Must-do's in the Phoenix metro area

Although this may come as a surprise to many, there is much more to do in the Phoenix area than simply shopping, dining, and lounging around luxury resorts. With endless sunny days, little rain outside of summer monsoon season, and mild temperatures for more than half of the year, fun outdoor adventures abound all year. Add in museums, art galleries, sporting events, spring training games, beautiful outdoor shopping areas, gorgeous dining patios, and so on, and you can easily fill up an itinerary any time of the year you plan a visit. Here are my 25 must-do’s in the Phoenix metro area!

1. Hike a trail at Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Wonderful views at the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Although South Mountain and Camelback are much more popular with both locals and tourists, the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve is the best place to hike for several reasons including the gorgeous cactus & mountain scenery, the rustic nature far away from the city, and the lack of crowds. A diversity of trails for every level can be found within this massive preserve, with more than 100 miles of beautiful terrain to explore! With more than 30,500 acres to explore, it’s the largest urban preserve in the US!

Trails are open to mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. Best of all – it is completely free toe explore! Because it is located far out of town, this preserve maintains a true desert feeling of being completely isolated in the middle of nowhere. Only as you walk the deserted trails, can you fully appreciate the enchanting bareness of the Sonoran desert.

2. Relax on a cruise along Saguaro Lake

Gorgeous scenery at beautiful Saguaro Lake in Southern Arizona

Water in the desert? Actually, there are 6 lakes in the Phoenix area, all of which offer the perfect opportunity to escape the brutal summer heat of the desert. Scenic narrated leisure cruises are offered on 2 of these lakes. The better of the 2 is the Desert Belle Cruise at beautiful Saguaro Lake. This narrated cruise is educational and fun and features some of the best views you will experience in the area. Don’t worry, the inside is air conditioned for those crazily hot summer afternoons (arrive early to ensure indoor seating!).

Along the way, you will see hundreds of Saguaro cacti and possibly some wildlife. The rare sight of desert plant life surrounded by water makes a visit to Saguaro by far one of the top sightseeing attractions in the metro area. What a beautiful way to explore the desert, especially during the hot summer season when it is often too hot to enjoy the magnificent desert landscapes in any other way!

3. Stroll around the Phoenix Zoo

Endangered Andean Bear at The Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo is the largest privately owned non-profit zoo in the country. Asides from all the regular exhibits you find at most zoos (along with 30 endangered species), this zoo stands out due to the beautiful landscaping. Although many would think it is off limits during the brutal 100+ degree summer season, surprisingly the zoo provides plenty of shade. Plus, strategic misters throughout the grounds provide a much needed cool down.

And during the summer (June 1st-Aug 31st) the zoo offers early summer hours (opens at 7am) so you can walk around before the really hot weather begins. If you are a member, you will get in even early (6am!). And if you happen to be in town during the months of Nov/Dec, the zoo puts on one of the top zoo light festivals with over 4 million lights (very beautiful, although extremely crowded, so avoid weekends!).

4. Hike Camelback Mountain

Sunrise at beautiful Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona

Camelback Mountain is Phoenix’s most iconic hiking destination. Locals and tourists from around the world come here to hike one of 2 challenging trails to the summit (2704 ft) of this mountain which resembles a camel, hence the name. The super rigorous Echo and Cholla trails are very difficult climbs (even for those in great shape) due to several challenging elements including rugged desert terrain, lots of uphill climbing, and the harsh climate. That being said, anyone who toughs it out will be rewarded with some magnificent views of the Valley. Due to the extreme popularity and summer heat, its’ best to avoid summer and weekend visits.

5. Tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpieces

The Bitmore Block used by Frank Lloyd Wright at the Arizona Bitmore in Phoenix, AZ

Frank Lloyd Wright was a prominent architect and designer who designed over 1000 structures. Taliesin West in Scottsdale was his winter home, of which can be viewed via an educational tour. These tours are quite pricey, and thus, if you are trying to keep your costs down, you may want to consider a tour of The Arizona Biltmore.

This property, known as “The Jewel of the Desert,” has been entertaining guests around the world for over 80 years since opening in 1929. History tours are offered 3 times per week (reservations can be made by calling the resort). On an interesting side note, The Biltmore was the inspiration behind the holiday classic “White Christmas.”

