Updated: Mar 21, 2020
Having moved to Phoenix in my early 20's, this city was my playground. I moved here from Florida in 2014 and was in awe of how different it was than anywhere else I had ever been. The constant sunshine, mountains in all directions, and some of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen. I immediately hit the ground running with exploring my new city and nearly six years later, I haven't stopped exploring. Here are some of my absolute favorite things to do in this unique and beautiful city.
1. Desert Botanical Garden
Desert Botanical Garden is the perfect place if you are looking to get some pictures of desert scenery. They also have a restaurant, Gertrudes with outdoor seating if you work up an appetite while wandering through the trails. The gardens are made up of three loop trails that took us about three hours to explore. Admission can be a bit pricy as far as botanical gardens go, but the second Tuesday of every month is "Community Day" where admission is waived. You can learn more about the Desert Botanical Garden here.
Phoenix Local Pro Tip: If you live in Phoenix, check out your local library for a culture pass. They allow 2 to be checked out per week. One culture pass gets you two free tickets to the botanical gardens and one pass is allowed per family. If you are planning on doing this, make sure you call ahead to see if the passes are available because they are super popular and get checked out rather quickly!
2. Breakfast at Butter's Pancakes and Cafe
I discovered this place three years after moving to Phoenix and now it is hard for me to go to breakfast anywhere else because this place is just THAT good. My husband and I even received gift cards to this place from for Christmas last year because everyone knows how obsessed we are.
While eating out for breakfast, I can never settle the inner "salty vs sweet" war going on inside my head. Do I want a delicious pancake drizzled in syrupy goodness or some eggs and bacon with perfectly crisp potatoes on the side? With this place, YOU DON'T HAVE TO DECIDE PEOPLE!!! Most of their savory plates (with the exception of the Eggs Benedict) allow you the choice of a side pancake and you can even upgrade to one of their signature pancakes which I HIGHLY recommend doing. My favorite is the Cinnamon Roll Pancake and my husbands is the Oreo Cookie S'mores Pancake. Honestly though, you can not go wrong with ordering anything off of this menu.
3. See a sunrise or sunset from Piestewa Peak
Most people will probably tell you to hike Camelback Mountain while visiting Phoenix. But my hike of choice is Piestewa or "Squaw" Peak which is Camelback's sister hike right next door. This is because the views and photo opportunities are just one notch above Camelback (in my opinion). Camelback also tends to be a bit more crowded than I like a hike to be. Squaw Peak typically has more parking available (and yes, it's free). The hike is 1.2 miles in distance to reach the summit. It is definitely like a human stair stepper so be prepared for a major cardiovascular workout and bring plenty of water. But the views at the top are SO worth it. I try to start the hike about an hour before sunrise. If you can't make it for a sunrise, sunset is just as beautiful. It may be a little bit more crowded but seeing the oranges and pinks blanket the city lights is totally worth it.
4. Joes Farm Grill (Agritopia)
My old roommate told me about this spot a couple years ago. It is nestled in the cutest little neighborhood called "Agritopia." Agritopia is made up of several restaurants, orange trees, a community garden, and rows of adorable little homes with front porches and white picket fences. I've never seen any place like it. While it is far from Scottsdale and Central Phoenix, it's worth the drive out to Gilbert if you have the time to spare.
You can take a walk through the community garden and then grab some coffee or a cupcake at The Coffee Shop. They also have some tasty burritos and sandwiches. My personal favorite being "The Baby Got Jack." But if you're really trying to fill up your stomach, one of my all-time favorite restaurants is Joes Farm Grill. They do their very best to cook with only locally sourced ingredients and you can definitely taste it!
My husband and I go for breakfast quite often and get "Joes Big Breakfast" but we also love going for lunch and dinner and getting the pulled pork sandwich and their burgers are SO GOOD. But you truly can't go wrong with anything on the menu. One thing you MUST try though is their organic sodas. Cherry cream is our favorite. They have plenty of outdoor seating and the restaurant is actually an old house from the 70's, They kept the original living room and added seating around it which makes for a super funky and eclectic atmosphere!
5. Toms Thumb Trail
This is probably one of the most scenic hikes in the Phoenix area (in my opinion). It is pretty difficult and can have you huffing and puffing so make SURE that you bring plenty of water and food! The trail is 4 miles total with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet. Make sure you bring your camera to snap a photo of the iconic "thumb" boulder at the end of the trail!
6. Try a Prickly Pear Margarita
Before I had moved to Phoenix, I had never even heard of Prickly Pear anything. But as it turns out, Prickly Pear is VERY popular here. We have Prickly Pear jam, Prickly Pear Ice Cream, Prickly Pear syrup, even Prickly Pear candy. The Prickly Pear margarita is made with Prickly Pear syrup that comes from the Prickly Pear cactus. (Try saying that 5 times fast). And you absolutely need try try one of these pink beauties before you leave. You can get them all over the state but my favorite spots to grab one are Joyride Taco House and Diego Pops (pictured).
7. Take a Stroll Through Old Town Scottsdale
This is one of my favorite spots to take family and friends who are visiting from out of town. There's so much to buy, see, and EAT! Some of the following are my favorite stops:
Mexican Imports - Here you can find a bunch of goodies imported from... you guessed it, Mexico! They have gorgeous hand-blown glass as well as super cheap Mexican blankets.
Rehab Burger Therapy- If you're in the mood for a custom burger, this is the spot for you. Be sure to order the sweet potato tots (you won't regret it).
