10 Best Museums in Phoenix: Explore the Valley's Best Cultural Attractions
By Patricia Escarcega
Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson Local Expert
Phoenix is home to a growing list of museums and cultural arts venues, offering visitors plenty to see and do during their stay in the Valley of the Sun.
One of the most unique museums in town is the Musical Instrument Museum, or the MIM, which allows visitors to experience music from around the world. A huge collection of musical instruments representing over 200 countries around the world give visitors a taste of the sounds and rhythms of different regions.
Art lovers won't want to miss the Phoenix Art Museum, featuring a strong collection of European and Asian art, as well as an impressive Modern Art wing.
Explore the city's southwestern history at Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeology Park, where visitors get an up-close look at prehistoric Hohokam ruins, including a ball court.
The Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve just north of town provides another fascinating glimpse into Southwestern history, with more than 1500 identified petroglyphs etched on the rocks along this prehistoric trade route.
Finally, visit one of the world's greatest repositories of Native American art with a stop at the famous Heard Museum. If you're looking for a good place to find authentic Native American jewelry, rugs and crafts, be sure to stop at the museum's popular gift shop.
Shemer Art Center & Museum
Formerly a private residence, this art center and museum sits on four well-manicured acres overlooking Camelback Mountain and is one of the few places to see large-scale sculpture outdoors. The displays change throughout the year as some are sold and others make way for newer works. The museum's permanent collection has over 100 artworks by contemporary Arizona artists. In addition, art classes for children and adults are offered. The center maintains an interesting schedule of events and exhibitions, including lectures and workshops. Admission to the Shemer is free, but there is a suggested donation of $7. This is one of the Valley's hidden gems. (602-262-4727)
Arizona State University Art Museum
Located in a stunning contemporary building, this museum showcases a variety of galleries with ever-changing exhibits. The predominant emphases include modern, Latin and folk art, in addition to an array of arts and crafts. The permanent collection is strong on pieces exemplifying new media, ceramics and other crafts, prints, art from Arizona and the Southwest and art of the Americas. Visitors are encouraged to stop by the gift shop, which contains a variety of items similar to the original pieces displayed in the gallery. The museum has been named one of the best venues for contemporary art in the country by top art publications. (480-965-2787)
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)
Arizona Capitol Museum
Housed in an impressive stone building that once served as the state capitol, this museum documents Arizona's time as a territory and its early statehood. The structure itself is crowned with a copper dome and a 16-foot, zinc Winged Victory statue. Within the building are flags documenting the state's history, including ones representing Spain, Mexico, and the Confederacy. Offices and congressional chambers have been restored to period splendor, and Megargee paintings (with Arizona as their theme) grace the interior. World War II buffs can browse the USS Arizona display, which offers artifacts, recollections from survivors, and a specially commissioned silver service. (602-926-3620)
Children's Museum of Phoenix
The Children's Museum of Phoenix, located in the 70,000 square foot historic Monroe School building in downtown Phoenix, offers three floors of exhibits designed to engage young children and the adults who love them. Exhibits are hands-on and interactive, making this a fun place to spend the day with the favorite child in your life. Kids will love exploring the nooks and crannies of The Climber, an amazing multi-storied exhibit created with recycled materials. The Noodle Forest gives kids a sensory adventure in a safe environment, while The Market allows kids to roleplay in a fun grocery store setting. An art studio, book loft, and designated tricycle area add to the fun at this colorful and always-busy museum. ((602) 253-0501)
Mesa Arts Center
Completed in the spring of 2005, the Mesa Arts Center is the largest in the state at 212,755 square feet. The campus has four theaters, the Mesa Contemporary Arts galleries, and numerous studios, workshops, offices and classrooms. The center hosts visiting performing arts companies such as the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and the Sonoran Desert Chorale, and schedules performances of every conceivable variety in every price range, from high school drama club shows to professional symphony orchestras. Mesa Contemporary Arts is an art museum and gallery that supports and promotes contemporary artists. The museum is free - don't miss the Mesa Arts Center Store, an artist's collective brimming with one-of-a-kind art and unique gifts. (480-644-6500, 480-644-6501)
Musical Instrument Museum
The Musical Instrument Museum, also known as the MIM, celebrates art, music and culture by documenting the history of musical instruments from around the world. Everyone from Carlos Santana to Tony Bennett have sung the praises of this bright, open museum, which also hosts a full calendar of live music events. The museum collection includes instruments from 200 countries from around the world, with emphasis on ethnic, folk, and tribal music. Guests are given wireless headsets so they can hear instruments being played at each display, and flat-panel monitors throughout the museum give guests the opportunity to see instruments being performed live. Whether you love Chinese opera or Big Band jazz, the MIM celebrates the joy of musical expression in all its forms. ((480) 478-6000)
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)
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)
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)
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.