AOL PICK from our Editors
Phoenix’s unyielding sunshine and palm-tree personality might tempt you to find a secluded resort and spend all your days sipping margaritas next to a swimming pool. Don’t give in. Exploring the desert’s horizons will broaden yours. Phoenix’s museums are thoughtfully designed and well maintained, and its mountain parks are ruggedly beautiful yet accessible. The cultural and entertainment attractions might not compete with those of New York or San Francisco, but the region’s geological splendor, Native American history and Western sensibilities lend distinct character to the cosmopolitanism Phoenix does possess.
Neighborhood: North Phoenix
Metropolitan Phoenix’s newest museum opened in spring 2010, billing itself as the first in the world dedicated to the celebration of global instruments. Upon entering the airy, acoustically thoughtful building, you're issued a wireless headset. When you approach a displayed instrument, voila—its sound plays clearly in your ears. The museum emphasizes instruments that have been used for folk and tribal occasions, and the collection includes instruments from over 200 different countries and territories. Unless you're the world's expert on this subject, we figure you'll be seeing and hearing instruments you’ve never even thought of before. Musicians will especially dig the Experience Gallery, where you can touch and play exotic instruments.
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Neighborhood: Paradise Valley
Phoenix’s most famous landmark resembles a dromedary camel in repose. The urban mountain challenges hikers with a rugged but rewarding trek to its largest, 2,700-foot “hump.” The most popular route to the summit, out of Echo Canyon, is short at only 2.4 miles round trip, but take it from us—it's steep. Even with the handrail that aids hikers on arduous stretches, this excursion is not for beginners. Parking at the trailhead tends to be scarce, since rock climbers also use the Echo Canyon area (Praying Monk is a popular climb). The view from the top, however, is worth the wait—and the work. Paradise Valley
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Neighborhood: South Phoenix
South Mountain Park Preserve is one of the largest municipal parks in the world. It covers 16,000 acres just a few miles south of downtown, making it nearly 20 times bigger than Central Park in New York. But you won’t find manicured grass and fountains at this park; instead, it's filled with native flora and ancient petroglyphs. South Mountain’s 50 miles of trails are popular with hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. If you're not feeling the aerobic activity, there’s also a paved road to the summit—and the bird’s-eye view of the city that awaits you there.
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The Heard is Arizona’s most famous museum. The traditional and contemporary art on display provides insight into the culture of Native American tribes indigenous to Arizona and the Colorado Plateau. The upstairs exhibit on Indian boarding schools is haunting and well-curated. You can take a self-guided tour of the museum any time, while guided tours are offered daily at noon, 2PM and 3PM. On a practical note: If you’re into meaningful souvenirs, the Heard Museum Shop is one of best places in Phoenix to buy authentic American Indian jewelry, pottery, paintings, sculpture and weavings
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If kids designed a museum, this is what it would look like: A hanging forest made of foam swimming noodles. A grocery store with box-filled aisles. An Escher-esque wooden racecar track. And you're allowed to touch everything. The Children’s Museum of Phoenix was created for children as young as infants and as old as 10. Unlike traditional museums, it doesn’t focus on art or science, nor does it contain paintings or bones; instead, the hands-on exhibits are designed simply to stimulate and entertain. Located in an historic school building in downtown Phoenix, the museum is a short stroll from the likewise kid-friendly Arizona Science Center, which houses more than 300 interactive exhibits, a planetarium and an IMAX theater
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Phoenix Art Museum is the largest fine-art museum in the Southwest. Its permanent collection includes American, Asian and European masterpieces, as well as contemporary works, fashion and photography. You can wander in silence, employ an MP3 audio guide or take a docent-led tour. Start with the Western American collection, which showcases pieces by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington and Ernest Blumenschein. Next, check out the striking works in the Contemporary wing and Fashion Design gallery. For a peaceful break, drop by the sculpture garden (which has WiFi) or the museum café.
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Neighborhood: East Valley
Feeling the need to indulge in some daffy Old West kitsch? You could do worse than Goldfield Ghost Town. It's an easy stop along the historic Apache Trail, which snakes through the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. And it's the genuine deal—a remnant of an 1892 gold camp in the Superstition Mountains. On weekends October through April, you can even watch gunfighters shoot it out on dusty Main Street. Period structures on the site include a museum, railroad station, steakhouse and saloon. A 25-minute “mine tour” takes you back in time (if not deep into the earth), and the best part will be your colorfully crusty guide, who'll make it all a hoot.
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Neighborhood: North Scottsdale
Taliesin West was the winter home of Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect. Wright constructed Taliesein West rising out of the desert floor at the foot of the McDowell Mountains, from sand, gravel and stone he found on the mountain’s talus slope, creating a distinctive and organic masterpiece that once housed a community of staff and students and now serves as a school of architecture. Tours range from 1 hour to 3 hours, including a 2-hour Night Lights Tour on selected evenings throughout the year.
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Neighborhood: East Phoenix
As its names suggests, this outdoor museum showcases desert plants—and not just those native to the American Southwest. Among the succulents that adorn the garden’s 50-acre grounds are endangered desert species from around the world, including Daliesque trees from North Africa and cactuses from South America. You’ll get the most out of the garden on a docent-guided tour, and nighttime flashlight tours are offered from May through August. The Desert Botanical Garden is nestled among the red sandstone buttes of Papago Park, also home to leisurely hiking trails and the Phoenix Zoo.
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Neighborhood: East Valley
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If you’re a speed freak, and amusement-park go karts don’t cut it for you, you might consider investing a few hours and a couple hundred bucks on racing lessons at Bob Bondurant’s School of High-Performance Driving. An “Arrive-and-Drive” course will put you behind the wheel of a 125cc Rotax kart, which mimics the quickness and feel of a Formula 1 racecar. Under the guidance of professional instructors, you’ll hone your driving skills on a 1.6-mile, 15-turn road course and an 8-acre skid pad.
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