Phoenix Mountain Preserve After Rain

One Day In Phoenix: 5 Great Things To See And Do

If you only have one day in Phoenix, it’s hard to choose between all the activities available and interesting things to see. As a resident of the city for over three decades, I plan to help pick things to do in Phoenix you’ll enjoy.

The largest city of Arizona, and the capital of the state, Phoenix, has grown from a tiny desert town into a vast metropolis in less than a century. Even since I first moved here thirty years ago, I have seen enormous growth, more than I could have imagined.

With its sunny skies and unique desert landscapes showcasing the giant saguaro, no wonder the city always attracted and still draws thousands of visitors. And once here, most don’t want to leave, making Phoenix one of the fastest-growing cities in the US.

Besides the obvious downside of this growth (primarily air and noise pollution and the disappearance of the dark skies), the upside is a vibrant cultural life. And, while growing, the city has been careful to preserve extensive wilderness areas.

Now, Phoenix is home to several world-class museums, but also to nature preserves with miles upon miles of hiking and biking trails.

When To Visit Phoenix

Hiking in the Sonoran Desert Preserve is one of the best things to do in Phoenix.
The Sonoran Desert in Phoenix in the winter

Winter is the perfect time to visit Phoenix.

When everywhere else is cold and dark, here in the desert temperatures hover in the low 70s during the day, with perfect sunshine and low humidity.

But, since everyone who ever heard of Phoenix knows this is the time to enjoy the desert environment here, this is also when the city gets the most crowded. Besides seasonal visitors, this is also the time when “snowbirds” (retirees who spend their winters here) live in the city, making it even more crowded.

Since this is the prime time to be here, the price of accommodations can skyrocket. Although it is worth it, if you would rather avoid the high season, you have other choices.

The shoulder seasons are also a great time to enjoy the desert.

Though short, they offer the chance to see a colorful desert while enjoying the warm weather. Spring, between mid-February and mid-April, is gorgeous, when wildflowers and cacti bloom, adding a layer of bright color to the green of the winter desert. Some desert plants bloom again in the fall, when we also have perfect weather and green surroundings.

However, you don’t want to be in Phoenix in the summer, from May to October. Temperatures hover above 105 degrees just about every day, reaching up to 120s occasionally.

July and August might bring torrential rain, with accompanying flash floods, or dust storms, when visibility is near zero and city streets turn into sandy beaches.

Accommodations are cheaper though and the city has plenty of indoor activities and water parks to choose from, so if you need to be here in the summer, you can still enjoy the city.

How To Spend One Day In Phoenix

If you fly into Phoenix, and only have a day (or less) to explore the city, you might not even need to rent a car.

You can spend a whole day in and around Downtown Phoenix, and still not see everything it offers. To get there, take the sky train at the airport, then connect to the light rail that takes you downtown.

Here, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to explore the unique blend of culture and desert environment the city offers.

The following are just the highlights of things you can do in one day in Phoenix downtown.

1. Visit the S’edav Va’aki Museum and Archaeological Site

Pueblo Grande Museum: Interior of a pit house
Interior of a pit house at the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Site

Close enough to the airport to visit by just taking the Sky Rail, the S’edav Va’aki Museum and Archaeological Site offers the perfect introduction to the city. You are visiting the remains of the ancient city that stood here long before Phoenix was on any map.

This way, you start your visit by exploring the ancient history of Phoenix, and learn that people lived here long before air conditioning was invented. As you walk through the structures, you’ll learn to appreciate the ancient people of the desert, nicknamed the Canal Makers, whose canals not only brought water to their ancient homes, but are still in use today.

Besides the canals, many of which we still use, they also “invented” air conditioning. By building their homes partially underground, they kept hem cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. They also knew how to grow plants in the desert – again, thanks to their canals.

You can count on spending about an hour here before getting on the light rail to head over Downtown Phoenix.

2. Visit the Heard Museum

Kachinas in the Heard Museum
Kachina collection at the Heard Museum

Next, you might want to learn about the present native inhabitants of the city, by visiting theHeard Museum. Dedicated to the Native Americans of the Southwest and other indigenous people around the world, the museum earned a world-wide is recognition for the quality of its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Established in 1929, the Heard is one of the oldest museums in Phoenix. Their extensive collection of Hopikachina dolls left me in awe three decades ago, but now the museum offers so much more. The collection expanded and became part of the exhibit calledHOME, featuring artifacts that represent the concept of home for the indigenous nations of the Southwest, from ancient times to today.

In contrast, the exhibit called Away from Hometells the story of the American Indian boarding schools, an awful moment in American history when the US Government forced Native American children to live away from home and give up their culture, language, and identity.

