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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Phoenix Art Museum in downtown Phoenix, Ariz.
The Phoenix Art Museum in downtown Phoenix, Ariz.

A local’s guide to Phoenix

The Phoenix Art Museum in downtown Phoenix, Ariz.
The Phoenix Art Museum in downtown Phoenix, Ariz.
  • By Carrie Wheeler
  • Photos by Dominic Valente

Phoenix is the home of dry heat, rivers without water, saguaro cactuses, snowbirds and ample patios. With few natural boundaries, the metropolitan area stretches far and wide, seamlessly melding into the surrounding suburbs. For eight or nine months a year, it’s the envy of much of America, with blue skies, abundant hiking, mountain biking, amazing sunsets and outdoor dining.

Phoenix boasts a little of everything: diversity in its food, a growing arts scene and some James Beard Award-winning chefs. For every strip mall (and there are many), there’s a locally owned restaurant, boutique or art space trying to make its mark in the valley. In Phoenix, half the thrill of going out is uncovering new hidden treasures and discovering the community of people working to make Phoenix an interesting place to live.

Meet Carrie Wheeler

Carrie has lived in the Phoenix area since 3rd grade. She left for short stints in Osaka, D.C. and L.A., but has always found her way back to the desert. One of her favorite things about living in the Valley: the smell of creosote bushes after a rain. Her biggest dislike: finding live scorpions in and around her house.

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Read more about Carrie


Downtown has a handful of boutique hotels and loads of business-friendly chains. Look for places between Roosevelt Row and the midtown arts district for access to the downtown nightlife scene and cultural destinations such as the Phoenix Art Museum, Japanese Friendship Garden and Heard Museum of Native American arts. Find this neighborhood.
The Biltmore area (24th Street and Camelback Road) is known for upscale shopping and restaurants but also more resort-style accommodations. Its proximity to Piestewa Peak, Camelback Mountain and the Arizona Canal system makes hiking, biking and general outdoorsiness more accessible. Find this neighborhood.


Dick’s Hideaway
If you didn’t know it existed, you’d never find this tiny restaurant behind an unmarked door inside a strip mall with one of the best Southwestern breakfasts in town. Sit along the bar or at one of the few tables for dishes such as spicy huevos rancheros, eggs Benedict jalapeño, green chile stew, and eggs served atop a tortilla.
BTW: There’s an adjacent room that can be reserved for larger parties or used as a community table.
Dick’s Hideaway, 6008 N. 16th St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85016
Matt’s Big Breakfast
Matt’s sweet spot is traditional breakfast fare using high-quality and, when possible, local ingredients. Menu favorites are the Chop & Chick (eggs over a pork chop), scrambles and the Five Spot breakfast sandwich — which are served all day long. Matt’s started as a small cafe in 2004 and continues to expand with additional locations across Phoenix.
BTW: For less ambiance than Downtown but also less of a wait, try the Camelback Road location.
Matt’s Big Breakfast, 825 N. First St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85004
Pane Bianco
At Pane Bianco, you’ll find sandwiches by one of Phoenix’s most beloved celebrity chefs, Chris Bianco. The menu is limited to a handful of sandwiches and salads with a market option that changes daily and a daily slice, everything made with locally sourced, fresh ingredients. Eat in the restaurant (there are multiple locations in addition to Central) or order at the counter next door for to-go service.
BTW: The tuna sandwich is a crowd favorite.
Pane Bianco, 4404 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85012
Tacos Chiwas
This Dairy Queen turned Chihuahua-style taqueria is nothing to look at, but it serves no-nonsense, straight-up delicious tacos, burritos, gorditas and other Northern Mexico fare. Its specialty is the beef-and-ham taco, smothered with chiles and cheese. Order at the counter and then adorn with salsas and pickled vegetables from the condiment cart in the corner.
BTW: Order a side of frijoles charros — a soupy mix of beans loaded with bacon and sausage.
Tacos Chiwas, 1028 E Indian School Rd., Phoenix, Ariz. 85014
Glai Baan
This cozy family restaurant serves killer Thai street food in a homey setting, with family pictures and vintage Thai ads hanging on the walls and twinkle lights crisscrossing the outdoor patio. The restaurant features northeastern Thai fare and encourages family-style dining with stir-fries, noodles, soups and curries. Glai Baan also has an unexpected cocktail menu with flavors such as black soy and onion.
BTW: The steamed bread and custard dessert is a perfect balance of light and not-too-sweet.
Glai Baan, 2333 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix, Ariz. 85016
Restaurant Progress
The intimate spot serves a variety of craft cocktails, thoughtful small plates and entrees, and a five-course chef’s choice tasting menu that can be ordered with or without wine pairings and foie gras. Seating is limited and in demand, so reservations are recommended.
BTW: After dinner, head next door to the retro Thunderbird Lounge for a late-night drink.
Restaurant Progress, 702 W. Montecito Ave. Phoenix, Ariz. 85013
Little Rituals
Take the elevator up to the fourth floor for a low-key nightspot with a view and creative cocktails. Little Rituals utilizes foams, muddling and infusions, combined with spirits and fresh ingredients, for some complicated yet memorable cocktails. The drinks complement the menu, which also offers a mix of complex flavors. Restaurant favorites include Hurricane Umami Fries and Caramel Claypot Wings.
BTW: For a more lively atmosphere, get your craft cocktails at the sister restaurant next door, Bitter & Twisted.
Little Rituals, 132 S. Central Ave., Fourth Floor., Phoenix, Ariz. 85004
Welcome Diner
This spot is more hipster hangout than greasy spoon, but it still has an old-timey-diner feel. It serves carb-y classics like fried chicken and biscuits, mac and cheese, and cheesy, gravy-slathered poutine, served alongside an extensive cocktail and beer menu. Even better, it’s open until 2 a.m. every night.
BTW: If the weather is good, sit on the patio.
Welcome Diner, 929 E. Pierce St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85006
(Phoenix illustrator Jane Goat for The Washington Post)
  1. Saguaro (suh-war-oh), cholla (choy-ya), ocotillo (oak-uh-tee-yo). We can identify tourists when they butcher these plant pronunciations.
  2. No matter the season, bring a sweater. It gets cold in the desert in the winter. Not Chicago-cold, but if you’re here December through February, have layers. In summer, businesses crank the A/C to frigid.
  3. You won’t want to miss the Arizona sunsets and, if you’re ambitious, sunrises. The seemingly endless sky, jutting mountains and vivid orange-reds make some of the prettiest out there.
(Phoenix illustrator Jane Goat for The Washington Post)


