The Phoenix area first attracted settlers around 1 A.D., when a society of desert farmers called the Hohokam showed up in the Salt River Valley. No consensus exists on where the Hohokam came from, but there is little debate about their greatest legacy: 1,000 miles of hand-dug irrigation canals, many of which Phoenix still uses today. The Hohokam mysteriously vanished in the mid-1400s, perhaps due to drought, floods or warfare. When Spanish explorers galloped into the Southwest in 1539, they encountered a different group of inhabitants—the Akimel O’odham. This tribe claimed to be descended from the Hohokam and gave the ancient people their name, meaning “those who have gone.” Fast forward to 1865, when the U.S. government established Fort McDowell and settlers like Jack Swilling began farming the land. The city of Phoenix was formally established in 1868. Swilling’s friend, an Englishman named Darrell Duppa, suggested the name Phoenix in homage to the mythical bird that was reborn from ashes. Duppa’s suggestion saved the city from forever being known as Pumpkinville. By 1950, Phoenix had a population of about 100,000. Today, metro Phoenix is home to over 4 million people. The explanation for the population boom can be summed up in two words: air conditioning. When cooling units began popping up on rooftops and windowsills in the 1940s, the Arizona Republic declared Phoenix the “air-conditioned capital of the world.” By the mid-1950s, with refrigerated air reliably wafting through most of the city’s buildings, Phoenix’s population began to soar. Add in a steady influx of immigrants from the south, and a desert metropolis was born.
The most dramatic feature of Phoenix’s East Valley comes at its far end, 40 miles from downtown, in the jagged form of the Superstition Mountains. “The Supes,” as local hikers call them, rise out of a saguaro cactus—strewn wilderness that contains Lost Dutchman State Park. The park is named for a mythical cache of gold lost to history with the death of its secretive prospector, German (not Dutch) Jacob Waltz. Between the Superstitions and Tempe lie the suburban cities of Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert. Chicago Cubs fans will recognize Mesa as their team's longtime spring-training home, and Mesa also has an impressive performing arts center and a much-visited Mormon Temple.
Locals only recently began referring to Central Phoenix by the catchy moniker “CenPho;” frankly, the city’s core wasn’t always worthy of special designation. But downtown isn’t just for commerce and conventioneers anymore. Billions of dollars of development—including a sleek light rail system and a downtown campus for Arizona State University—has lured hot chefs, young artists and independent retailers. Now, CenPho's where you’ll find theaters, museums and professional sports venues, as well as the Downtown Phoenix Public Market and sub-neighborhoods Roosevelt Row, the Melrose District and Willow. CenPho’s boundaries are a bit amorphous—there's no singular, neon-lit corridor of restaurants and bars—so a car, bicycle or light rail pass is a must for exploring the area.
Cave Creek & Carefree
Life in Phoenix’s North Valley is a dusty mix of desert aloofness and cowboy simplicity. People who live here, 40 miles from the city center and worlds away from the suburbs, tend to appreciate open space and relative autonomy. For some, that means holing up in master-planned communities or palatial adobe mansions; for others, it means working on a ranch or exploring rugged public land. In the rustic towns of Cave Creek and Carefree, horse culture and cowboy ways are alive and well. You won’t have to look hard to find a secluded trail, Western steakhouse or authentic cowboy bar (we like Harold’s Cave Creek Corral). Carefree even has a resort—The Boulders—that looks as though it were built in the middle of a stagecoach robbers’ hideout.
This aptly named town is ringed by three mountains and littered with multi-million-dollar homes. Its streets are quiet, and its night sky tends to be full of stars, thanks to strict light-pollution laws. Paradise Valley’s terra firma is star laden, too: Muhammad Ali and Alice Cooper live here; Jay-Z and Beyoncé honeymooned here. The hallmarks of “PV” are placidity and privacy. Despite covering only 15 square miles, the town is home to a dozen resorts, including Arizona’s newest (InterContinental Montelucia) and one of its oldest (Hermosa Inn). Hiking to the top of Camelback Mountain and Mummy Mountain is a favorite Paradise Valley pursuit, and the upscale homes attract gawking motorists. Beyond the resorts, there aren’t many places to dine or shop; for that, residents and visitors make the short jaunt to neighboring Scottsdale.
