In Phoenix, it's a challenge to point out a tourist at any given theater, museum, or cultural center. We're all wearing T-shirts and shorts. Most of us are taking pictures and Instagramming anything that moves. And no matter how many times we say we've acclimated, there's not a soul who won't break a sweat during the summer. There are plenty of places to drag your extended family on a day trip or drive around the city, but let's face it, we could go to these spots any day. Here are a few of our favorite Phoenix attractions — touristy or not.
Desert Botanical Garden
The Botanical Garden is a standard for any weekend or day trip through Phoenix, but if you're staying the night (or forever) and want to take a cooler walk through the desert landscape, you'll want to see what the natural reserve has on the calendar. During the summer, staff members give flashlight tours where viewers can check out desert blossoms and bugs after the sun goes down. And the Garden hosts plant sales — in case you really like what you see — as well as concerts, art exhibitions in a dedicated gallery space, and sculptural installations. The Garden is open daily, but the grounds are closed on holidays, including July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. General admission is $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $12 for students, $10 for kids, and free for children 3 or younger. For more info and to buy tickets, see Desert Botanical Garden's website or call 480-941-1225.
Arizona Science Center
Easy to find and easy to spend an afternoon in is downtown Phoenix's Arizona Science Center, which is packed with exhibitions and activities to keep geeks of all ages occupied. Currently on view is "POPnology," which explores the influence that science-fiction pop culture has had on real-life technology. The center's permanent exhibitions include films and visuals in the Dorrance Planetarium, anatomy activities, physics- and construction-themed interactive displays, public art installations, and musical shows. The Center is open daily. Tickets are $18 for adults, $13 for kids ages 3 to 17, and free for kids younger than 3. For details, see Arizona Science Center's website or call 602-716-2000.
Japanese Friendship Garden
If you're looking for a Zen experience, look no further than the Japanese Friendship Garden. The 3.5-acre park is a symbol of friendship between Phoenix and its sister city Himeji, Japan. It took 50 architects from Japan more than 60 trips to Phoenix since 1987 to build and perfect the oasis. Here, you won't find Sakura, the popular Japanese cherry blossom trees, but you will spot purple leaf plums, Japanese maples, and evergreen pears that provide plenty of shady spots to take a zen moment. The garden is closed on Mondays. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for students, seniors, children, and military personnel with ID, and kids 6 and younger get in free. For more information, see the Japanese Friendship Garden's website.
Phoenix Art Museum
Phoenix Art Museum is easy to find: just follow the light of Josiah McElheny's The Last Scattering Surface — a handblown glass, chrome-plated aluminum, electric, hanging installation that lights the entrance to the museum in Central Phoenix. We could spend hours perusing the modern art collection on the second floor, the latest couture exhibition curated by the sharp and careful eyes of Dennita Sewell, the sculpture garden, or the museum's current contemporary show (and grabbing lunch or drinks in between at the museum's restaurant). Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for students, $6 for kids aged 6 to 17, and free for those 5 and younger. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and offers free admission on Wednesday evenings, First Fridays, and Second Sundays. For the complete rundown of current events and exhibitions, see Phoenix Art Museum's website.
Located in Phoenix near 24th Street and Camelback Road, this resort is part of Hilton Hotels' luxury collection Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts, and was also featured on the Travel Channel show Great Hotels. Visitors can expect gorgeous vistas, nice restaurants, and important Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture. Thanks to a 92-foot water slide, private cabanas, and a multitude of pools, this spot ranks high on the list of poolside vacation (or staycation) destinations. For details on all of the above, visit the Arizona Biltmore website.
A small but charming eye-catcher off the Loop 202, Tovrea Castle has puzzled residents and tourists alike. The little-known history of the landmark dates back to 1930, when Alessio Carraro came to Arizona and completed his project of developing a resort and housing subdivision just east of Phoenix. The cake-like structure that is seen now was part of Carraro's hotel. It became the home of Edward Ambrose Tovrea and his wife, Della, to whom Carraro sold the property only two years after finishing the project. The castle is open for tours Fridays through Sundays in the mornings, and tickets are $15. Visit the Tovrea Castle website for more.
Don't be alarmed if you happen to hear indecipherable nerd babble echoing off the fluorescent bathed hallways of ASU's Bateman Physical Science building. That's because physics and astronomy graduate students are high off cool neutrons and totally hot electrons. Housed in the School of Earth and Space Exploration is the planetarium and the Science Theater, which was built for undergraduate students studying space sciences, but throughout the school year, the doors are open for free public tours, stargazing nights, 3D astronomy shows (which cost $7.50 for general admission), and lectures. Keep tabs on the program's website for more details.
Sunrise Trail at McDowell Mountains
The McDowell Mountains may be in the middle of the Valley, but when you're at the top, you can still soak in a good dose of desert landscape and seclusion. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve's Sunrise Trail is one of the more popular paths, cutting through the south area of the range. The trail's 4.4 miles and 1,300-foot climb in elevation loosely translate to a seriously awesome hike. In this area, all things begin or end at the Lost Dog Wash Trailhead. Get there with a good pair of shoes and some water, and you're ready to hike. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset, free of charge.
Cosanti is a Zen arts and nature compound in Paradise Valley. It was home to the late Paolo Soleri, an influential Italian architect, educator, and designer of the Arcosanti community near Cordes Junction. The historic site features several eco-friendly buildings, artist studios, garden walkways, and most famously, countless Soleri Wind Bells. The word Cosanti is a combination of two Italian words: cosa (thing) and anti (against). Property construction began with Soleri's house in 1956, and expanded over the years to include student dorms, a pool, a gift shop, and an "Earth House" that's partially underground. These buildings are designed with a combination of architecture and ecology, and take advantage of natural solar power and shaded cooling. Cosanti is open daily. Group tours must be reserved in advance. For more information, head to Cosanti's website.
The Musical Instrument Museum
This high-end gallery showcases instruments from around the world, collectibles from musical superstars (including the severed head of Alice Cooper — sort of), and interactive displays of music-making ephemera. The Experience Room allows visitors to play rare instruments from different cultures, and the main stage Music Theater always features national and international music acts. Visit the MIM's website for exhibition details, events, and hours.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version, which first appeared in June 2012.