A Guide To Visiting Phoenix, Arizona with Kids

I've been meaning to write a Phoenix travel guide for months now, and with the Super Bowl here this weekend and spring training starting shortly, I'm motivated to share what I know to help you a) decide whether you want to visit Phoenix and Arizona, and b) see and experience the highlights of what the city and state I've lived in for roughly 20 years has to offer.

A couple caveats:

1) If you want a complete soup-to-nuts review of this place, find your favorite travel guidebook and read the 100+ pages it offers.  Instead, this is going to be a narrow and personal take on the city, something you might want to refer to before or after you read those guidebooks.

2) This is a guide for families traveling here, so if you're looking for the definitive guide to visiting Phoenix as a single recent college graduate, you will probably find the overall tenor of my recommendations a little tame.  Which isn't to say a lot of my recommendations aren't appropriate for all ages, just that you shouldn't expect a "Nightlife" section of this piece.

With that, let's begin!

Note: This is a work in progress.  It will be updated over time, so if you see something out-of-date or something you'd like to know more about that I'm sadly underinforming you about, let me know through the comments or via e-mail.

Should You Visit Phoenix (and if so, when)?

Perhaps that's an odd question for someone who might have stumbled across this post -- presumably if you're reading this, you've got a good sense that yes, you do want your family to visit Phoenix.  But I find it useful to think about Phoenix's strengths as a vacation destination, and let you decide if it's for you.

When people from across the country think about Phoenix, they probably think "sunny weather" -- I know I did before I moved here.  And, yes, that's a totally reasonable and accurate thing to think with the sun shining nearly 300 days every year.  So why should you visit?  Because you like great weather and want to enjoy it.  The things that draw visitors of all ages are those activities that take advantage of the outdoors -- baseball's spring training from late February through late March, assorted seasonal sporting events (college football bowl games and PGA golf tournaments) in late December through late January, and lounging around resort pools just about any time of the year.

Phoenix is also a young city -- as of 1950, it only had roughly 100,000 people.  Now it has more than 1.5 million, with the entire Phoenix metropolitan region home to more than 4 million people.

But those 4+ million people are spread out over a wide area.  The Phoenix area has almost as many people as the Bay Area… in nearly ten times as many square miles.  The sprawl and lack of density means that most of the city lacks the vibrant urban life of, say, San Francisco.  All of which leads to...

Where Should I Stay in the Phoenix Area?

As a Phoenix resident, I am poorly qualified to determine precisely where to park your family's heads on your visit here.  I stayed in a nondescript hotel near the airport when I was deciding whether to move here in my mid-20s, and aside from maybe a couple in-town overnights without the kids, I've parked my own head in my own apartment or house.

What I can say, based on the comments above, is that what you want to do is very important to where you want to stay.  That goes for any city, obviously, but even more so here because your options are varied and spread out.

My general feeling is that most folks visiting want to enjoy the sunshine and the outdoors, and if that's the case, your options are definitely more varied, in part because you will have to have a car.  This is an easy call in my eyes -- you can't get to any of the spring training ballparks via light rail, you can't get to any of the resorts via light rail, you can't get to any of the major parks and hiking trails via light rail.  The bus service (as opposed to light rail) does not run often enough, and parking (with the exception of downtown Phoenix) is almost always free.  A car allows you to explore Arizona outside of Phoenix. The benefits of having a car almost always outweigh the negatives.

And once you have a car, you have considerably more flexibility (natch).  Many of the nicest resorts are found in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, generally affluent suburbs northwest of Phoenix, which sits in the middle of the Valley of the Sun.  As a general rule, places to stay are more plentiful and far nicer east of Central Avenue in Phoenix (and that "east" extends into the suburbs like Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Tempe).  You can go too far east, however -- Apache Junction, Gilbert, Chandler, and (parts of) Mesa can feel pretty sleepy and removed from almost any action.  That may be precisely what you're looking for, but, well, it's not what I would want in picking a vacation spot.

