 plants and five trails that illustrate the role desert plants play in the environment. The latest exhibit incorporates eight light-based installations using colorful fiber optics.
With all the sunshine, take a hike. Two popular summits are the 852-meter Camelback Mountain and 795-meter Piestewa Peak. Both are north of downtown and offer views of the entire metropolitan Phoenix valley. A less crowded alternative is South Mountain Park 17 kilometers south of downtown, where you’ll find ancient petroglyphs.
The Heard Museum is known for art and artifacts showcasing Southwestern tribal culture, including Hopi katsina dolls, Navajo textiles and Zuni jewelry.
Frank Lloyd Wright fans may want to drive 30 minutes to tour his winter home and studio in Scottsdale.
Galleries at the Musical Instrument Museum in northern Phoenix are organized by world regions. Special headphones play music samples when you near the corresponding display. One gallery spotlights instruments and clothes belonging to icons from Elvis Presley to Taylor Swift.
Phoenix’s roughly 37-kilometer light rail system makes the ideal hop-on-hop-off tour bus with a $4 all-day pass. Several stops have free park-and-ride areas too. The tracks run through downtown, the college town of Tempe and the suburb of Mesa. In Tempe, stroll around Tempe Town Lake, popular for jogging, fishing and even dragonboat racing. Mill Avenue is lined with shops, restaurants and bars. In Mesa, get off at the Main Street/Sycamore stop and walk five minutes to Mekong Plaza. The shopping center is a smorgasbord of authentic Asian cuisine — dim sum, pho or Taiwanese specialties like simmered pig ear.
Also available: green Grid Bike Share bicycles all around central Phoenix. Download the app to find and reserve a bike.
Rescues of out-of-state visitors who aren’t accustomed to the heat are unfortunately not rare. If you’re hiking, dress properly, go with a buddy, carry a fully charged cellphone and hydrate (pets too).
Every March, spring training brings 15 Major League Baseball teams to Phoenix suburbs as part of the Cactus League. Because the stadiums are relatively small, fans who arrive early have a good chance of interacting with favorite players.
Phoenix’s artsy Roosevelt Row neighborhood is the best place for quirky people-watching along a seven-block stretch with restaurants, bars, galleries and street art. The first Friday of each month, the neighborhood hosts outdoor musicians, artists and vendors.
For a respite from the desert landscape, the 4-hectare Farm at South Mountain in south Phoenix feels like a country garden party. Onsite eateries include a breakfast-brunch cafe and fine-dining restaurant serving locally-grown produce. You can also grab lunch in a basket and use picnic tables in the farm’s pecan tree grove.
Mexican restaurants in Phoenix are like Starbucks: There’s practically one on every corner, from gourmet taco houses to casual mom-and-pop joints. Barrio Cafe is a local institution known for its collection of some 300 different tequilas and for dishes made from cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) flavored with sour orange and a blend of spices.