There’s really no bad view in Scottsdale. | Photo Courtesy of Experience Scottsdale
There’s really no bad view in Scottsdale. | Photo Courtesy of Experience Scottsdale

This Desert City Is America’s Capital of Rest and Relaxation

Cowboys meet comfort in the West’s most charmingly Western town.

For the past few decades, Scottsdale has mastered the art of rest and relaxation. A quick drive from Phoenix, this is Arizona’s own Palm Springs. Much like the Californian escape, it started as a lowkey getaway for the Hollywood crowd, who figured no one would come looking for them in the far reaches of the Sonoran. Scottsdale has it all: arts, culture, glam, and classic desert quirks, with giant, cartoon-like saguaro cacti sprouting up from the ground where Joshua trees might be in the Golden State.

Don’t let Scottsdale’s tagline fool you. It may be called “The West’s Most Western Town,” but you’ll instantly be convinced otherwise. The upscale resorts, luxury shops, and bachelorette parties romping their way through Old Town are a far cry from the rootin’ tootin’ days of yore. But go a little deeper, and you’ll see exactly why Scottsdale earned this reputation.

Friendly, laid-back locals outnumber glammed-up tourists, and bars aren’t afraid to get a little rowdy—in fact, they hope to be. The food scene combines the best of the Southwest with culinary concepts worthy of any major metropolis, and the endless expanse of cacti framed by craggy mountains are as photo-worthy as some of our country’s most stunning national parks. Spend enough time here, and you may find yourself sporting a Stetson hat (Scottsdale is also home to the one and only Cowboy College).

In this town where you’re just as likely to spot cowboys as you are celebs—including A-listers like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who honeymooned in this very desert—it’s nearly impossible to leave without feeling rejuvenated. Now, whether “rejuvenation” comes from morning yoga and deep tissue massages or that rush while atop a galloping horse, well, that’s your call.

Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia
Easy to see why Scottsdale is a top wellness destination. | Photo by Jason Dewey for Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia

Zen out at the many resorts & spas

Even when compared to some of the major wellness destinations in the country—the aforementioned Joshua Tree, fellow Arizona favorite Sedona, booming Miami—we assure you that Scottsdale still comes out on top as the most restful, thanks to the fact that there are more than 50 spas and resorts spread out across less than 200 square miles. (That’s two resorts per square mile!)

One of the most iconic is Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, where—as is their greatest claim to fame—Beyoncé and Jay-Z honeymooned. If you’re looking for an intimate stay or romantic getaway, this is your place. Their spa treatments include everything from HydraFacials to full-body scrubs; the rooms, woven throughout the hills, feel more like sleek apartments; their Asian-accented elements restaurant looks out across the mountains; and the dimly-lit, sleek jade bar is downright sexy.

If you’re a little more laid-back, make your way to the historic Hermosa Inn, which feels like an oasis in the truest sense of the word. Founded in the ‘30s by cowboy artist Alonzo “Lon” Megargee, inside you’ll find adobe buildings, garden paths bursting with flowers, and some pretty spectacular portraits of Western figures. Dine at LON's, a restaurant whose outdoor seating area is straight-up Eden-like, or, if you’re visiting with a group, book a private dinner inside the wine cellar, surrounded by 6,000 bottles. (There’s also a Prohibition-era secret tunnel whose history the staff is more than happy to share.) While they don’t offer wellness treatments, the silence of the greenery-lined footpaths that lead to the cool casitas—each with skylights and fireplaces—might do for you in minutes what a spa takes hours to accomplish.

And, if you want to really get away from it all, drive about a half-hour into the desert until you reach the newish ADERO Scottsdale. Along with spa treatments (the massages will literally work out every pandemic-related knot in your body), the views are perhaps the greatest draw of all. Here, your surroundings are composed exclusively of enormous saguaros and soaring mountain peaks that change from dusty brown to blue then pink and purple as the sun sets behind the hills. Even once the lights go down for the day, there’s still tons to see: After dinner and drinks downstairs at the restaurant, CIELO, some rooms offer telescopes for stargazing, since the hotel is located in a Dark Sky Zone.