It is possible to stay in Phoenix without a car -- the airport is connected to light rail, which runs like a very scoliotic spine from west-central Phoenix all the way through downtown, east Phoenix, Tempe, and west Mesa.  If you're young and childless, you may just want to wander around downtown Phoenix and Tempe and if that's the case, the light rail will probably work for you.  And there are even enough family-centered things to do along the light rail line to make it a not totally crazy idea.  But for a family, it's mostly a crazy idea.

When Should I Visit Phoenix?

As with location, the answer to this question depends primarily on what you want to do (see below).  The high season for Phoenix is, unsurprisingly, about November through March, when the weather here is better (read: warmer and not snowier) than everywhere else.  Add to that timeframe big events like college football bowl games and Spring Training, not to mention the semi-permanent visitors from northern climes (AKA "snowbirds") and there are a lot of people hanging out that time of year.

It gets hot in Phoenix (perhaps you've heard?) and so summer is not the glorious time it is many other parts of the Northern Hemisphere.  (Just ask someone from San Diego, who might complain about all the Phoenicians -- yes, that's the correct name for us residents of Phoenix -- who escape here and overrun their city in July and August.)  That's when the hotels offer screaming deals, with $300+ high season rooms going for half that if not less than $100.  My general feeling is that June is not a bad time of year to visit.  Yes, it will likely be hot during the day -- right around or just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- but the mornings will probably still feel quite nice, 70 degrees or so and pretty dry.

And about that "dry heat."  Yes, it exists.  Just this weekend, I saw a first-time visitor to the Valley of the Sun slathering on lotion on her hands and arms, surprised at how dry she felt after just a few hours here.  

What Is There To Do in Phoenix with Kids?

Ah, the heart of the matter.  My general feeling is that if you visit a place, you should see do the things and visit the spots that make that place unique.  I know, that's not a terribly revolutionary concept.  But that explains why I'll focus on those unique-to-Phoenix attractions and cover those not-so-unique attractions (the zoo! the science museum! the children's museum!) that many metropolitan areas have more sparingly.

Only in Phoenix

This is the core of what I think you should see or is more unique to the Phoenix area:

- Baseball (Spring Training, Fall League): I know, this exists in Florida, too, but scattered across hundreds of miles.  All the ballparks are within an hour's drive of each other, most less than 30 minutes drive.  Spring Training is the big draw, but if you visit in October, you can see Fall League games with some of the game's best prospects with a small fraction of the crowds (and the cost).

- Resort Swimming Pools: There are lots of resorts in the Phoenix area, and as you'd expect in such a sunny climate, all of them have pools and water park areas.  Some of the resorts are targeted more at adults, and therefore feel a bit like a library -- hey, kids, no running, shouting, or splashing! -- so do a little research if that's important to you and your kids.  I haven't been to many of the resort complexes' pools -- I live here, remember? -- but I have enjoyed the pools at JW Marriott Desert Ridge and the Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak's River Ranch and would recommend both if the pools are a deciding factor in selecting a place to stay.

- Musical Instrument Museum (MIM): World-class museum featuring instruments from almost every country in the world.  Kids 6 and under may be a little bored, but there's even a room for them to play on a wide variety of instruments (seriously wide) if you're willing and able to do some trading off of parental duties.  (See my original review here.)

- Heard Museum: World-class museum featuring Native American culture and arts.  The museum has expanded in recent years, and a lot of that effort has gone into making the museum more interactive and more accessible to younger kids.  Like the MIM, kids under 6 may be a little bored -- there are a lot of exhibits behind glass -- but there is a large room with exhibits designed specifically for the under-8 crowd.

- Desert Botanical Garden (DBG): Visitors expecting riots of blooming flowers may not be in the right frame of mind for this tiny jewel in the Papago Park area.  Instead, they should expect lots of cacti and desert trees and plants, which are definitely beautiful in their own right, but an entirely different garden than, say, a lovingly manicured rose garden.  Aside from the butterfly exhibit (open in fall and spring) and a trail with some interactive exhibits for kids, there are fewer specifically kid-friendly things to do.  It's not kid-unfriendly by any means, but I've often wished for a nice playground to let kids blow off some steam.

