Phoenix is Arizona’s largest city—a place where the spirit of the West continues to inspire in the modern age. For those attending LevelUp 2023, here are ten suggestions of things to see when you have some spare time (well, a few more than then, really).
1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings
The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with Arizona in the late 1920s and ended up making it his wintertime home when he established Taliesin West near Scottsdale. It served as the seasonal headquarters for his apprenticeship program, the Taliesin Fellowship, and such famous builders as John Lautner and Edgar Tafel studied there. A tour of Taliesin West is a delightful way to learn more about America’s greatest architect. But don’t forget to visit the other Wright structures in the area, too, including the Arizona Biltmore, First Christian Church, and the Gammage Center (the last two were actually posthumous projects based on Wright’s designs). After your Taliesin tour, have a bite to eat at Maggiano’s nearby—the building and adjacent sculpture garden were designed by Wright’s students as a memorial to him.
2. The Musical Instrument Museum
One of the most unusual museums in the world is the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), which showcases curious, famous, and historically significant instruments from around the world. Exhibits include Roberta Flack’s piano, Buddy Rich’s drum set, and Elvis Presley’s guitars. The MIM also offers concerts in an especially nice small auditorium, where performances are intimate enough that every note can be perfectly heard. During LevelUp week, Traveler—a favorite Phoenix group—will be performing.
3. Hiking and Skydiving
The area has many picturesque hiking trails, including at Papago Park and the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. Arizona’s unusual desert plant life and geographical features are certainly worth seeing—but be forewarned. Phoenix weather in June is nothing to toy with. Although Papago Park offers relatively unstrenuous terrain, some places, such as Camelback Mountain—can be treacherous—even deadly—for the inexperienced. If you plan to hike, take a lot of water and know your limits. Perhaps more interesting are guided night hikes, where you’ll enjoy unusually clear night skies and park rangers will show off some of the creepy crawlies that inhabit the rocks.
If you prefer a thrill, Phoenix has some of the best skydiving opportunities around. Given the clear atmosphere and stable weather, jumpers can enjoy a spectacular view while . . . hurtling toward the Earth at terminal velocity. Check out Skydive Phoenix in Maricopa, about a half-hour south of Phoenix.
4. Casa Grande Ruins
The Arizona desert is full of mysteries, including the question of what happened to the tribes who once inhabited many of the surrounding areas then vanished without a trace. Casa Grande was abandoned by its inhabitants almost 3,500 years ago, and little is known about the people who lived there or why they disappeared. A visit here—or to the even more elaborate Tuzigoot ruins about two hours north of Phoenix—can evoke the sense of mystery that surrounds this ancient landscape.
5. Celebrating the Old West in Scottsdale
Arizona is the center of the Old West, and Scottsdale even claims to have been the location of the very first rodeo (an assertion that Prescott, Arizona, disputes). You can get a taste of the Western spirit at the Museum of the West, which features not only authentic antique cowboy artifacts, but also some lovely Western art, notably including works by the state’s greatest painter, Ed Mell (who has his own gallery in Phoenix, too). Incidentally, if you’re interested in Western art, see if you can fit in a visit to the Basha Collection in Chandler, which may be the nation’s finest collection of Western-themed art. It’s only open weekdays 10 am to 5 pm though, so plan accordingly.
Old Town Scottsdale, where the Museum of the West is located, is also a favorite shopping destination for anyone looking for authentic Native American handicrafts, jewelry, and other Western-themed items. And if you enjoy trains, don’t miss Scottsdale’s McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, which features historic locomotives, fun model railroads, and a miniature train you can ride. There’s also the Arizona Railway Museum in Chandler, which is open on weekends and features a walk-through of the luxurious Santa Fe passenger trains of yesteryear.
6. The Phoenix Zoo
Phoenix’s zoo is a fantastic place to spend a few hours with the animals. Meet Indu the elephant and her best friend Chutti the rhino (seriously, they’re besties), and don’t skip the chocolate chip cookies at Jungle Java, which are the best chocolate chip cookies in Phoenix. By the way, the Phoenix Zoo has the notable distinction of being a private institution—it does not receive government funding. So you can feel good about your ticket price helping to preserve these beautiful creatures. If you’re more interested in things under the sea, try the Sea Life Aquarium in Chandler which has a cool underwater tunnel, and is located only about 10 minutes from the LevelUp 2023 conference hotel.
7. Desert Botanical Gardens
Next to the Zoo are the Desert Botanical Gardens. You might not expect a botanical garden in the desert to be so lovely, but here you’ll be impressed by the wide variety of plant life that’s found in what used to be called The Great American Desert. Enjoy unusual cacti and other desert plants in elegantly designed surroundings. And don’t skip a meal at Gertrude’s, one of the city’s best restaurants. (Reservations are recommended.) Incidentally, another unusual garden in the area is the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden. Again, you might not expect a Japanese garden in our desert climate, but the designers of Ro Ho En have managed to create a Japanese-style garden with desert plants—making this a perfect place for a quiet, contemplative moment in this bustling city.
