Finding Phoenix's Local Secrets is Half the Fun
If we told you Phoenix was a well-kept travel secret, you’d be right to scratch your head—because yes, we’re talking about a state capital here, and not one of the obscure ones either—but you’d also be right to hear us out.
If you’ve never explored this Sonoran Desert city, you’d be shocked to discover, for starters, that it’s home to all kinds of lush native flora and stunning bodies of water, among other unexpected treasures.
Not that all the best local secrets are found in nature: First-time visitors are also stunned by the array of foodie, cultural and wellness offerings (butterfly yoga, anyone?). And if you’re a returning fan, you’ll also be taken with how much is new—for example, the area’s first Dark Sky Zone resort.
Read on to discover some of the best offerings, wherever your own travel passions lie.
For outdoor adventurers…
There’s so much stunning nature here—and so many ways to enjoy it—that you’d be forgiven for never going indoors (especially if you’ve booked one of the suites with massive balconies at the aforementioned new Dark Sky Zone resort, ADERO Scottsdale).
For the most colorful possible overview of the local landscape—and the most bucket-listy start to any given day—book a sunrise balloon ride with with Hot Air Expeditions or Rainbow Ryders. Soaring (gently) to breathtaking heights, you’ll follow the paths of coyotes and other Sonoran Desert dwellers and take in surreal vistas of the mountains that surround the city.
Back on terra firma, there’s plenty of adventuring to be had as well. If nature trails are your thing, you’ll find at least one—but more likely several—to love here. At the ultra-accessible end of the spectrum, favorites include North Mountain Park’s Penny Howe Barrier-Free Nature Trail (a paved .3-mile loop lined with interpretive signs at the base of the hills); South Mountain Park’s Judith Tunell Accessible Trail (the half-mile Interpretive Loop has a maximum grade of 7.5 percent, while the The Challenge Loop is the same length, but with a maximum grade of 8.5 percent) and Papago Park’s Crosscut Canal Trail (1.4-miles with gorgeous views of the park’s buttes and rock formations).
Mind you, all of these parks have more challenging trails, too. Take Papago Park, for example: Anyone who can handle a more or less 400-foot stony ascent should check out the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, whose cave-like namesake feature serves up gorgeous views of the oasis lakes below and skyline in the distance.
But if you’re looking for a truly challenging hike, don’t miss the trek up the iconic Camelback Mountain. Take the Echo Canyon Trail (about 2.4 miles out and back) for an epic workout—and equally epic views of the Valley of the Sun. Rivaling Camelback—both view- and workout-wise—is Piestewa Peak’s Summit Trail #300 (2.4 miles out and back).
Not that all the best views in town come with difficult trails. One moderate hike with major panoramic payoff is the aptly named Lookout Mountain Summit Trail (1.2 miles out and back), where you’ll be rewarded with amazing vistas of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
And if you’d prefer to explore the desert on two wheels, again, options abound—with mountain biking trails for everyone from true beginners, who should consider the Double Butte Loop at Papago Park, to seasoned veterans, who deem the National Trail at South Mountain Park and Preserve a bucket-list item.
But don’t overlook one of the area’s least-known and most-beloved forms of adventure: watersports. Within 50 miles of Downtown Phoenix, you’ll find no fewer than five beautiful lakes—Saguaro, Canyon, Apache, Bartlett and Lake Pleasant—and a bit farther out, you’ll also find Roosevelt Lake (worth a day trip for the more or less 110-mile shoreline, plus the multitude of coves).
Each of the lakes offers watersports and boating ops, but if you’re looking for serious adventure out on the water, consider rafting the nearby Salt River through a dramatic canyon, where you’ll find Class III rapids on the easy day trips, and Class IV on longer departures. Then again, if mellow is more your speed, there are sections of the same river where tubing and stand-up paddling are the way to go.
For culture vultures...
Phoenix has a way with incredibly special exhibits—from the world’s largest playable sousaphone at the Musical Instrument Museum to the world’s largest private collection of stunning, life-sized Plains Indian dolls (also known as soft sculptures) at the Heard Museum.
In addition to all the unique collections and exquisite art you’ll find inside the local museums, springtime in the desert makes the city’s outdoor cultural offerings extra appealing. Consider a stroll through the ancient village site of Pueblo Grande at the Pueblo Grand Museum and Archeological Park—or (for something more modern) along Roosevelt Row, downtown Phoenix’s nationally recognized, mural-bedecked arts district. And if you visit the latter, any walking tour comes with a bonus: limitless stops for refreshment and retail therapy (the area is home to great restaurants, bars and boutiques).
