There aren’t many desert cities where you can get esoteric over art, aerobic over a steep hill, and poetic over baseball ― all in one weekend. Phoenix, however, with its newly revitalized downtown, offers a great sampling of culture, outdoor adventure, and sports.
Prowl downtown and you’ll find a booming contemporary art scene that has grown amid old warehouses and storefronts. Residential loft projects have sprung up nearby, and new, sophisticated restaurants are catering to the creative crowd and urban dwellers.
The art scene is at its height now, with exhibit openings and organized gallery and studio tours. Plus it’s peak season for baseball’s spring training and hiking in one of the nearby desert parks. The best way to get to know sprawling Phoenix is to divvy it up into sections and spend time soaking up the very different character of each.
DAY 1 Friday
This month, art aficionados should plan a trip to coincide with the annual Art Detour (Mar 4-6; free; schedules and self-guided tour maps available at www.artlinkphoenix.com or 602/256-7539), which includes the monthly First Friday gallery and studio tour.
Museum morning. Start an art-tour day at the ever-expanding Phoenix Art Museum (10-5 Tue-Sun, until 9 Thu; $9; 1625 N. Central Ave.; www.phxart.org or 602/257-1222), where in March you can view paintings by American impressionist Theodore Robinson and French impressionist Claude Monet. Look also for works by notable artists with Arizona ties, such as Philip Curtis and Max Ernst.
Diner deluxe. Elbow your way into the Welcome Diner ($; breakfast and lunch Mon-Sat; 924 E. Roosevelt St.; 602/495-1111), a nine-seat, recently restored vintage diner that has quickly become a downtown hit. Ignore carb counts and have a BLT and a root-beer float.
Gallery hop. Enter Studio LoDo/Phoenix Center for Contemporary Art (12-5 Thu-Sat; 15 E. Jackson St.; www.lodopcca.org or 602/200-8790) through its south-side patio and have fun with the March exhibition, Translucent Transcendence. Nearby Bentley Projects (10-5 Tue-Sat; 215 E. Grant St.; www.bentleyprojects.com or 602/340-9200) is an ambitious gallery complex, set partially in a 1910 laundry building.
Sample the fare. Pizzeria Bianco ($$; dinner Tue-Sat; 623 E. Adams St.; 602/258-8300) offers exquisitely simple pizzas and salads. Ever since chef-owner Chris Bianco won a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award, waits for seating in his intimate restaurant can be long. A great nearby alternative is Ruby Beet Gourmet ($$$; dinner Tue-Sat; 628 E. Adams; 602/258-8700), where a small bowl of roasted ruby-beet salad pairs well with entrées such as chicken stuffed with duck and pancetta sausage.
Stay up late. Continue in art mode at the Paper Heart (1 p.m.- 1 a.m. Tue-Sat; admission varies; 750 N.W. Grand Ave.; 602/262-2020), where the first Friday of the month might feature live music or poetry, plus art exhibits. If you dare, cap off the night at Bikini Lounge (1502 Grand Ave.; 602/252-0472), a smoky, dive-y tiki bar untouched since its 1947 opening. It has become the hangout for artists and gallery-goers.
DAY 2 Saturday
A great place to fuel up for a day of hiking and exploring the many gems tucked into the city’s old South Mountain neighborhood is the Morning Glory Café & Bakery ($; breakfast Tue-Sun; 6106 S. 32nd St.; 602/276-0601). Order the pecan granola or omelets to enjoy on the patio.
Hit the trail. The nearly 17,000 acres of desert mountain terrain at South Mountain Park/Preserve (free; 10919 S. Central Ave.; www.phoenix.gov/parks/hikesoth.html or 602/495-0222) offer miles of trails and spring-blooming brittlebush. There’s a good 4.2-mile loop that starts by heading south on Kiwanis Trail, turning west on National Trail, north on Ranger Trail, then east on Las Lomitas Loop. The route gives you views of downtown, plus a good workout. Stop at the park’s South Mountain Environmental Education Center (9-5 Mon-Sat; 10409 S. Central) for trail details and exhibits.
Chow down. Los Dos Molinos ($; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; 8646 S. Central; 602/243-9113) caters to hikers by serving up carne adovada ribs and chiles rellenos in a 1920s Santa Fe-style building that was the former home of silent-film star Tom Mix.
Unravel a mystery. Tour Mystery Castle (11-4 Thu-Sun Oct-May; $5; 800 E. Mineral Rd.; 602/268-1581), a quirky, folk-art landmark built in the South Mountain foothills during the 1930s and ’40s out of recycled materials and found objects.
See and be seen. Head to central Phoenix for dinner at Tarbell’s Restaurant ($$$; reservations recommended; 3213 E. Camelback Rd.; 602/955-8100), Mark Tarbell’s sleek, friendly bistro. Sample wines by the glass and try the signature grilled salmon served on a crispy potato cake.
DAY 3 Sunday
You can revel in wildflowers and home runs all in one day in the Papago Park area, but first grab a fast espresso and fruit pizza for breakfast at Vincent’s Market Bistro ($; 3930 E. Camelback; 602/224-3727), chef Vincent Guerithault’s centrally located take-out cafe. Watch the desert bloom. Drought or not, there are always wildflowers blooming at the Desert Botanical Garden ($9; 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy.; www.dbg.org or 480/941-1225). Hit the easy, 0.3-mile Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail, then look for blooming cactus throughout the rest of the 145-acre garden.
Lunch alfresco. Continue your botany lessons with an early lunch at the garden’s on-site restaurant, Arcadia Farms Garden Patio Café ($; breakfast and lunch daily; 480/941-1225). Try strawberry-chicken salad with prickly-pear iced tea, and relax under the mesquite trees.
Batter up. Head a few blocks south to Phoenix Municipal Stadium (“Muni”), spring-training home of the Oakland A’s, to catch an afternoon game (from $7; through Mar; 5999 E. Van Buren St.; www.oaklandathletics.com or 602/ 392-0074). Between innings, check out Muni’s contemporary facelift, completed last year, and the historic tidbits etched into walkways, commemorating feats such as Willie Mays hitting the first spring-training home run here in 1964.
Indulge. End your visit at T. Cook’s Restaurant ($$$$; at Royal Palms Resort and Spa, 5200 E. Camelback; 800/672-6011), known for its romantic setting and sophisticated Mediterranean menu. Savor cod with linguisa-stuffed clams or lamb tagine, but save room for the sculptural pistachio torte with lemon-chocolate mousse.