Phoenix is a big city now, and as such it has plenty of attractions—art galleries, museums, and the like—beyond the desert scenery. A few are in fact world class, and anyone with an interest in the various strains of desert culture will find a lot to gawk at and learn about. Families will find a number of places that will fill at least a day of sightseeing, the Musical Instrument Museum, OdySea, and the Desert Botanical Garden among them. They are all open year-round, although outdoor sites like the botanical gardens and the zoo are a little more enjoyable when the temperature is less than 90 degrees.
Have any architecture geeks in your group? Phoenix is a home of midcentury modernism—the sleek and unadorned style of desert architecture you might associate with 1960s-era movie-star manses in Palm Springs—and has an architectural scene more vibrant than you might expect. The Phoenix Art Museum and the ASU Art Museum both hold annual architectural tours that can get you into some of the Valley’s most distinctive homes. Check the organizations’ respective sites for details. A local group called Modern Phoenix (http://modernphoenix.net) holds various programs throughout the year and an annual festival of talks and neighborhood tours. (Those tours tend to sell out immediately; check the website for dates and be ready to buy tickets online as soon as they go on sale.) Or if you just like poking around, turn up some of the streets around Camelback or Mummy Mountain, or take a slow drive along Tom Darlington Drive in Carefree, to ooh and aah at some extraordinary residences built into the hillsides.
On the first Friday of each month, from 6pm to 10pm, arts comes alive in downtown Phoenix with First Friday, centered on the Roosevelt Arts District (E. Roosevelt Road, between Central Avenue and 7th Street, also Grand Avenue south of Roosevelt Road). Street musicians and vendors vie for the attention of highly un-Phoenix-like throngs of pedestrians, and the diverse collection of local art galleries and museums in this area remain open late for browsing. Check artlinkphx.org for accompanying events and details on the First Friday shuttle, which stops at the Phoenix Art Museum. There are sometimes crowds (parking can be tough—we recommend you use light rail instead) but it’s a highly enjoyable mix of people and art.
The Flying Net/Jellyfish/Cloud
It hovers over a small park at the corner of Taylor Street and Central Avenue downtown. It’s . . . well, you decide what it is. It’s a massive piece of public art by artist Janet Echelman. (The title, “Her Secret Is Patience,” is a quote from Emerson.) It is made of polyester netting and suspended from three poles more than 100 feet high. While during the day the effect of the work is a bit blah, at night colored lights projected on the net bring it alive, and you can see it in all its mysterious glory. Whatever it is.
As the Valley has grown, the Central Corridor has become the closest thing in the state to hip. There are fine coffee shops, nice clubs, and see-and-be-seen hipster museum events.
An afternoon coffee at Lux Central (4402 N. Central Ave.; www.luxcoffee.com; tel. 602/327-1396) universally known as Lux, is de rigueur; ASU profs, designers, and entrepreneurs cluster from 6am on every day in its warren of rooms. At night it serves dinner with a full bar and mixologists on hand. The Valley Bar, 130 N. Central Ave. (tel. 602/368-3121), accessible only via a steep set of stairs in an alley on the southwest corner of Central and Monroe (just walk down the alley and you’ll see the illuminated sign), is a wonderful place for a quiet drink and fairly good bar food in the afternoon and early evening; later on, things get noisier. An ingenious mobile above the bartenders is engineered to cast shadows of figures on a vellum screen; ask your bartender about the (lurid) tale they tell. There’s a small concert room to the side, too, sometimes with nationally known artists. In late evening it goes full-on nightclub.
Check the schedule at the Phoenix Art Museum for evening events there. The museum is free after 3pm Wednesdays and from 6pm to 10pm on First Fridays, and on the Second Saturday and Sunday of the month.
Roosevelt Row—that’s Roosevelt Road, a half-mile north of the center of downtown, just east of Central Avenue—has become a major ASU hang and has cool restaurants and shops. This is ground zero for the First Friday gallery walk, when the city’s artistic community comes out in force. Third Friday is a toned-down version.
