Phoenix, Arizona, is a truly modern city—it didn't really boom until after World War II. Nonetheless, mixed among Phoenix's office towers and the abundance of resorts, spas and restaurants are museums dedicated to pre-Columbian, Native American and pioneer history. Though Phoenix proper is just one of several cities in the Valley of the Sun, it's the largest by far and serves as the center of the metropolitan area. The explosive, sprawling growth of the Phoenix metropolitan area—which includes Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler, Peoria and Tempe—is due in part to its attractive desert location (cacti and mountains are never far from view) and in part to the city's refusal to respect the limitations a desert imposes.
Visitors to Phoenix might be surprised by the air pollution all the development has generated. The heat, however, should not be a shock. It is the desert after all, and temperatures routinely top 100 F/38 C in summer and can reach the 90s F/32-37 C even in late spring and early fall. Despite the smog and heat, people go to Phoenix for year-round outdoor activities, as the area is home to more than 200 golf courses and the highly regarded Desert Botanical Garden. Plus, most days are cloudless, and the brilliant sun—which shines more than 325 days a year—is regarded as an asset, not a liability, by desert dwellers.
Located along the banks of the (usually dry) Salt River in central Arizona, Phoenix is a sprawling desert metropolitan area that extends from fashionable Scottsdale in the northeast to Glendale and a string of ever-expanding towns in the west. The university city of Tempe is sandwiched between Phoenix and Mormon-founded Mesa. Desert mountains surround the area, forming the Valley of the Sun.
Like many cities in the Western U.S., Phoenix is laid out in a grid pattern: Major intersections are about 1 mi/1.6 km apart. Central Avenue runs north and south, through downtown and between the two mountain ranges. All roads running parallel to Central are designated with numbers (16th Street, 19th Avenue). Treating Central as zero, all numbered roads to the east are streets, and those to the west are avenues. Most roads running east and west have names (Camelback Road, Shea Boulevard).
A sizable population of Hohokam people lived in the area from the 300s BC until the 1400s, developing a sophisticated network of irrigation canals. Although the end of the Hohokam civilization is something of a mystery, some believe that they abandoned the area after a period of severe floods and droughts.
By the time the settlers arrived, a few Hohokam stragglers lived near the Salt River, but there were no large villages. Some Yavapai and Maricopa were also living in the area. Years later, in the 1800s, settlers put the canals back into use.
Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the New Mexico Territory, which included present-day Phoenix, came under the control of the U.S. When the city was incorporated in 1881, the name Phoenix came from a prediction by one of the town's founders that a great city would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the former Hohokam settlement.
After the railroad arrived in 1887, the city grew and prospered as a center of trade for the region. It became the permanent capital of the newly formed state of Arizona in 1912. By the mid-1900s, Phoenix had transformed from a decent-sized farming community into a booming metropolis.
The city's most recent attempt at rebirth involves the downtown area, which became a ghost town after shopping malls and offices moved to the suburbs. Downtown is once again bustling with activity, thanks to a light rail transit line, destination restaurants, cultural and recreational attractions, and a growing urban movement. There are blocks of upscale apartments and a revitalized cultural and recreational environment including the Herberger and Orpheum theaters, Talking Stick Resort Arena and a bustling nightlife at CityScape.
Elsewhere in the metro area, the intersection of 24th Street and Camelback Road is a prestigious hub for shopping, dining and nightlife.
Although most visitors go to Phoenix for the sun, golf courses or spas, the city does have a smattering of other attractions. Plan to spend a day downtown at two of the Southwest's top museums: the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum, which is considered one of the best museums in the country dedicated to Native American culture.
If you've got children in tow, be sure to stop at the Arizona Science Center or the Children's Museum of Phoenix. Both children and adults will find the hundreds of exhibits at each site appealing.
If you have time, pay a visit to the Heritage Square area of downtown. You'll get a glimpse of historic Phoenix within walking distance of some of the city's best restaurants and sites.
East of downtown, on the border with Tempe and Scottsdale, is another longtime favorite: the Desert Botanical Garden. It's beautiful year-round, but if you're visiting in the spring, don't miss the wildflower display. Next door is the Phoenix Zoo, the largest nonprofit zoo in the country, where you can see desert animals such as Gila monsters and bald eagles up close. Also nearby is the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, where you can walk the well-marked trail to see ruins of an ancient Hohokam village.
Architecture fans should spend an afternoon in north Scottsdale to see Taliesin West, once the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Country music continues to be a staple in neighborhood bars throughout the valley; the blues have long been big, as well. Local jazz performers have a dedicated following, and pop acts spawned in Tempe's Mill Avenue clubs have gone on to regional and national recognition. Salsa and other Latin beats continue to be popular.
As a rough guide: Tempe is where you should go to hear young bands; head to nearby Scottsdale for more sophistication (dress to impress); and the area around Camelback Road and 24th Street is for hanging out and spending big bucks.
Bars and clubs close at 2 am, and smoking is illegal inside any establishment.
If you want to dine well in Phoenix, chances are you'll be eating at one of the city's resorts, which means you'll enjoy fine dining in a luxurious setting. Phoenix's Camelback Road is another place where you'll find choice dining, as is the posh town of Scottsdale.
Mexican and southwestern dishes remain the backbone of menus throughout the Phoenix area, but other ethnic favorites—French, Italian, Chinese, Thai and Indian—are also well represented. You'll find trendy restaurants serving everything from pizza to fusion cuisine.
Restaurants are generally open 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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