Diego Pops - A place with a creative take on tacos/bowls/burritos featuring a happy hour 7 days a week! (You MUST try the brussel sprout nachos and put the pink sauce on WHATEVER you order!)
Cien Agaves- Another killer Mexican spot smack in the middle of all the shopping with a killer happy hour.
The Sugar Bowl- If you just want to satisfy your sweet tooth, this is the cutest instagrammable spot to do just that! You will feel like you have been transported right back into the 50's at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor.
8. Catch Golden Hour At Dobbins Lookout
This is a fun stop if you want a mountain-top view with no hiking required. Dobbins Lookout is a short (but beautiful) drive up South Mountain. The road to the top is pretty curvy with no shoulder so be sure to drive the speed limit as bikers frequent the roads. At the top you can catch views of the downtown skyline as well as the mountains. Back when I first moved here and was living on a super limited flight attendants salary, I would grab a sub sandwich with my friends and just hang out and have a little picnic while watching the sunset. This is a great idea if you are looking for a cheap but fun activity!
9. Hike Butcher Jones Trail
Saguaro Lake is truly one of Arizona's hidden gems. I had lived here for THREE years before I even discovered this place. Butcher Jones is a BEAUTIFUL trail that has views of the water, mountains, and cactus (that triple combo is pretty rare out here). The trail is 4.9 miles total but you don't have to go very far to catch some gorgeous views. Confession: I've never even hiked the whole trail because I get too caught up in taking photos of the views along the way that I always run out of time. You do have to purchase an $8 Tonto Parking Pass but we just always stop off at a gas station and grab one before we get there. You can find a list of participating gas stations here. There is also a gorgeous beach that is fun to cool off in the summer. Here you can bring your dog, launch kayaks/paddle boards, or just bring some lawn chairs and enjoy the beautiful view!
10. Go Salt River Tubing
If you find yourself in the Phoenix area during the unbearably hot summer months, you DO NOT want to miss out on Salt River Tubing. Salt River Tubing is open from May-September when the weather is warm and the river is flowin. I recommend starting out early in the day so you can float the whole thing. (They usually have several stop options to where you can float half or the whole river).
There is parking at the Salt River Tubing rental facility and from there you rent tubes and they take you over to the dropoff location in a big school bus. They have shuttles going every 10 minutes or so and they will also be at the end of the river to pick you up and bring you back to the parking lot.
The views from the river are so gorgeous and I have NEVER been tubing without seeing wild horses wading along the river so keep your eyes peeled! Pro tip: If you are going during the days when the temperature is 100+ degrees, bring a fitted sheet (we bought ours for $5 from Walmart) and put it over your tube to keep it from getting too hot! They also have tubes you can rent specifically for coolers so be sure to bring extra drinks (no glass) and snacks!
11. Go to Arizona's only active Olive Mill, Olive Mill at Queen Creek
Before I get too deep into this one, I do want to warn you that if you are staying in central Phoenix, this one is a little out of the way. BUT if you have the time to spare and are looking for something truly unique and off the-beaten-path it's TOTALLY worth the drive! This is one of the few places where a meal isn't just a meal. Not only is the food delicous, but the whole visit is an experience! You can sign up for tours of the mill but our trip was a little more spontaneous so we weren't able to do that. What we DID take a tour of though was all of their delicious Olive Oils.
The mill has SO many olive oils out for sampling and they have some super unique flavors that were fun to try like jalepeno, bacon, and even dark chocolate olive oil! (Surprisingly I enjoyed all three). They have free cups out for sampling, but we went the extra mile and bought a baguette and used that to sample the oils. I'm not sure how classy we looked standing there ripping off pieces of our baguette but my tastebuds did NOT care haha.
Tip: arrive early to snag one of their signature "fire pit tables." We made this stop a "linner" and arrived right around 4:30pm on a weekday. By the time we were done eating, the place was starting to fill up and people were crowding around us waiting to take our table. Let me just say though, there is PLENTY of seating here, but the fire-pit tables seemed to be highly coveted.
12. Go Hot Air Ballooning
I can't think of a better way to watch a sunrise than gliding across the desert in a hot air balloon. Arizona has so many hot air balloon companies to choose from but I took my tour with Arizona Balloon Safaris (I found them on Groupon) and they are actually North Americas largest hot air balloon! They let you watch the whole set up and even help if you want to. After we landed, our tour ended with a delicious champagne breakfast.
Note: If you are from out of town, I recommend doing this on your first day here because it is not uncommon for them to reschedule due to weather conditions.
13. Tour the "Wild West" via horseback!
Honestly, I can't think of a more perfect setting to go horseback-riding. If you are visiting in the winter months (hopefully you are lolz), you can just sit back, enjoy some sunshine and gorgeous desert views.
This two hour ride taken with Fort McDowell Adventures (I got ours via Groupon) takes you through the cactus sprinkled desert with gorgeous mountainous views on the horizon, a section of trees that feels very enchanted forest-like, and you actually cross the Verde River twice which was one of the coolest parts of the ride for me (literally because my horse liked to splash haha). During our ride we saw a coyote, cows, bones, and wild horses! One thing that took me by surprise was how cool it was to be "in" the desert. I had always seen these landscapes from the road or a trail but it was so neat to be amongst the landscape and watch it change. I definitely recommend checking this one off of your bucket list if you haven't already!