Sun Days: Eight TOTALLY Unique Things to Do in Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix Arizona

Arizona, of which Phoenix is the capital, is one of my favorite places in the world to visit.  As a young child we would spend many summer days sweltering in the desert sun while visiting my grandparents in the desert foothills.  These vacations formed the basis of many of my favorite childhood memories.  I still have friends and family in the state and go back as often as I can.

Sand Dunes Phoenix Arizona
This is NOT Arizona! No No No!

What makes Arizona so special to me is its desert setting.  This is not the bleak Sahara desert with its solitary sand dunes and lack of vegetation!  Flora and fauna of the region are so different from what you find back east.  Cacti are beautiful and weird, as are the free-roamin’ javelina, looking like a cross between dog and pig.

Palm Trees Phoenix Arizona
Palm trees at dusk

The sky is wide open, so dawn and dusk amongst all this scenery become times of jaw-dropping beauty.  The abundance of pink adobe buildings and Mexican-influenced southwest culture just add to the charm.

Saguaro Phoenix Ariona
Saguaro – the Arizona state cactus!

Thanks to a recent opportunity to spend a long weekend in the Grand Canyon State, my teens and I descended on Phoenix, the fifth most populous city in the country.  There is just a ton of great activities to do here, so for this post I have had to narrow them all down!

So for example, in the “Valley of the Sun,” as Phoenix calls itself, you’ll find plenty to do such as indoor sky diving.  While this is obviously a fun, adrenaline-pumping activity, it’s something I already discussed in my entry on Chicago.   There’s a brand new aquarium in Scottsdale (OdySea) competing with Sea Life Arizona in nearby Tempe; both look amazing, too.  However, most larger metroplexes around the US feature an aquarium; they aren’t particularly unique to Arizona.  In this post, I’d like to discuss some of the exceptional attractions and activities that you can only see and/or do in this desert metropolis.   Let’s go!


Saguaros Phoenix Arizona

OutdoorsSeasonal If it’s not too hot – say, 90 degrees or less – and this is your first time in the Sonoran desert, your first stop in town needs to be the Desert Botanical Garden.  Within the Garden’s extensive exhibits you will have the opportunity to learn all about the unique desert features of this area.  Curious about those tall, slender cacti that always look like they’re people at a cocktail party, frozen in time?  Those are saguaro, and by the time they look like that, they are over 100 years old!  Learn more about Arizona’s majestic cacti, how and why humans came to occupy the harsh desert habitat (long before air conditioning!), what wildflowers grow in its environs, and so much more.


Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix Arizona
My daughter – in front of THAT piano!

IndoorsCultureGood eatin'On the far north side of town lies the imposing Musical Instrument Museum.  Both my kids were excited to visit although only my daughter, Holly, can play any instruments. The majority of the museum is dedicated to each continent and the special instruments that come from them.  You put on the provided headphones and listen as you pass by each display and accompanying videos.  Some of the music had visitors dancing on the spot!

In addition to exhibits of instruments and their provenance, a gallery dedicated to artists and their instruments was a definite highlight.  We saw – and heard! – John Lennon’s piano and many more music legends in this large room.  Another room features a variety of instruments that visitors are encouraged to play. This is where everyone, especially the younger kids, gets active and has the most fun.  Plan to spend an afternoon here (mornings are overrun with school groups).  We didn’t try the café but heard really good things about it.


Arizona Capitol Museum Phoenix Arizona
Rotunda at Arizona Capitol Museum

IndoorsCultureAnother unique museum I’d highly recommend is the historic seat of the state’s government.  The Arizona Capitol Museum dates from the state’s territorial days in the early 20th century.  The wood-trimmed building itself exudes timeless elegance, with its lovely chandelier peeking through multiple stories’ open rotunda.  Informative exhibits of the state’s lonely frontier beginnings are displayed along with a special exhibit on the USS Arizona.  Take a peek into the old Governor’s Office and head upstairs to the legislative chamber.  The entire museum showcases the beautiful woodworking, lighting and flooring of a long gone era; compare it with the aesthetically dull 1960’s legislative buildings flanking it.


