When it comes to traveling through the American Southwest, travelers can often become quickly overwhelmed by the beauty, scale, and strangeness of the rugged desert environment. There are endless trails to follow, sights to see, and roads to drive. Whether planning an extensive road trip or simply a weekend trip away from the status quo, however, you can’t go wrong with giving yourself at least one day in Tempe.
As opposed to her siblings Phoenix and Scottsdale, nearby Tempe has its own vibe and there’s a freedom to have whatever kind of experience comes your way. A college town home to Arizona State, the city is filled with the unique spots that title entails. Our 24-hour guide barely scratches the surface, but trust us—it will only take a day for you to switch Tempe from a ‘Never Been’ to a ‘Must Return.’
If you can swing it, arrive in town later in the day or evening. The desert heat is no joke, and even though Tempe’s only a short distance from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), you’ll want to give yourself the gift of a nighttime check-in.
The Phoenix metro area is very driver friendly, but if you want to be right in the thick of it from the get go, you can’t go wrong with the Canopy by Hilton Tempe Downtown. The space itself is airy and filled to the brim with natural touches, with the added bonus of a rooftop pool should you ever need a moment’s reprieve from the heat.
Our favorite part? The hotel offers complimentary bike rentals, meaning that even if you don’t have a car at your disposal, transportation becomes a non-issue.
Like any good college town, Arizona State has a beloved hill with a giant letter on it. Overlooking campus and downtown Tempe, Hayden Butte, also known as ‘A’ Mountain, offers a short but invigorating hike and the perfect place to catch the desert sunrise.
Depending on when you come, daybreak may be a little earlier or later, and you might have to bring a jacket for the morning chill. But regardless of the timing, the view from the top will promise to be spectacular.
In case the sunrise and a morning jaunt wasn’t enough to jolt you awake, we recommend taking advantage of Tempe’s vibrant coffee culture.
To get a taste of how Tempe locals and ASU students stay caffeinated, look no further than local mainstay Cartel Coffee Lab. The shop has multiple locations throughout the metro (including the airport), but stay close to campus for the shop on Maple and Ash.
Gunmetal gray walls and austere bicycle wheels belie the chill, low stakes vibe. Nobody here is slinging out lattes a mile a minute—while you wait for your coffee, cool down with one of their pastries. Selections vary, but if you can get your hands on one of their homemade ‘Pop-Tarts’, you won’t regret it.
For breakfast, get out of campus and into South Tempe. Behind an unassuming strip mall façade lie some of the most delicious and creative crepes you’ll find this side of the Atlantic.
A former food truck, Crêpe Bar set down more permanent roots in 2012, and since then, they have earned a reputation for constant invention while maintaining a devoted relationship with local farms and purveyors. As such, menu items might fluctuate, but you’ll want to check out the Burrito, a loving homage to that southwestern staple.
Get a sweet crepe to go, and get back on the move, because there’s much more to see whether you’re on a foodie tour of Tempe or a town tour.
Move back up beyond campus and on to Papago Park. This huge recreational area is home to a golf course, the Phoenix Zoo, and copious hiking trails that are also great for catching the sunrise. Chances are you could spend the rest of the day here, but the rising sun will quickly convince you otherwise.
Before it hits its zenith, however, spend some time walking through one of the city’s most precious jewels, the Desert Botanical Garden. Highlighting the unexpectedly rich biodiversity of the desert landscape, the garden has been the center of Arizona’s desert conservation and research for over 80 years. Pack lots of sunscreen and water, and see more kinds of succulent than you ever thought possible.
Just as the effects of that delicious crepe are wearing off, head off the beaten path to the east of campus for a taste of The East.
Sonny Zhao and Lulu Zhou’s temple to the cuisine of China’s Dongbei (i.e. northeast) region is actually their second location of Chou’s Kitchen. The first, located in nearby Chandler, was so popular that they decided to proffer their perfectly crafted dumplings and meat pies closer to the heart of Tempe’s up-and-coming traditional Chinese restaurant scene.
For something a little lighter, order some braised eggplant or spicy cabbage alongside your mackerel dumplings.
At this point in the day, you may want to spend as much time in the AC as possible. Luckily, the ASU Art Museum is here to provide. Free of charge, the museum highlights ceramics, contemporary art, new media and art specific to Arizona and Latin America.
While most of the ceramics can be found in the Ceramics Research Center, you will most likely spend a majority of your time in the transfixing architecture of the Nelson Fine Arts Center, designed by Albuquerque’s Antione Predock. Crafted in clean lines of pale gray and rose, the adobe walls rise and play with the bright Arizona light, blurring the lines between art and the museum containing it.
In case you haven’t quite had your architecture fix, simply walk one block away to ASU Gammage, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last public commissions, and certainly one of his grandest. The auditorium still plays host to a number of productions, and can be adapted for anything from operas to traveling Broadway musicals to smaller scale performances. As the sun begins to set, the sumptuous pale curves of the outer walls turn a vibrant bronze.
For sunset, make your way down to Tempe Town Lake. Starting from Tempe Beach Park, you can give yourself a self-guided tour of some of the public art works along the banks. Slowly wind your away along toward the Tempe Center for the Arts, where a number of pieces, such as Brower Hatcher’s spectacular Aurora, glimmer with the light of the setting sun. The pedestrian bridge over the water offers an excellent vantage point for seeing daytime turn to twilight.
End your day by entering into the festive world of the Golden Pineapple Craft Cocktail Lounge. An endearing fusion of Indigenous Southwestern and Mexican, with a touch of tiki bar thrown into the mix, the Golden Pineapple continues Tempe’s trend towards fun and innovative flavors.
The tamale fries are a can’t-miss, while the hot fried chicken sandwich gives an Arizona twist to a classic. An extensive drink list features copious mezcal, perfect for capping off an eventful day. Save some room for the concha ice cream sandwich, a dessert so perfectly decadent that you will wonder why it’s not a staple everywhere.
Plenty of Time for Adventure in Tempe
Tempe boasts more than 300 days of sunshine with average temperature at 80°F year-round, making it a great destination for a weekend break focused on food, or a stopover on a road trip through Arizona.
To beat the heat, visit Tempe late October through the end of April when temperatures are a little lower than usual. Although booking a trip during the hotter months (May to September) can see you getting great deals on hotel bookings. Whenever you choose to go, we predict plenty of pool time, early sunrise hikes and late dinners as you enjoy the best of Tempe.