downtown phoenix
Arizona,  Central Arizona

A Local’s Guide for First Time Visitors – Things to Do in Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona is part of the most beautiful desert – the Sonoran Desert. This unique landscape is a major draw for nature enthusiasts.

The city is surrounded by many mountain ranges, so if you love to hike you’ll love Phoenix!

If you’ve never been to Phoenix this is your Start Here guide for first-time visitors. We’ll explain the best time of year to visit, how to navigate the metro area, your lodging options, where to park, unique places to eat, things to do in the metro area and the best day trips. Let’s go explore the Valley of the Sun!

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.

Sightseeing in Phoenix – The Valley of the Sun Overview

Often referred to as “The Valley of the Sun” or just “the Valley,” Phoenix has quickly grown into an urban metropolis and a top vacation destination. It is the capital city of Arizona. The city has retained a laid back atmosphere, despite the tremendous growth in the region.

Dress is casual in most restaurants. After all it is the desert. There is still an old west influence in this sprawling metropolitan city.

Where is Phoenix & How to get There?

It’s central location within the state of Arizona makes this city a great place to start your southwest vacation. It is the capital city of Arizona and there are plenty of things to do and see in Arizona’s urban center.

Welcome to Phoenix

Best Time of Year to Visit Phoenix

The best time of year to visit Phoenix is Spring. It is also the busiest time to visit. You’ll find some of the best weather in March and April. Find out what to expect weather-wise when you visit Arizona.

Navigating the Metro Area

Phoenix is an easy city to navigate because it was built based on a grid system. Most of the surrounding areas are also based on a grid. Interstate 17, also called Black Canyon Freeway, is a main artery and the first freeway built in Phoenix. It runs north and south. To the east of I-17 you’ll find streets and to the west of I-17 you’ll find avenues.

In addition to I-17, you have the following major roadways in Phoenix:

  • Interstate 10 is a major artery running east and west. It connects Buckeye, Goodyear, Avondale, and through downtown Phoenix where it connects to I-17, State Route 51,
  • State Route 101 loops around the city connecting the suburbs of Glendale, Peoria, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, and Chandler.
  • State Route 202 or South Mountain Freeway connecting Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert.
  • State Route 303 or Loop 303 connects the northern part of I-17 to I-10 on the west side of the valley.
  • State Route 51, which is the prettiest major roadway in the metro area.
  • U.S. Route 60 or Grand Avenue connects Wickenburg to Phoenix and out to Globe.

Maricopa County

Unlike other areas of the United States, Arizona has large counties. The Phoenix metro area is Maricopa County and cities within this county blend together. Unless you are paying attention, you may not know when you leave one city and enter another one.

From the surface all of the suburbs seem to be entangled, which is probably why some say Phoenix is one huge suburb. Despite this, each city has a unique atmosphere.

The metro area includes (but not limited to) the cities of:

  • Apache Junction
  • Avondale
  • Carefree
  • Cave Creek
  • Chandler
  • Fountain Hills
  • Gilbert
  • Glendale
  • Goodyear
  • Mesa
  • Peoria
  • Phoenix
  • Queen Creek
  • Scottsdale
  • Surprise
  • Tempe

To give an idea of distance the city of Fountain Hills to Goodyear is around 50 miles. If you drove from the city of Surprise to Queen Creek it is about 65 miles.

Residents of all of these cities would say they are part of the metro area. The metro covers a large area and this is easiest to see from the air.

Phoenix arizona from the sky

How to Get Around Phoenix

If you’re visiting Phoenix you will want a car. The metro area has some serious sprawl, so if you want to see all the sights you’ll need a car. Phoenix does have light rail, but it isn’t going to take you near most of the sights you’ll want to see in the metro area.

Parking in Phoenix

The majority of parking garages in Phoenix are located in the downtown area south of I-10 and between 7th Street and 7th Avenue. This will give you access to places such as the Phoenix Convention Center, Arizona Science Center, Children’s Museum of Phoenix, the Footprint Center to name a few.

Where to Stay

Where you stay is going to be dependent on what you would like to be near. Phoenix is a major city so you’ll have plenty of choices in hotels, motels, resorts, Airbnb, and VRBOs. Some popular areas to stay include downtown Phoenix, the Biltmore area, Scottsdale near Camelback Mountain or Kierland area, and Westgate in Glendale.