8. Goldfield Ghost Town
About 45 minutes east of Phoenix is Goldfield Ghost Town—not a true ghost town, but a fun way to experience a little of what life was like for the miners who settled the area in the 19th century. It has regular shootout reenactments, as any good Wild West town should, but even better is the mine tour, which is an unusually good way to get a sense for the hard work that the Western settlers had to endure to make life here possible.
9. Museum of Natural History
Mesa, about a half-hour east of Phoenix, boasts Arizona’s only dinosaur museum, the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Not only does its Dinosaur Hall feature some great skeletons of the giants that once roamed the desert, but it has a fun display on the recently discovered Suskityrannus hazelae, an ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex who lived here about 92 million years ago, and was discovered by a teenager from Mesa who volunteered to join a bone-hunting expedition. Incidentally, Arizona has an official state dinosaur: the Sonorasaurus, a brachiosaurid discovered south of Phoenix.
As mentioned above, the Gammage Center at Arizona State University in Tempe was based on a design by Frank Lloyd Wright—originally intended for Iran. Wright agreed to build the Gammage, but died before work commenced, so it was completed by some of his students. The theater is a piece of state history in itself (Barry Goldwater’s funeral was held there), but during the week of LevelUp, they’ll be producing the musical comedy Hairspray. If a movie is more to your liking, Phoenix has many dine-in theaters (still not available in many states), where you can have a meal delivered to your seat while you enjoy the film. These include Look Cinemas in Chandler and Majestic, which has locations in Chandler and Tempe, only about ten minutes from where LevelUp 2023 is being held.
I couldn’t let a best-of list go by without mentioning one of Phoenix’s most impressive spectacles: her sunsets, which are simply the most beautiful in America. The area’s unusual environmental conditions—extremely low humidity and general lack of wind or clouds—ensure that light carries much further here than in many places, and one result is the dramatic burning orange and yellow of our evening skies. If you’re lucky, you’ll also witness “crepuscular rays”—long streaks of light and shadow that stretch across the blue in the patterns that inspired the state flag. For romance and grandeur, it can’t be beat.
If you’re planning on exploring Arizona beyond Phoenix, here are a few additional tips:
The Grand Canyon is certainly a wonder of the natural world and very much worth seeing. But it’s also quite far from Phoenix—at least a 3.5-hour drive to the South Rim, and twice that if you want to see the North Rim. It’s worth the trip, but be prepared. The South Rim has fairly extensive tourist facilities, but the North Rim is much smaller and more rugged.
Flagstaff (which is on the way to the Grand Canyon) is lovely, and worth a stop. It’s in the mountains, so it forms a striking contrast to Phoenix’s desert environment. It, too, is a long drive—don’t forget to stop in Rock Springs on the way to refresh yourself with some of the state’s most celebrated pie—but worth the time. And don’t miss the Lowell Observatory, where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, and enjoy a peek through some brand new telescopes recently opened for public use.
In the opposite direction, about two hours south of Phoenix, is Tucson, quirky home of the University of Arizona and its little-known but fantastic zoo (the highlight of which is their awesome family of African elephants). Also in the Tucson area is Kartchner Caverns, which are as dramatic and awe-inspiring (in their own way) as the Grand Canyon. One of the few existing “living” caves, the site features all the otherworldly scenes of an actual wet cave environment and is definitely not to be missed. And, of course, if you’re heading to Tucson, you may want to visit Tombstone, the most authentic Western town in the country. It’s the legendary site of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of the most famous shootouts in Western history. The true story of that episode is a lot more complicated and weird than shown in the film Tombstone—but you’ll certainly get a sense of what gave the Wild West its name. It’s about a four-hour drive from Phoenix, though, so be prepared.
And if you have a lot of time, you may want to visit Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation, on the northeastern corner of the state. Location for countless Western movies, it’s one of the most celebrated landscapes in the American West. But be prepared for a visit to take a couple days—it’s a ten-hour round trip, and you can’t fly in.
What to eat: Arizona is, of course, home to some of the nation’s finest Mexican food, and, in particular, to a distinctive kind of Mexican food known as Sonoran Style. You’ll immediately notice the differences between it and Tex-Mex or New Mexican, particularly if you get a Sonoran Style enchilada, which you’ll want to get at one of Valle Luna’s locations. You may also want to compare it to the Mexico City-style Mexican food served at Barrio Queen, another one of the city’s beloved local chains.
In addition to Mexican food, you’ll want to sample some Native American cuisine, and of course that means frybread. The local favorite is Emerson’s, but you may also want to try the new Hope’s Frybread in Mesa.
If you prefer Italian, try the Sicilian Butcher, Sam and Luca, or Christo’s, among the best eateries in town. If steakhouses are your thing, check out Roaring Fork or Stockyards, which is generally considered the best in town, or if you want a fun and unusual dining experience, try Rustler’s Rooste, which not only serves rattlesnake appetizers, but has one of the best views of any restaurant in the city—and happens to be within walking distance of LevelUp 2023. Finally, if you’re looking for a romantic and exclusive dining experience, try Orange Sky at the Talking Stick Resort on the nearby Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, which features a spectacular view and a superb menu.