- Arizona Hall of Flame Museum: Whereas places like the Heard Museum and the DBG fit in with Arizona's landscape and history over the centuries, places like the MIM and the Hall of Flame grow out of Arizona's history of visiting or moving here, and creating something entirely new.  This museum features over a hundred different firefighting vehicles (one of which visitors can climb all over) and other celebrations of all things firefighter-y.  I wouldn't consider this a must-do, but it's unique, pretty cheap, centrally-located, and air-conditioned and if your kids are fire engine-obsessed, they'll think it awesome.

Five Things Locals Do

These are small-scale activities which generally won't take much more than an hour and might not end up on your list of must-do's.  But they're popular with local families (including ours) and so I think they're good ways to explore life as a Phoenician.  (I would note that I'm mentioning a small fraction of all the hiking trails in and around Phoenix, so there's plenty more where these came from.)

- Hike Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain: These two peaks, the highest peaks in the Phoenix Mountain Preserves which dot and ring the city, are incredibly popular with residents (up to 10,000 hikers per week at Piestewa Peak's Summit Trail) and so your most difficult task may be finding a parking spot.  Both peaks' Summit Trails climb about 1,200 feet in elevation and are roughly 1.25 miles in length.  Of the two, I find Piestewa Peak slightly easier, with parts of Camelback's Summit Trail much requiring use of a hand-rail or scrambling on all fours.  Active older kids (e.g., 8+) will think it awesome.

- Visit Hole in the Rock: Hole in the Rock is located in Papago Park, located along the Phoenix/Tempe border and which includes the Desert Botanical Garden (see above) and Phoenix Zoo (see below) and is very close to the Hall of Flame Museum.  In other words, great for stopping by if you're in the neighborhood.  The trail is about a tenth of a mile long and climbs about 200 feet.  You'll get a nice southwesterly view over downtown and South Mountain and Tempe Town Lake.  Think of this as a preschooler-friendly version of the Camelback Mountain climb.

- Walk along the Phoenix Canals / Murphy Bridle Path: What's that, you like your trails virtually flat? Then a walk (or bike ride) along the Salt River Project's Phoenix canals or the Murphy Bridle Path might be more your speed (or elevation gain, rather).  The Salt River Project's canals provide irrigation water to hundreds of thousands of homes.  They're not for swimming, but provide excellent crushed-gravel paths perfect for walking and peering into the backyards of people's homes.  (I'm a big fan of the Arizona Canal.)  And if you'd rather walk and peer into the frontyards of people's (fancy) homes, a stroll up Phoenix's Central Avenue along the Murphy Bridle Path lets you do that under shady trees.  No horses any more, but plenty of joggers and walkers.

- Visit Arizona Falls: A small hydroelectric plant along the Arizona Canal (see above) in east Phoenix, it features an art installation and an opportunity get close to a small-scale, man-made waterfall.  It's wheelchair-accessible in a way that the previous hiking/walking locations aren't.  (The crushed rock and dust Canals and Bridle Path aren't wheelchair-friendly, but aren't totally off-limits to wheelchairs the way the other trails are.)

- Walk Tempe Town Lake: A man-made lake along the Salt River in north Tempe, it features paved paths for walking and biking, not to mention many different types of boat and board rentals if you want to get out into the water.   There's even a splash playground in the summer months at Tempe Beach Park.

Stuff You May or Probably Have Where You Live

Most major metropolitan areas have zoos and children's museums and science museums, not to mention art museums and shopping malls.  And so, if you're visiting Arizona from, say, New York City or Chicago, I would never suggest visiting the Phoenix Art Museum.  It's a perfectly good regional art museum, but why spend your time there when you can go to, say, the Heard Museum and see art that the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn't even have.  So here are some of those kinds of places:

- Children's Museum of Phoenix: I may be biased, seeing as I book kids music shows there, but this really is a first-rate children's museum housed in an old school in downtown Phoenix that's made a few national top-ten lists.  Worth the time if your kids need to blow off some steam (or if the heat is starting to make you go crazy).

- Childsplay: Our family has seen probably a couple dozen productions from this theatre troupe for young audiences located in the Tempe Center for the Arts along Tempe Town Lake and all have been first-rate in terms of their skill and production value.  We've liked some more than others -- there's no accounting for tastes -- but the success ratio is pretty darn high.

