As I mentioned in an earlier post, we took a (not so) short trip to Arizona a few weeks ago. Fortunately for us, finding family fun in Phoenix was no problem!
We packed lots of shorts and tank tops, as we had heard Phoenix was having their hottest summer on record. The thermometer hit 117 degrees the week before we arrived, but (fortunately for us) a cold front moved in the week we were there, and the temperature plummeted to 108 while we were there. Ha!
Of course, Arizona has dry heat, so it really wasn’t uncomfortable. We just drank lots of water to stay hydrated and, since we had Doug’s parents with us, stuck mostly to indoor activities, especially during the hottest parts of the day.
There is no shortage of things to do in Phoenix! Here are a few of our favorites:
- Phoenix Zoo
The Phoenix area has a couple of zoos to choose from, but we went to non-profit Phoenix Zoo that is run by the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation. Consider visiting in the cool of the morning when the animals are most active. The zoo opens unbelievably early during summer months — 6 AM for members and 7 AM for non-members — but gates open at 9 AM for the rest of the year.
Having Grandma and Grandpa along gave us all the excuse we needed to ride the train to the farthest reaches of the zoo. We also enjoyed Monkey Village, the only walk-through squirrel monkey exhibit in the US. The endangered animal carousel, playgrounds and splash pads were lots of fun, as well, but the highlight of our visit was getting to pet and feed the stingrays.
Our membership to the zoo in our own hometown would have gotten us half-price admission to this one, but Phoenix Zoo offers even better prices ($5 per person) to school/youth groups of 15 or more who register in advance. Since our big kids weren’t with us, we only needed 12 of the 15 tickets we purchased, but we gave the extras to a family in line behind us, so they didn’t go to waste.
- Sea Life Arizona
When you’re tired of the heat, head on over to Sea Life Arizona for some nice cool air-conditioning, and some even cooler underwater displays.
I was impressed by how big this place was — it just goes on and on and on!
The aquarium is home to a wide variety of sea life, beautifully displayed in floor-to-ceiling tanks.
We loved the walk-through tank. You can stand in the middle and watch fish and sharks swim above, below, and beside you.
There are so many fun things to do at Sea Life Aquarium, including a passport stamps kids can collect throughout the aquarium and redeem for a prize at the end of their visit.
There are also educational talks, video presentations, public feedings, and interactive rock pools where visitors can touch or hold various sea creatures such as slipper lobsters, sea stars, crabs, and sea anemones.
And there’s a great playroom at the end where kids can run off excess energy while parents relax on the observation benches.
- Burton Barr Public Library
The public libraries in Phoenix are amazing, but the biggest and best of all is the Burton Barr Central Library downtown. We stopped in just to admire the impressive architecture, but ended up staying for a good portion of the afternoon (and would have stayed much longer than that if Daddy hadn’t gotten so hungry — a few of our kids even lobbied to be left there and picked up later, after the family finished dinner!).
They were working their way through a huge stack of never-before-seen picture books they’d discovered in the children’s section and were sad to leave without finishing the stash.
There is a wide variety of free programs offered for all ages at the various branches of the Phoenix Library: preschool storytimes, art workshops, book clubs, free summer movies (a Jackie Chan film was playing at the Burton Barr the week we were there), and some terrific programing classes where kids can learn to make (and keep to take home!) their own original designs using the library’s 3D printer (what our boys would have been doing had Dad agreed to let them skip dinner)!
Bonus: The Phoenix Art Museum is just across the parking lot from the Burton Barr library. We didn’t get a chance to tour it this trip, but hope to next time we are in town. On Wednesdays from 3-7 PM, it is open to the public FREE of charge.
- Encanto Park
Just a couple of blocks over from the library and art museum is one of the most beautiful city parks we’ve ever seen.
It sports some great walking and biking trails, quaint bridges, gorgeous islands and water features, lots of friendly ducks and geese, plentiful picnic tables, and several flat green fields perfect for frisbee or kite-flying.
Like to fish? Bring a pole. The lake is stocked and visitors are welcome to try their luck on a catch-and-release basis. They even post signs near the water’s edge which will allow you to measure your fish before tossing it back. When you’re tired of walking and fishing, you can relax in the shade of a large covered playground and watch the kids run and climb. Our children’s favorite? Playing Zombie Tag with a don’t-touch-ground provision.
- Police Museum
For more FREE fun, head downtown to the Historic City Hall to tour the Phoenix Police Museum.
