10 Best Free Things to Do in Scottsdale

Scottsdale is a sightseer's delight. The unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert serves as a backdrop for exploring the city, which manages to be at once both highly cosmopolitan and ruggedly Western. Even better, you don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the city. 

Take a stroll around Old Town, Scottsdale's historic city center, which gives visitors a sense of the city's cowboy heritage while showcasing its modern eclectic array of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and shops. While you're in Old Town, stop in at the Scottsdale Historical Museum, located inside the city's first school house. The museum is small but provides insight into the lives of the city's founder and early settlers.

For families, McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is an excellent free attraction that will entertain kids of all ages. Older visitors too will enjoy the park's model train displays as well as the retired locomotives now parked on the grounds of the railroad park.

Scottsdale has a thriving, internationally ranked art scene. If you're in town on a Thursday night, set aside some time for the city's popular art walk, which traverses downtown's Marshall Way Arts District.

For a great photo opportunity, don't forget to take a stroll along Scottsdale's Civic Center Mall, home to downtown's most popular outdoor art, including the famous "Love" sculpture.


If you're a college football aficionado, check out the Ellie & Michael Ziegler Fiesta Bowl Museum in downtown Scottsdale. The museum documents many of the greatest moments in Fiesta Bowl history. You can check out an array of exhibits featuring memorabilia from Fiesta Bowl events and bowl games, including all 128 FBS team helmets. Also on display are some of the most prestigious award trophies in college football history, including the Fiesta Bowl, Heisman, Eddie Robinson, and The National Championship Coaches' Trophy. The museum is free and open to the public every Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Scottsdale Civic Center Mall features almost three acres of pristine open public space. The park is located in the heart of downtown Scottsdale, running eastward from Brown Avenue to 75th Street, and then southward from 1st Avenue to 2nd Street. Locals and Scottsdale visitors stroll through this area to enjoy the gardens and easy access to a host of downtown amenities, including shops, restaurants, clubs, and museums. The Scottsdale Convention & Visitor's Bureau, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, City Hall, One Civic Center, Civic Center library and Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts are all within the vicinity. This popular downtown mall features an outdoor public amphitheater and small lagoon with swans.

This desert park, dotted with red rock and weather-sculpted buttes, is located near the zoo and the botanical gardens. 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 rock buttes at Papago Park are a local landmark, visible from various points around the Valley. Enjoy a picnic and don't forget to bring your camera to capture the buttes for posterity.

Marshall Way Arts District

Scottsdale has achieved international recognition as a haven for art collectors, with more than 100 galleries and a thriving local population of nationally-recognized artists. The Marshall Way Arts District is the place to explore Scottsdale art and mingle with local artists and professional art dealers. The wide array of artistic styles represented here range from traditional Western cowboy art to cutting edge contemporary. Marshall Way is also the place to be on Thursday nights, when the Scottsdale ArtWalk brings a steady stream of art aficionados to downtown Scottsdale. The Thursday night art walk is one of the oldest art walks in the country, and happens every week from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Cosanti Originals

Cosanti, located off busy Doubletree Road, is the working studio of world-renowned architectural innovator Paolo Soleri. Look for the rustic sign along the road that says "Soleri, Visitors Welcome." The rambling desert property features terraced landscaping, hand-made earth-formed structures, and Costanti's works-in-progress. You'll also catch sight of hundreds of Cosanti's famous bronze and ceramic wind-bells clinking in the desert wind. The Cosanti bells are available for sale in the gift shop. Well worth a stop when you are in Scottsdale. Although small, the Cosanti studio provides an interesting glimpse into the working process of one of the world's most innovative living architects and artists.

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.

When you want an up-close experience with the majestic beauty of the desert, head to Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale. Pinnacle Peak is one of the Valley's most iconic natural landmarks and a popular destination for local hikers and visitors. The 150 acre park is rated as a moderate hike by The Sierra Club, with an approximate elevation gain of 1,300 feet. Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts of all activity levels can enjoy the 1.75 mile trail, which features smooth tread. If you can make it to the trail summit, you will be rewarded by stunning views of the Valley. Experienced rock climbers with the appropriate gear can enjoy climbing in three designated ares of the park. Other park amenities include four picnic tables, restrooms, and drinking fountains.

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 interpretive exhibits and is also ADA accessible. During the months of October, November, January, February, and March, the preserve offers Family Fridays Sunset Series programs.

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.

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.


Meet Patricia Escarcega

Patricia Escarcega works as a writer and editor in Phoenix.