The Phoenix-Scottsdale Guide: What To See & Do

Happy Wednesday, all! I hope everyone is having a fabulous week so far.

If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know that I’ve recently been in Arizona! I took a little trip to visit my friend Liv – she and I have been friends for over ten years, which is crazy to think about. She was born and raised in Scottsdale, but came to Canada to do her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, which is where we met – we both lived in the same dorm during our first year of school. Even though she since moved back to the States, we’ve kept in touch over the years, and she stayed with me in Toronto when she came back to visit in 2019. A few months ago we were catching up over Google Meets and she invited me to come see her and stay at her new house in Scottsdale… how could I say no!?

It was an amazing trip! Getting to catch up with an old friend after all these years was a blast, and the sunny desert weather was just what I needed to boost me out of my Canadian winter slump. We did so many fun things during my visit – there’s nothing like having a native Arizonan show you around – and I wanted to share some of the highlights with y’all. If you’re planning a trip to Arizona (and if you’re not, you should be) you can’t go wrong with any of these places! So without further ado, here’s my picks for the best things to see and do in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area.

Desert Botanical GardenThis 140-acre botanical garden is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Phoenix, and once you visit, you’ll know why. The sprawling property is home to over 50,000 beautiful desert plants. There’s (of course) tons of cacti, but you’ll also see gorgeous wildflowers, succulents, agave plants and yucca trees. There’s also a butterfly pollinator garden, a botanical library, an on-site restaurant and various walking trails. One of my favourite parts of the DBG was the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert trail, which features replicas of historic Indigenous desert dwellings. The gardens also host rotating art exhibits: they’re currently showing a collection of sculptures by Arizona-based artist Rotraut. General admission tickets to the Desert Botanical Garden are $29.95 and can be purchased online.

Papago Park Located right beside the Desert Botanical Gardens, just minutes away from downtown Phoenix, Papago Park is a municipal park that’s instantly recognizable for its hilly red sandstone butte formations. The park is free to visit and open to the public, and it’s a popular destination for hikers, bikers and runners. Papago Park is famous for its Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, which looks exactly what it sounds like: a large opening (“the hole”) in one of the park’s natural geological formations (“the rock”) provides sweeping views of the city of Phoenix. We’d planned to visit Papago Park after our trip to the Desert Botanical Gardens, but we ended up spending longer than expected at the gardens (and were hungry for lunch!) so we just pulled over on the side of the nearby freeway (North Galvin Parkway) and did a quick stroll. It looks like something out of The Flintstones!

Taliesin West This iconic complex was the winter home and desert laboratory of prominent architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Situated in the desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains, it was established in 1937 and built over several years by Wright and his apprentices. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designated National Historic Landmark, and the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. It also happens to be open to the public for tours! Taliesin West offers audio tours or guided tours which can be booked online – I opted for the self-guided audio tour, which was very interesting and informative, and allows you to move about the property at your own pace. The self-guided nature of this tour also allows you to ‘rewind’ and revisit any areas you find particularly interesting! While the tickets are on the pricy side (the audio tour is $39) I think the experience is well worth it. Taliesin West is a stunning example of architecture built into – not on top of – its surroundings. With its thoughtful design elements, natural materials and seamless flow between indoor and outdoor space, the building integrates beautifully into the landscape around it – something you don’t see often, even today. This is a must-see for architecture and design fans.

Pinnacle PeakLocated at the north end of Scottsdale, this 1.75 mile trail gives hikers some seriously awe-inspiring views of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. I would say it’s an easy to moderately challenging hike. While it’s all uphill, the incline isn’t too steep – although if you want to reach the summit itself, you’ll need rock climbing gear (we didn’t do that!) We hiked to the highest point of the trail, an elevation of 2889 feet, admired the panoramic views of the desert, and then enjoyed an easy stroll back down. It was amazing to get up close and personal with some of Arizona’s natural beauties: giant red-rock boulders, tall Saguaro cacti and pretty desert wildflowers. This is a very well-maintained, well-marked and popular trail – which means it’ll probably be busy, especially if you go on a weekend like we did. Admission to the park and trail is free.

Old Town Scottsdale The heart of downtown Scottsdale, Old Town is home to a plethora of shops, galleries, bars and restaurants. The area is rich in history, as it’s where the settlement and development of what’s now Scottsdale first began back in 1888 (fun fact: its original name was Orangedale.) From its well-preserved historic buildings (read about the Old Adobe Mission below!) to plaques and signage educating visitors about the area’s history, the city has done a great job at preserving the ‘Old Town’ feel of this area and making it feel like an old Wild West town. Some highlights in Old Town you should check out:

  • Gilbert Ortega Galleries – This massive store has a huge selection of handmade Native American art, textiles and jewelry. You can’t miss it – the iconic cowboy sign that welcomes visitors to Old Town Scottsdale is right out front.
  • Pima Plaza Shops & Galleries – Designed to look like an Old West town, this quaint plaza is home to several shops where you can buy one-of-a-kind souvenirs, from art to jewelry to home décor.
  • The Merchantile of Scottsdale – This arts and crafts marketplace sells products from over 70 local designers, makers and artists. Y’all know I love supporting local – whether at home or abroad – and I had so much fun browsing the different booths around the store. Whether you’re looking for art, home décor, clothing, jewelry, accessories, stationery… you name it and you’ll find it here! I got a beautiful druzy crystal bracelet for a very reasonable price (under $20 USD) that I’m absolutely in love with.
  • See’s Candies – The Scottsdale location of this iconic confectionery is a must-stop for sweet tooths. See’s has proudly been in business since 1921, and their charming branding and décor reflects their storied history – the shop looks just like a retro candy parlour! The staff are so friendly and greet every visitor with a free chocolate sample. They have a candy counter where you can create your own custom mixed box of chocolates and candies. See’s is famous for their chocolate truffles, peanut brittle, molasses chips, old-fashioned peppermints and cream lollypops, among other things. I stopped in to pick up some treats for my mom, who’s a big See’s fan!

