A first-timer's guide to Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix is the heart of the Valley of the Sun. It is the fifth-largest metro area in the US, but this city does not enthusiastically embrace the hustle and bustle of its counterparts. Instead, sunshine and saguaro cacti rule supreme, setting the scene for an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.

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Hikers, bikers, golfers and kayakers can find adventure anywhere in the Valley, from the White Tank Mountains on the west to the Salt River on the east. Poolside is rarely a bad place to be in Phoenix, especially as your Instagram feed shows you the latest bomb cyclone on the other coast. (Take a sip of your margarita every time a Phoenix local says, “At least it’s a dry heat!”)

The pink-streaked sunsets will stop you in your tracks, so take the time to savor them before diving into Phoenix’s buzzing nightlife.

And, please, don’t forget to hydrate.

Here’s everything you need to know for your first visit to Phoenix.

How much time should I spend in Phoenix?

For your first trip, you can cover a lot of ground in three days. Add a fourth – or even a fifth – for a road trip to the hiking trails in Sedona, the ponderosa pines in Flagstaff, or the criminally underrated food scene in Tucson.

Phoenix is a prime golfing destination, hosting the WM Phoenix Open every year © ImagineGolf / Getty Images When should I go to Phoenix?

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: summers are hot in Phoenix. As in, 110°F (43°C) – or worse – on a normal summer day. Yes, the air conditioning will be on full blast indoors, but it is dangerously warm for those hoping to enjoy Phoenix’s stunning outdoors. Avoid the worst of the heat by visiting late October to early May, and be sure to pack layers! Even the winter afternoons will have you ditching your jacket.

Luxury seekers, on the other hand, have a strong case for a summer visit to the Valley. Most resorts and spas offer hefty discounts to soften the blow of their slow season, so you can stay at award-winning properties for 20-40% off standard rates, plus other perks. The same goes for golf fanatics: You can score majorly discounted tee times at some of the best, most beautiful courses on the West Coast, but aim for the earliest available slot so you aren’t playing during peak heat.

Unlike most of the US, Phoenix is at its best in the winter. Mornings and nights are chilly, but most days you’re met with sunshine, bright blue skies and 60-70°F (15-21°C) temperatures. It’s chamber of commerce-type stuff. In February, the WM Phoenix Open, Scottsdale’s signature PGA Tour event known as “The Greatest Show on Grass,” attracts golf fans and partiers alike from across the country. That event rolls right into Major League Baseball’s Cactus League spring training, which runs mid-February through the end of March. If you want to be in the middle of the action, that’s the perfect time to visit the Valley. If you’re a budget-minded traveler, pounce on flights and hotels as early as possible, or consider bumping your trip to January or April.

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Getting to and around Phoenix

Phoenix is one spectacular suburban sprawl, so be sure to budget for a rental car if you are going to hop around town. Grab yours upon touching down at Sky Harbor International, Phoenix’s major airport. There’s also the much smaller Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on the easternmost edge of the Valley, but it only serves Allegiant and Sun Country Airlines.

Unless you’re heading to Old Town Scottsdale or the heart of downtown Phoenix, you will not find many walkable areas in Greater Phoenix. In fact, a 2016 study by George Washington University ranked Phoenix 29th out of 30 major American cities in walkability. (Take that, Orlando!) 

If you decide against a rental car and plan to hang around one general part of town, Uber and Lyft will be sufficient for your stay.

For more info on transport logistics, check out The best ways to get around Phoenix

Phoenix has tons of outdoor activity options that allow you to explore the beauty of the Sonoran Desert © Shutterstock / Ray Redstone Top things to do in Phoenix

Time outdoors is a must. (Unless, as we established, it’s surface-of-the-sun hot.) Hiking and golfing are the two most popular ways to get outside, but I’m typically the golfer gouging the grass, not the ball, so let’s stick to hiking here.