The Found:Re Hotel (1100 N. Central Ave.; tel. 602/875-8000), on Central Avenue just around the corner from Roosevelt Row, is a swellegant remodeled hipster boutique hotel with its own curated art gallery—and the convivial sprawling lounge bar and restaurant don’t hurt, either. Coolest feature: An art installation right inside the front door projects groovy moving designs onto the lobby floor—projections that somehow move and puddle when guests walk across them. Finally, there’s Food Truck Friday, when a cluster of the Valley’s finest gather for lunch at Civic Space Park—that’s the park with the big net sculpture above it, 424 N. Central Ave. at Taylor St. The trucks gather from 11am to 1:30pm every Friday until the weather gets too hot.
Arizona Luxury, Circa 1929
Tucked away at the top of the Biltmore district, the Arizona Biltmore hotel (2400 E. Missouri Ave.; tel. 602/955-6600), built in 1929, wasn’t designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but he did consult on this magnificent endeavor designed by one of his former students, Albert Chase McArthur. You can see the famed architect’s hand in its distinctive cast-cement blocks; it also displays sculptures, furniture, and stained glass designed by Wright. The best way to soak up the ambience of this exclusive resort (if you aren’t staying here) is over dinner, a cocktail, or tea, but 90-minute tours ($10) are given Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10am; there’s also a happy hour tour Fridays at 6pm; $20 gets you a shorter tour and two cocktails.
On a hilltop adjacent to the Arizona Biltmore, elegant Wrigley Mansion 2501 E. Telawa Tr.; www.wrigleymansionclub.com; tel. 602/955-4079) was built between 1929 and 1931 by the resort’s owner, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr., as a present for his wife, Ada. Now a National Historic Landmark, this Spanish Colonial–style mansion has been restored to its original grandeur and turned into a high-end event space with Geordie’s Restaurant, an adjoining bar, and a swellegant premium wine bar. A sunset drink here is a wonderful experience. Guided tours, offered daily except Mondays, give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Wrigleys; reservations are required. Tours cost $15; Tuesday through Saturday, they’re at 10am, noon, 2pm, and 4pm; there’s also a Sunday tour at 2pm.
Hunt’s Tomb: The Great Pyramid of Phoenix
If you’re driving through Papago Park on your way to the Desert Botanical Garden or the zoo and see a shimmering white pyramid on a hilltop, it’s not a heat-induced hallucination. The pyramid is real. It is the tomb of Gov. George W. P. Hunt, who was governor on and off through much of Arizona’s first 20 years as a state. He died in 1934. The tomb is accessible from a road leading north out of the parking area of the zoo.
Arizona remains a red state, and anti-gay rhetoric—sometimes coded, sometimes explicit—can still be heard from actual elected officials. The good news is that central Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe, well protected from such talk, are explicitly gay-friendly enclaves. Gay Phoenix is centered in the Melrose—7th Avenue between Indian School and Camelback. Don’t expect some desert version of the Castro, though; there are basically just a bunch of bars and shops, nothing terribly upscale, that come alive Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Look for Echo magazine, which keeps up with events on the scene month to month, in downtown hotel lobbies and restaurants. In reality, just about all of the bars and restaurants in the central core—7th Street to 7th Avenue, from downtown to uptown—are part of the gay scene. The burgeoning strip of restaurants on 7th Street north of Missouri Avenue are gay-friendly, too.
Two Oddball Castles
Half wedding cake, half castle, the massive three-story Tovrea Castle (5025 E. Van Buren Ave.) perches on a desert hill on a vast lot 5 miles east of downtown, surrounded by a huge cactus garden. Built in the 1920s by a successful Italian immigrant businessman from San Francisco, it was later bought by the Tovrea family (hence its name), and was taken over by the city of Phoenix in 1993. The good news is that there are tours available ($20, kids 2 and under free); the bad news is that they sell out months in advance. Try your luck at www.tovreacastletours.com; tel. 602/256-3221. It’s closed in July and August.
South of downtown Phoenix, Mystery Castle (800 E. Mineral Rd.; www.mymysterycastle.com) is a wondrous work of folk-art architecture, built in the 1930s and 1940s using stones from the property. Boyce Luther Gulley, who came to Arizona in hopes of curing his tuberculosis, built it for his daughter, who longed for a castle more permanent than those built in the sand at the beach. The resulting 18-room fantasy has 13 fireplaces, parapets, and many other unusual touches. It’s open October through May, from Thursday through Sunday, 11am–3:30pm; admission is $10 adults, $5 ages 5–12.
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