6. Enjoy a leisurely bike ride around the Scottsdale Greenbelt

Pretty plams and waterfront views along the scottsdale Greenbelt

Unfortunately, Phoenix does not offer much in the way of non-mountain biking trails. Luckily, the one paved path which exists, the Scottsdale Greenbelt (officially the Indian Bend Wash Greenbelt) is a pretty scenic course. This hidden gem is a gorgeous way for non hikers to enjoy the mountain scenery. Due to the completely flat terrain, the path is perfect for biking, jogging, or even walking the dog.

The 11 mile course is surprisingly green in most areas as it passes beautiful parks, golf courses, and lakes, with plenty of beautiful desert plant life along the way. I love this path, and you will too after several hikes in the desert. Although the Sonoran desert is beautiful, after many hikes, you begin to crave a change in scenery!

7. Treat yourself to breakfast at Scramble

Gorgeous outdoor dining area at Scramble in Phoenix, Arizona

Scramble is hands down the best breakfast choice in the Phoenix area. With 2 convenient locations, it’s easy to incorporate into any day plans. No matter what else I try, I find myself coming back here time and time again. Whether it’s the great patio, the affordable pricing, the delicious drip coffee, or the focus on using fresh ingredients, Scramble is my choice pre-hike. Those with specific dietary concerns will be happy to know that they accommodate guests with food allergies with plenty of dairy and gluten-free choices.

8. Enjoy a specialty coffee at a local roaster

A delicious Americano and Mocha at Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, Arizona

Although Phoenix has its’ share of chain coffee shops, you’ll find many great independent shops scattered about. Peixoto in Chandler and Cartel (multiple locations around the Valley) both serve up some tasty drinks in eclectic surroundings. So bypass the Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in favor of something original and delicious!

9. Explore Old Town Scottsdale

Cowboy Old Town Scottsdale sign

With art galleries, shopping, lively restaurants and bars, and ongoing events such as a weekly farmers market and popular Thursday night art walk, there is always something going on at Old Town Scottsdale. The charming old western vibe makes it all the more interesting. Must-sees include the Fiesta Bowl Museum dedicated to college football memorabilia and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The best part of all is that you can still stroll around even when it’s super hot out as there are so many places to duck in and out of to escape for a bit of cool air!

10. Challenge yourself to a trek up Pinnacle Peak

Amazing views of Scottsdale from the Pinnacle Peak Trail

At Scottsdales’ Pinnacle Peak Park, you will have the opportunity to challenge yourself to a cardio blasting climb up to the summit of Pinnacle Peak. The trek is about 1.75 miles each way with a total elevation gain of 1300ft, and thus, your legs will be feeling it before you even turn around. In fact, my legs were shaking from all the climbing! Besides getting in an insane lower body workout, the hike rewards with some of the most gorgeous views of any hike in the region. Set out early in the morning to avoid both crowds and intense daytime heat.

11. Enjoy beautiful cacti loaded trails at Usery Mountain Park

Lots of pretty cacti at Usery Mountain hiking area in Mesa, Arizona

Another fabulous hiking area to check out is Usery Mountain Park in Mesa. If you are interested in seeing lots of cacti, then Usery Mountain is the perfect choice. Tons of tall Saguaro and various other desert plant species line every trail here. Fantastic mountain views surround you in every direction. Over 29 miles of trail can be explored at Usery, from the super easy to super advanced.

The Merkle Trail is a nice starter trail for just about anyone. One of the nicest aspects of this park is their lineup of ongoing events. Definitely be on the lookout for the incredible guided night hikes where you will search for signs of nocturnal animals. Plus, nothing beats stargazing in the desert!

12. Enjoy the fantastic outdoor malls

AMC Theater at Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix AZ

Phoenix offers no shortage of wonderful outdoor malls. Tempe and Desert Ridge Marketplace are both lively evening gathering places with live music & ongoing events, fun restaurants with outdoor patios, a Dave and Busters, a nice theater, and lots of shopping. If you have nothing else to do, you can always stroll around one of these malls and find something to do! Both areas are beautifully landscaped with tall palm trees and relaxing fountains.

Additionally, Biltmore Fashion Park is a nice upscale open air mall, while Phoenix Premium Outlets is the place to go if you are after the best deals. All are great choices for wandering around and enjoying the cool desert nights.

13. Enjoy lakeside recreation at Tempe Town Lake

Tempe Town Lake is a great place to enjoy basically any type of recreation, from biking or jogging along the lakeside trail, to old-fashioned paddleboating, to the more recently popular stand up paddleboarding. The Town Lake was created by damming the dry Salt River and adding water, thus creating a much needed recreational oasis in the middle of a dry desert!

