The American southwest is like a sun magnet for those of us living north of the 49th parallel. This is particularly true of Arizona, where the warm dry days, plentiful sunshine, cool nights and desert topography are completely appealing to Canadians and well, anyone who loves a change of scenery and time in the sun. It had been a while since I’d visited the Grand Canyon State, and after some rainy winter months this year, I was more than ready for my daily dose of vitamin D in preparing for my trip checklist of things to do Tempe, Arizona.
If you’re like, where?, let me help.
The growing desert community of Tempe in Metropolitan Phoenix is a rising destination that’s just five short minutes from Sky Harbor Airport. There are many fun things to do in Tempe AZ that may surprise you – they certainly surprised me. From a vibrant college vibe that fosters a great local foodie scene to its walkable downtown, family friendly attractions, arts and culture programming and 24/7 sunshine, this city has a lot to offer visitors looking for things to do in Tempe and reasons to visit this growing desert community in the Valley of the Sun.
13 Amazing Things to Do in Tempe AZ
Tour Historic Eisendrath House
Eisendrath House was built in the 1930s and is listed on the Historical Registry. It was built during the Depression as the residence of Rose Eisendrath, widow of the wealthy Chicago glove manufacturer, Joseph N. Eisendrath. When she was refused at a local resort because of her Jewish heritage, Rose bought this piece of land in Tempe and built her adobe villa where she lived until her death in 1936.
I love the history of this house because Eisendrath is not just an adobe building built nearly one hundred years ago. It is representative of the formidable and inspirational spirit of Rose Eisendrath who was obviously a force to be reckoned with, had no time for bigotry, and had the means to do something about it. After building her own resort, she hosted frequent dinner parties, and even invited the hotelier who had denied her service. Residents and visitors can schedule a docent-led tour of this historic house by appointment on Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Walk through the Desert Botanical Garden
The outstanding living museum of the Desert Botanical Garden is less than ten minutes from downtown Tempe, and well worth a day trip. Our spring visit followed some weeks of rain, so many of the 50,000 desert plants were in full, gorgeous bloom. On our walks on the many pathways in the Garden, the desert air was perfumed by flowers, rosemary, and sage.
The state tree of Arizona, the Palo Verde tree, was in full bloom everywhere we went. The dark green bark is in beautiful contrast to the bright yellow blooms of the flowering tree. Note: If you have seasonal allergies, take some allergy medication before your visit. On-site, enjoy seasonal and local farm-inspired menus and drinks at Gertrude’s Restaurant. Or after your visit, enjoy a delicious Scottsdale food tour in the community which is 10 minutes to the north of the garden.
Soak up the Sunshine
Tempe has ALL the sunshine! Canadians love visiting Arizona for its incredible weather. During my spring visit, the weather was perfect – warm, sunny and about 25C every day. It was like a warming balm for my sun-deprived soul. I understand that summer in the valley can be like sticking your head into a 500C oven, so I was grateful for it being warm, but not that warm. Similar to other cities in the valley, Tempe has a great climate for sun seekers and snowbirds who like it hot, but not humid hot. Daily doses of Vitamin D are pretty much guaranteed.
Feel the College Vibes
There’s nothing like the vibrancy and activity of a college town. Downtown Tempe is the home to Arizona State University, commonly known as ASU. ASU is a major presence in Tempe, with many college buildings, a large expansive campus and an incredible theatre auditorium facility – Gammage Theatre. The ASU campus has 50,000 students, which makes for a great, young college vibe in the town. There are lots of restaurants, cafes and shops, and plenty of people and students walking around Tempe’s compact downtown. The result is that Tempe feels lively, safe and fun, which is great for visitors as much as local residents.
Feed Your Inner Foodie
The great thing about a college town is that even though students may be strapped for cash, they need food and like to eat out with their friends. And after all, parents have to take their kids out to eat when they visit, right? This means there are great cafes and restaurants in Tempe with something for everyone. Here are just some of our suggestions on where to eat in Tempe.
House of Tricks – Nestled just steps from Mill Avenue, this lovely restaurant is hidden inside two turn-of-the-century homes, behind a romantic vine-strewn courtyard patio. Delicious food, great service and tasty sangria, just saying.