We didn’t have high expectations when we stopped by, but are so glad we made time for a visit, as it was lots of fun and quite educational!
Our little guys loved getting to sit behind the wheel of the squad car and taking turns atop the police motorcycle. There were lots of other vehicles on display in the museum, too — including a police chopper.
We ended up getting a very interesting history lesson from the officer on duty. Turns out, the Miranda case (which established the Miranda rights that are now read to crime suspects when they are taken into custody) originated in Phoenix, and he gave us a blow-by-blow account of how that case progressed.
- Heard Museum
History buffs will also love the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which showcases American Indian art and history.
This museum was on Doug’s father’s bucket list, as he is part Native American and has always wanted to see it, and we spent several hours there taking three full floors of exhibits. The heartrending exhibit on Indian boarding schools made a deep impression and spurred a lot of good conversation on our way home that afternoon.
The docents at the Heard are very knowledgeable and offer several different tours of the museum. The tour they gave us of the museum’s signature exhibit (HOME: Native People in the Southwest) kept the rapt attention of both adults and children alike.
The museum also has a couple of hands-on galleries geared toward children. One of them housed a superhero exhibit while we were there where we were all able to make our own masks and capes.
The Heard Museum offers FREE admission to the public on the first Friday of every month. They also participate in the Smithsonian-sponsored Museum Day Live! event which allows patrons to visit museums all across the country for free. This year’s event is Saturday, September 26 — that’s TODAY!
Unfortunately, our stay in Phoenix did not allow us to take advantage of either of those programs, so we decided the most economical thing for us to do was to join the museum. It is affiliated with the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which means our membership will get our family admission into more than 750 musuems nationwide. (We’ve already used it to tour the local Art Museum when the Lego exhibit was recently in town and will be able to see the Bob Bullock Museum for free when we drive through Austin in a couple of weeks, as well — something I’ve wanted to do ever since it opened several years ago.)
Not only does Phoenix have a lot of fun things for families to do, but it also has some very unique places to eat. What’s more, several of their restaurants offer both Aadvantage Dining miles and Restaurant.com certificates, so we were able to combine savings at nearly every meal.
Of all the meals we ate in Phoenix, these were the most memorable:
- Detroit Coney Grill
Although we aren’t huge hot dog fans, when we read that Yelp had named Detroit Coney Grill one of the 30 best restaurants in America, we decided to give it a try.
Most of us ate their yummy gyros for lunch, but since coneys were what made them famous, we ordered a couple of those to split, as well. The verdict? They were definitely tasty — so much so that a single bite wasn’t enough, and we ended up ordering more!
- La Piazza al Forno
This restaurant was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri. Their Napoletana pizza was delicious and authentic, but of all the dishes our family ordered, my personal favorite was the chicken pesto lasagna — truly pasta cooked to perfection!
- Urban Taco ($1.50 tacos 4-7 — verify times)
We ate an early dinner at Urban Taco one of the nights we were in town. During happy hour (4-7 PM), their street tacos are only $1.50 a piece, so we were able to feed our whole crew pretty inexpensively (and earning 5 miles per dollar spent made the deal even better).
- Sweet Republic Ice Cream
The sign says “Artisan Ice Cream” — and they’re not joking. This place offered flavors you’ll never find at Braum’s, including Habanero Bacon Avocado (not bad, if a little spicey!) and Peaberry Espresso. My favorite was Huckleberry Lemon. For the less gustatorily adventurous, they also offer plain (Madagascar) Vanilla. That’s what Doug’s dad picked.
For Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s hard to beat Mijana. We ordered two of the “Family Special” platters of shish kabobs, but could easily have made out with just one — it was so much food. And, since this restaurant participates in both the Aadvantage Dining and Restaurant.com programs, we saved a bundle off our tab and earned lots of miles on the remainder. Also, though we didn’t see any while we were there, I understand Mijana features live belly dancing on the weekends, so you may want to plan your visit accordingly. 🙂
- Fuego Cityscape
Conveniently located just a short walk from Phoenix’s Police Museum, Fuego Cityscape proved to be a great place to grab a bite of lunch with a Latin twist. The service was topnotch, and the food was both fresh, filling, and beautifully presented. We especially enjoyed the empanadas, the coconut firecracker shrimp, and the chile relleno. If you can’t handle spicy, the spinach or fuego salads were much milder, but also very good.