If you breath on a creosote bush, it will bring out the smell of the desert in the rain. Climbing up Hayden Butte Reservation in Tempe, Arizona, as the sun began to slip below the mountains and washed the red rocks in a shade of rose, I stopped beside its dry branches along the path to let out a yoga dragon breath. Inhaling deeply, I was struck by the scent of summer rain, drenched over the desert.
The last time I was in state forty eight, a common (and very clever) Arizonian tagline, I was fifteen and quickly falling in love with the idea of travel as some sort of hobby/passion/lifestyle hybrid. It was the first place I had been that looked different than anywhere I’d been before, and I craved more. And more. And more. I wanted to see places that looked exactly like and nothing at all like and sort of, if you tilt your head and squint your eyes like it.
But if you give a girl the desert, she’ll drop everything and go back running to it when the opportunity arises.
I’ve been to Phoenix before, for only a day, but my time in Arizona was primarily to chase the majestic natural wonders. The Grand Canyon. Antelope Canyon. Monument Valley. The red rocks of Sedona. It still is one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. But coming back was exciting in that I had the chance to see some city life.
Tempe is just 20 minutes from Phoenix, and has two of my favorite qualities in a city: mountains and a college town. Combined, these unicorns are dynamite. That’s why Tempe struck me instantly. This dynamic city is wonderful for a weekend getaway with everyone from the gals to the fam-bam. Read on for the best things to do in Tempe!
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HOW TO GET HERE
Fly into Phoenix International Airport, less than 20 minutes outside of Tempe. A quick Uber ride will get you to your hotel. Multiple Greyhound routes in and around Arizona, even from Los Angeles, run to Tempe as well. To save yourself the trouble and time, I recommend flying.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Walking will be your most convenient mode of transportation since everything is so close together. You can rent a bike or scooter to get around the immediate area, and you can Uber to various spots that are just outside of downtown, though nothing is more than a 15 minute drive away.
WHO IS TEMPE GOOD FOR?
People who love to hike in the morning and window shop in the afternoon. Coffee and craft beer lovers. Culture lovers. Friends taking a weekend trip.
WHEN TO VISIT TEMPE
The optimal time for visiting Tempe is any time that isn’t summer. Going between November and March is ideal because the weather lies in the mid-60s and 70s with sun. I visited in January, which broke up the northeast weather quiiiiite nicely.
WHERE TO STAY IN TEMPE
I was fortunate to stay at the AC Hotels by Marriott in Downtown Tempe and to have an entire king bed to myself. Not that I utilized the boundless rolling around opportunities, since I’m a curled ball/barely moving sleeper, but I LOVE swaddling myself under the blankets and the fluffy covers did not let down.
Aside from divine sleeping arrangements and state-of-the-art bath and room amenities, there is a rooftop pool for your fix of The Life to enjoy sunset swims in between the mountains. The gym, decked out in floor-to-ceiling glass windows, is next door. Breakfast is not included in your stay and is $15, so I would recommend it only for an early morning. It’s delicious, but Tempe has so many other wonderful breakfast spots to try!
THINGS TO DO IN TEMPE
HIKE UP HAYDEN BUTTE
On the way to the hotel, you probably drove by Hayden Butte, or A Mountain, as it’s affectionately known by locals and Arizona State University students. Not only does it neighbor the main campus, but it also literally has a massive gold-painted A on its west-facing side. During the Territorial Cup season–or the Duel in the Desert, a football rivalry between ASU and the University of Arizona–ASU students camp out beside the letter to ensure that it isn’t defaced by any Wildcats (of the overly-spirited enemy school kind) roaming about.
The one-mile hike up is easy and perfect for people of all ages and abilities. It’s the best of both worlds, because you can stop and smell the roses (or, in this case, creosote) and make it to the top in plenty of time to watch the sunset color half of the world in a mirage of golds and tangerines, the other in periwinkles and pinks. From here you can also see the meringue-like mountains totally encircling you, the glittering edges of Phoenix, and the whole of Tempe below.
LOCAL TIP: Take in belly-deep laughs at Tempe Improv, a Comedy Central Certified club where people like Rob Schneider have performed and Netflix original stand-up routines are recorded. Check out the calendar for upcoming specials!
SUNRISE HIKE AT PAPAGO PARK
I promise, you’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed afterwards. Take an Uber and chase the sunrise to Papago Park, straddling Tempe and Phoenix. There, you can clamber up Hole in the Rock (aptly named for being a rock… with a hole in its center), another hike that will only leave you breathless for the view. There is nothing like the way the sun emblazons every rock and patch of ground in its sights a ferocious crimson in the morning. Hole in the Rock is a very Insta-worthy shot, too, if that’s your thing. Maybe you’ll even find birds cooing softly on the other side.
Papago Park | 625 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix, AZ 85008
DOWNTOWN TEMPE & A VISIT TO THE ASU ART MUSEUM
South Mill Avenue wakes up around 10am. Start off at the top of South Mill to see the Three Blacktail Jackrabbits public art, and then be sure to look out for the teeny bronze bunnies hidden along the street. It’s a fun scavenger hunt to play! (I only found one, on my last morning.)
Peruse Pitaya and Creations, epitomizing chic and breezy #desertvibes. Poke around Lotions and Potions, Old Town Books for those delightful whiffs of old pages, and check out some spots for lunch later.