14. Take your picture next to a cactus

Standing next to a tall cactus at the Scottsdale McDowell Preserve

You will have to leave the city to get a quality picture next to a Saguaro without any business interrupting the background. Luckily, there are plenty of fantastic hiking trails nearby. South Mountain is a really beautiful recreational area, which also happens to be really close to the city. Standing next to a super tall Saguaro is the ultimate desert photo opp (not to mention a nice free souvenir to commemorate your trip!).

15. Take advantage of special summer resort deals

The beautiful Paradise Pool at The Arizona Bitmore in Phoenix, Arizona

Wintertime, the 4/5 star resorts in Phoenix are super pricey due to snowbirds and sunseekers all flocking to the area for a bit of relaxation in the warm desert air. However, as soon as the temperatures begin to crawl into triple digits, these same resorts begin to lower their rates, enticing both local residents and anyone else seeking a budget friendly vacation destination.

Despite the heat, the resorts offer a number of great year-round amenities including on-site restaurants, relaxing pools, and special events. The Arizona Biltmore offers a nice all inclusive package, starting at just $200 per night, and including all meals as well as resort fees. We-Ko-Pa is another nice resort which offers great staycation specials.

All inclusive package at The Arizona Biltmore

16. Attend the Phoenix Zoo Lights Spectacular

Phoenix Zoo Lights cactus display

If your visit falls during the winter months, be sure to check out the Phoenix Zoo’s annual Zoo Lights festival. With almost 4 million lights, it is one of the country’s largest zoo light displays, as well as one of the largest holiday light displays in the Southwest. There’s also a nice synchronized show, special holiday events, and lots of cool desert themed light displays that you will not find elsewhere. This event draws big crowds, so pick a weekday for less congestion (you will also save a few bucks).

17. Take a scenic drive through the Superstition Mountains

Scenic lake view from the Apache Trail Drive near Mesa, Arizona
Scenic views of the lake from the Apache Trail Scenic Drive

The Apache Trail scenic drive is the must-do if you are seeking a nice leisurely cruise through the beautiful Sonoran desert. It’s one of the few places where you can escape all the suburban congestion and enjoy the true beauty of the desert. And, it’s one of the few things you can do even when the temp soars well past 100. Beautiful Saguaro covered hills line this 39 mile scenic byway that starts in Apache Junction and ends near Roosevelt Lake.

You will also pass 2 beautiful lakes along the way. Some great stops along the way include Saguaro and Canyon Lake, Goldfield Ghost town, and Lost Dutchman State Park. Be aware – there are lots of twists and turns and several scary drops offs, so this drive is best avoided by the squeamish!

18. Enjoy a cup of joe overlooking the water

View of the Scottsdale waterfront from Altitudes Coffee Lab

There are numerous local coffee shops to enjoy throughout the Phoenix metro area, however, only one with a fantastic waterfront location! Sip on a specialty espresso drink while you enjoy the serene Scottsdale waterfront area at Lakeview Coffee, featuring a shady outdoor patio overlooking the man made lake. The rare opportunity to enjoy coffee overlooking a lake really sets Lakeview apart.

Really, where else in the desert will you find a coffeeshop on the water? Surely, not at Starbucks! After your drink, grab your bike and enjoying an easy ride along the beautiful Scottsdale Greenbelt, which you can access directly from the coffeeshop!

Update: Lakeview is now Press Coffee. The views are still fantastic!

19. Mountain Bike and/or hike at Dreamy Draw

Hiking at Dreamy Draw Recreation area in Phoenix AZ

The Dreamy Draw recreation area is a great place for easy biking and hiking. If you are looking to enjoy the desert scenery without going all out, or trying to get in a quick workout before the afternoon sun hits, then Dreamy Draw is the perfect choice. The Dreamy Draw Bikeway is an easy, short trail with peaceful views of the surrounding mountains. Overall, Dreamy Draw is just a great place for year-round recreation due to the mix of moderate hikes and easy nature trails. On a spooky side note, there have been UFO sightings in the Dreamy Draw region!

