For the snap-happy creatives, content creators, art aficionados or culture vultures, there is so much more to Phoenix than cowboys and canyons …
Phoenix is most commonly known for its luxe resorts, posh spas and championship golf courses. But as a savvy traveler, I know there’s more than meets the eye—and I’m here to find it and capture it, all while celebrating the creative hub this city has blossomed into.
The urban heart of the Southwest gives the photographer the best of all worlds: the opportunity to capture the magical Sonoran Desert light twice a day at golden hour, along with (or better yet, set against) incredible street art, architecture, museums, and a more-than-decent cup of coffee.
Capture the Sunrise
There is a magic to the early morning or sunset hour in Phoenix, an alchemy between the vivid light and the rust red of the mountain faces.
My first plan was to hit Echo Canyon Trail up Camelback Mountain to capture the dawn light. Stepping out with my headlamp lighting the trail, it was invigorating to take on the 1,200-foot climb and the rocky scramble to the top. And there it was; the full span of the city, flickering lights cozily contained within the rosy glow on the surrounding mountains. Grinning, I took a sip of water and hauled out my camera.
Other great sunrise spots include South Mountain Park and Preserve as well as the impressive, cavernous Hole in the Rock at Papago Park. And the same goes for sunset, but you can also opt for one of the city’s rooftop bars, such as from The Rooftop at the summit of downtown’s mural-clad Cambria Hotel.
Hitting the Streets For the Art Scene
I was blown away by the intense hues of Phoenix’s street art. Maybe it’s a reflection of the vibrant Mexican heritage that thrives here—or simply a sampling of the radiant artists who call this city home—either way, the color usage is bright and beautiful under the clear, blue skies. Expect hot pinks, neon greens, electric blues, sunshine yellow and plenty of social awareness in these works.
You may need your sunglasses, but boy, does the camera love it. And it is everywhere—from alleys in artsy neighborhoods to top-brand hotels. I started in the vibey Roosevelt Row Art District, a walkable neighborhood that’s home to art spaces, live music, funky retail and plenty of joints for a bite or a sip. Don’t miss 1½ Street, round the back of The Churchill building, an alley-turned-canvas featuring a swath of local artists.
You’ll quickly discover that downtown is dotted with photo-worthy street art. Other noteworthy pieces include the nine-story James Baldwin installation, the exquisite Timeless at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, which changes subtly with the light; and the nearby Malinda Rising, near the Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Downtown.
For the ultimate selfie, and renowned Mexican cuisine, head for Barrio Café and its Phoenix mural, a collaboration by more than six local artists. Here, James Beard Award-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza is as well known for her passion for promoting Mexican American art and culture as she is for her chiles en nogada and cochinita pibil.
If you are in the city on the first Friday of every month, don’t miss the Art Walk throughout the Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue arts districts to meet vendors and check out works by up-and-coming artists.
Wake Up and Smell the Java
As the unofficial coffee capital of the Southwest, roasting, preparing and serving is something purveyors in this city take seriously. The demand for locally roasted and responsibly-sourced brews results in endless enclaves for displaying artwork, harboring a sense of community, and offering creative inspiration to anyone who pulls up a chair to soak in the vibes.
I headed for Giant Coffee because it’s situated near the Phoenix Art Museum and serves fair-trade, organic roasts. It is also renowned for homemade pastries (try the corn-infused scones) and big aesthetics—what’s coffee if it’s not paired with a little of each of these?
Here you are spoiled for choice, and it is worth plotting coffee stops into your day.
Pop into Royal Coffee Bar in a historic 1899 carriage house on Heritage Square in downtown; Chandler’s Peixoto, which primarily roasts coffee from the owner’s family farm in Brazil (also home to a pretty intense latte art competition); downtown’s Songbird Coffee and Tea House for a cup of Tempe-based Cortez Coffee Roasters’ handiwork; or Lola Coffee Bar, which serves house-roasted coffee and heavenly pastries on a patio.
Visit Regroup for espresso and bike rentals in Tempe, and Mesa’s Pair Cupworks for inventive flavors, roasted in house, bold tea creations and cool products for recreating at home.
Getting Cultural in the Phoenix Art Museum
Originally designed in the 1950s by two apprentices of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Phoenix Art Museum’s sleek, clean lines allow the staggering art collection—which spans Renaissance to modern works—to take center stage.
I loved the light installations most, especially the enchanting You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, in one of her acclaimed infinity mirror rooms, where the light dances around you. Fashion design and photography enthusiasts are also in for an unexpected treat.
Phoenix is renowned for its Musical Instrument Museum, rated Phoenix’s number one attraction and ranked in the top 15 museums in the United States, which I had to experience for myself to fully appreciate.
The average visitor is reported to spend four hours perusing the 15,000-plus musical instruments from around the globe as well as the interactive displays and hands-on gallery—so plan accordingly. Everyone from pop culture fans to ethnomusicology buffs will appreciate the details it takes to make this place so spectacular. The museum’s concert hall also hosts a variety of local and international musicians year-round.
There are a host of other museums well worthy of your time, including The Heard, the world’s preeminent museum for the presentation, interpretation and advancement of American Indian art. Additionally, Taliesin West is an architectural delight that was once Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, and recently became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Soaking Up the Sonoran Desert
It was time to get my camera out again and head for the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park. Founded in 1939, it boasts more than 50,000 plants, a third of which are native to the area, crisscrossed by thematic trails. The collection of agave and cactus, offset by the red buttes, is pretty fabulous. Go early to catch the sunrise, or do a seasonal flashlight tour by night.
Another spot that offers the juxtaposition of the city high rises and a tranquil, lush space filled with delicate blooms and Zen is the Japanese Friendship Garden.
For anyone packing a wide-angle lens, or just seeking another vantage point of the nation’s fifth-largest city, head to Dobbins Lookout at South Mountain Park and Preserve. As one of the country’s largest municipal parks, there are over 50 miles of trails to hike here—but for this stop, you can actually drive. It goes without saying, but sunset is highly recommended from this bird’s-eye view of the skyline and surrounding mountain ranges.
One Last Thing: Architecture and Public Art
As for me, there were a couple more images I wanted to snap, and these were the iconic buildings of the city.
First was the rambling Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, a city icon that harkens back to 1929 and has hosted celebrities and powerhouses over the years. And, second, the looming Art Deco Luhrs Tower of the same year.
From there it is a wild leap in style to the tallest building in the Phoenix skyline. Formerly known as Chase Tower and once home to Valley National Bank, this towering glass structure is a nod to ’70s architecture. No visit is complete without capturing Frank Lloyd Wright’s wild rock-red arches at ASU Gammage in Tempe, as well as his spacey First Christian Church along Phoenix’s central corridor.
If you can make the time to take in a few more sights, I highly recommend Cosanti in Paradise Valley, home and studio of architect, artist and urban theorist Paolo Soleri. Arcosanti, his world-famous attempt at a prototype arcology—integration of architecture and ecology—is located about 72 miles north of downtown Phoenix as well.
I ended my visit with a late afternoon picnic in downtown Phoenix’s Civic Space Park, so I could watch the shadows dance around the enormous sky sculpture by Janet Echelman. Her Secret Is Patience is a netted, cone-like installation that captures the wind and makes ‘shadow drawings.’ At 145 feet, it dominates the skyline from the vantage point of the park, and as dark settles in, the sculpture lights up.
It’s another surprise in this city of surprises.