When I moved to Phoenix in 2004, I had fairly low expectations. It’s just a place you drive through to get somewhere better, I thought. I was wrong. I would spend two years living in the desert sprawl, time I thoroughly enjoyed, and over the last decade plus, Phoenix has only gotten better as a destination. Two of my closest childhood friends live there, and I visit at least once a year – Covid notwithstanding – so while I haven’t written as much about the city as some others (after all, I didn’t start The Royal Tour until nearly ten years after leaving), it is still a place I can speak about with some authority.
This guide will focus on Phoenix as a destination unto itself, not just a place to spend a night on a road trip or between the Grand Canyon and the airport back home. I hope it inspires you to visit Phoenix!
If you like this guide, please check out all of our Ultimate Guides here. Also, please click the links in this article, as they will take you to more specific articles written by us.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is large and lovely. It is one of the nicest airports you’ll see, depending on which of the terminals you use. The odds are you’ll be in the fantastic Terminal 4, home to hubs for both American Airlines and Southwest.
The airport sits just south of downtown Phoenix, but the sprawl goes for miles in every direction. Getting from Sky Harbor to somewhere else can take as little as ten minutes to more than an hour depending where and at what time.
If having someone pick you up from the airport, it has a rather unique characteristic: exits on two sides, north and south. Make sure to pick a side in advance, then tell your ride which numbered door you are next to. If headed to the east side of the city (Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler, Mesa), you are best at the north curb, others at the south, but it really doesn’t matter a ton.
Sunset landing at Sky Harbor.
You’ll need a car. I repeat, you’ll need a car. Public transportation isn’t really a thing in Phoenix. Once you have a car, the city is remarkably grid-like and flat, making it fairly easy to navigate.
There are a couple of weird things, though. First off, many north-south streets are numbered. With Central Avenue running down the middle of downtown, the first street east is First Street. The first street west is First Avenue. Numbers then increase in both directions, so if someone tells you to meet at Seventh and Van Buren, you’ll need to know which Seventh, Street or Avenue.
Likewise, the freeway system is a bit odd. Anchored by Interstates 10 and 17, it has three freeways that are called Loops: 101, 202, and 303. These run in, you guessed it, loops, sort of. So Loop 101 starts on the west side of Phoenix at I-10, and runs north before turning east to intersect I-17 and then back south. So yes, there are two southbound Loop 101 freeways. The 202 and 303 run similarly. It’s a crazy system, stemming from the weird way the city sprawl came into existence. Remember, this splotch of desert is the sixth largest city in the US, with a huge metro area surrounding it.
A saguaro cactus, commonplace in Phoenix!
What to Do
Let’s start with the obvious: Phoenix has a ton of resorts and golf courses, an incredible draw for the city. This is a great place to relax in a five star hotel, hang out by the pool, and play a couple rounds. My favorite resort: the Fairmont Princess, but you can’t go wrong with the Phoenician or Biltmore or any number of other places one can call paradise.
Golf and relaxation not your thing? Or not fully your thing? Check out the Musical Instrument Museum, one of my favorite museums in the country, let alone the city. It has thousands of weird musical instruments, interactive displays, and even a gallery where you can try some fun ones for yourself. I’m an excellent gong banger!
The Musical Instrument Museum is my number one spot in Phoenix!
If you’re interested in how people came to inhabit the city, check out Heritage Square, a still-standing original city block! Want adventure? Head to north Scottsdale – or any number of other locations – and rent an ATV to explore the desert. Just bring gloves.
Phoenix also has a great urban park, Papago Park, the lovely Desert Botanical Garden, great hikes of Camelback or South Mountain, and luxury shopping in Scottsdale, along with some great nightlife. Like I said, there’s really a good amount going on here.
Where to Stay
You can stay pretty much anywhere, but you’ll probably find your best bets downtown and east/north. You can find generic Holiday Inn sorts of properties all over, but this is a good place to splurge on a resort as prices are much less than in other major metro areas, and downright affordable in the heat of summer (more on that later). And since you’ll have a car, getting to see the places you want to see won’t be an issue.
What to Eat
First, don’t eat Phoenix Mexican food. It’s more Tex-Mex than Mexican, and just not worth your while. It’s embarrassing for a border state, but is what it is.
That said, Phoenix actually has some spectacular restaurants, and I wrote all about those. Read that here, and I will be updating it after subsequent trips.
This is the salad from Kai, the best restaurant (in my opinion) in the Phoenix metro area.
Other Useful Information
Ok, the weather. Summer is hot. Think of the hottest day you’ve had, and imagine it worse. Temperatures regularly exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius). It is a dry heat, so it’s not sticky, but you can dehydrate very quickly. Things left in your car can and will melt. AC – good AC – is a must, and if you come to town in summer, outdoor activities will not be your friend outside of early mornings or night.
Phoenix is home to a lot of retired people, many from California. They drive slowly. Just watch out. And if it rains – yes it rains here – be extra careful. It can flood and people don’t drive especially safely.
If you’re planning to stay in the Tempe area, make sure it isn’t move-in or graduation at Arizona State University. It is one of the biggest universities in the country and will absolutely pack the hotels in the area.
If you plan to tie Phoenix into another trip, it is about three and a half hours from the Grand Canyon, an hour and a half from Tucson (gateway to Southern Arizona), an hour and a half or so from Sedona, six from Los Angeles or San Diego, and just under five from Las Vegas. There’s a pretty amazing trip to see all of these in a couple weeks!
Don’t forget to see the desert, perhaps from an ATV!
Phoenix is actually a nice place, not just to live, but also to visit. Seriously. Give it a shot for a few days, get some desert sun, and play a new instrument at MIM. You won’t regret it!
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