Monday, February 22, 2021 - by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
If you're running out of new things to do locally, consider Phoenix, Arizona. October to April the average highs are in the 60s-80s, but May-September, while they are 95-106, it is dry, not humid, so you can comfortably shade yourself outside, while everything inside is air conditioned. Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, has had a similar experience with COVID as many others, but kept its museums and restaurants open (mask, distancing, and sanitization compliance is almost universal, but you do have to protect yourself from fools, as here).
Phoenix is a vibrant New Southwest hub and you can learn everything you need to know to plan a visit at VisitPhoenix.com (also request the Official Tour Guide magazine and get on the email list).
Highlights of Our Visit
The cities of Phoenix and L.A. each sprawl over 500 square miles, so a car is the easiest way to get around (Phoenix has 1.7 million residents compared with the L.A.'s' 4 million; Metro L.A. has 12 million, Metro Phoenix 5 million). There was so much to do in three days that we'll dispense with the cute narrative and get right to what makes the city unique (we didn't spend time wining, dining, or shopping, like most travel writers do, since we can indulge that here, but VisitPhoenix lists those options).
Phoenix Art Museum is the Southwest's largest art museum, with more than 20,000 objects in its permanent collection, including contemporary American work, indigenous art, and masterpieces from Europe, Asia, and Latin America (among them, paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Claude Monet). There is also an impressive collection of photographs and outstanding examples of fashion design.
Heard Museum is an internationally-acclaimed educational center on the history and culture of Native Americans (aka American Indians, which some tribal members prefer, since anyone born in the U.S. could be designated a native). It has 44,000 objects in 12 galleries on everything from jewelry to food, especially focused on 22 southwestern tribes, with background to provide context for each item. Among these is an unrivalled collection of 1,200 kachina (or katsina) spirit dolls, which was particularly fascinating for us, having witnessed Hopi ceremonies. Heard emphasizes the work of contemporary artists and you can support them by purchasing their work in the gift shop (if you buy elsewhere, insist on authentication, since counterfeiting is widespread).
Brass Armadillo Antique Mall was our exception to shopping, since antiques bring history alive and items could have long-term resale value. There are over 500 dealers at the mid-town location (another even bigger is in the suburb of Goodyear, making Greater Phoenix the nation's collectibles capital). There are millions of items for sale, so you could spend days talking with specialists about the stories behind everything from Revolutionary War powder horns to early typewriters, as well as more current items, such as Star Wars memorabilia and 8-track tapes. Get there early on weekends because lines to get in can be long, especially when winter birds fly in.
Hall of Flame is the world's largest museum devoted to firefighting, with an extraordinary collection of equipment dating back to 1725 and riveting presentations in the 70,000 sq. ft. space. Start with the 10-min. intro video and plan to spend a couple of hours to really understand the importance of what it explains and celebrates. Be sure to see the gallery on the history and techniques of battling wildfires, which, after several years of the most severe burns in California history, is badly overdue for our attention. The Hall does a lot of important work to educate children on fire safety, so bring them along for that section (and the kid in all of us can climb aboard some of the 130 vehicles). This year is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which caused the deaths of nearly 350 firefighters, so check the site for special programs.
Desert Botanical Garden has 50,000 desert plants from around the world on 55 acres, with trails about wildflowers, desert gardening, the Sonoran Desert, and other themes. Dogs allowed on certain days.
Music Instrument Museum One of the best of its kind in the world because of the breadth of its display of over 4,000 instruments from 200 countries/territories and use of short videos showing musicians playing them and their communities dancing. Plan to spend at least four hours, taking breaks between listening to Iranian traditional music as dervishes whirl, Australian aborigines blow into didgeridoos, or classical piano masterpieces. Visitors are even allowed to play some instruments. MIM is a mind-expanding and ecstatic cultural experience not to be missed.
Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve in north Phoenix is one of the few treasure troves of ancient Native American petroglyphs (images carved into rocks) near a major city. There are 1,500 on dark basalt spread over 47 acres, made between 500 and 7,000 years ago, many accessible in a self-guided quarter-mile walk. The museum provides everything that is known about these largely mysterious pictures of animals, humans, and other beings.
Pioneer Living History Museum is a 90-acre recreation of Arizona's Wild West 1863-1912, with 29 historic buildings, including an opera house and a blacksmith shop, as well as a fascinating Telephone History Museum. You can guide yourself or costumed volunteers may be available (and check the website for events, such as gun fights).
There are lots of other things you may prefer to prioritize, from the Challenger Space Center to architectural tours. Phoenix is definitely a hot destination in the best sense of the term and may be the most underappreciated big city for visitors.
Our Visit HQs
Cambria Hotel Downtown recently opened to rave reviews in the heart of Phoenix's Roosevelt Row arts district. The in-depth review: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/review-cambria-hotel-downtown-phoenix-arizona-scott-s-smith/
Hotel Adeline in Scottsdale, a new member of Marriott's upscale Tribute brand, is near the lively Old Town. The in-depth review:
Cafe Zuzu in Hotel Valley Ho has a wide range of dishes, from its own vegan burger to blackened Scottish salmon, and is famous for its desserts.