Besides the permanent exhibits, which include the Around the World one, showcasing artifacts that tell the stories of other indigenous people from around the world, the museum also has temporary exhibits showcasing contemporary works of Indigenous artists and artisans.

And, if you are there at the right time, you can watch contemporary and traditional Native American dancers and musicians perform in their auditorium and hear their legends and stories right from the source.

3. Explore Heritage Square and Visit the Arizona Science Center

Arizona Science Center
The Arizona Science Center

A visit to the Historic Heritage Square might still fit into a day in Phoenix, where you’ll see theRosson House, a fully restored Queen Anne Victorian House dating from 1895.

Heritage Square also offers several choices for lunch, including the popular Pizzeria Bianco.

The main reason you want to be here, though, is to visit theArizona Science Center, an exciting hands-on museum for all ages. Exhibits range from mechanical and electromagnetic displays to interactions with forces of nature, the human body, and experimenting with the digital world. You can easily spend a whole afternoon here, especially if you are visiting with kids.

4. Take a Walk at Papago Park and Watch the Sunset from the Hole-in-the-Rock

Even if you have only one day in Phoenix, take a walk in Papago Park, to experience the unique desert environment.
Desert trail in Papago Park

You can’t leave the city without a walk in the desert. The area closest to Downtown that showcases the unique features of the Sonoran Desert is Papago Park. The easiest way to get there from downtown is to take an Uber, though you can also take a city bus. At Papago Park, you can find trails of any length and difficulty, and no matter which one you choose, you’ll enjoy the surroundings of the desert landscape, with its unique rock formations and cacti, even a lake.

No matter which trail you choose, try to end your day on top of the Hole-in-the-Rock for a gorgeous view of the city at sunset. It’s worth it, even if it’s crowded (which unfortunately, it almost always is).

One Day In Phoenix If You Drive

Octobasse in the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix, Arizona
In the Musical instrument Museum

If you drive to Phoenix, you have more choices to explore the city and its surroundings in one day.

5. Visit MIM

You can choose one of the museums above, then drive north and visit the Musical Instrument Museum. Unique in the world, the MIM showcases thousands of musical instruments from all over the world. Here, you can learn about different cultures and their background through music and dance. And, you’ll “travel” through all the continents and countries of the world and experience traditional and modern music and dance throughout.

If you visit Phoenix in the winter, you will enjoy hiking on a desert trail, anywhere in the city.
A desert trail in Phoenix

Or, if you visit Phoenix between late fall and early spring, you can drive up to any of the wilderness areas in town for a hike in the desert. For an in-depth understanding of the desert environment in and around the city, choose North Mountain Preserve, at its 7th Street Entrance, where a Visitor Center showcases exhibits that explain the flora and fauna of this unique landscape. The trails in this area are also some of my favorites.

You definitely can’t miss a walk in the desert in early spring when wildflowers bloom, offering a colorful show.

Useful Tips for Visiting Phoenix

Although I offered suggestions for spending one full day in Phoenix, to be able to fully explore the city and its surroundings, you should plan to spend more time here. Th best way to explore Arizona, is to spend your first day in Phoenix, take a road trip, and spend another day or two in the city before leaving.

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When flying anywhere, check several different sites to find the best deals. Unless you know what airline you are using use (and have a credit card with points from that airline), you could checkCheapOairandWayAwayfor deals.

Although you have public transportation available downtown, if you plan on leaving the area, you need to rent a car.

To compare prices of different car rental companies,Discover Carsis a great place to start. Or, use

If you stay in Arizona for more than one day, you need to find accommodations. You can use Trivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place throughBooking.comor VRBO.

Or, just useTripAdvisorto find the best places to stay, and best things to do, or book hotels through the site.

More ideas of things to do, places to visit during your Phoenix (and Arizona) Visit:

Things to do in Phoenix during a long layover

Hiking Trails in Phoenix

Phoenix Museums to Visit

Visit The Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

Phoenix Landmarks: The Orpheum Theater

Where to look for desert wildflowers if you visit Phoenix in spring

Look for wildflowers at the Sonoran Desert Preserve in North Phoenix in spring

Hike to Sonoran Desert in Phoenix if you visit in autumn

11 Great Day Trips From Phoenix in the Summer

30 day trip destinations from Phoenix – in any season

15 National Parks and Monuments in Arizona to Visit

19 Ancient Ruins in Arizona to visit

Info Box

Emese has been a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, for the past 30+ years. An avid traveler and explorer, she explored not only Arizona, but all of the Southwest with her family on multiple road trips during this time. Besides local insights to Phoenix, her articles about the state and the Southwest reflect an intimate knowledge of the area based on first-hand experiences. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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