I don’t know if it started with Marty Robbins or with Joni Mitchell, but something began stirring in me last year about wanting to run away to the desert. The dusty coral, robust purples, and golden hues seemed safe; maybe it was just a false escape from the same news cycle that’s keeping all of us up at night. But Marty sang about evenings and sunsets, driving cattle against a pale morning and cactus blooms, and I believed him. When we saw ticket prices to Phoenix dip below $90, Josh and I didn’t hesitate. We knew pretty much zip about Arizona before we landed: I've never seen the Grand Canyon, never experienced anywhere in my life hotter than Texas. And yet here we were a few weeks later, sweaty, optimistic, squinting in the Valley of the Sun.
How to Pack
The more we traveled outside of the Phoenix metro, the more we realized even the locals thought it was way too hot to hang out in town (the average temp during the day was 102 before 10 AM). Besides the more obvious things like sunscreen (lots and lots of sunscreen), you’ll want to bring a hat, bandana, and sunglasses to keep the rays off your face and skin. Our saving grace for our trip was a pocket-sized mister that I carried around in my purse. Trust me. Speaking of water — if you’re planning on hiking, bring a massive refillable bottle; we spent most of the trip wishing we had two: a small bottle for day trips and goofing off around town and our huge canteen for longer days outside.
Where to Stay
As budget travelers that prefer neighborhoods to hotels, we knew we'd be picking an Airbnb for our stay. We landed on a cute apartment in the "Arts District," a.k.a. Roosevelt Row, a strip close the metro featuring abundant murals. While I dunno if I'd call it a proper "Arts District" (lots of street art, but no studios, museums, or galleries), Roosevelt Row is definitely worth a visit. The Saguaro, a vintage IG fantasy out in Scottsdale, should also be on your list — although it's pricier than most parts of town, the design and aesthetic are absolutely stunning.
Food & Drink
Our Airbnb ended up being across the street from one of the best restaurants in town, CIBO, a beautiful little Italian restaurant with stellar pizza, pasta, wine list, and crepes (do not miss the Nutella and peanut butter crepe; it changes lives). Locals insisted CIBO has the best patio in the whole city, and it didn't take much to convince us: twinkling lights, live jazz every night, and the city skyline in the background. When we weren't eating at CIBO, bright and sunny Ollie Vaughn's offered tasty sandwiches and sumptuous pastries in a hipster-friendly nook. Besides food, we found a few bars that we'd happily bring back to Austin. Our first find was Gracie's Tax Bar, a dimly lit dive that legitimately used to serve as a tax office that's now slinging drinks under $4 (with tax, obviously). Gracie's is a neighborhood place, and what might be considered ironic at any other bar — shitty plaid/pleather booths, art you might find at your grandma's yard sale — is done in absolute earnest.
Another night we discovered Undertow, an underground, reservations-only tiki bar housed in the belly of the unassuming Sip Coffee & Beer Garage. With only 45 minutes per party, you can order a few tropical classics seated against the walls of the "ship's hull." Portholes in the bar walls hold TVs displaying various scenes at sea, and Undertow fully commits to the theatrics, even going so far as to drum up a storm with flashing lights and thunder to complete the effect.
Things to Do Outside
Bite the bullet and do everything you can to survive the heat, because the most precious treasure Arizona has to offer lies in the flora and fauna. We were stunned by how varied the landscape could be in one state; drive a few hours north, and suddenly there are saguaro cactus everywhere! Go even further north and suddenly it's mountainous and piney, like Colorado. Locals recommended Camelback Mountain in Phoenix proper for hikes, and we spent the better part of a day at the gorgeous Desert Botanical Garden ($24.95/adult). If you're hoping for something more rugged, Sedona's ~2 hours away and stuns with mesas, vistas, and some very steep hikes (not for the faint of heart; our hike in Sedona was challenging enough that we didn't do anything else for the rest of the day). If day trips are your jam, definitely bookmark Saguaro National Park, too — home to the world's largest cacti, there's nothing like being surrounded in a forest of these desert giants.
Arts & Culture
Although Phoenix doesn't have a reputation as an artsy city, one of the major draws for me was seeing a Yayoi Kusama! You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies has been a permanent exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum since 2005. Another artist of interest is Kehinde Wiley; parts of his World Stage series will be on display until June 28th.