Crescent Ballroom
Crescent is nothing short of a blessing for Phoenicians (yes, that’s what we are called). For years, locals crammed into tiny, smelly art spaces with terrible sound systems to hear indie bands. Crescent Ballroom is the opposite of that. A comfortable venue with great sound and even better burritos and drinks, the midsize indie music venue hosts live music seven days a week. Go for the music or just to enjoy a drink and a meal at the venue’s Mexican restaurant, Cocina 10.
BTW: Take your drink to the rooftop deck for a good view of downtown.
Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85003
Mystery Castle
Cobbled together from rock, melted bricks, and found and donated objects, this weird, 18-room “castle” perched at the base of South Mountain was a labor of love for an old miner, Boyce Luther Gulley, to his daughter. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Gulley toiled on the home for 15 years before he died of the disease in 1945. Three years later, his daughter moved in and lived there until her death in 2010. The house remains mostly as she left it, with rocks painted to look like animals, mannequins and lots of denim decor. It continues to be a destination for tours and the occasional quirky wedding. It’s open October through May.
BTW: There’s a hiking trail just outside the castle boundaries (next to the water tank) that ascends South Mountain and leads to some great city views.
Mystery Castle, 800 E. Mineral Rd., Phoenix, Ariz. 85042
First Friday
The first Friday night each month, downtown Phoenix is swarmed as vendors line the streets; galleries, art spaces and cultural venues open their doors; live music and food trucks converge; and Phoenicians take to the streets for this self-guided art walk.
BTW: Park at the Phoenix Art Museum (which is free on First Fridays) and take the free trolley to one of five downtown hubs from 6-10 p.m.
First Friday, 333 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85004
Temporarily unavailable
Lux Central
It’s a coffeehouse. No, it’s a restaurant and artisanal bar. Wait, maybe it’s a shared workspace. Lux is one of those places that’s many things to many people — and something to nearly everyone. It’s got a rambling floor plan, mid-century hodgepodge decor and a hipster vibe. It’s a place where locals are almost guaranteed to run into someone they know.
BTW: Visit Pane Bianco next door for sandwiches and salads from locally famous pizza chef Chris Bianco.
Lux Central, 4400 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85012
Desert Botanical Garden
For those who question the beauty of the desert, we give you the Desert Botanical Garden: 140 acres of cactuses, agave, boojum trees, wildflowers and 50,000-plus plants that can be found in the Sonoran Desert. Meander the meditative trails of the lush gardens; marvel at the Chihuly glass sculptures, the butterfly exhibit, and the variety and heartiness of arid desert plants; or attend special events like the nighttime Electric Desert.
BTW: Admission is free the second Tuesday of each month.
Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix, Ariz. 85008
Artist and visionary Paolo Soleri’s studio, foundry and headquarters are tucked inside a residential neighborhood just outside Phoenix proper. His domed and sunken utopian studio is where his iconic bronze and ceramic bells are poured and sold. See the beginnings of his environmental living philosophy without having to drive the 1½ hours north to Arcosanti.
BTW: Pick a Soleri bell for those who appreciate a mid-century modern aesthetic.
Cosanti, 6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Rd., Paradise Valley, Ariz. 85253
Murals on Grand Avenue
Grand Avenue is the home of an evolving arts scene between Seventh and 19th avenues. The street is made up of art galleries, adaptive reuse projects and small businesses, but the street art and murals that cover the vintage architecture are as much of a draw as the businesses. Find a copy of the Mural Love Map to locate murals by local artists such as Luster Kaboom, El Mac and Beatrice Moore.
BTW: Visit on Gallery Night, the third Friday of the month, when most of the Grand Avenue businesses are open and the streets are lively.
1025 Grand Ave., Phoenix, Ariz. 85007
Carrie Wheeler
Carrie has lived in the Phoenix area since 3rd grade. She left for short stints in Osaka, D.C. and L.A., but has always found her way back to the desert. One of her favorite things about living in the Valley: the smell of creosote bushes after a rain. Her biggest dislike: finding live scorpions in and around her house.
Dominic Valente
Dominic is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Phoenix.