Amazing burrito from El Chino

Good eatin'I hope your visit to the state capitol has left you hungry because some of the state’s best Mexican food is just down the street.  I take the kids to Taquerias El Chino when we hit Phoenix because not only is the food incredible (yet affordable), but the staff is amongst the friendliest you will find anywhere.  Be forewarned: this is the quintessential Mexican food hole-in-the-wall restaurant and you may have to share one of the long tables with other hungry patrons, some of whom may well be Arizona state congress people – they frequent this gem, too!


Hot Air Balloon Phoenix Arizona
Speaking of hot air…

OutdoorsTranspoCan’t get enough spectacular Sonoran desert scenery? Why not max out the views from on high – and at dawn?  Amp it up to 11 on a sunrise hot air balloon ride with the folks at Arizona Balloon Safaris!  Hot air ballooning is safe – you’ll be given safety guidelines prior to flight – and it’s a truly incredible means of experiencing the landscape.   At around $140 per person, this excursion is a splurge on anyone’s budget.  However, how often do you get to greet the dawn from within the sky itself?  After your flight you’ll be served a celebratory breakfast complete with a flute of champagne (for your parents to enjoy).


Snake Phoenix Arizona
These guys like to lurk on the trails – be careful!

OutdoorsTake a hike – and experience incredible city and desert views with the ground firmly beneath your feet.  Hiking in Arizona is second to none.  Spectacular vistas await the intrepid traveler.  Read up on the important precautions to take, especially in the desert.  But do get out there!  Especially recommended for most levels of fitness is Echo Canyon Trail.


Waterslide Phoenix Arizona
The most beautiful sight to see during a Phoenix summer!

OutdoorsSeasonalPerhaps you’re visiting Phoenix in the summer, so a hike is the last thing you want to do.  The many hotels in the city have pools to lounge around in, but they tend to be about as exciting as an overgrown bath tub.  Resorts have great pools, but you have to be a guest to use them.  Water isn’t cheap or abundant for anyone in this parched desert biome.  So thank goodness for the water park!

The valley’s largest, open to all, is Wet ‘N Wild in the suburb of Glendale, open March through October.  This aquatic wonderland features all the usual adrenaline-pumping water rides (the Tornado, anyone?) along with more laid-back fun for the older folks.  You’ll find this mama, for example, on the lazy river Crazy Cactus Roaring River.


Desert vista Phoenix Arizona
Unspoilt desert landscape (the kind Mr Wrigley would have enjoyed)

IndoorsOutdoorsCultureGood eatin'See the house that chewing gum built at the delightful Wrigley Mansion.  There are many lovely homes in this scenic slice of Phoenix, but here you’ll take in the stunning historic building style (Mediterranean meets High Desert) and extensive valley views simultaneously.  I bet you will love the “Winter Cottage” and its old peacock lamps, telephone operator’s table and breathtaking foyer rotunda.

You’ll definitely want to combine a tour of the building with a lunch at its sumptuous restaurant and a stroll on the well-kept grounds.  Perhaps Mr Wrigley’s ghost will slide you a postprandial piece of Juicy Fruit gum!  (Honorable mention here must go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert masterpiece, Taliesin West, a must-see for fans of architecture or ecology.)

If you are lucky enough to enjoy a stay of any length while you’re here, try to get to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Tucson.  Summer visitors to Arizona can cool off by heading about three and a half hours northeast to the White Mountains and the resort town of Pinetop.  Yes, a cool Arizona town covered in pine trees!  In the winter, why not head just a few miles east of Pinetop to the skiing mecca at Sunrise Park Resort?

Arizona is so much more than dry desert heat.  What would you enjoy doing here the most?  Let me know in the comments!

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My favorite thing about Tucson is its designation by someone, somewhere, as the Mexican Food Capital of the World.  Seriously!  (Think about that for a second!)

Can you find the Mexican food?

As a family we enjoy trying different world cuisines frequently, but Lordamercy, as delicious as Chinese, French, Italian, and others may be… there is simply nothing to beat the divine flavors of a truly authentic Mexican meal.  If you agree and would like to explore the infinite possibilities of Mexican food in Tucson, read on!