There’s a lot of great music happening outdoors this spring, too—perhaps most notably the Candlelight Open Air series, with candlelit concerts at various alfresco venues—and programs ranging from jazz tributes (think Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington) to classical masterworks (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for one). The Desert Botanical Garden—a beloved local institution that we’ll get back to momentarily—also hosts a fun spring music series called Music in the Garden. The 2021 lineup includes bossa nova, Latin jazz and blues programs, among others.
For wellness aficionados…
If it’s serenity you seek, rest assured: Phoenix has got it. Among the best places to start your quest are the meditative gardens tucked into some of the city’s best botanical enclaves. There’s the Contemplation Garden at Desert Botanical Garden, for one, where you’ll want to time your visit to sunset. That way, as you’re walking the labyrinth, you’ll have views of a glowing Papago buttes against a shade-shifting sky. Of course, the 140-acre garden around you will beckon, so at the very least, turn a lap around the cactus-happy Sonoran Desert Nature Loop into a warm-up meditation.
Another great option? The High Vibration Gong Sound Journey Meditations offered regularly in the Japanese Friendship Garden—though to be honest, the whole place is so serene, you essentially enter a meditative state on arrival.
And yogis, take note: Your practice is about to get interesting. Phoenix is home to everything from “Yoga in the Rainforest” (an hourlong session among the namesake residents of Butterfly Wonderland) to stand up paddle yoga in the pools of some of the city’s best resorts. In fact, there are 40 full-service hotels that offer a staggering range of wellness experiences, from the Aji Spa at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, where the treatments evoke ancient rituals, to Civana Wellness Resort & Spa—the first resort from a lifestyle brand that was created to connect wellbeing with eco-consciousness.
But arguably the most exclusive and immersive of the area’s wellness experiences lie about an hour north of downtown at Castle Hot Springs Resort, where you’re guaranteed to find your bliss in the natural thermal waters, private treatment cabanas, and surrounding desert beauty.
While you might not be surprised to find amazing Mexican food here (and we’ll get to some of it shortly), first-timers are often taken aback by Phoenix’s biggest claim to foodie fame: America’s best pizza. Yes, everyone from The New York Times and Eater to Oprah and Rachael Ray has proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco home to the nation’s most transcendent pie. In fact, as NPR has noted, certain esteemed critics have gone so far as to say this is the finest pizza on the planet. Either way, Pizzeria Bianco is the very definition of destination dining—and there’s no better way to taste the magic for yourself than in the springtime desert air of the restaurant’s patio.
Another option that’s as surprising as it is delicious: Quiessence at the Farm, whose bucolic South Mountain setting defies any conventional idea of the desert. Not even 10 minutes outside downtown Phoenix, this alfresco spot is in fact so surreal that as Samantha Brown was filming here for the 2020 season of Places to Love on PBS, she noted, “I’m walking, I’m looking, I’m seeing—and yet, I’m not believing.” An ancient riverbed—and the rich natural soil it gave rise to—explains the farm’s shocking lushness. And the two-acre organic garden you’ll pass en route to your table outside the original farmhouse sets the stage perfectly: Odds are, most of your meal was sourced on site, and anything that wasn’t still didn’t travel far: The meats and cheeses come from other local producers.
Of course, if you go to Phoenix and don’t try the local Mexican food, were you even there? This is one genre with almost too many good choices, but if you had to narrow it down, why not pick the one where President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were famously photographed during their first Arizona trip together last year: Barrio Café, home to the perennial James Beard Award favorite Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, whose regional Mexican cuisine has made her a national celebrity—and tucking into her cochinita pibil on the patio, you’ll see why.
Another local culinary star to gain national acclaim in 2020 is Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, aka the Kitchen Curandera (healer). An indigenous foods activist and natural foods chef, she appeared everywhere from Food & Wine to Hulu’s Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi last year—and will be releasing her first book this year. Though she doesn’t have a restaurant, she is running socially distanced workshops on indigenous wisdom and whole food cooking in 2021, so any interested foodies (and that describes pretty much everyone who caught her on Episode 7 of Taste the Nation) should check her schedule for availability.