Best Free Ride 2021 | PHX Sky Train | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

Cruising Down Central Avenue

You’re cruising Central, headed south. Because you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than you care to remember, you’re seeing not just the buildings on either side of this wide expanse of road, but what used to stand in their places as well. You’ve been here so long, you remember when driving up and down this street, looking to hook up, was a weekend activity of every baby boomer in town.

Here on your right is Park Central Mall. Its recent facelift gives Phoenix’s first outdoor shopping mall a Midcentury Modern feel, but you’re not fooled. You recall when there were actual department stores there, where today there’s a collection of business offices, a handful of chain restaurants, and — huzzah! — a Starbucks. One thing they got right was returning the Walter Emory Sun Worshipper statue, a long-ago Park Central mainstay, to the property. Even if it is on the wrong side of the mall.

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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.

Phoenix is a town that requires reliable transportation. Whether that's a car, the bus, and/or light rail, there's no way to live here without traveling some ways for work, school, fun, etc. It's not all bad, as a stretch of road like Roosevelt Street (especially between Central Avenue and Seventh Street) offers a collection of gorgeous murals that's easily enjoyed while cruising at 20 miles per hour. These pieces are a snapshot of the larger Phoenix culture, with an emphasis on Latin culture especially, as well as a chance to further celebrate the city's talented artists. Over the years, there have been some standouts, like Antoinette Cauley's portrait of author and activist James Baldwin on the Ten-O-One office building on Central Avenue, or the utterly gorgeous collaborative cityscape by Lalo Cota and other artists at 128 East Roosevelt Street. Each one emphasizes something unique, but collectively they speak to our city's interest in great art as well as the role that plays in shaping our shared identity as a bright and brilliant city. Next time you're driving down Roosevelt, take the time to stop and enjoy the art — it's your city smiling back at you amid the traffic jams and congested air.

Freeway drivers of metro Phoenix, we know your struggle. Traffic congestion, poor road conditions, and idiot drivers are vexations that frequently make you want to take the nearest exit and stick with surface streets. Not so with the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway. The 22-mile-long portion of the Valley beltway from 59th Avenue on the west side all the way to Ahwatukee, which opened in late 2019, is flat-out fun to drive. There are zero bumps or blemishes in the young asphalt, so you just glide along. It rolls through a part of the Valley unspoiled by development, allowing unobstructed epic views of craggy mountains on either side or a chance to partake in the sweet smell of fresh-cut alfalfa coming from the farms of Laveen. Another benefit: Fewer people living nearby means there's less traffic to deal with during your trip. Feel free to open it up a little, cue up a rock anthem, roll down your windows, and enjoy the ride.

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