A Desert Holiday: The Best Holiday Attractions in Metro Phoenix

By Patricia Escarcega, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert

When the holiday season arrives, Phoenix comes alive with Southwestern hospitality and warmth. One of the most unique holiday events in the Valley happens at the Desert Botanical Garden at the annual Las Noches de las Luminarias festival. More than 7,000 luminaries are set out along the garden pathways, turning the grounds into an wonderland of light and shadow. Strolling musicians, hot apple cider, and gourmet bites only add to the wonder of it all.

For another winter wonderland in the desert, head to downtown Phoenix for the annual CitySkate Ice Rink at the CityScape shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. Strap on your ice skates and take a spin on the smooth ice rink, then enjoy holidays cookies and listen to holiday carolers.

One of the biggest block parties in Arizona happens every holiday season in historic downtown Glendale during Glendale Glitters. Every weekend in December, the downtown quarter turns into a pedestrian-only area with street vendors, live music, and holiday shopping in the city's antique shops. The annual culminates with a post-Christmas all-weekend bash featuring hot air balloons on the streets and live music on every corner. 

For a uniquely Phoenix holiday event, check out Holidays at the Heard. The annual Southwestern tradition celebrates the spirit of the holidays and native cultures at the Heard Museum in central Phoenix. The event starts the day after Christmas and continues for a week, giving visitors a chance to explore authentic American Indian culture, including live music and dance.

10. A Winnie the Pooh Christmas Tail
Photo courtesy of Valley Youth Theatre

"A Winnie the Pooh Christmas Tail" has become a favorite annual holiday tradition for many Phoenix families. The play, a production of the Valley Youth Theatre, has been presented annually for nearly 20 years. The play is a thoughtful exploration of friendship and loyalty, starring everyone's favorite creatures form the 100 Acre Wood. Kids will love seeing stage incarnations of Christopher Robin, Piglet, Pooh, Rabbit, Tigger, Owl, Kanga and Roo and other woodland creatures as they search for Eeyore's lost tail. The show is presented throughout the month of December. Tickets sell out fast for weekend performances, so be sure to reserve your seats early.

9. Handel's Messiah at The Phoenix Symphony
Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Symphony

Handel Messiah's is an annual Christmas tradition around the world, bringing the popular "Hallelujah" chorus to lovers of classical Christmas music. The Phoenix Symphony, along with the Phoenix Symphony Chorus, puts on a rousing rendition of the classic every December. The top-notch symphony, one of the best in the Southwest, puts on the holiday concert every December at venues and churches located across the Valley. Music Director Laureate Michael Christie leads The Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Symphony Chorus for a beautiful production of this spiritual classic. Be sure to check for specific times and venues, as the schedule changes every year.

8. Lights of the World
Photo courtesy of Lights of the World

Inspired by the traditional lantern festivals of China, Lights of the World is a holiday-themed light and lantern festival that is being billed as the biggest in North America. The event, which runs through the early New Year at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, features dazzling lantern displays that highlight different cultures and civilizations around the world. More than 10 million lights make up the entirety of the displays. Apart from eye-dazzling light displays, Lights of the World also features carnival rides and games, and daily performances that run the gamut from acrobatics to live music. This family-friendly light festival was designed to appeal to visitors of all ages.

7. Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker
Photo courtesy of Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker

More than 150 performers fill the stage for the Valley's premier annual production of Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker, one of the top productions in the country. The annual holiday tradition features top-notch costume and set design, with a beautiful score performed by The Phoenix Symphony. The classic holiday ballet tells the story of young Clara and her magical Nutcracker Prince. Ballet Arizona, under the artistic direction of Ib Andersen, puts on one of the country's best-reviewed holiday productions of The Nutcracker. Ballet Arizona holds special events during the show's month-long run, including a family-friendly festival that includes a holiday brunch and seasonal shopping.