Taco Bell, which is only called “Mexican” by idiotic restaurant websites, is in many American towns the only pseudo Mexican fast food available.  Tucson, incredibly, also suffers from the odd Taco Bell.  When it’s fast and cheap Mexican you need, please consider the following substitutes, each of which blows Taco Bell and its ilk completely out of the water:
  • El Guero Canelo. The “Cinnamon Blond” has a few spots in town, including its unique, semi-outdoor original restaurant on South 12th  Sonoran style hot dogs are popular with the locals.  I love their carne asada (grilled steak) tacos and burritos, however.  They serve up the most amazing quesadillas, too, and feature a salsa bar loaded with the most mouth-watering salsas I have ever savored north of the border.
  • Nico’s also has a few taco shops around town. Nothing here is going to qualify as 5-star dining, but the scrumptious treats, which nearly overflow their Styrofoam containers, are bountifully covered with tasty yellow cheese.  Stop here for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner and eat like a native!
  • Practice your high school Spanish at La Birrieria Guadalajara. Seriously, when I was there back in the 90’s, the order taker spoke no English.  Ni modo.  You can say “Burrito grande, por favor,” right? The sole stand of this cheap Mexican food mecca is to be found in the central part of town on 22nd
  • I have yet to try Aqui Con El Nene but I know trustworthy folks that have, and they rave about its quality, taste and great prices. Not to mention stuffed potatoes!
  • Chickenuevo
    Chickenuevo – so yummy!

    My kids would kill me if our first stop after flying to Tucson wasn’t Chickenuevo. It’s only a few blocks from the airport directly on the way into town.  Chickenuevo’s roasted chicken is just like the kind I enjoyed when I lived in Mexico – simply sublime.  The side dishes are so-so, but do try the roasted jalapeno served with your plate!


I should mention now that I utterly disdain the concept of high-end Mexican food.  I’ve never found any that can beat your average hole-in-the-wall for incredible flavor.   Please check listings on Yelp or Travel Advisor if you wish to find such outlets in Tucson.   Having said that, I’m happy to move somewhat upscale towards splurge territory.  Accordingly, I hereby offer additional Mexican food outlets that offer a bit of atmosphere in addition to yummy food:
  • Elvira’s has been in action somewhere in Northern Mexico/Southern Arizona for as long as I can remember. Their food is a bit on the stuffy side but it is still incredibly delicious.  They couple good food with a truly memorable ambiance.  If the budget allows it, by all means GO!
  • Mexican food is the staple at La Parrilla Suiza – don’t be fooled by the restaurant name’s translation of “The Swiss Grill” – this is a wonderful place to eat grub like you’d find in Mexico City.  I am particularly fond of their chilaquiles, which are tortilla chips smothered in a rich red enchilada sauce and melted cheese.  Their alambres de res (beef) or pollo (chicken) are also amazing.  You can enjoy them together as the best combo plate on the planet – #17 on their menu.

    Um… yum.
  • There are various “Molina” or “Molinito” restaurants scattered about town. Try googling the one term or the other and add “near me” when in Tucson to find your nearest iteration, which will be called Casa Molina, El Molinito, or Casita de Molina.  Whichever you choose, I heartily recommend the cheese crisp, which is a large flour tortilla covered with cheese.  Another local delicacy is the carne seca, which is beef that has been dried in the Tucson sun and rehydrated with spices.  Order it here in a burrito, and thank me later.
  • Poco and Mom’s serves up delectable New Mexico style Mexican food. Its Tanque Verde location is located in a cute southwestern-style shopping center directly on the way to either Sabino Canyon or Mount Lemmon.
  • If there’s one delight Tucsonans take almost as seriously as Mexican food, it’s steak. Both are served up in blissful harmony at downtown’s highly-rated Charro Steak.  I would strongly advise non-carnivores to examine the menu online ahead of time.


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But it’s a dry heat…! Enjoying Tucson, Arizona


Tucson.  But it’s a dry heat, man!  If you travel here in the summer, Tucson’s “low season,” you’re in luck.  Prices are lower, the streets are less crowded, the evenings are glorious, and there is, I hope, good swimming for you to enjoy somewhere.  The Old Pueblo, facetiously called The Armpit of the Universe during the warm season, is a terrific year-round destination; it’s never really too cold or too hot to do anything fun.

Tucson Arizona

The Sonoran desert terrain, of which Tucson forms part, is so striking, so different than anything else on earth thanks to its towering Saguaro cactus, its unique desert critters and southwestern style architecture.  This ain’t at all the barren Sahara.  One of the most glorious aromas on earth is the scent of the desert creosote after a summer monsoon rain.  But if you’re here virtually any other time, what are you waiting for?  Go on… take a hike!


