Best Things to Do in Scottsdale

10 Best Attractions and Activities in Scottsdale

Visitors to Scottsdale come for some of the Southwest’s best shopping, dining, art galleries, architecture, and of course, adventurous excursions into the vast Sonoran Desert. 

Whether you come to take a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert studio at Taliesin West, or want to live out your cowboy dreams with an early morning horseback ride, Scottsdale beckons visitors with great weather, luxurious amenities, and the natural beauty of the surrounding desert.

A good introduction to the city is a stroll through Old Town Scottsdale, a hub of shops, boutiques, cafes, and galleries. This pedestrian-friendly area features a free local trolley that makes it easy for visitors to navigate downtown.

Art lovers will want to visit the dozens of galleries located in the Marshall Way Arts District. This section of downtown hosts a popular art walk every Thursday night, one of the oldest in the country.

Art lovers should also make time for a visit to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the Southwest's premier destination for modern art.

For history buffs, the Museum of the West offers a great introduction into the history and culture of the American West. The museum's historical artifacts and storytelling events help bring the West to life. 

Northeast of downtown, Butterfly Wonderland is a popular family attraction with a collection of thousands of butterflies from around the world.

Check out our list for more recommendations on what to see and do during your Scottsdale stay. 


Butterfly Wonderland in Scottsdale is an unique facility featuring an indoor rain forest environment that is home to the largest butterfly pavilion in America. The museum features a 3D theater, butterfly emergence gallery, conservatory, a live ant colony, honey bee exhibit, cafe and gift shop. The state-of the art facility features a large glass atrium that creates a tropical rain forest habitat for thousands of butterflies from around the world. Along with the butterfly atrium, you can also pay a visit a real-life ant colony, and take a peek at the fascinating honey bee beehive exhibit. Of course, there's a gift shop where you can pick up butterfly-themed souvenirs.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Butterfly Wonderland is home to one of the largest butterfly pavilions in the United States.

Patricia's expert tip: Check the schedule at Butterfly Wonderland for fun and educational lectures and workshops.

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OdySea Aquarium is one of the newest aquariums in the United States, and it happens to be in an unlikely place: the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Don't let the desert location fool you, though: this is the largest aquarium in the southwest, spanning more than 200,000 square feet, and holding 2,000,000 US gallons of water. Highlights include the Aqua Lobby, and Penguin Point, where you can get up and close with a small group of penguins. There's also the Deep Ocean Escalator, a fully enclosed escalator that plunges you deep into an underwater wonderland where you might catch a glimpse of eight shark species and other ocean creatures.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: OdySea Aquarium is an unlikely but entertaining and edifying Scottsdale attraction, providing visitors a fascinating glimpse into marine life in the desert.

Patricia's expert tip: OdySea has scheduled entry times, so be sure to plan your visit accordingly.

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The McDowell Sonoran Preserve protects more than 30,000 acres of pristine desert in north Scottsdale. This is a hiker's paradise, with more than 115 miles of trails, including more than 60 miles of shared-use trails. Trailhead gates are open from sunrise to sunset. There's no charge for parking or access. Start your desert adventure at The Gateway, the central trailhead that offers access to most of the preserve's popular trails. To get started, try the Bajada Nature Trail, which includes intepretive exhibits and is also ADA accessible. During the months of October, November, January, February, and March, the preserve offers Family Fridays Sunset Series programs.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: McDowell Sonoran Preserve is one of the most ruggedly beautiful spots to appreciate the Sonoran Desert.

Patricia's expert tip: Trails are dog-friendly, so bring along your favorite four-legged friend. Dogs must be a on a leash. Bring plenty of water.

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McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a train-lover's haven located in the heart of Scottsdale, Arizona. The park offers train and carousel rides for all ages, open green space for family picnics, historic Arizona railroad artifacts, model railroad displays in a new 10,000 square foot building, a train museum, and popular events throughout the year. Hartley's General Store offers hand dipped ice cream, food and drinks, and Thomas the Tank toys, while Snackstop offers a variety of snack food and drinks. Whether you're looking for a perfect picnic destination or simply take the kids on a one-mile train ride around the park, McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a great family-friendly attraction located just north of the city center.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: McCormick-Stillman is a fun, budget-friendly attraction that's sure to entertain families with young children.

