It's not just that the miniature cityscape of Phoenix now on display at Tempe's LEGOLAND Discovery Center is made from nearly 2 million plastic LEGO bricks. The other thing that makes master model builder Alec Posta's whimsical creation so very special is the inclusion of Phoenix's perpetually torn-up streets. The numerous construction scenes are a nice touch in the diorama, created by a team of builders in both 1:72 scale and 1:48 scale. The cityscape extends into Tempe and beyond, so Chase Tower and St. Mary's Basilica are joined by the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook and the Cardinals Stadium. Want to show out-of-town visitors your city? Take them to the Arizona Mills shopping center, point to Posta's clever creation, and you're done.
It's hard for a first-timer to find Lux Central. There's no sign, and Google Maps will send you to what looks like an empty building on Central Avenue. The entrance is around back, and you'll know you're there because you'll start to see effortlessly glamorous people who all look hipper and happier than you could ever hope to be. Although being surrounded by all these pretty people makes us feel ugly and unstylish, we still like going to Lux Central. As a cafe, it's something of a five-tool player, offering coffee, baked goods, brunch, dinner, and booze, and staying open late (midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on the weekends). That means that pretty much anytime you stop in, you'll find a decent crowd of people whose clothes and tattoos and haircuts and mannerisms you can study in the hopes of becoming cooler.
We like the light rail; we're glad it's there, it's good for the city, etc. But we don't often think to take it to the airport, even though it stops there. We tend to be too hurried to get to our flight on time to add another transportation variable into the mix. But with Uber prices surging one afternoon this year ($35 from the Garfield neighborhood to Sky Harbor, are you kidding?), we trudged with our suitcase to the closest stop and boarded the train. After a long walk from the 44th Street stop, you must board the PHX Sky Train, which ferries you to your terminal. We'd never had the pleasure. We were sweaty and tense about flying during a pandemic, but for about five minutes on the Sky Train, standing up and clutching a pole, a calm fell over us. This dinky little vessel travels along an elevated track, dipping and twisting gently, like a slow-motion roller coaster. It even offers modest views — the mountains to the south, the city to the north. By the time we arrived at Terminal 4, our forehead sweat had dried and our spirits had lifted. We tried it again a few months later. Same outcome: inner peace via the Sky Train. The Uber savings aren't bad either.
When it comes to Christmas spirit, the Whos of Whoville ain't got nothing on Mel and Patti Tasker. During the holidays, the couple dresses up their sprawling Laveen Village home with more than 300,000 lights and several hundred hand-painted wooden cutouts of cartoon, comic book, and video game characters. There's also an animated undersea display and a flock of zoo animals made from lights. Best part: Everything's arranged along the Taskers' circular driveway, so you can roll through without leaving your car. (It's also the only free drive-thru holiday attraction in the Valley.) The display is visible from miles away, owing to their house being on a small hill surrounded by farmland. That could change soon, as a grip of recent residential and commercial projects are encroaching on their property and could wind up being the Grinches of this story. A newly opened housing community next door might limit the hours the Taskers' display is active, so get out to see it while you can. This year's version opens in early November.
Truth be told, there's not much that truly makes Phoenix unique. Other cities have art museums and great restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and high-end shopping. So if you've got visitors in from out of town, and you want to give them an experience they really can't get anywhere else, we recommend you head to the Musical Instrument Museum in north Phoenix. To be fair, there is a similar institution in Brussels, but its collection isn't as large or geographically comprehensive as ours; the Phoenix MIM has more than 13,000 instruments from more than 200 countries and territories. It's also got a room full of instruments to play, a concert space that draws acts from around the world, and special programming devoted to the musical traditions of areas around the globe. There's a lot about Phoenix we enjoy showing off to guests, but when we want to impress them with something truly world-class, we head to MIM.
Every major city has its touristy spots — Times Square in New York City, the San Antonio River Walk. Metro Phoenix has its own little part of town that draws visitors from all over, too. We used to think that Old Town Scottsdale was kind of cheesy, but the longer we live here, the more we've come to appreciate the part of Scottsdale that's bounded approximately by Osborn and Camelback roads on the south and north, and 68th Street and Miller Road on the west and east. Within these coordinates, you'll find stores that sell things like Native American jewelry, Mexican blankets, and cactus tchotchkes, plus iconic eateries like the Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant, and museums like Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West. We're in Old Town often to visit spots popular with the locals, such as Citizen Public House and The Rusty Spur, but every once in a while we like to pop into a souvenir shop or two to appreciate our fair city through the eyes of someone who doesn't live here.
If you've ever taken the 202 into or out of Tempe, you've probably seen Tovrea Castle, the wedding cake-shaped building situated between the Van Buren/52nd and Priest Drive exits. But unless you're very, very lucky, you won't get much closer to the iconic structure than the view from the highway. The castle, which is nearly 100 years old and is part of the National Register of Historic Places, can only be visited on a guided tour. Tickets are snapped up almost as quickly as they're put on sale, so in December 2020, the Tovrea Carraro Society decided that the only fair way to give access to the building and the grounds was a ticket lottery. There's no cost to enter, and if you win, you can purchase up to four tickets at $22 each. The lottery for Spring 2022 tours is open October 1 through 15 if you want to be one of the fortunate ones to see inside Tovrea Castle. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Lovely green spaces are rare in our desert metropolis, and even though we love our cactuses and our sand, sometimes we just want to take a moment and enjoy some grass and trees. Ro-Ho-En, more commonly known as the Japanese Friendship Garden, is where we head when we want to commune with verdant nature. Tucked away just off Roosevelt Row, the garden was a joint project between the city of Phoenix and its sister city Himeji, Japan, that was completed in 1996. It's a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city; the tree cover and water features drown out the sounds of urban life, leaving visitors with a quiet place to stroll. We're still sad that the gift shop doesn't sell pellets to feed the koi that live in the pond anymore (the food was attracting other animals), but even without that added attraction, the Japanese Friendship Garden is still one of our favorite corners of town.
It's easy to live in Phoenix and become blind to all the parking lots. There are just so many in this car-centric, perpetually mobile city. The grandest one of all may be the sprawling lot around North Phoenix Baptist Church. Taking up some major real estate near Bethany Home Road and Missouri Avenue, and Central Avenue and Third Street, this lot is an essential part of life in the neighborhood. It's hosted a slew of farmers' markets and other community events. It's where folks have learned to drive and even attended school. And, of course, it's an essential place of worship for this part of town. Put all of that together, and you don't just have a parking lot but a cornerstone of the community, a place with ample history and civic value. There are plenty of such places Valley-wide, but this lot stands tall as an example of the city turning asphalt into the fabric of shared experiences.
Bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on Interstate 10 or Loop 202 got you down? Easily fixed. Bypass a good portion of the gridlock along either freeway during your morning or late-afternoon drive times by taking this thoroughfare through Sky Harbor Airport. Traffic is relatively light, even during peak pickup or drop-off times, and the route links up with various freeways on either end. You can cruise along, shave 20 to 30 minutes off your travel time, and save yourself some grief. Resist the urge to floor it, though (35 mph is the limit most of the way); Phoenix Police patrol the area on the regular, and a pricey speeding ticket will make your already dreadful commute even worse.