OutdoorsThe best thing to do in Tucson almost any time of year is, in my opinion, hanging out at the pool.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your grandma’s neighborhood pool, your stuffy hotel pool, or the city’s lone waterpark, The Breakers (which is technically in Marana, a suburb northwest of Tucson).  My teens even enjoy swimming at Tucson’s extremely economical public pools, which often have a waterslide, diving board, or both, along with fun local kids to share a splash with.   Staying cool and beating the heat is where it’s at.

JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort

The best Aquatics Center in the area, hands down, lies within another of Tucson’s suburbs, Oro Valley.  And of course, really lucky teens staying at an area resort never really have to get out of the pool.   Of the many resorts in Tucson, we prefer to splurge at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort.  This gorgeous Tucson hideaway has a waterslide, lazy river, splash pads, hot tubs, and two separate and distinct sparkling pools for when sharing a large body of water with your little sister Chaedynne is Just. Not. Happening.



OutdoorsMiscellaneousGood eatin'My kids and I aren’t into shopping much, probably because so many shops are boring corporate clones of one another no matter where you go.  Fortunately, Tucson is blessed with an edgy yet historic district of unique shopping and dining experiences, easily accessed by taking the tram from either downtown or the University of Arizona Main Gate area.  This easy to amble shopping district is known as Fourth Avenue.   The people watching here is amazing.  There is no better place in town to play a rousing game of Who can count the most facial piercings?  Reward the winner with a delicious Italian meal from Caruso’s.  It’s been around since forever.  Dine on the patio if the weather is at all amenable!


IndoorsCultureIf arts & crafts is your bag, or ever was your bag, or you wish it were your bag, or you just think little things are cute no matter what –  I heartily suggest you stop by the blessedly air conditioned Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures.   It seems that a cadre of dedicated folks have made a hobby of decorating miniature doll houses and figurines.  Sounds like fun, but what’s truly remarkable is how the museum visitor is encouraged to examine these small structures up close, thereby essentially immersing him or herself in another place — or time — in 3D.  A room that especially enchants young children features a magical array of miniature fairies and folk tale characters.


OutdoorsTranspoBordering Saguaro National Park East, you’ll giddy up in style at Houston’s Horseback Riding.  Trail rides with Houston’s are available no matter your horseback riding skill or experience.  The vistas out here are simply phenomenal, and you’ll surely see incredible wildlife that doesn’t venture beyond the sticks.  If you’re staying in Tucson for at least a week or so in the summer, why not sign up for one of their horsemanship camps?   Whatever you do at Houston’s, you’ll learn a lot and have fun riding their sweet horses.


OutdoorsOne of the most awesome day trips you’ll ever take lies right on the edge of suburbia within the northeast side of Tucson.  Sabino Canyon is here, in the Coronado National Forest; it’s absolutely gorgeous, easy to get to and features hikes in levels anywhere from challenging to easy enough for your little brother.  Stop first at the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the local flora and fauna, grab a tram into the belly of the beast if you like and get ready for an exhilarating adventure into a sublime desert panorama.  Cool off with a dip in a refreshing, natural pool.


OutdoorsMiscellaneousGet out of bed super early and head towards the most amazing outdoor museum in the southwest.  We love visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, part zoo, part aquarium, part natural history gallery and part botanical garden, for its comprehensive array of desert critters and beautiful desert flora.  If you get here too late, especially on a warm summer day, the critters will probably be asleep out of sight.  Even if this is the case you can still see the creepy lizards, snakes and spiders in the indoors exhibits, and the hummingbirds in their own covered walk-through aviary.  Careful though: if you’re wearing red, you’re lunch!


OutdoorsDay trips are agreeable enough, but why not grab a tent and some s’mores supplies and rough it for an evening somewhere in the Coronado National Forest along the Catalina Highway, also known as the Mt Lemmon Scenic Byway?  This incredible road up the Catalina Foothills (the most imposing peaks you see when you’re within the city limits) traverses through several natural biomes on your way towards the summit, culminating in alpine forest at the top.  Get this: the southernmost ski area of the country is right here, above the sweltering desert valley!  Even if you don’t hit the slopes, there is plenty to do, such as ride the ski lift or admire the sky island vegetation during a long hike.  Future astronomers need to check out the University of Arizona’s mountaintop SkyCenter; everyone should find an appealing spot on the Byway to pull over and enjoy a night under the desert stars.

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