Unique Places to Eat

If this is your first trip to Phoenix, then you’ve got to try Native American Fry Bread and Sonoran-style Mexican food. Personally, I believe Arizona has the best Mexican food in the U.S. Some other unique to Arizona culinary choices include rattlesnake, prickly pear margaritas and prickly pear ice cream. See our list of unique places to eat in the metro area.

Sightseeing in Phoenix – Top Things to See and Do

Some of the best attractions in Phoenix can be found outdoors. The mountains surrounding the city provide endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. National Geographic voted the Valley as having some of the best urban hikes in the country.

 hike camelback mountain

Phoenix is a great place to explore  Native American history, visit museums and art galleries,  or get a taste of the old west. Cool off in the summer and tube down the Salt River or visit one of the many nearby lakes.

Top Outdoor Things to Do in Phoenix

  1. Hike Camelback Mountain.
  2. See petroglyphs at the White Tank Mountains.
  3. Tube down the Salt River.
  4. Hike South Mountain.
  5. Cool off at the Lake.
  6. Explore Native American history and visit Indian Ruins.
  7. Hike Papago Park.
  8. Explore one of the many ghost towns in the state.
  9. Hike Piestewa Peak.
  10. See the animals at the Phoenix Zoo.
  11. Hike at McDowell Mountain.
  12. Learn about desert plants at the Desert Botanical Garden.
  13. Stop to smell the roses at Sahuaro Ranch Park.
  14. Play a round of golf.
  15. Hit the driving range at Top Golf in Glendale or Scottsdale.
  16. Take a self-guided art tour on Roosevelt Row.
  17. Feed the lorikeets at the World Wildlife Zoo.
  18. Go for a ride or a walk at Encanto Park.
  19. Feed the Koi fish at the Japanese Gardens.
  20. Cool off at one of the waterparks.
  21. Hop aboard the kiddie train at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park.
  22. Rent a paddleboard at Tempe Town Lake.
  23. Take a walk around Scottsdale’s waterfront.
  24. Have a picnic at Steele Indian School Park.
  25. Have a picnic by the tallest fountain.
  26. Attend one of the many annual events in.
  27. Soar over the desert in a Hot Air Balloon Ride.
  28. Visit a Farmers’ Market.
  29. See wildflowers at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
  30. Pick your own fruit and veggies at one of Arizona’s Farms.
  31. Listen to the wind chimes at Cosanti’s.
  32. Road trip to see desert spring wildflowers.
sightseeing in phoenix -roosevelt lake

Top Phoenix Indoor Attractions

  1. See Fireflies infinity mirror room at the Phoenix Art Museum.
  2. Be a kid again at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.
  3. See the best display of Native American Art at the Heard Museum.
  4. Lay on a bed of nails at the Arizona Science Center.
  5. Learn about firefighters at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum.
  6. Tour the Rosson House in Heritage Square.
  7. Tour the Mystery Castle by South Mountain.
  8. Have brunch at the Wrigley Mansion.
  9. Try mini golf game at Puttshack, a fun indoor modern course.
  10. Watch butterflies emerge from chrysalides at Butterfly Wonderland.
  11. Gamble at one of the Valley’s casinos.
  12. Tour the “wedding cake house,” Tovrea Castle.
  13. Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the oldest theatre in Phoenix.
  14. Explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen West.
  15. Visit the Musical Instrument Museum, which has a collection of instruments from over 200 countries.
  16. See the fishes at Arizona’s largest aquarium, OdySea Aquarium.
  17. Learn about dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History in Mesa.
  18. Take a scenic drive on Apache Trail.
  19. Watch a Spring Training game.
  20. Go antique shopping in Glendale.
  21. Experience cool immersive art exhibits.

Day Trips from Phoenix

Phoenix is centrally located, making it a great starting point for a day trip. You can reach the following destinations in less than four hours:

Phoenix Attractions & Annual Events

The spring and winter months offer a variety of popular annual events. Some of the most well attended events include: Spring Training games,  Waste Management Phoenix Open, and the  Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show to name a few.

things to do in phoenix - waste management golf phoenix
  • Book a Flight to Phoenix: The largest airport is Sky Harbor.
  • Rent a Car: You can rent a car in Phoenix.
  • Where to Stay in Phoenix: Choose from hotels, motels, resorts, Airbnb, VRBO and camp sites.
  • Tours to Take in Phoenix