- Great Arizona Puppet Theatre: The Childsplay tickets can be a little expensive, so if you're looking for a theatrical experience that's a little easier on the wallet, GAPT, headquartered near downtown Phoenix, might make a nice substitute.  The shorter length and texts are more appropriate for preschoolers than many (if not all) Childsplay productions.

- Arizona Science Center: Located in downtown Phoenix, the Science Center features four levels of exhibits, an IMAX theatre, planetarium, and traveling exhibits.  I've never loooooved the Science Center (I like the Fleet Science Center in San Diego or OMSI in Portland more), but it's got lots of activities and some favorites, like the Forces of Nature exhibit and the water-based play area of the Atrium.

- Phoenix Art Museum: If you're coming to Phoenix with your kids and your first stop is the Phoenix Art Museum, you're doing it wrong.  That's coming from a long-time member of the Museum -- I think it's a good museum, and we take our kids a few times a year (including for their PhxArtKids days).  But it should be about tenth on your list of activities if you're visiting Phoenix for the first time.  If you do find yourself there, however, DO NOT MISS Yayoi Kusama's You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, an immersive mixed-media piece that we visit every single time we're at the museum.

- Phoenix Zoo: The zoo has expanded what feels like nearly constantly over the past 10+ years.  It's a good zoo, with a gradually diminishing number of caged animals and an increasing number of play areas for kids who are tired of walking along the paths and seeing animals.  You can skip the zoo without feeling like you've missed something essential to Phoenix, but if your family likes zoos, you'll enjoy this one.  If you're visiting in summer months, make sure you get there early because by noon it'll feel brutal.

- Playgrounds: Tons of them, obviously, and I'm not going to list them all, or hardly any of them, even.  I like the playgrounds Glendale's Sahuaro Ranch Park and Chandler's Tumbleweed Park -- they're big with lots of structures for kids of all ages, though both parks are considerably out of the way of most of the other activities listed here.  Scottsdale's McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is a little more centrally located and features a miniature train ride and train museum in addition to a very nice playground area.  Phoenix's Encanto Park's playground is not as nice as those other three, but does feature Enchanted Island, which features county fair-type amusement rides.  And, finally, I've not been to Mesa's Riverview Park yet, but its brand-new playground is already winning national awards.

Heading Out of Town

- The Grand Canyon: 4 hours drive north of Phoenix, including some significant mountain driving.  Worth the drive if you've got time, for sure -- it's one of the Seven Wonders of the World! -- but it'll a loooong round trip of a day.  Schedule an overnight in Flagstaff or Sedona (below), and you'll all enjoy it much more.

- Sedona: 2 hours drive north of Phoenix.  Some amazing views of red rock formations, along with hiking trails galore to let you get closer.  If you want to "see Arizona" but can't fit a Grand Canyon

- Kartchner Caverns: 2 1/2 hours drive south of Phoenix.  Beautifully preserved caverns without all the interior froo-frah found in the caverns discovered 50 or 60 years ago.  In other words, no snack bar at the bottom.  (Note: This is a good thing.)

Where Should I Eat in the Phoenix Area?

Phoenix is a pretty good second-tier restaurant city.  We're clearly not on the level of San Francisco or New York, but I think we hold our own with places like Portland or Seattle or Austin.  But your kids probably aren't foodies (and if they are, I'm not writing for you or them), so don't expect me to cover all the fancy places or places that aren't designed with kids in mind.

Here's a brief list of restaurants to consider (more details to come):

- Pizzeria Bianco: It's been named the best pizza in America.  Visitors scoff, then try it, and say, "they might be right."  Two locations -- the original one downtown right next to the Science Center and across the street from the Children's Museum but with notoriously long waits, the other about 4 miles northeast of downtown.  (Other good pizza centrally located: The Parlor, Federal Pizza, Humble Pie, and... well, a bunch of others.  We're lousy with good pizza places.)

- Churn (ice cream): Our local ice cream place.  Nothing too wild, just well-made ice cream.  (Other good ice cream centrally located: Sweet Republic)

- St. Francis:

- Postino

- Organ Stop Pizza