Patricia's expert tip: Don't miss the two playgrounds at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, voted some of the best in the Valley of the Sun.

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Located in Papago Park, this garden features the world's largest outdoor desert plant collection. A vast array of colorful wildflowers has been strategically placed to create a spectacular display and delight visitors in the springtime, and throughout the year. 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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Although technically located in Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden is within easy reach of Scottsdale, and offers a scenic, edifying glimpse into desert life.

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

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Five galleries and a sculpture garden make up the nucleus of this facility. Additional exhibits of interest include displays of international art, architecture and design, with a predominant focus on hometown attributes. The focus of the SMoCA is not on art from the past, but rather cutting edge contemporary art that deals in the thoughts and concerns of today. The museum is also home to the new SMoCA Lounge--designed as an accessible community space for creativity, imagination and contemplation. The Lounge features a film series, Lit Lounge events that bring together local writers and musicians, and a popular Brown Bag lecture series.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Modern art lovers won't want to miss a visit to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts.

Patricia's expert tip: Free admission on Thursdays, and free after 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

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Scottsdale's new Museum of the West celebrates the spirit, history and culture of the American West. The museum calls itself a "study in the west," featuring Western art, storytelling, and historical artifacts that help convey the story and history of the American west. The state-of-the-art museum will feature artwork from well-known artists like Charles M. Russell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Fritz Scholder and Allen Houser. Visitors will also get an eyeful of fascinating artifacts such as John Wayne's signed business card, Navajo chiefs' blankets and personal items belonging to Kit Carson. There is also an outdoor amphitheater, cacti garden, and large open courtyard with a sculpture garden.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Museum of the West offers an excellent introduction into the history and heritage of the American West.

Patricia's expert tip: Military and student discounts are available.

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Scottsdale may be associated with cowboy art and an Old West aesthetic, but this district nestled in the heart of downtown possesses a thriving contemporary arts scene. Intimate galleries showcase a broad spectrum of art media, including painting, photography, sculpture, and mixed-media pieces. Local artists are strongly represented along with several nationally-recognized names. Boutiques featuring Southwestern jewelry and crafts also ply their wares. The first Thursday of each month finds the street alive with gallery openings, live music, and refreshments during the popular free artwalk. Come here to get an authentic taste of downtown Scottsdale and pick up some locally made art.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Marshall Way Arts District is home to one of the longest-running weekly art walks in the country.

Patricia's expert tip: Come on a Thursday night for the famous Scottsdale ArtWalk.

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Old Town Scottsdale
Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Old Town Scottsdale is the heart of the city, boasting sparkling fountains, green lawns, and outdoor sculptures celebrating the city's Old West heritage. Art galleries, museums, boutiques, and cafes line the streets of Old Town, offering both visitors and locals with some of the best window-shopping and people-watching in the city. Even if you are not coming here to shop, Old Town's eclectic array of specialty shops make for fun window shopping. While you're in Old Town, make a stop at the Scottsdale Historical Museum, where you can see how the city's founders and earliest settlers experienced life in Scottsdale.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Old Town Scottsdale is a hub of history, shopping, dining and excellent people-watching in the heart of the city.

Patricia's expert tip: Old Town Scottsdale offers a free local trolley service. Look for stops around downtown.

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Taliesin West

Located in northeast Scottsdale on the beautiful foothills of the McDowell Mountains, Taliesin West is Frank Lloyd Wright's desert masterpiece. This was the architectural master's personal winter home, studio, and architectural campus. Public tours are available year-around, offering visitors insight into Wright's singular ability to fuse indoor and outdoor spaces. Wright fans will want to make a stop at Anneliese's Bookstore at Taliesin West, which sells the largest collection of products and books by and about Frank Lloyd Wright, his life, and role in defining modern architecture. Taliesin West also plays host to a number of outreach programs and classes for adults and children.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Taliesin West was Frank Lloyd Wright's desert home and architectural campus. A can't miss for fans and students of his work.

Patricia's expert tip: Taliesin West offers both day and evening guided tours. Call ahead for seasonal hours.

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Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.