Every big city seems to have a once-blighted neighborhood that has been transformed into a funky arts district. Here, that's Roosevelt Row. Located on the northern edge of downtown, along the light rail line, Roosevelt Row is a neighborhood of 1920s-1940s homes now occupied by artist studios, galleries, cafés, co-ops, boutiques and intimate restaurants. Roosevelt Row’s laid-back, arty vibe nicely counterbalances a city-center character defined by pro sports venues, refined performance halls and a massive convention center. Roosevelt Row is relatively quiet except for the first Friday night of every month, when tens of thousands of people crowd the streets for the First Friday Art Walk. This festival of street performers, bands and merchants is concentrated in the Row but also extends to gritty Grand Avenue and the Phoenix Art Museum.
Scottsdale snakes along Phoenix’s eastern border and is to the state’s material wonders what the Grand Canyon is to its natural ones. Here you’ll find the lion’s share of metro Phoenix’s resorts, spas and golf courses. Pedestrian-friendly Old Town Scottsdale is famous for upscale restaurants, trendy clubs and galleries dedicated to Western art. Scottsdale also is home to the Southwest’s largest shopping mall (think Gucci, not Spencer’s), and its nightlife scene rivals L.A.’s in glitz (if not scope) and Vegas’ in sex appeal (if not debauchery). Denizens of Phoenix’s grittier zip codes poke fun at “Snottsdale” for its swarm of “$30,000 millionaires,” but there’s a fine line between snark and envy. Plenty of real millionaires call Scottsdale home, and the resorts clustered around Camelback Mountain are magazine-cover beautiful.
Phoenix’s West Valley is largely a hodgepodge of suburban communities built atop former farmland. Most of the cities in this region—Avondale, Arrowhead, Peoria, Glendale—were incorporated in the 1950s and 1960s, not long after the U.S. government constructed an air field in the desert 25 miles west of Central Phoenix. Glendale has done a lot to lure commerce and visitors, building a massive mixed-use development and two pro sports venues on an expanse of land where cotton once grew. Westgate City Center—a giant outdoor mall with chain restaurants, rocking nightlife, fashion stores and a cineplex—attracts post-game and after-concert crowds from nearby University of Phoenix Stadium and Jobing.com Arena. Light rail doesn’t run to Glendale, so the only way to get there is by car; it’s a 30-minute drive from Phoenix.
This community in the northwesternmost shadows of Phoenix Mountains Preserve provided peaceful refuge for tuberculosis sufferers in the 1920s and birthed the alt-punk band the Meat Puppets in the ’80s. These days it’s a neighborhood in transition, having survived a spate of meth labs and prostitution rings to attract young professionals who love the mountain backdrop, historic bungalows and anti-McMansion vibe. There's no need to spend a whole day in Sunnyslope, but there are some hidden gems to be mined before or after a hike in the preserve. Try Scramble for breakfast, Los Reyes de la Torta for lunch or Bombero’s Café & Wine Bar for happy hour.
Linked to downtown Phoenix via light rail, Tempe is home to the largest public research university in the U.S. and is the gateway to Phoenix’s suburban East Valley. The students of Arizona State University (enrollment: 68,000) dominate the social scene here and lend verve to Mill Avenue, one of the metro area’s few centralized entertainment districts. Mill Avenue is beset by a few too many chain restaurants and retail shops, but it’s a great place to people watch (especially during Halloween and New Year’s Eve). The avenue is within walking distance of Tempe Town Lake, where the near-perpetual presence of joggers, rowers, sunbathers and volleyball players keep summer alive year-round. Tempe’s horizon is defined by the red-rock buttes of Papago Park. This family-friendly panorama of picnic pavilions and easy hiking/biking trails adjoins two popular attractions: Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo.
If you catch the scent of orange blossoms wafting through this midtown neighborhood, you’re not crazy: Arcadia sits on land formerly occupied by a citrus grove. Irrigation canals made it possible to grow such fruit in the desert, and those canals why Arcadia feels more lush than the typical Phoenix neighborhood. Citrus trees still thrive here, but the area is now known for its concentration of exceptional, mid-priced food. This is the site of the La Grande Orange empire, which consists of a local grocery, a café, a pizzeria and a well-reviewed restaurant, Chelsea’s Kitchen. And in a city crazy about outdoor dining and drinking, Arcadia lays claim to some of the best spots for both. We love the back patio at The Vig and the open-air wine bar at Postino Winecafé. The biggest gripe about Arcadia: a lack of parking. Be prepared to valet.