There’s also Hotel Valley Ho, which mimics the colorful, palm-lined California-fun of Palm Springs resorts; The Phoenician, which offers luxe rooms and a private cactus garden; and Spain-inspired Omni Montelucia, amongst others. It all comes down to what you prefer in terms of views, spa treatments, and proximity to town.

MacDonald's Ranch
Learn how to wrangle cattle—a skill you always wanted? | Photo by Jenna McKone, courtesy of Experience Scottsdale

Get your kicks at Cowboy College

On the flip side of all that R&R, you can head into the outskirts of town to experience the true heart of Scottsdale and its western roots. Start at MacDonald’s Ranch, where you can take a scenic horse trail ride winding through cacti and desert brush. When you’re done, explore the ranch, which is fashioned after the kind of town you’d expect to see in a Western film, complete with old-timey building facades, a horseshoe toss, a locomotive, and a (not so traditional) petting zoo. They also host cowboy cookouts from November through April.

But, to really immerse yourself in the spirit of the West, sign up for a weekend at the Arizona Cowboy College. It may sound gimmicky, but allow us to clarify: By the time you’re done, you will be sweaty, empowered, and genuinely knowledgeable on how to groom, dress, mount, ride, and, most importantly, understand a 700-pound horse.

Run by Lori Bridwell and Rocco Wachman—who, on top of being excellent riders, might just be the two most interesting and engaging individuals in the entire Southwest—the college offers up the chance to spend a few nights learning the ropes of a bonafide ranch. You’ll spend time in the rustic bunkhouse before getting to know the ins and outs of horses: how they’re trained, how to clean their hooves, how to arrange a saddle, wrangle cattle, and—of course—how to ride ‘em. (Not to mention how to avoid getting the shit kicked out of you.)

Even if you’ve never been on a horse before, you’ll be trotting along in no time. By the end, you’ll be in love with your steed, fully ready to run away to Arizona for good, and surprised by how much courage and work it takes to be a cowboy (or cowgirl!), even today. Just be sure to ditch your tennis shoes in favor of some heeled boots; you’ll soon find out why cowboys don’t just wear them for the fashion.

Taliesin West
Find your bliss at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. | Photo Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Get cultured with an afternoon of art

Between Scottsdale and nearby Phoenix—which, despite how homogeneous they may look on a map, are separate cities whose itineraries just so happen to bleed into one another often—there are nearly as many museums, galleries, and art spaces as there are resorts.

Anchor yourself in Old Town, where you can cross off two of Scottsdale’s greatest artistic hits in the span of a few hours. Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West—considered one of the best Wild West museums in the country—is home to hundreds of pieces of century-old paraphernalia, Native American pottery, and rotating exhibits. Afterward, walk five minutes down the road to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, home to dozens of modern pieces, as well as one of James Turrell’s bewildering “Skyspaces,” one of just a handful in existence.

Another famous institution is Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter residence and architectural masterpiece (dubbed his “desert laboratory”), where you can take a guided tour of the grounds and learn, room by room, how the late designer and his colleagues brought the home to life. It’s also worth making your way over to Wonder Spaces in Fashion Square, home to impressive tech-based and immersive digital art.

You can also drive into Phoenix if you really want to stack your arts itinerary. For a taste of Arizona’s thousands of years of Indigenous history and culture, pay a visit to the Heard Museum or the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, while the Cave Creek Museum (which is only open from October to May) chronicles Arizona’s mining days. If you’re into something a little more quirky, you’ve got plenty of options, including McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, the Penske Racing Museum, and the Musical Instrument Museum, where you can see—and even play with—dozens upon dozens of instruments from all over the world.

Eating Food Together
Literally eat your way around the globe in Scottsdale. | Photo Courtesy of Experience Scottsdale

Get your Southern (and Southwestern) culinary fix

If you ask locals, it isn’t the resorts or shops—as new as many of them are—that tell the tale of a city growing in popularity. In Scottsdale, it’s the food scene that’s been exploding lately, bringing all kinds of award-winners and international spots to the Sonoran.

