Exploring Phoenix On a Budget: 10 Best Free Things to Do in Phoenix



Looking for free things to do during your Phoenix visit? The Valley of the Sun is a great place to explore on a budget.

Start your explorations at South Mountain Park, where steep hairpin turns and steady rising elevation leads you to Dobbin's Lookout, a popular overlook offering incredible views of the whole city. This is a great and scenic attractions that doesn't require any spending. 

Hiking enthusiasts will want to pay a visit to Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation Area, a well-tread system of hiking trails that are challenging but well worth the sweat – the views from up top are simply incredible.

If you're traveling with a history buff, a stop at the Arizona Capitol Museum is mandatory. This obscure gem is housed in the stone building that was once the state capitol. Some of the museum's most fascinating exhibits include artifacts from the USS Arizona, a 16-foot zinc Winged Victory statue, and works by Lon Megargee, Arizona's famed cowboy artist.

One of Phoenix's top cultural attractions is the Phoenix Art Museum. You can check out the museum for free every Wednesday evening during the voluntary donation period, which runs from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Finally, for a taste of the Old West, head to Goldfield Ghost Town, located just east of town on the site of an old town and gold mine operation. During the winter and spring high season, enjoy free gunfighter shows on Saturdays and Sundays. 



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Enchanted Island is located in the heart of central Phoenix's Encanto Park, one of the city's oldest and most picturesque parks. This small amusement park offers the perfect budget-friendly escape for families with young children. The park features nine rides, a carousel, a C.P. Huntington train, a small selection of arcade games, and snack bars. When the weather is cool, don't miss the pedal-boats, which allow you to travel across Encanto Park's fish-filled lagoons. There is also a splash zone for those hot summer days. When you're done exploring the park, explore the grounds of Encanto Park, which features recreational opportunities, trails, and plenty of shady trees for picnicking. Admission is always free at Enchanted Island. Visitors pay for individual rides and games.


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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.


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Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine Tours


 

Located 21 miles east of Mesa, this renovated ghost town is complete with rustic wooden buildings and desert landscapes. Choose from a wealth of activities while you're there, including mine tours, hiking treks, and panning for gold. A specialty Western shop, museum, and rattlesnake exhibit round out the offerings. When you need to rustle up some vittles, Mammoth Steakhouse & Saloon offers Southwestern dining, and there's also a coffeeshop and gourmet lunch cafe. For an authentic cowboy experience, saddle up a horse and ride off through the spectacular Superstition Mountains. Plenty of places to eat and shop. Don't miss the free gunfighter shows.


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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.


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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.


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Phoenix Art Museum
Photo courtesy of 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.


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This monthly showcase of Phoenix's gallery and art communities grants folks the chance to browse spaces where artists create and sell their works. The event also involves local restaurants and shops, and visitors are regaled by street performers and musicians as well. A free shuttle eases getting from place to place, and a diverse crowd gives the event added character. The event has gotten more popular over the years, making this the biggest monthly art walk in the country. Food trucks and art vendors set up shop along the Roosevelt Row Arts District, creating a carnival-like atmosphere full of art, music, and food.


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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.


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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. Be warned that parking is extremely limited, so it pays to come early and carpool.


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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.


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Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.

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