20. Enjoy great city views via Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park

City views from Hole in the Rock at Papago Park in Phoenix AZ

Papago Park offers a number of activities for anyone looking to get out there and enjoy the desert scenery, including beautiful trails, a small lake stocked with catfish and trout, an exercise course, a golf course, and baseball fields. The dramatic sandstone buttes set the scenery apart from other recreational areas in town. However, the real reason you come to Papago is to check out Hole-in-the-Rock, a unique sandstone rock that has eroded, and thus, now provides a great lookout into the city. Plan your hike around sunset for the most fabulous views! On any interesting historical note, the ancient Hohokam people used the hole to mark the solstice!

21. Test out some local cuisine

Chicken alfredo pasta at Va Bene in Chandler AZ

Yes, Phoenix is most well known for being home to unending suburbia with endless options for feasting at standard chains. And really, you cannot drive down one street without seeing all the familiar favorites. However, you will also find endless original restaurants, if you can just bypass the common chains. For breakfast, Scramble and Butterfield’s Pancake House (Scottsdale) are wonderful choices. Elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain resort is another great upscale choice, with the added bonus of wonderful mountain views.

Phoenix is home to many great Italian restaurants. Check out Cibo Pizza downtown (fantastic outdoor dining!) or Va Bene. If you are on a special diet, you must try out Picazzo’s Organic Italian Kitchen, a wonderful regional Italian chain with a 100% gluten-free menu and lots of creative vegan choices! Basically, you can find a great ethnic restaurant just about anywhere! Also, there is an unending supply of fabulous Mexican restaurants – try Barrio for starters.

22. Challenge yourself to a stair climbing workout like no other

Nice views of the city from the Piestewa Peak trail in Phoenix

Even hard core fitness buffs like myself will find Piestewa Peak the ultimate challenge. Really there is no other hike like it in the area. A mile plus of unending climbing (including many rough rocky sections and scary steep sections) leads you to some pretty amazing overlooks, where you can feast your eyes on both magnificent urban and desert scenery. Out of all the hikes, this one offers the most scenic viewpoints of the Phoenix skyline.

Elevation gain is 1200 feet, although the hike feels much rougher than others with the same gain. This really is a hike where you need to do some pre-planning including being prepared with extra water (I recommend a camelbak) and snacks. Take plenty of breaks along the way to appreciate the amazing vistas! Avoid this hike at all costs during the summer season – it is challenging enough during the cooler winter months!

23. Spend a hot summer day cooling off at a mega waterpark

Lazy river at Sunsplash waterpark in Mesa, Arizona

Sometimes, the weather outside is just too hot to do much outside. When the temp crawls past 100 on a daily basis, the best option is to skip the outdoor recreation, that is unless you consider a water based activity. This is when a waterpark becomes even more attractive! Phoenix is home to several large waterparks, so you can find one no matter where you are staying.

Golfland/Sunsplash in Mesa is my favorite as they have multiple tube and body slides, a really fun water roller coaster, a fantastic lazy river, and a huge wave pool. All the attractions make it feel almost more like a theme park than a simple water park, which is great because Arizona is sorely lacking in the theme park department. Special Night hours are just an added bonus. They also are home to the area’s best mini golf course.

24. Take advantage of all the great outdoor patio dining

Cibo in downtown Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix is known for having some of the best al fresco patio dining options in the country, which really is not a surprise considering that the weather is perfect for outdoor dining for more than half the year. Almost every restaurant has a patio area, with some being better than others. The resort restaurants typically offer the most spectacular setting.

One of the best choices is Cibo Pizza downtown. They have a gorgeous little garden seating area with twinkle lights at night. The woodfired pizza is terrific and it’s nice to get out in the city for a change. Other top rated choices include Chelsea’s Kitchen, House of Tricks, Olive & Ivy, and Orange Sky at the Talking Stick Casino.

25. Enjoy endless outdoor recreation at South Mountain

The peaceful Kiwanis Trail at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona

South Mountain is the favorite hiking hotspot of most locals. This is because there are so many trails to choose amongst, from a 1/2 mile nature loop to a 14 mile all day adventure. Really, it’s impossible to ever run out of new hiking options. With over 16,000 acres, the park is one of the largest city parks in the world!

Over 51 miles of trails will keep even the most intense hikers busy all year round. Not into hiking? The trails are also open to mountain bikers and horseback riders. Plus, there is a nice 5.5 mile scenic drive with various overlooks. Note: Like all other hiking areas, it is not recommended to hit the trails when the temp reaches triple digits. Also, dogs are prohibited on trails on days where temps reach 100 or higher.

South Mountain trail map