Day trip: Downtown Tempe, AZ

Forget football and focus on the emerging art scene in Tempe, AZ this fall

Tempe Center for the Arts in downtown Tempe, AZ

Catch a jazz concert or a ballet in the open air amphitheater at the Tempe Center for the Arts during your visit to downtown Tempe, AZ.

Andrea M. Gómez

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Tempe, AZ Day Trip: Harkins Valley Art Movie Theater
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ASU Art Museum in Tempe, AZ
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La Bocca Urban Pizzeria & Wine Bar in Tempe, AZ
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Getting to downtown Tempe

  • Tempe, AZ map

    From I-17 or I-10, get on Loop 202. Take Priest Dr. south, then head east on Rio Salado Pkwy. about 1 mile to S. Mill Ave. Info tempecvb.com

Why go to Tempe now: Long equated with ASU football, this neighborhood has quietly emerged as a hot arts destination. ASU’s campus has a dozen art galleries and collections, and September kicks off the season of plays, concerts, and exhibitions.

What started it all: The opening of the dazzling Tempe Center for the Arts three years ago.

Our favorite gallery: Northlight Gallery (closed Fri and Sun; free), which has a knack for discovering local photographers.

Best place to see public art: The Mill Avenue and Third Street light-rail station, where glass panels with desert motifs shimmer by night.

Showtime: The Frank Lloyd Wright–designed ASU Gammage theater lands big Broadway productions (asugammage.com for tickets). 

Make it a weekend: Tempe Mission Palms Hotel puts you within striking distance of it all (from $139). 

Street smarts: Don’t circle the block looking for scarce parking—head for one of the public garages just off Mill Avenue.

Things to do in Tempe

  • Palace of the arts: The soaring, angular Tempe Center for the Arts, right on Tempe Town Lake, is home to nine performing arts groups. Catch a jazz concert in its black box Studio, a ballet in the open air amphitheater, or another of the 12 or so performances that happen every weekend. If you don’t have time for a show, wander the outdoor sculpture garden or stroll the lake path, which has great views of the architecture. Closed Sun; 700 W. Rio Salado Pkwy.
  • Catch a movie, in style: Take in a flick at the gracefully restored Harkins Valley Art theater, a downtown landmark that still has its original marquee and neon sign from 1940. It’s now the neighborhood go-to for foreign, art, and indie films. $9.50; 509 S. Mill Ave.
  • Art museum : At the Arizona State University Art Museum, explore a cool multimedia exhibition from Dinh Q. Lê, who uses bicycles and motorbikes as a way to look at his native Vietnam. Next door, the ceramics gallery always has something interesting going on, from lush tableware to funky pots. Closed Sun; free; 51 E. 10th St.
  • Theater: Expect a streak of dark humor from Stray Cat Theatre, an indie troupe at the Tempe Performing Arts Center. Show up early for a good seat (it’s first come, first served, and performances can get packed). The group’s ninth season kicks off with Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty (Sep 24–Oct 9). $20 in advance, $25 at the door; 132 E. Sixth St.
  • Shopping: Bring a little bit of Tempe’s boho-chic vibe back with you: Yucatec-an Imports is packed floor to ceiling with Guatemalan messenger bags, handmade paper from Nepal, Lithuanian amber, and Venetian masks. 414 S. Mill Ave.; 480/303-9404. 

Where to eat

  • Dinner alfresco: Try the shiitake-crusted salmon at House of Tricks, where two historic bungalows are joined by a sweet vine-covered pergola. $$$; closed Sun; 114 E. Seventh St.; 480/968-1114.
  • Pre-show buzz: Caffeinate before curtain time at Cartel Coffee Lab—equal parts coffee shop, artsy hangout, and industrial roaster. 225 W. University Dr.
  • Pizza and vino: People-watch from behind a glass of Malbec or Albariño and a truffled mushroom pizza at the art-filled La Bocca Urban Pizzeria & Wine Bar. $; 699 S. Mill Ave.; 480/967-5244. 
  • Sugar rush: Nab a hazelnut or caramel cream macaron from Essence Bakery Cafe. $; closed Sun; 825 W. University Dr.; 480/966-2745.

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