I noticed that what I like to do when I visit Phoenix are not the same things I liked to do when I lived here. I appreciate a whole different set of attractions as a visitor that I completely took for granted when I lived here. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I can see and appreciate the things that make Phoenix uniquely Phoenix – the things that draw from its Latino and Native American culture, the scorching Mars-like climate and landscape, and the history of the place. When I lived in Phoenix, I was most interested in hanging out at the cool coffee shops and frequenting the latest and trendiest restaurants.
But all of those things can be found in abundance in other cities – cool coffee shops and trendy restaurants. What you can’t find in other cities are the desert modern architecture, the McDowell Mountains, and the Mexican Dulcerias that you find in Phoenix. The things that are unique to Phoenix are the things that interest me most now. And this might be a great thing for Phoenicians to keep in mind too. Instead of aiming to emulate other cities, Phoenix’s best bet is to embrace its unique qualities that give it its identity and can be found nowhere else.
Below are 10 of my favorite things to see and do when I visit Phoenix:
1. Camelback Mountain
Whenever I fly into Phoenix and I have the window seat, I look for Camelback Mountain. Every time I see this gorgeous geologic formation, my heart skips a beat. Somehow, when I lived in Phoenix, I would just glaze over it and it receded into the background for me. But now, I’ve gained a new appreciation for it and I always smile inside when I catch a glimpse of its beauty. Camelback Mountain is just one of the many natural gems surrounding the Valley of the Sun that give it its beautiful and unique backdrop.
2. Palo Verde Trees
The Pacific Northwest has great big beautiful trees that form a solid canopy over the roads in the summer. But the Palo Verde trees in Phoenix are just as beautiful, even if they are smaller and scrawnier. There is something very elegant about this tree, with its slender twigs and tiny leaflets. The most beautiful part of the Palo Verde to me is its iridescent light green color that not only covers the leaves, but coats the trunk and branches too. The Palo Verde is gorgeous and I always perk up when I see one, because it’s such a uniquely desert southwest tree.
It seems like every single day in Phoenix there is a gorgeous sunset. It’s aided by the view of the great big sky, unobstructed by tall buildings and dense foliage. And yes, maybe the smog plays into sometimes too.
But without fail, every single sunset in Phoenix is something worth pausing for and looking at.
4. Midcentury modern architecture
Phoenix is the capital of midcentury modern architecture. Most Phoenix residents take it for granted. But when I visit, I enjoy seeing even what is called midcentury modest architecture, which isn’t necessarily architecturally glamorous, but is still an example of the midcentury modern style.
In my parents’ modest midcentury neighborhood, I delight in the wonderful decorative block screens, cool block fences and low-slung block homes.
The old parts of Phoenix, which are sometimes deemed drab and in disrepair, like Maryvale and parts of Sun City, have the most unique and amazing examples of midcentury modern architecture and should be treasured for their character.
5. Authentic Mexican food
It’s hard to find authentic Mexican food even in the foodie-centric city of Portland. I have found plenty of fusion Mexican and modern Mexican, but have had a hard time finding good authentic Mexican cuisine. I’m not looking for the trendy, stylish places. I’m looking for the holes in the wall that serve the best food. And Phoenix is full of these places, everywhere you look. Now when I visit, I seek these plain looking and sometime run down but authentic establishments over the trendy modern Mexican restaurants, which I can find in any other city.
6. Wide open skies
Coming from Portland, which has dense foliage, is hilly and generally doesn’t afford a wide open view of the skies, I am always stunned with the wide open skies in Phoenix. Not only can you see the horizon and open skies every which way you look, but the sky is usually a solid sunny blue too, which is a sight for sore eyes after a rainy winter in the Pacific Northwest.
7. Latino and Native American influence on the city
Phoenix has a rich Mexican and Native American heritage. This is what makes the city fantastic. Seeing business names written in Spanish, Latino-influenced murals, and Native American institutions integrated into the city makes Phoenix rich, multicultural and unique. Sadly, Arizona has a reputation for being anti-immigration and bigoted against Hispanics and Native Americans and it deserves this reputation for many reasons. But it’s really nice to see that nonetheless, the Latino and Native American influence is present in the city of Phoenix in its art, cuisine, businesses and urban form.
8. Classic local food joints
I love going to the local food establishments that have been around for decades when I visit Phoenix. A favorite example is BoSa Donuts, which is a place I had never even heard of when I lived here. I only discovered it on one of my visits when I came upon it as one of the few local establishments in the neighborhood. I was blown away by how good the donuts are! BoSa’s claim of being Arizona’s best donuts is spot on. BoSa Donuts has been around since 1994 and has since become a Phoenix institution. Long running restaurants like BoSa, Carolina’s Mexican Food, and Bill Johnson’s Big Apple give Phoenix its unique character and contribute to its identity.
9. Contemporary architecture
Phoenix is not only a haven for midcentury modern architecture, but is also the only place you will find a certain brand of desert modern architecture. Starting with Frank Lloyd Wright, followed by Paolo Soleri, then contemporary architects like Will Bruder and Eddie Jones, Phoenix has an formidable heritage of architectural masters that have had a widespread influence on architecture in the city.
Phoenix modern architecture is characterized by exposed concrete, Corten steel, and rammed earth walls among other raw, natural and industrial materials.
10. Historic neon signs
Phoenix was mostly built out after World War II and as such as amazing historic artifacts from that period. Included among those are the great neon signs all over the Valley. Big, huge, loud and over the top neon signs had their heyday in the 50s and 60s and Phoenix has many of these, though the number drops every year due to demolition and new development. The unique neon signs of the desert southwest are a vital historic artifact of the roadside architecture from the 50s and 60s and should be cherished and preserved today.
Photo credit: All photos by the author.
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