The 15 All-Time Greatest Things to Do in Phoenix

Botanical gardens with towering cacti, Frank Lloyd Wright’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and more fall and winter fun in Phoenix.

Image courtesy Rainbow Ryders
Image courtesy Rainbow Ryders

Phoenix is a city of greats: great views, great food, great local culture. But what are the all-time greats the Valley of the Sun has to offer? If you’ve never ventured to the country’s fifth-largest city, what do you absolutely, positively need to do? There’s plenty to keep visitors occupied, from world-class resorts and a plethora of golf courses, shopping in Scottsdale and sports galore. In putting together this guide, we considered what the soul of Phoenix is and that’s where these particular G.O.A.T items stem from. If you only had a weekend, what should you see so that when you left, you felt you knew a little of Phoenix? That’s what we aim to give you insight into one of the most slept-on places in the country.

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
The Desert Ice Rink | Courtesy Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

Things to Do in Phoenix This Fall and Winter

While peaches are Schnepf’s mainstay during the summer, in October the farm becomes the ultimate fall destination. There are of course pumpkins to pick and chili to taste but also carnival rides, corn mazes, zip lines, even a haunted attraction. While you’re there, pick up some of the farm’s bakery and homemade treats to take back.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort is one of the Valley’s namestays, providing the background to golf’s annual Waste Management Open. But for about six weeks in winter, it undergoes a magical transformation into one of the city’s most loved traditions. It’s perfect for both families and date nights, with an ice skating rink, ferris wheel, fire pits and acres of twinkling lights to stroll through. It’s important to book this one early but it’ll be worth it.

With four million lights twinkling away, ZooLights takes the joy of the Phoenix Zoo and updates it to an evening holiday activity. There are displays, light shows set to music, a s’mores station and even visits with Santa - what more can a kid or parent want? A Cruise ZooLights option is also available, making it even easier to enjoy the festivities from the comfort of a car.

Century Grand
Century Grand | Photo by Grace Stufkosky

Where to Eat and Drink in Phoenix

It’s been exciting to watch Phoenix’s drinking culture evolve to give residents and visitors increasingly exciting places to spend an evening. Century Grand is one of the best, a true highlight to the creativity coming out of the Valley. A recent winner of Best Cocktail Bar in the US, Century Grand is a collection of three distinctly unique bars that are all based on turn-of-the-century immersive experiences. There’s Platform 18 based on a Pullman train car, Grey Hen RX that is a New Orleans apothecary, and UnderTow, a tiki bar in a Clipper ship.

The OG of cocktail culture in Phoenix; if you’re going to hit anywhere in Downtown for a drink or two, this should be at the top of the list. Ross Simon and his team have deservedly won a slew of National awards through the years, but it hasn’t stopped them from continuing to reach for the top. Their creative menu gives drinkers dozens of options, from the simple to the adventurous, but save time to savor the unique menu. Built as a twisted book of fairytales, it’s almost as fun as the drinks themselves.

A fine dining restaurant on the Gila River Indian Community, Kai is focused on highlighting Native American cuisine in a beautifully elevated way. It’s a way to experience the true local ingredients that were harvested in the Phoenix area for generations, as Kai works with tribal farmers to source tepary beans and other items. Each menu contains a one-of-a-kind watercolor painting that depicts important moments to the Gila River community and staff is trained to share cultural and historical information throughout the meal.

Northern Mexican Food

One cannot come to Phoenix without getting down on some of the incredible Mexican food throughout the city. The abundance of choice means it’s easy to explore regional specialities that aren’t as readily available in other parts of the country. Head to Testal Mexican Kitchen for a taste of Chihuahua, with dishes that hints of New Mexican flavor; Taco Boys specializes in charcoal-fired meats, including traditional ingredients like tripe and vampiro tacos. And if you’re one of the lucky ones to get a reservation, head to Bacanora, which brings the soul of Sonoran cooking into a simple menu that packs a serious culinary punch.

Rainbow Ryders
Courtesy Rainbow Ryders

Things to Do Outdoors in Phoenix

The Arizona Sunset

There’s nothing quite like an Arizona sunset, which are as consistent as they are spectacular. And while it’s easy to catch the fading rays from a restaurant patio or resort balcony, get a little creative to enjoy it. Try paddle boarding at Lake Pleasant on the outskirts of town as the sun dips below the horizon or see it from the air while gliding over the desert with a sunset hot air balloon ride.

Hiking Trails

It’s easy for people to forget that for all of Phoenix’s insane summer weather, October to May provide some pretty enviable temps and make exploring the outdoors very enticing. Phoenix is home to hundreds of trails, mountains, and preserves all across town. From the White Tanks in the far West Valley to the iconic Camelback Mountain, there are locations to fit everyone’s hiking level. It’s a splendid way to take in the vast spread of the city. One thing to note is that while October and May are generally cooler, triple-digit heat can often linger in those months and make outdoor activity dangerous, so keep an eye on the thermometer.

Part art, part outdoors, all in honor of natural beauty, the Desert Botanical Garden is a great way to soak up Phoenix’s living landscape. There’s obviously lots of cacti and succulents scattered throughout the walkable grounds, but also endangered specimens and plants used by indigenous people. You may also spot sculptures dotted throughout, as the Garden hosts artist installations.

Taliesin West
Taliesin West | Foskett Creative courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Arts and Culture Events in Phoenix

One of the most unique places you’ll ever come across, the affectionately known MIM houses over 7,500 instruments from more than 200 countries. The experience touches all senses, as guests can interact with pieces and hear performances. The museum is also a great host of international artists and provides annual exhibits to explore.

A cultural gem, Phoenix’s Heard Museum is dedicated to American Indian art, providing impressive collections and exhibitions for almost 100 years. The museum hosts the annual World Championship Hoop Dance Contest, an incredible event that brings together tribes from across North America. The contest is a signature event but with over 40,000 objects and 12 galleries to explore, the museum itself is not to be missed.

The fingerprints of Frank Lloyd Wright are all across Phoenix but Taliesin West is perhaps the best way to appreciate the famed architect. His winter home, Taliesin West, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with stunning views and can be walked via guided or self-paced tour. It also plays host to special events, film screenings, and concerts, providing plenty of opportunities to enjoy this one-of-a-kind property.

An ideal activity for those with young children (and those young at heart), the Arizona Science Center is in a perfect location Downtown. The center offers permanent exhibits that explore everything from the body to bubbles, as well as a planetarium and film theater. With an emphasis on hands-on learning, there’s plenty to explore. For those over 21, keep an eye on its Science With a Twist calendar, which features after-hours events that combine education with a little bit of booze.

To really dive into Phoenix’s art scene, hit up a First Friday evening. Every first Friday of the month, galleries and studios open their doors late, vendors set up shop along sidewalks, and streets close down to pedestrians strolling to view art in all its forms. Several of the city’s artistic areas participate, including Roosevelt Row and the Historic Grand Avenue. Museums will also join in, so might be a good chance to hit places you didn’t get to during the day.

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Asonta Benetti is a Phoenix-based freelance writer specializing in travel, food, and beverage. Her credits include Food & Wine, VinePair, AFAR, Eater, and Bon Appétit, among others.