Camelback Mountain is the busiest hiking trail in the Valley, and for good reason: the desert views at the top will leave you in awe, and the location is convenient to Scottsdale, Arcadia and Paradise Valley. (A fabulous post-hike brunch is a short drive away!) However, there are just two trails on this mountain, and neither is friendly to beginners. You’ll find a much wider range of options – along with just as gorgeous views – at Dreamy Draw Recreation Area in uptown Phoenix and South Mountain Park & Preserve south of downtown Phoenix.

If you go for a Dreamy Draw trek, reward yourself afterward with the “Burrata Tomata” pizza at nearby Base Pizzeria: fresh burrata, cherry tomato, basil, roasted garlic and EVOO. It’s absolute heaven for your taste buds.

If you opt for South Mountain, reapply your sunscreen and head to The Farm at South Mountain for a memorable farm-to-table food experience. In addition to their scrumptious breakfast spot, Morning Glory Café, the Farm Kitchen offers picnic basket lunches you can enjoy in their pecan grove or on the grass with lawn games. Either way, it's BYOB – bring your own blanket. For a more romantic setting, make a coveted reservation for dinner under the stars at Quiessence. All three restaurants are open sparingly June through August, so plan ahead.

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Perhaps you’d rather enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert without breaking a sweat. If that’s you, you will love Desert Botanical Garden. The garden, right down the street from Phoenix Zoo, features more than 50,000 plants, including nearly 550 rare and endangered species. Stop by the on-site cafe and grab a prickly pear iced tea for your walk through two miles’ worth (3.2km) of flat trails. When you’re ready for dinner, sit on the patio at Gertrude’s, surrounded by the garden, to take in the sunset. The Desert Botanical Garden is a Valley favorite, so book your tickets in advance.

Check out more highlights with All the best things to do in Phoenix

Old Town Scottsdale is one of Phoenix's most well known nightlife hubs © Shutterstock / kenelamb photographics My favorite thing to do in Phoenix 

If your travel dates to Phoenix are flexible, consider scheduling your trip around the first Friday of the month. Then you can check out First Friday, a monthly art walk in downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row. This self-guided night stroll fills several blocks with art displays, live music, food trucks and vendors. When you’re ready to give your feet a rest, pop into one of the many bars and restaurants lining the street. Arizona Wilderness and Greenwood Brewing are two of my favorites for their tasty local beer and welcoming patio spaces. On the same block, The Churchill is not to be missed. This shaded courtyard houses multiple bars, food stands and locally owned shops. Settle in with a pint and play a round of corn hole while you wait for your food, or head to the balcony for city views. The cherry on top: it’s dog-friendly!

If cocktail bars are more your speed, catch the nearby Valley Metro light rail for a five-minute ride to three of the coolest spots in Phoenix: Little Rituals (sparkle!), Bitter & Twisted (dark and moody), and Valley Bar (gritty and sometimes a little sweaty). Aesthetics are merely a bonus here; the drinks speak for themselves.

Downtown Phoenix has a fun, casual vibe to it. But when you want to take your night up another notch or two…or three…Old Town Scottsdale is the place to go. There, you have access to luxury dining, countless bars and clubs, and – if you’re lucky – a Sonoran hot dog cart waiting on the sidewalk at night’s end. 

Stick to your budget with 18 free (and cheap) things to do in and around Phoenix, Arizona

How much should I budget for a trip to Phoenix?

Phoenix is definitely on the affordable end of the US’s major metro areas, but it isn’t exactly cheap anymore. Here’s what to expect:

Basic room for two, off-peak: $120-170 per night Basic room for two, peak weekend: $215-290 per night High-end hotel room, off-peak: $200-350 per night High-end hotel room, peak weekend: $400-1,100 per night Daily resort fees: $50-55 Airbnb: $100-130 per night Coffee: $3-6 Sandwich: $12-15 Dinner for two: $60-100 (or more) Beer: $6-9 Cocktail: $13-16 Sunscreen, travel size: $5 Bottled water: $2-4
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