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10 free things to do in Phoenix when you're on a budget



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 attraction 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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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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Garden admission is free on Community Day, the second Tuesday of every month. Active military personnel and children under 3 are admitted free.

Patricia's expert tip: Music in the garden and seasonal festivals are held throughout the year. It's helpful to check out the calendar of events before your visit.

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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 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Phoenix Art Museum is a world-class art museum that offers free general admission every Wednesday afternoon, plus several other times every month.

Patricia's expert tip: Free admission/voluntary donation is available on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., every second Sunday of the month from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and every first Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

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Enchanted Island Amusement Park


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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Enchanted Island Amusement Park is an outdoorsy and family-friendly destination that is easy on the wallet.

Patricia's expert tip: Admission to the park is free, but the all-day park pass allows you to gain access to individual rides.

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Papago Park


This desert park, dotted with red rock and weather-sculpted buttes, is located near the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens on the border between Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. A network of trails runs through the grounds, and fishing lagoons punctuate the landscape. Ramadas (covered picnic shelters) provide a perfect place to take in the views and can be reserved with a call. The area is ranger-patrolled for safety. Located at East Van Buren Street and North Galvin Parkway, the red sandstone buttes at Papago Park are a must-see during your next Phoenix visit. Bring a camera to capture these otherworldly works of nature.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Papago Park offers a free scenic destination that's convenient to other major Phoenix attractions.

Patricia's expert tip: Papago Park is convenient to two other major attractions, the Desert Botanical Gardens and the Phoenix Zoo, so plan to spend a whole day in this part of town.

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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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Mesa Arts Center is home to an impressive art museum that offers free admission.

Patricia's expert tip: The Mesa Arts Center store, located adjacent to the museum space, is an artist collective filled with locally made paintings and crafts.

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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 coffee shop 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine Tours gives visitors a real taste of the Old West.

Patricia's expert tip: Check out the free gunfighter shows every hour from High Noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Artlink First Fridays


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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Phoenix's free monthly self-guided art walk is one of the biggest and most colorful in the country.

Patricia's expert tip: Take the Metro Light Rail to Roosevelt Row to avoid getting caught in event traffic.

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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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Arizona Capitol Museum in Phoenix is a family-friendly museum that offers an insightful look into the state's past. Even better: admission is free.

Patricia's expert tip: Don't miss the U.S.S. Arizona display at this free museum, a can't-miss for history buffs.

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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 includes 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon Recreation area is one of Phoenix's most iconic hiking spots.

Patricia's expert tip: This is a busy hiking spot with very little parking. Carpooling to the area is recommended.

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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 9 pm. 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: South Mountain Park is one of the country's largest municipal parks, a scenic desert oasis just south of downtown Phoenix.

Patricia's expert tip: Horseback riding stables and horse rentals are available near the entrance to the park.

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Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.

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