The Heard Museum, Phoenix

11 Fun Things to Do During a Long Layover in Phoenix

Though it is always better to take a direct flight to your destination, it is not always possible. Layovers, either planned or because your connecting flight is delayed, are inevitable for longer trips. When you fly through Sky Harbor airport, a layover in Phoenix doesn’t have to be miserable.

In fact, you can plan a trip with a long layover in Phoenix to visit some of the best sites in the city. In contrast with most international airports, Sky Harbor is close enough to the city center to offer opportunities to explore some of its sites during a layover.

But even during short layovers you can find things to do right in the airport. The following are just a few things you can do either at the airport or close to it in Phoenix.

Things to Do at the Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix

For relatively short layovers, up to three to four hours, you can find plenty of things to do right at Sky Harbor Airport. Known and advertised as the friendliest airport, everything about it strives to make your layover comfortable and memorable.

1. Visit the Phoenix Airport Museum

No matter which terminal you land in, you’ll find an exhibit of the Phoenix Airport Museum.

The airport owns and exhibits about 900 pieces of art in all media throughout its terminals, its car rental lobby, and the Sky Train stations. The collection highlights the cultural diversity of Arizona, showcasing works from a variety of local artists, using different artistic styles and mediums.

2. Have a taste of local cuisine – or any other

If your layover includes mealtimes, you have plenty of options to choose from in the Phoenix airport. Sky Harbor offers some of the best airport food in the country, and it’s not even coming with a hefty price tag.

Over twenty local restaurants are set up in Terminal 4, ranging from authentic Mexican to well-known local dining spots, from all-American meat-based restaurants to vegan and vegetarian choices.

You’ll find something no matter what your preference. And, depending on how long your layover is, you can choose from sit-down places where you can take your time, or fast, casual dining.

3. Do Some Shopping, or Window-Shopping

The Phoenix airport doesn’t lack local places to shop for souvenirs, either. Both Terminals 3 and 4 feature a few quality stores where you can buy local or Southwestern merchandise.

Things To Do Outside The Airport

But you don’t need to stay in the airport when you have along layover in Phoenix.

You can easily get to some of the best destinations of the city to spend you extra time in, regardless if you have an hour or eight til your next flight. The following are several ideas to explore the city, listed by the place’s distance from the airport.

4. Visit S’edav Va’aki Museum

If you have three hours or more, you can comfortably visit the S’edav Va’aki Museum, only 1.8 miles from the airport. You can even take the Sky Train to it, no need for taxi or Uber.

You can easily visit the S'edav Va'aki Museum during a long layover in Phoenix.
Interior of an ancient pithouse at S’edav Va’aki Museum

You can spend an hour or two here, learning about the earliest inhabitants of the desert who made a home here long before Phoenix existed. Check out the indoor exhibit, then head out to see the archaeological site.

You’ll see how the earliest inhabitants of the desert made a living in this inhospitable land. You’ll also understand why they are nicknamed the canal makers, and where they “disappeared”. Hint: they didn’t.

From the site, you’ll see a portion of the canal bringing water to the residents of Phoenix today. You’ll marvel of the ingenuity of the ancients, since they dug out the old version of the same canal.

You are so close to the airport, you’ll see planes taking off, so if that reminds you that it’s time to head back, go catch your next flight.

5. Spend Time at the Phoenix Heritage and Science Park

If you have over four hours between flights, you have time to get to the Heritage and Science Park. Only 3.3 miles from the airport, you can take an Uber or a taxi to get there in about five minutes.

Here, you can visit the Science Museum (though you’d need a few hours or up to half a day to really enjoy it) or the Rosson House. Or just take a walk in the square, and have lunch (or dinner) at one of the restaurants there.

6. Visit the Rosson House

A fully restored 1895 Victorian House, the the Rosson House doesn’t seem to fit into the desert landscape. So odd, and out of place, it is still interesting, giving you a glimpse of the history of Phoenix as a city.

If you happen to be there at the right time (and you have an extra hour), you might catch a tour and walk through the house.