If you keep following South Mill Avenue, well, south, you’ll see the ASU Art Museum to your left. The museum is free, and you can arrange to have a student guide show you around the exhibits. America’s largest collection of Cuban art is housed here, as well as rotating exhibits that vary in multimedia, photographic, and sculptural range.
ASU Art Museum | 51 E 10th St, Tempe 85281
BOAT TOUR ON TEMPE TOWN LAKE
Right around the corner from the AC Hotel is Tempe Town Lake, where you can rent pedal boats, electric boats, and kayaks. I would recommend an electric boat ride, because it’s very little effort for a whole lot of fun… You can’t go more than five miles and hour! Take turns playing captain, and people-watch (or boat-watch, because there are a ton of sailboats and rowboats on the water when it’s nice) from the serenity of the boat.
You can order rentals from the link below. They say that water is a balancing force, instilling a sense of calm in you; and on the tranquil waters of Tempe Town Lake, that’s a guarantee.
Tempe Boat Rentals | 72 W Rio Salado Pkwy, Tempe 85281
THE DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN
Visit the Desert Botanical Garden for a twilit rendezvous with Arizonian flora and fauna. The garden is open daily until 10 PM, and from Thursday to Saturday until 11 PM.
The 140 acres of land displays over 50,000 plants, from cacti to succulents to wildflowers. Though it’s exquisite during the daytime, the desert really comes alive when the sun careens below the horizon.
Plus, until May 12th, 2019, the Desert Botanical Garden is hosting Electric Desert, an experiential show using lights and original music to emphasize the garden’s exhibits. You HAVE to run to this event, because it is mesmerizing. It feels almost like it belongs at Disney World in its ephemeral colors and themes, like turning rocks and cacti into fish and rainstorms seeming to fall from the exhibits’ sheltering covers. Think Small World, but for nature. The second you step foot in, you are transported to a mystical place where you laugh and tear up and gasp in the wake of the immersion. It’s so real and so good. Get your tickets here.
Desert Botanical Garden | 1201 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix 85008
LOCAL TIP: There is an array of edible cactus to be found in Arizona, like prickly pear, saguaro, and echinocereus. You can find them in shops and have them with dinner, or indulge in cactus chocolate bars.
**Open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays**
Since moving to New York, I have spent many weekends at nearby farmers’ markets. When the weather is nice, nothing beats joining the flocks of people perusing stalls for pastries to pick on as they buy that week’s produce and meat. The morning is instantly zenned out, despite the literal flocks of people, and I relish meeting the people who work behind the scenes and proudly share the results of their labor.
Singh Meadows is nothing like your run-of-the-mill farmers market, and it’s special for that. Set on a former golf course, the revamped farmers market, cafe, and community green space opened its doors in 2017, after owner Ken Singh completed years of clearing out all former and residue of toxins and chemicals. You’ll probably see him putting around, saying hello to guests, and he’ll approach you and ask you something like, “When was the last time your feet touched the earth?” that will leave you pondering, and then craving for the chance to take your shoes off and plant your feet firmly in the grass.
After breakfast in the cafe, take a stroll around the grounds, which have been beautifully redesigned: massive fire pits that might be better suited for the likes of Rubeus Hagrid; a small pond to sit and while hours away by; walking and biking trails where you’ll see families galore on the weekends. No matter how many people are here, it still feels like an oasis only you know about. It starts to fill up around 10am, but samples of oranges and crackers with spreads are also laid out inside around this time. If years of going to Costco taught me anything, it’s this: even though you’ve just eaten, you should still help yourself to samples.
Singh Meadows | 1490 E Weber Dr, Tempe 85281
HIKING AT SOUTH MOUNTAIN PARK AND PRESERVE
In case you haven’t noticed, Tempe is home to many hiking trails. South Mountain Park and Preserve is great for winding paths and a quick escape from the city. The parking lot/road makes it seem like the trails will be overrun with people, but there are so many different routes to take that you will most likely encounter only a handful of people. Maybe a dog or two. And there are hikes for all abilities with easy places to turn around and go back.
The higher you climb, the more of the desert and mountains that come into view. It’s nice to know that wherever you go, there’s access to ruggedness.
AXE THROWING AT LUMBERJAXES
Raise your hand if you’re a bad-axe. (You should all be raising your hand right now.) At Lumberjaxes, a competitive facility, get your unofficial license in badassery and a little (more) sweating on. Don your favorite flannel and get to throwing. Lumberjaxes’s employees are trained to teach you the basics and help you perfect your positioning–and by the end, I promise you’ll hit at least one target!
Axe-throwing requires precision, focus, and a little rage for success. I am neither sports- nor sharp objects- nor anger-inclined, and once I stopped wincing away from the axe in my hands, I actually got the hang of it and had the best time! Invincibility say whaaat? Videographic evidence here.
Lumberjaxes | 3109 S Fair Ln, Tempe 85282
LOCAL TIP: Pick up cookies and other treats from Tracy Dempsey’s flagship store downtown. She bakes shortbread cookies into the shape of Arizona and they are insanely delicious, and pretty to look at!
Tempe, Arizona is another answer to the movements of quirky, young, and local pride in hometowns. It’s a come-as-you-are city to do what makes you happy, and help you relax while still learning about a new place. That’s the best part about coming here: there’s no imminent timetable to follow. Just smell the creosote.