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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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Another 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.
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!
Can’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).
Take 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.
Perhaps 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.
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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