7. Spend Time at the Arizona Science Center

Personally, I would rather spend my time in the Arizona Science Center, across the square. Although you’d need a long time to fully enjoy it, the science museum is one of the best in the city. It would be especially fun for kids, though you might have a hard time getting them to leave to catch your next flight.

8. Visit the Heard Museum

If you’d rather take the opportunity to learn about the indigenous people of Arizona and the Southwest, head over to the Heard Museum instead, one of the best museums in town.

A bit farther, but still, only about 5 miles from the airport, you can do it during a long layover in Phoenix. A taxi or Uber can get you there in ten minutes.

You can visit The Heard Museum during a long layover in Phoenix
View the Heard Museum’s collection of Kachina dolls

Here, you’ll see the largest collection of Kachina dolls you can imagine. Other notable exhibits include a full-size Navajo hogan, a Hopi piki room, and a Yaqui ramada.

9. Visit the Phoenix Art Museum

If fine arts are more your thing, you can visit the Phoenix Art Museum instead, next door to the Heard Museum. Here, you can browse through the museum’s permanent collection or temporary exhibits according to your timing.

Inside the Phoenix Art Museum
In the Phoenix Art Museum

The museum’s permanent collection includes Western and Latin American, Asian, European artworks, from traditional to modern and contemporary to photography. If it’s the history of fashion you’re interested in, the museum has a collection of that, too.

You can easily spend a few hours here before returning to the airport for your next flight.

10. Take a Walk at Papago Park

However, if you have a layover in Phoenix during the winter months, skip everything else and go take a walk at Papago Park. Only 5 miles from the airport, you can get there in ten minutes with an Uber or taxi, and you’ll feel like you just got an unexpected mini-vacation.

Chances are, it was cold and grey when you got on your flight. Unless it’s the middle of the night or one of those rare rainy days in Phoenix, you want to be outside in the desert.

Yes, even in the middle of the city you’ll find a patch of wilderness, where you can experience the wild environment of the Sonoran Desert. The trails through Papago Park are flat and easy, showcasing native plants, and rock formations.

Papago Park, Phoenix
the trail to the Hole-in-the-Rock

Walk up to the iconic Hole-in-the-Rock and look over the city. You might not want to leave.

On your flight out you might find yourself planning a move to the Valley of the Sun. At the least though, you’ll have an amazing experience, and feel refreshed, ready for the next stretch of your trip.

11. Visit the Botanical Garden or the Phoenix Zoo

And if your layover is especially long, while you’re there, go across the street and visit either the Botanical Garden or the Phoenix Zoo.

View of the rocks at Papago Park from the Phoenix Zoo
Mountain goats in the Phoenix Zoo

Since you’re from out of town, the Botanical Garden might be more interesting, because you’ll see and learn first-hand about the plants of the Sonoran Desert, which might change your view of what a desert is.

Tips for getting the most out of your long layover in Phoenix

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If you know you have enough time to visit some of the attractions above, you can buy your ticket before you even leave the plane. Use Tiquetsto find the best deals for either one of the Phoenix attractions.

In the past few years flight delays became more common. Which means, you might get stuck in Phoenix if you miss your connecting flight. Of course, the city has plenty to offer, just take it as an opportunity to enjoy it. However, you need to deal with the airlines, and you should be able to get compensation for your delays. AirHelpis a great resource when this happens. They help you get compensation from the airline, you don’t have to spend hours or even days trying to get it yourself from the airline. They do take a cut, but in my book, it’s worth not having to deal with the hassle yourself.

And if you fell in love with the desert and Phoenix during your long layover, you can learn more about the city I call home…

Explore the desert in and around the city in the winter on some spectacular trails.

Or explore the best nature preserves and city parks in the city.

If you plan your next visit for spring, read about some of the best trails to look for desert flowers in North Phoenix.

Learn the best way to spend one day in Phoenix.

Visit landmarks like the Orpheum theater and the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix.

If you enjoyed the Heard Museum and the Art Museum, learn about several other museums in Phoenix,especially about the world-renowned Musical Instrument Museum, for your next visit.

And for your next vacation in town, find some of the best day trips from Phoenix to explore Arizona.

About the Author

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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