Whether you’re headed to Phoenix for business, leisure, or anything in between, this vibrant desert city is an ever-evolving arts and culture hub—you just have to leave the resorts and the golf courses to find it. Each time I visit, I discover new spaces, flavors and artists celebrating the history, traditions and cultures of those who have enriched this region from the dawn of time.
For my most recent culture quest in the nation’s fifth-largest city, I hit the streets, museums and a few walking paths and trails to experience some of Phoenix’s richest enclaves for arts and culture.
Naturally, the heart of downtown is the place to start—and to stay for that matter. There’s an array of new and reimagined hotels within walking distance to most of the stops on this itinerary. Along those same lines, fair warning, Phoenix has transformed rapidly in recent years. So, plan to mix a few new experiences in with your old favorites, and you can’t go wrong. Here’s a three-day itinerary based on recommendations from my most-recent visit.
Day 1: Engage Your Senses
Every visit, no matter how short, I start my day with a locally roasted coffee or espresso. In a place known as the coffee capital of the Southwest, you can’t go wrong—but I’m partial to the hand-crafted artistry at Lola Coffee in downtown. Besides, it’s conveniently located across the street from the Japanese Friendship Garden, a serene escape from the bustle of the city.
First thing in the morning is the perfect time to stroll this 3.5-acre oasis, or just sit quietly and enjoy your coffee. For tea folks, however, there’s a tea house on site that hosts monthly ceremonies. Schedule permitting, you can also take one of its free Zazen meditation sessions as a gentle way to begin the day.
Caffeinated and centered, your next stop is the Heard Museum (just four minutes away by car or one stop north on the Valley Metro Rail). Dedicated to presenting, interpreting and advancing American Indian art, the museum invites guests to experience the myriad cultures of the Southwest. You can explore 12 different galleries, along with outdoor sculpture gardens and free guided tours. A stop in the trading post-style shop is a must, where you can shop for American Indian jewelry, pottery, sculptures, and more.
I hop back on the Valley Metro Rail and hop off at the very next station headed south, and I’m at the Phoenix Art Museum, the largest art museum in the southwestern United States. Opened in 1959, I can always count on seeing a new exhibit before meandering through its many permanent collections, including Latin America, European, Contemporary, Asian, and Fashion Design.
Of particular interest is the third floor’s incredible changing photography exhibitions. This visit, it’s ‘Freedom Must Be Lived: Marion Palfi’s America, 1940-1978,’ which highlights the photographer’s important visual documentation of 20th-century American injustice (on view through January 2022). If you happen to be in town on a Wednesday, the museum stays open later, giving visitors extra time to explore.
For the remainder of my evening, I’m faced with an important decision: what type of stage is calling my name. Here, there’s live performance options for every style, taste, and mood to choose from. With multiple stages under one roof, the Phoenix Theatre Company offers an invitation to entertainment. The regional company rotates through hit shows and experiences, and is at the center of an active arts complex.
If live jazz in a more intimate venue is more your speed, The Nash is a unique club that harkens—and celebrates—the city’s strong jazz roots. Named for Phoenix native Lewis Nash, an internationally acclaimed jazz drummer who Modern Drummer called ‘jazz’s most valuable player,’ this club features live jazz , as well as educational opportunities to encourage the next generation’s interest in jazz. It’s accessible to all and promises a mellow vibe that makes for the perfect way to wind down after a busy day.
Day 2: Art in the Heart of the City
A morning walk along the Grand Canalscape is one of my favorite ways to start the day (aside from, maybe, a mountain top sunrise). This mural-clad, multi-use path leads right into the heart of the Melrose District, which is home to the city’s concentration of LGBTQ+ bars, as well as antiques shops and trendy restaurants, including James Beard America’s Classics award-winner Fry Bread House, a must-stop for delicious, traditional fry bread of all varieties. Since it’s still early for lunch or cocktails, I pop into one of the neighborhood’s newest additions—the ultra-Instagrammable Valentine—for a savory brunch and a squash latte.
If you find yourself regretting skipping the live jazz last night, I have a solution for you. Just head north to the Musical Instrument Museum to explore the over 6,800 instruments on display. Featuring representation of instruments, music and cultures from nearly every country in the world, plan to allow ample time to explore the many galleries.
