This Greater Phoenix city is the place to chill this season
Heading into the desert may not be your first thought when it comes to spring and summer getaways, but Tempe, Arizona, has a compelling mix of all-weather attractions that may well propel it to the top of your list. Home to Arizona State University (ASU) and located minutes east of Phoenix, Tempe is equipped with engaging, vista-blessed and, in many cases, climate-controlled locales that will easily fill a long weekend with fun and unique experiences.
Read on for the new arrivals, rooftop pools, family-friendly activities, immersive exhibits and unique nightlife that will make for an all-around cool vacation this season.
Swims and sips with a view
Rooftop pools are some of Tempe's "top" summer attractions, and it's easy to see why. From a higher vantage point, you'll score views of the city's skyline, ASU Sun Devil Stadium and/or Tempe Butte, a.k.a "A" Mountain — so-named for the large gold letter "A" (as in Arizona State) that's graced the peak's face in one form or another since 1918. Pair those sweet views with an icy mixed drink and a soothing soak and be ideally situated on a sunny day.
Alibi Rooftop at Canopy by Hilton Tempe Downtown provides just such an elevated pool and lounge experience. The chic, tropical-themed oasis puts out a menu full of playful cocktails ("Adios Beaches," for example, a mix of coconut rum, citrus tequila, blue Curacao and lemon-lime soda), plus an enticing selection of pool-ready bites (think coconut lime ceviche, pork empanadas and inventive street tacos). Equally inviting are weekly happenings on the rooftop. Some notable options: Daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m.; live music Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 5 to 8 p.m.; and a DJ every Saturday night (call for details).
The Skysill Rooftop Lounge at the The Westin Tempe is the highest rooftop lounge in Tempe, sitting 18 stories above the city. Along with enjoying the most expansive vistas of the Sonoran Desert, guests can tuck into carnitas nachos, artful salads (one centers around a grilled peach wedge) and lavish entrees such as grilled filet mignon with lump crab mash and black truffle chimichurri. The lounge also offers an impressive, reasonably priced kids' menu.
While it isn't technically a rooftop spot, Top of the Rock restaurant at Marriott Phoenix Resort Tempe at the Buttes offers stunning views of the surrounding valley, as well as an elegant farm-to-table menu. For casual pool days, the hotel's Thirsty Cactus Pool Bar and Grill is the place to be.
And save some lounge time for this newcomer: Opening its doors in May after a $125-million build, the Omni Tempe Hotel at ASU will contribute a brand-new, upscale rooftop venue to the mix in downtown Tempe. Based on the renderings available at press time, the hotel's Salt & Gila Pool Bar promises to be a modern, desert-chic haven with canopy beds, umbrella-shaded lounge chairs and a come-hither infinity pool at the center of it all.
Tempe may be best known as a college town, but it's home to a number of attractions that have a distinct family appeal. One of these is located right at the center of town: Tempe Town Lake, the desert city's 2-mile-long outdoor recreational hub. There are walking paths all around the lake, plus spots to rent kayaks and pedal boats.
Tempe Beach Park overlooks the water and is a favored place for picnics. The park also hosts special events throughout the year, including food festivals, boating competitions, pop-up picnics and fun runs; check the events calendar for what's next.
When the day calls for indoor play, LEGOLAND® Discovery Center at Arizona Mills Mall is an easy choice. This season, kids can explore a replica of Arizona's best known landmarks (built from more than 1,000,000 bricks), have a virtual reality race experience or ride one of two themed, little-kid-friendly rides.
As a bonus, the center offers a combination ticket that includes access to SEA LIFE Arizona Aquarium next door, where visitors can dive into an underwater world filled with porcupine pufferfish, zebra sharks, seahorses, stingrays and even a rescued sea turtle. There's also a touch pool where littles can (safely and gently) get their hands on eight marine species, including baby epaulette sharks.
Tempe Marketplace, an open-air shopping center with more than 100 shops and restaurants, is another family favorite, thanks in no small part to its splash pad. But the mall has recently added yet another kid-thrilling attraction: Drift Haus, an indoor race track where kids (and adults!) can rent and race fun little electric carts that "drift" in all directions.
And for kids who are fascinated with all things firefighting, the Hall of Flame Museum — one of the world's largest firefighting museums — is a must-see. There, kids will encounter more than 100 trucks and other large, authentic pieces of equipment dating as far back as two centuries.
Immersive indoor experiences
A major perk of Tempe's ASU connection is the volume of unique arts, cultural and educational experiences available at any given time, including fine arts, performance arts and music shows and happenings.
ASU Art Museum offers a diverse collection of artwork, including 19th and 20th century, historic and contemporary pieces as well as works from Latinx and Latin American artists. Through March 2024, visitors can see the 10-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture Opportunity (reflection) by Hank Willis Thomas, which was unveiled during the 2023 Super Bowl, hosted in Arizona. Visitors are invited to view their reflections in the sculpture and imagine themselves as the player whose fingertips grasp at the ball.
Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas (through May 7), features painting, photography and mixed media works by internationally recognized Mexican and Chicanx contemporary artists, plus memorabilia from some of the sport’s most famous wrestlers. And Making Visible (through July 23), showcases works from ASU Art Museum's permanent collection, while examining how the pieces reflect and perpetuate mythologies and fantasies about the Southwest.
Fans of conceptual art will find their muse at the James Turrell ASU Skyspace: Air Apparent (open 24/7). The exhibit created by internationally known artist Turrell has been referred to as a "spa for consciousness."
When it comes to performing arts, Tempe has numerous diverse and unique venues to explore.
Located on the university's campus, ASU Gammage Memorial Auditorium is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed landmark where Broadway shows and a variety of artistic programs grace the stage. Upcoming performances include A Soldier’s Play (May 16-21), Hairspray (June 20-25), and Beetlejuice (August 22-27) from the auditorium's Broadway series; and the International Tuba Euphonium Conference featuring Salt River Brass and Soloists (June 1) from the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre.
Tempe Center for the Arts, set in a 17-acre, mountain-view art park on the banks of Tempe Town Lake, is the new home of the Arizona Theatre Company for the 2023/2024 season. The venue also hosts orchestra and comedy performances, plus Wednesday open mic nights. Upcoming events include Leonardo! A Wonderful Show about a Terrible Monster (May 13) and Grammy Award winning jazz singer Samara Joy (September 21) as well as performances by emerging local artists via the 48 LIVE series.
The Marquee Theatre has been a staple on the Central Arizona music scene for the past 30 years. The 1,500-seat venue hosts an average of 150 concerts a year, showcasing acts from K-Pop to heavy metal and everything in between. In the coming months, some standout bands will be hitting the stage, including experimental rock band Placebo (May 10) and all-female grunge-rock band L7 (May 25). And there's a hotly anticipated ticket this summer, too: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (July 11), fronted by the former Drive-By Truckers member and four-time Grammy award-winner.
For a more intimate venue, check out the Yucca Tap Room, a Tempe landmark that hosts live local acts and features a throwback pinball arcade.
New and noteworthy bites, brews & nightlife
Bring your appetite: Tempe is home to an eclectic dining scene, and there are some newcomers you'll want to dive into while in town — like Cocina Chiwas. The just-opened Mexican restaurant is an upscale evolution of the fan-favorite Tacos Chiwas brand.
Guests can dig into Mexican pizzas, wood-fired quesadillas, tacos, ceviches and premium entrees like wagyu beef. All of the above is served on plates and bowls handmade by a local ceramic artist, which is just one of many thoughtful touches added during the crafting of the new indoor/outdoor space.
Chic Chef 77, just opened by celebrity chef Nik Fields in February, is Arizona’s first Black-owned wine bar. The laid-back, boutique spot is located in the heart of Tempe and features bistro fare, an international wine list with more than 200 wines, a whimsical craft cocktail program and live music. Chic Chef 77 also pays homage to Chef Fields’ New York roots through its songs, decorations and menu items, including a cocktail called “Yonkers.”
When the vibe is celebratory, try Anoche Cantina and Six40rty. These day-to-night restaurant and bars both opened last summer on Mill Avenue, and their neighboring locations make it deliciously easy to hop from Anoche's $3 all-day specials (when's the last time you heard of a $3 margarita?) to Six40rty's hearty sports bar fare (think loaded tater tots and chili cheese dip) and back to Anoche for dessert (churro sundae, anyone?).
Sunbar is another fun place to grab a beer and a bite. The weekend hot spot has a popular brunch menu, a dozens-long list of beers on tap, drink specials and a full 800-person live music venue on the second floor where weekly shows and parties pop off.
New on the considerable local craft brew scene is 100 Mile Brewing Co., opened by ASU alumnae in December. (Rumor has it one cofounder majored in microbiology, which does seem like an asset in a field so dependent on fermentation.) The brewery has 10 housemade beers on tap — "A" Mountain Amber Ale gives a nod to the local topography, while Roadrunner Light Lager is brewed with flaked rice for a lighter color and calorie count. The hoisin-glazed Brussels sprouts small plate and the coffee-rubbed short ribs entree count among the standouts on the food menu.
If you're ready to take your Tempe brew trail exploration to another level, a tasting tour at Four Peaks Brewery is your next move. While its signature creations (most notably Kilt Lifter, 8th Street Pale Ale and Hop Knot IPA) can be found all around town and even at their outpost in Sky Harbor Airport, you can only get a full tasting experience by visiting the 19th-century building (fun fact: it was once a creamery) that houses the original brewpub. Tours and tastings are held on Saturday afternoons; get your tickets here.
You can also check out a homegrown, small-batch Arizona distillery at Adventurous Stills (Fridays and Saturdays; advance reservations encouraged). Guests get a guided tour of the facility, learn about the craft distilling process and sample six different spirits before departing for the next stop on their Tempe adventure.