6. ZooLights
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Zoo

ZooLights is one of the biggest holiday light displays in the Southwest. Approximately two-and-a-half million twinkling lights are strung throughout the zoo, and you'll also encounter numerous animated displays (new ones pop up every year too). The festivities include a carousel, camel and wagon rides, and a stingray touch tank. There is also an orchestrated light show that happens every hour. Both kids and adults will love enjoy exploring the various animal-themed displays. Hot chocolate, apple cider, and other holiday snacks are available at kiosks located throughout the zoo. The gift shop stays open late on ZooLights nights, with various animal-themed gift items available for purchase.

5. Alice Cooper's Christmas Pudding
Photo courtesy of Alice Cooper's Solid Rock

Alice Cooper's Annual Christmas Pudding has become one of Phoenix's coolest holiday traditions. The rock and roll spectacle is hosted by Phoenix native and legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper, who brings together a group of friends every year to put on a holiday-themed rock and roll show. Proceeds from Alice Cooper's Annual Christmas Pudding benefit Solid Rock and The Rock Teen Center, Cooper's faith-based charitable groups dedicated to helping local at-risk teens avoid the dangers of gang violence, drug abuse, and other pitfalls. Past performers have included KISS, Johnny Depp, Joan Jett, Rob Zombie, and other rock legends. The line-up is different every years, and there's always a few surprises.

4. Glendale Glitters Spectacular Weekend
Photo courtesy of City of Glendale

Glendale kicks off the holiday season with its weekend-after-Thanksgiving festivities, but the fun doesn't end there. Every Friday and Saturday night until Christmas, the city features fun activities, concerts, foods, and horse-drawn carriage rides. About a million twinkling lights decorate the downtown area – even if you can't attend the weekend festivities, the decorations are still worth seeing! Other celebrations include Winter Wonderland and Gingerbread Nights. The closing ceremonies, held in January, are known as the Glitter & Glow Block Party. The final block party features huge hot air balloons placed across the busy downtown quarter, live music, and holiday-themed treats.

3. Holidays at the Heard
Photo courtesy of Heard Museum

Holidays at the Heard is an annual Southwestern tradition celebrating the spirit of the holidays and native cultures. The event starts the day after Christmas and continues for a week, giving visitors plenty of time to experience authentic American Indian culture, including live music and dance. Native dancers perform hoop dancing and fancy dancing twice daily for visitors. Visitors can also enjoy freshly prepared fry bread and other crowd favorites. Visitors can also take a tour of the museum's current exhibit galleries and enjoy hands-on craft activities. This event is free with museum admission. The gift shop, featuring hundreds of handmade, authentic Native crafts, is a boon to holiday shoppers looking for unique gift items.

2. CitySkate Ice Rink at CityScape
Photo courtesy of CitySkate at CityScape Phoenix

Nothing says winter in the city like a freshly surfaced ice skating rink decorated with twinkling holiday lights. That's what visitors will find at the annual CitySkate at CityScape Phoenix event, which arrives in downtown Phoenix every year in December. Guests can rent ice skates and take a spin around the rink, snack on holiday treats like cookies and hot cocoa, enjoy the twinkling lights, and listen to the sweet sounds of holiday carolers - all in the heart of downtown Phoenix. The ice skating rink is located at the CityScape center and stays open until January. The ice skating rink is conveniently located near downtown shops and dining.

1. Las Noches de las Luminarias
Photo courtesy of Las Noches de las Luminarias

The elegant grounds of the Desert Botanical Gardens glow with candlelight during this famous winter event. Late in the year (usually in December), volunteers line garden pathways with more than 7,000 luminaries, creating an otherworldly spectacle that draws sell-out crowds. Musicians perform throughout the evening (including strolling mariachis), and light refreshments are served. Hungry guests can purchase gourmet bites or reserve a table at the garden's restaurant for holiday-themed meal with all the trimmings. Non-member tickets go on sale in early October and sell out quickly, so plan ahead! This is one of the most unique holiday celebrations in the Phoenix area.