Be sure to check their live concert series, as the schedule always includes a diverse lineup of performers—hailing from the local area as well as the global music scene.
As afternoon begins to fade, I head back into downtown for a self-paced evening tour of Roosevelt Row, Phoenix’s walkable arts district. Lined with galleries, restaurants, bars, breweries, art spaces, music venues and shops, this really is the place to be for dinner, cocktails and nightlife. There’s almost always something happening, from the First Fridays Art Walk and gallery events to the weekly farmer’s market, and other pop-up community events.
One of my favorite places for dinner, and also for truly feeling a sense of this community, is The Churchill, an ultra-accessibility friendly gathering concept for dining, drinking, socializing, and even a little local shopping. The massive courtyard is surrounded by repurposed shipping containers that are home to 10 locally owned businesses. Naturally, I order tacos from Provecho, which offers many of the popular Jalisco and Michoacán flavors on its menu. Pro tip: Provecho is a Mexican expression that means ‘enjoy your meal.’
Before I go, I head around the back and check out the 1 ½ Street Mural Project, dubbed the ‘unofficial mural alley’ of Phoenix. This collaborative street art project features work by 12 local artists, and is truly an immersive experience that offers a unique connection to this city’s creatives and the issues they care most about.
After plenty of art exploration, try to nab a seat and end the day at From The Rooftop, located on the top floor of the Cambria Downtown Hotel. This space is an art destination in itself (check the paintings, neon lights and five-story murals). It also serves up drinks, small plates, and nearly 360-degree views of the city.
Day 3: Off the Beaten Path
Being that Phoenix is famous for its Sonoran Desert landscapes, including endless hiking trails, I always make a point to get out of the city and get a little dust on my shoes. For a walk on the wild side—and under eight miles from downtown—Papago Park is a large expanse of land surrounding two unmistakable sandstone buttes. The park is home to a variety of hiking trails, seven acres of fishing lagoons, the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo, Papago Golf Course and more. For the perfect sunset shot, take the short hike up Hole-In-The-Rock Trail, or come a bit earlier in the day for maximum exploring—the choice is yours.
On this visit, I decided to make a stop at the Arizona Heritage Center. This one-of-a-kind historical museum shares the culture and history of the 48th state, as well as how the city of Phoenix originated. I was lucky enough to catch ‘UNFRAMED: A Photo Journey Through Navajo and Hopi Nations, 1977-1978,’ which is on view until December 2022.
At the northern end of the park sits the tranquil vibrancy of the Desert Botanical Garden. With a mountain backdrop and a collection of over 50,000 desert plants, there are 140 acres to explore. I chose to check out a few of the trails, which are themed to offer insight into various region-specific topics, including conservation, plants and people of the Sonoran Desert. Worth noting: the butterfly pavilion is open each spring and fall, and behind-the-scenes tours are also available. Best of all, this is a barrier-free experience for guests of all abilities.
I continue my journey through this city’s past by heading downtown to Heritage Square, part of the original townsite of Phoenix. Here, I take a 60-minute tour of the Rosson House Museum, a restored 1895 Victorian home that illustrates how early Phoenix families lived and worked.
In addition to Rosson House, the square also contains Teeter House, where twice per month visitors can take part in a paranormal investigation. Participants will go inside the historic structure and use equipment to take a look at the former inhabitants of the home.
Keeping with the day’s theme, cap off my day of history hunting and shake off the ghost stories with dinner and drinks at the Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour downtown’s historic Luhrs building. This globally awarded bar, helmed by local cocktail guru Ross Simon, offers one of the most-impressive menus I’ve ever had the pleasure of perusing. Feeling festive, I land on the Born Tequila, five-chili house-infused tequila, sage, lime, mango syrup and pineapple juice. But I also got one last shot of history in before the night was over: turns out, this building once housed the former Arizona Prohibition Headquarters. Cheers!
With such an abundant arts and culture scene, one visit to Phoenix will never be enough. My three days here are up. But this city’s fresh flavors, bold artists, meaningful history and electric energy keep drawing me back. To be continued …