This is Phoenix. When Christmas rolls around, there's no winter wonderland, no riding in one-horse open sleighs, and no roasting chestnuts on an open fire (it's probably a no-burn day, anyway). What we've got, though, are mild evenings perfect for driving around and looking at holiday light displays, and the Moon Valley Neighborhood Association's 12 Homes of Christmas event in north central Phoenix is our favorite way to do it. The 29 subdivisions that comprise the MVNA include plenty of homeowners who go all out on the decorating front, including sound, light, and motion displays. Judges come through in early December to pick the delightful dozen, then produce a guide to the winners (along with winners in several other categories like the Spirit of Christmas award and the Santa's Helper award). Print out a map, pick up a hot cocoa (or an iced coffee, depending on the forecast), and get ready to light up the night.

A good Christmas lights display is equal parts awe, merriment, and pity for one's neighbors. The Sepanek home, south of the intersection of 44th Street and Camelback Road, makes you wonder if the rest of the people in the neighborhood simply take December off. Go to Fiji? Hibernate? It must be damn near impossible for the Sepaneks' neighbors to muster up the Christmas spirit to deal with the steady flow of cars come holiday time, not to mention the sleep-deprivation chambers their own houses must become, with millions of watts' worth of twinkle shining through their windows at all hours of the night. But that's not our problem. We silently thank those poor sods as we walk the grounds of the Christmas extravaganza on their block. Kids will love the bubbles, hot chocolate, and animatronic reindeers. Adults will love the fact that it's free. And everyone can get on board with the care and attention that has gone into each crèche, character, and carol singer; the display's tradition has carried on for over 30 years. Ho-ho-holy electric bill!

The Willo Historic Home Tour is our favorite see-and-be-seen old-house extravaganza. Every February, we head to downtown Phoenix to play lookie-loo at a dozen or more beautifully restored historic homes representing a variety of styles and eras: bungalows from the '20s, modified ranches from the '50s, Tudors and Craftsmans and adobes. After checking out crown moldings and wood floors and neat old furnishings, we head to the street fair featuring local vendors. Unlike some historic home tours, this one features a trolley that will take us to and fro, and an all-day pass lets us revisit our favorites, too.

This historic neighborhood sandwiches the Interstate 10 and serves up 20th-century charm. Founded by Francis Quarles Story in 1920 (hence the name), this 602-home hood features an assortment of Tudors, bungalows, and Spanish revivals — a good majority of which have been lovingly restored to their architectural heyday. Despite the slightly patchy surroundings, F.Q. delivers a serious draw: downtown proximity, pedestrian-friendly streets, and some serious curb appeal. So although homes in this area are of modest size, the real estate is pricey. No matter, we're fine oohing and aahing at the neighborhood's annual home tour in December.

We've got two words for why the Modern Phoenix Home Tour keeps returning to Paradise Gardens: Beadle Mania. The north Phoenix neighborhood nestled near Shea Boulevard and 32nd Street has some of the best examples of Midcentury Modern aesthetic in town, thanks to acclaimed architect Al Beadle, who had a hand in the initial design of the area. Whether the houses are genuinely his, however, is up for debate (supposedly, Beadle did not want his name associated with the project in the end). Regardless, the '60s-style concrete block homes are breezy and balanced thanks to curated desert landscapes and color accents that pop against earthy undertones. It's an unassuming area of town for sure, but its restaurant scene is improving, and from the right angle, it could rival a residential area in Palm Springs.

There's a little pocket of houses on the west side, bounded by Dunlap and Northern avenues and 35th and 43rd avenues, and a bunch of them are true-blue Ralph Haver homes. The renowned midcentury architect's low-slung designs are unmistakable with their slanted rooflines, clerestory windows, massive mantle-less chimneys, and tidy cinder block construction. They're also much sought after, and with fewer than 20,000 Havers in all of Arizona, we're sure this pocket tract will be hot real estate any day now. Grab one while you can, before this neighborhood even has a nickname.

For those of us that like to daydream about our future homes in Phoenix, Tonka Vista is essentially our Fight Club: We don't talk about it, because spreading the word about Tonka Vista means surrendering some of its charm. Despite being centrally located, backing up to State Route 51 and Bethany Home Road, this midcentury marvel manages to keep a low profile. With rolling streets and homes designed by prominent architects, including Ralph Haver, Fred Guirey, and Al Beadle, Tonka Vista has just about everything you want in a Phoenix suburb: great location, scenic streets, designer dwellings, and of course, a hush-hush address.

In the age of Atlas Obscura and murder podcast fandom, some of the city's more sinister properties are getting some renewed attention. The most prominent is the duplex of the 1931 murderess Winnie Ruth Judd. It was at this midtown home that the infamous Judd murdered her two roommates with a .25 caliber handgun before packing their bodies into trunks and taking the train out of Phoenix's Union Station with the victims in tow. After being caught and found guilty for her crimes, Judd was sentenced to a state mental hospital in 1933. Unlike the deceased murderess herself, however, the house lives on despite a close call with demolition last year. And while this macabre piece of real estate is private property, true crime enthusiasts can easily drive by the murder house for a shot of its eerie exterior.

Phoenix's history runs deep. Block 23, otherwise known as that empty parking lot next to CityScape, has seen its share of activity over the years: a theater, a JCPenney, and, before that, the city's first fire station. But when construction crews broke ground for what will eventually become a mixed-use development, they uncovered something older than all the previous tenants combined: five Hohokam pit houses believed to date back as far as 300 B.C. The site was remarkably intact given the centuries of activity above, but takeaway artifacts were few and far between. And while construction ultimately resumed, tearing up the remaining houses in the process, archaeologists were able to preserve some shards of pottery, which will be recorded, carbon-dated, and eventually gifted to the Pueblo Grande Museum.

In Phoenix, we've got a bad habit of tearing down our history. So go scope out the Buckhorn Baths sign while you can. The famous Mesa curiosity, posted outside of the long-shuttered Buckhorn Mineral Baths, has been the subject of much debate and was included in a historic-trust purchase. To this day, no one can quite decide what will become of it. Make the trek to Mesa and take it in. Bask in its kitschy glory. There's something majestic about that buck deer gazing out over Mesa. It's a relic of bygone days, of Old West mystique, and former glories. Even as Mesa morphs and sprawls, there's something about that stoic buckhorn that seems to remind us of who we once were, of the promise and hope of the desert. We can't put a finger on it either, but it's worth preserving.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of