10 Best Attractions in Phoenix: Exploring the Valley's Greatest Landmarks and Attractions
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
What to do during your next stay in Phoenix? Here we round up some of the best places in Phoenix to experience this vibrant desert metropolis.
Explore the natural beauty of the desert at the Desert Botanical Gardens, one of the city's indisputable gems. There's no better place to learn more about the desert than by exploring the trails at this star attraction.
If you still have energy after that, head next door to the Phoenix Zoo, a treat for both children and parents. The zoo offers interactive exhibits such as the Giraffe Encounter, camel rides, and a petting zoo.
Although Phoenix is a young city, you'll want to make time to explore the city's small but vibrant historic quarter, known as Heritage Square. The city block is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and makes for an easy, pedestrian friendly walk in the heart o bustling downtown.
Of course, you can't leave Phoenix without experiencing for yourself one of the Valley's famous desert sunsets. Although it can be difficult to secure parking and its a steep climb, it's worth making a trip to the Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation area. The local landmark offers sweeping views of the Valley.
A more accessible (but no less beautiful) place to watch the sunset is South Mountain Regional Park. Make the drive up the mountain to popular Dobbins Lookout point for unforgettable panoramic views of the city.
Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve (formerly Deer Valley Art Rock Center)
On a 47-acre site north of Phoenix, Indians from throughout the Southwest carved more than 1500 petroglyphs, or rock etchings, along an ancient trade route. Between 500 and 5000 years old, these pictographs have an unknown meaning but may relate to hunting, religion, astronomy, or intertribal communication. Today, they're open to viewing along a quarter-mile trail; you can follow a guided tour or direct yourself among the boulders. Indoors, a video speculates on the nature of the carvings, and exhibits and a gift shop are available. This is a great museum for learning more about the Native American cultures that lives in the region for centuries. (623-582-8007)
Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park
This museum and its adjacent park are built on the site of 1500-year-old Hohokam Indian ruins. Exhibits showcase lifestyles of the Hohokam and of other Southwestern tribes, and visitors learn about Phoenix's cultural heritage through displays of arts and crafts created and used by Native Americans. An informative and fun hands-on exhibit encourages children to learn more about archaeology. A fully accessible 2/3 mile trail takes visitors through the prehistoric site, which includes a partially excavated platform mound, ballcourt, and replicated prehistoric houses. The site is conveniently located minutes from downtown Phoenix next to Sky Harbor International Airport. It's a National Historic Landmark and Phoenix Point of Pride site. ((602) 495-0901)
Arizona Science Center
Housed in a dramatic building next to the city's historic Heritage Square, the Science Center offers well over 300 interactive exhibits. A giant-screen IMAX theater shows educational films, and the planetarium boasts one of the largest domes in the west. Exhibits are organized into galleries that explore human physiology, physical forces, transportation, geology, computers, and applied sciences. Most of exhibits are interactive and hands-on and cater to children of all ages. The Science Center also plays host to regular "Adults Night Out" nights, featuring special lectures, exhibits, and even adult beverages. Classes, camps and other learning programs are offered throughout the year. (602-716-2000)
Plan to spend a day with the animals, over 1200 of them (including many endangered species), in this expansive park. The animals live in spacious enclosures, similar to the habitats they would have if they were in the wild. in addition, visitors can enjoy attractions like the tropical rainforest exhibit, train rides, and a fabulous childrens' petting zoo. Get up close to a giraffe, ride a camel, and pay a visit to the Stingray Bay. During the summer season, arrive early to see the animals when they're most active. Special seasonal events, including the mega-popular holiday celebration known as ZooLights, are held throughout the year. (602-273-1341)
Historic Heritage Square
Historic Heritage Square is a part of Heritage & Science Park, which also includes the Arizona Science Center and the Phoenix Museum of History. Since it contains several Victorian homes from Phoenix's original settlement, the city block is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the attractive city block is ideal for an afternoon stroll. Be sure to visit the fully restored 1895 Rosson House -- it was originally one of the most prominent homes in town. Heritage Square is also home to some of the city's most notable eateries and pubs, including Pizzeria Bianco, the Rose and Crown Pub and Nobuo at Teeter House, a traditional Japanese teahouse and restaurant. (602-262-5071, 602-262-5029)
Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation Area
One of the most popular hiking trails in the valley is the Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain. The Echo Canyon Recreation Area is made up of layered sandstone and comprises the "head" of Camelback Mountain. Prepare to catch of glimpse at some of the smaller animals of the Sonoran Desert, including cottontail rabbits, snakes, lizards, Harris antelope squirrels as well as a variety of birds. Rattlesnakes are also common on the trail. Native desert flora include saguaro, barrel, hedgehog, pincushion, jumping cholla, christmas, staghorn, cholla and prickly pear cacti. The Echo Canyon trails were recently upgraded with new restrooms and drinking fountains. (602 261-8318)
South Mountain Park
A maze of well-maintained hiking trails crisscrosses one of the largest municipal parks in the world. For a spectacular view, drive to Dobbins Lookout Point and gaze at the city from 1200 feet. Then, trek to Happy Valley via a trail through South Mountain Park. The place is magnificent, especially in springtime when the terrain is knee-deep with wildflowers. Free maps are available at the entrance, but no glass containers are permitted on the premises. If you want to drive to the top, arrive no later than 9pm. This is one of the largest municipal city parks in the country, so make sure to bring plenty of water, especially if you're planning a visit during the summer months. (602-495-0222)
Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art
The well-regarded, world-famous Heard Museum is one of the world's leading repositories of Native American art. It also features works by contemporary Southwestern artists, craft demonstrations, amphitheater performances, a caf--, and a gift shop. Paintings, drawings, and sculpture figure into the collection, along with domestic objects, textiles, pottery, dolls, and jewelry. The museum's revolving calendar of exhibitions offer new insight into Native American tradition, history and cultural trends. Anyone with even the slightest interest in Southwestern history and culture should make this a must-see destination when visiting the Valley of the Sun. Along with the original Heard Museum in central Phoenix, the museum also has branches established in other parts of the city, including Heard Museum North in Scottsdale, and Heard Museum West in Surprise. (602-252-8848, 602-252-8840)
Phoenix Art Museum
Another institution growing by leaps and bounds, this museum's scope is indisputably international with works representing American, Asian, European and Latin American art. The museum also features exhibits on fashion and the Thorne miniature rooms (rooms from different historical periods, scaled down to hatbox size). With more than more than 18,000 works of American, Asian, European, Latin American, Western American, modern and contemporary art, expect to spend some time exploring the halls of this vibrant museum. Major exhibitions, film screenings and various cultural events fill the calendar at this popular attraction. Make sure to stop by the gift shop on your way out for unique, art-inspired items. (602-257-1222, 602-657-1880)
Desert Botanical Garden
Located in Papago Park, this garden features one of the world's largest collections of desert flora. A vast array of colorful wildflowers has been strategically placed to create a spectacular display and delight visitors in the springtime. Not only is this park a treat for the eyes, but it also provides exercise for the body and mind. One of the main highlights, an informative ethnobotanical walking trail, meanders through the grounds. The trail explains the many vital ways in which plants were integrated into Native American tribal life, thus illustrating the importance of plants beyond their natural beauty. You'll feel like your a world away from the city, although the garden is only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. (480-941-1225)
About Patricia Escarcega
Patricia Escarcega has lived in the Arizona desert since she was a teenager. She works as a writer and editor in Phoenix with her four dogs and two cats. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and is working on a novel about growing up in the 1990s.
Read more about Patricia Escarcega here.