Old Adobe Mission Located in Old Town Scottsdale, this beautiful white adobe church was designed by Robert T. Evans and built in 1933 by some of the city’s first Mexican settlers. It’s an important historic landmark: not only is it Scottsdale’s oldest Catholic church, it’s also one of only three remaining adobe buildings in the city’s downtown core. The building is a gorgeous example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, which happens to be one of my favourite architectural styles. It was built using over 14,000 adobe bricks and features handcrafted stained glass windows. The church is free to visit, but they welcome cash donations. You can also support them by making a purchase from their onsite gift shop: proceeds directly support the continued restoration and maintenance of the building. Right beside the church is The Mission, an award-winning Latin restaurant from renowned local chef Matt Carter. Across the street from the Adobe Mission, you’ll spot a beautiful sculpture by Indigenous artist Kathy Whitman.

Scottsdale Arts District Old Town Scottsdale is filled with inspiring sculptures, murals and installations throughout, but you’ll find an especially high concentration in the Scottsdale Arts District, located on East Main Street between Goldwater Blvd and Scottsdale Rd. This pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood is home to several art galleries, as well as various sculptures and statues. Every Thursday evening from 7 to 9 pm, the district hosts ArtWalks during which galleries open their doors to the public. Visitors can enjoy live music, refreshments and even horse-drawn carriage rides around the area. The Scottsdale Gallery Association has been hosting ArtWalks in partnership with the City of Scottsdale since 1975, and I think it’s such a great idea! It’s easy to feel intimidated walking into an art gallery if you’re not a serious buyer or collector. This concept invites everyone – from casual visitors to serious patrons – to enjoy and learn about art in a friendly, accessible way.

Scottsdale Civic Center This public park in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale has lovely gardens, an amphitheater that hosts various events (and is beautifully illuminated with twinkle lights at night) and several public art installations, including Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture. It’s close to the shops and restaurants of Old Town Scottsdale, so it’s a great place for a quiet stroll if you need a break from shopping and eating! (Sometimes, there really can be too much of a good thing.) This park is also where you’ll find two renowned cultural venues: the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. I didn’t get a chance to visit either on this trip, but they’re definitely on my list for next time!

Arcosanti While Arcosanti isn’t located in Phoenix or Scottsdale – it’s 70 miles north of Phoenix in Yavapai County, just over an hour’s drive from the city – I would have been remiss not to include it here. It’s truly one of the coolest, strangest, most unique places I’ve ever visited, and well worth the day trip! Built in the 70s, Arcosanti is the brainchild of architect Paolo Soleri. Frustrated by urban sprawl and car culture, he envisioned an “arcology” (a portmanteau of architecture and ecology) for a self-sustaining city with as little impact as possible on its environment. The experimental town of Arcosanti was built by over 7000 volunteers, or self-proclaimed “Arconauts”. People continue to live and work there today, and it’s a fully functioning community – albeit a very different way of life from the one you or I live! Arcosanti offers daily guided tours for $22 per person, which can be booked in advance online. Our tour guide Bonnie – who lives and works at Arcosanti – was very nice and engaging, and showed us all around the property. If you’re familiar with Paolo Soleri’s work, you’ve likely seen his iconic bronze windbells, which are still in production today: artisans at Arcosanti craft them by hand. You can purchase a windbell from the Arcosanti gift shop (my friend bought one for her garden). Each purchase directly supports the Cosanti Foundation. You can also buy one from the Cosanti Originals gallery store in Paradise Valley, or shop online.

Well, there you have it… my picks for the top things to see and do in (and beyond) Phoenix and Scottsdale! Of course, there’s so much more to Arizona: from the red rocks of Sedona to the pine forests of Flagstaff to one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. I was lucky enough to visit all of these places on a family trip as a kid, and while this trip wasn’t long enough to do a full state tour, I would love to go back and experience all those places again someday.

Whether it’s a coincidence or perhaps just because it’s a fabulous place to visit, I know a lot of people who’ve been vacationing in Arizona lately. If you’re planning your own trip there, I hope this guide was helpful! If you have questions about any of the places I mentioned, please let me know – I’d love to provide tips or recommendations wherever I can.

I’ll be back soon with another post rounding up the best places to eat in Phoenix and Scottsdale. Stay tuned!

3 responses to “The Phoenix-Scottsdale Guide: What To See & Do”

  1. Stephanie, your descriptions were right on and your reaction is one I always wish from visitors. I am a transplanted resident from Vermont spending my 50th year in Scottsdale this month. I retired from the US Air Force and we were headed to my wife’s home in Hawaii when someone mentioned to us, you should visit Scottsdale, Arizona on your way to the coast. We did, we fell in love, and we’re still here. I got involved with the Old Adobe Mission during the restoration days and was given the priviledge to make the little church visitor friendly by making it self guideable (is that a word?) by labeling all the important items and putting faces (photos) to those who have left things behind so that we might have something to talk about.
    Your shot of those stair looking things in Papago Park ….. for many years that was the seating for Easter Sunrise Services. “Happy Easter!”
    Ernie “Old Adobe Mission Historian”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ernie – thank you so much for commenting and sharing the amazing story of how you and your wife ended up in Scottsdale, and how you got involved with the Old Adobe Mission. It’s great to e-meet you and I wish you a happy Easter as well!


  2. […] I promised in my latest post about the best things to see and do in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, today I’m back sharing my […]


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