Thirsty Lion Gastropub – Located in a large outdoor mall with many other restaurants and stores, this family friendly pub setting encourages sharing of appetizers and dishes from its huge menu. We noshed on giant soft pretzels, tacos, and enjoyed a grilled artichoke with zesty aioli dip on its expansive outdoor patio.
Morning Squeeze – This newish breakfast spot combines gourmet coffee and creative dishes with names like HAAS Avocado, Will Travel, Sun Deviled Eggs and the Bananas Foster the People Waffle. You can also order a tasty breakfast for your four-legged friend on their dog-friendly patio.
Postino Annex – This red brick schoolhouse-turned-art-studio-turned wine cafe offers great wines, and is well-known for its bruschetta boards. Diners can choose four different bruschetta slices with a choice of delicious toppings, like fig and brie, prosciutto and burrata, etc. They have a great kids menu too.
Daily Jam – Daily Jam serves up breakfast, brunch and lunch in a casual, friendly environment with a cool vibe. They’ve got specialty coffee drinks and house-made pastries, along with breakfast and lunch dishes paired with a smoothie or hand-crafted cocktail.
Scramble – A cafeteria-style breakfast and lunch spot with a large menu of egg dishes, pancakes, French toast, and smoothies.
Snakes & Lattes – This unique eatery, drinkery, and game headquarters is a great place to go for a really fun time out. The kids will be entertained by the scores of board games to play, including classics like Candyland to the newest games shipped from Germany. You can sit, nibble and play for hours. We enjoyed a lunch of soft pretzels, hummus, salads and corn dogs – perfect gamer food. They also have Korean fire chicken poutine, a pierogi pizza, a triple decker grilled cheese, burgers, and plenty of munchies.
Snooze an A.M. Eatery – Next to Postino Annex in the same red brick schoolhouse, Snooze offers a fresh take on breakfast favorites like pancakes, fresh toast, and eggs benedict. Can’t decide from the extensive menu? Be like me and order a pancake flight – your choice of three sweet and delicious treats likePineapple Upside Down, Banana/Pineapple, Blueberry Danish, you get the picture. Tip: Wear stretchy pants.
Getting Around is Easy
I mentioned Tempe’s compact and walkable downtown. Even in the heat of midday, many sidewalks are shaded by buildings and awnings that protect pedestrians from the sun. If you need to move a little faster, you can rent electric scooters (download the Bird app) to scoot around Tempe with ease. The dockless e-scooters are everywhere and very popular with students. Though FYI, they don’t work on the ASU campus.
Alternatively, rent Grid Bikes to explore Tempe’s bike paths, downtown, ASU campus and Tempe Town Lake. Through its public Grid Bike Share program, Tempe offers more than 300 bikes for rent at 30 stations. Just download the App before your arrival.
Tempe is also part of the Valley Metro light rail system that transports people between Sky Harbor Airport, downtown Phoenix and Mesa. Yes, you can get around the valley without a car, all for just a $4 Metro ticket.
Broadway Shows at ASU Gammage Theater
ASU Gammage Theater is among the largest university-based presenters of performing arts in the world. It is the home theater of the Desert Financial Broadway Across America – Arizona and the Beyond series. As Tempe is home to an award-winning theatre professional/Tony Awards voter, the city and theater get dibs on the best touring Broadway shows. We saw Wicked during out visit. In case you’re unfamiliar, Wicked is the entertaining and previously untold story of the two witches of Oz. The show was amazing, with a first-rate cast, incredible singing and costumes.
In terms of the theater itself, ASU Gammage Theater is a historic 3,000 seat hall that has more seats (and bathrooms) than most Broadway theaters in New York. Fun fact: The theater was designed by Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent a great deal of time in Arizona. You can visit Taliesen West, his winter home and school in the desert near Scottsdale, north of Tempe.
Roll Out of Bed and Hike A Mountain
Disclaimer: “A” Mountain, also known as Hayden Butte, is not technically a mountain. This was pointed out to me by a local resident, but it’s little matter really. This mountain is easily accessible from Downtown Tempe, and was right next door to my hotel room in the Residence Inn Tempe Downtown, so there was no excuse for not lacing up for a hike. Which I did, early in the morning before the heat of the day got too overwhelming. It only took 15-20 minutes to walk up A Mountain, including taking photos, so anyone can do this easy hike.