For breakfast and brunch, there’s the aforementioned LON's, as well as Prep & Pastry, seasonally focused Wildflower, and Southern-style SugarJam. Around lunchtime, The Mission is the ideal place to recover from the desert sun. Inside, it’s cozy and dimly lit, the Latin-inspired menu serves everything from packed tortas to adobo roasted potatoes, and the drinks are poured strong—and since it’s squarely within Old Town, you can make it your fuel-up spot before museum-hopping nearby or blowing all your money shopping at seventh-generation Gilbert Ortega Native American Galleries up the street.

In Kierland Commons, there’s also Zinc Bistro, a Parisian-style bistro serving traditional French dishes and desserts, and Postino WineCafe, a very chilled-out spot with paninis, bruschetta boards, and wine, where you can fill your stomach to the brim without emptying your wallet.

If you’ve spent all day exploring Old Town, end your night with dinner at James Beard-nominated, easygoing Citizen Public House (be sure to order the crab cakes, bone marrow, and chopped salad). Slightly further away, there’s the sleek Italian spot Fat Ox, where dishes like pistachio umami butter fazzoletti and confit Berkshire pork short rib with apricot fennel balsamic glaze top the list.

Rusty Spur
Catch live music any night of the week at Old Town's Rusty Spur Saloon. | Photo courtesy of Rusty Spur Saloon

Bar hop through breweries, saloons, and speakeasies

As for drinks, you’ll find a number of breweries (Goldwater Brewing Co., Craft 64, Fate Brewing Company, Brat Haus) and wine spots (Merkin, Carlson Creek, Aridus, LDV Winery), as well as banging bars and saloons found both in tourist areas and in more residential neighborhoods. In Old Town, the Rusty Spur Saloon became Scottsdale’s first-ever honky tonk in 1951, with live country music, cold brews, and genuine Western decor that’s been there for more than 70 years—including swinging saloon doors.

As for more modern watering holes, the greater Phoenix area provides yet another near-endless list: Lylo Swim Club, Killer Whale Sex Club, UnderTow, The Little Woody, Valley Bar, Bitter & Twisted, Melindas Alley, and Little Rituals are just a handful of local favorites. For something really special, try reservation-only speakeasy Century Grand, whose three different bars each have their own theme, including one that resembles the inside of a moving train—complete with scenery.

The real charm of Scottsdale is the many surrounding trails. | Photo by Tom Mackie for Experience Scottsdale

Tackle the trails

While you could spend your entire trip sipping cocktails or soaking up the luxuries at the many spas, being in Scottsdale is about getting outside—by the pool, on the golf course, while you eat, or on the trail. There are a number of solid hikes around town, all of them best taken in the early morning before the sun rises and the heat sets in. As a heads up, even those hikes listed as “quick/easy/moderate” may be more strenuous than you expect, due to rocky trails. Bring plenty of water, slather on that sunscreen, go slow, and remember that it’s always okay to turn around!

It’s not uncommon for trailheads to stem from resort grounds; from both Sanctuary and ADERO, for example, you can head right up into the hills. Otherwise, try your hand (or feet?) at a 4-mile hike up pyramid-shaped Pinnacle Peak. If you’re really down for a challenge, hit the Camelback Mountain Trail (accessible from Sanctuary) or the Tom’s Thumb Trail, two popular yet difficult paths that’ll take you soaring above the desert.

In Phoenix, hike Piestewa Peak Summit for a serious 2.1-mile challenge, or take a genuinely breezy 0.3-mile climb to Hole in the Rock, where you can hang out in the opening for a birds-eye view of the Arizona capital (and a pretty stellar photo opp, which admittedly results in regular crowds).

And while it’s not a trailhead, per se, one could argue that the Desert Botanical Garden is equally important to visit if you really want to get acquainted with life in the Sonoran. There, you can see fields of cacti and other desert flora, catch vistas of distant red rock mountains, and learn how—not unlike us—animals have learned how to create unique, hospitable homes in the heart of the desert.

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s former associate travel editor and a cowboy at heart. Follow her on Instagram at @tian.a.