The reward? Great views of downtown Tempe, ASU campus, Tempe Town Lake, the entire Valley of the Sun, and rock drawings left hundreds of years ago by ancient people. To see the petroglyphs – follow the trailhead just over the light rail tracks, east of Mill Avenue at Third Street. Walk up the trail and turn right to follow the trail to the east. Look up before the trails turns to the left and goes west – the petroglyphs are on the large rock formation above the trail.
Visit ASU Art Gallery
If you’re into contemporary art, check out the ASU Art Museum, which specializes in exhibits of contemporary artists, both regional and national, with a focus on Latin American art. The Museum also houses the largest collection of Cuban art in the U.S. and an award-winning print collection. Exhibitions change seasonally, and admission is always free.
On a related note, Tempe has an excellent public art program that has sponsored art installations throughout its downtown. Keep on the lookout for 13 life-sized “Tempe Tales” – these jack rabbit sculptures make for a fun scavenger hunt with the kids.
Pedal a Swan Boat on Tempe Town Lake
Ever wanted to pedal your own giant swan? Even if you only want to ‘do it for the ‘gram‘, you will have fun pedaling your swan (or regular) boat around Tempe Town Lake. The Lake is a perennial reservoir that is a lovely place to walk along or play upon. You can book your own swan, which seats four people, at the Boat Rentals of America – Tempe Town Lake location. You can also rent an entire variety of watercraft here, including kayaks, pedal boats, electric boats, stand-up paddleboards and more.
Trust me when I say that pedaling the swan was hard work, especially if you’re alone, which I was and do not recommend, or if your pedal partner gives up after five minutes. But if I can manage a solo swan trip and make it back to shore against the wind, so can anyone. It’s great fun, and being out on the water so close to downtown is a real treat.
Hike in a Desert Preserve
I love desert hiking, particularly early in the morning before it becomes too hot outside. Fortunately, there’s great hiking to be had near Tempe that’s only a short drive from downtown. At more than 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park and Preserve is one of the largest municipal parks in the country. The park includes 51 miles of scenic desert trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking leading to some pretty amazing views.
In the Park, the Pima Canyon Trailhead is the closest one to Tempe, and it’s a perfect trail to hike with friends or with the kids. The way up is easy and you’re rewarded with lovely views of the valley before you hike back down. It’s a short 30 minute round trip that won’t tax short legs. Tip: If you breath on the creosote bush along the trail, it will smell like the desert when it rains. Also, remember to bring lots of water, and turn around when your water bottle is half empty.
Shop the 6th Street Market
I love visiting public markets when I travel. Tempe has a wonderful street market that takes place every Sunday between mid-October and mid-April. The lively 6th Street Market blends art, live music and the creative community weekly in the heart of downtown Tempe. Located in the popular 6th Street Park near City Hall, this market has a wonderful mix of local artisans and crafts people, live music, food trucks and fantastic brunch spots nearby.
I wandered through the bright tents filled with arts and crafts, picking up some gifts for home, including an embroidered tea towel (my souvenir of choice), and a felted wool bag for all my various electronic plugs. How adorable is that!
Explore the Galaxy
Channel your inner astronaut at the Gallery of Scientific Exploration at Arizona State University. The Gallery is outfitted with kiosk-style interactive exhibits and large-format, high-definition monitors that display video from Earth-observing satellites and robotic probes of other worlds. This first-floor gallery invites visitors to explore earth and space sciences through digital media, public lectures, visible laboratories, and interactive displays. The university’s meteorite collection is on level 2. There’s also a 3D planetarium show at the Marston 3D Theater for even more super space immersion.
If you want to explore the impressive ‘inner’ galaxy of the Grand Canyon – hey, it’s only four hours away – check out this helpful article from Kidventurous.
Photo Credits: Claudia Laroye, Tempe Tourism, Shutterstock. Featured Image by Slaven Gujic, Tempe Tourism.
Disclosure: This article is part of a paid partnership with Tempe Tourism. As always, my love of sunshine, popsicles and swan boats are honest and my own. This post contains affiliate links.