Octobasse in the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix, Arizona

5 Great Phoenix Museums You Will Actually Enjoy

Most people don’t expect to find world-class museums in Phoenix, Arizona. One of the youngest metropolitan cities in the Wild Southwest, Phoenix is known for its desert environment and giant saguaros, and maybe as a gateway to Scottsdale, the high-end shopping center of the Southwest, but not much else.

Yet the capital city of Arizona is home to some of the best museums in the world. Depending on your interests, some of them might even make Phoenix worth a summer visit. If you have to be here in the summer, several fun Phoenix museums can help make your visit worth it, adding an extra dimension to your poolside days.

But even if you visit the city in its prime, during winter or the shoulder seasons, you can add a few museums to your itinerary, in case you need a break from the perfect weather and sunny skies. Though the city has miles upon miles of trails in the desert, you can’t be outdoors all the time. When you need a cultural activity, the Phoenix museums offer a great alternative to the trails. The following are only a few of the best museums in Phoenix.

The Musical Instrument Museum

One of my favorite Phoenix museums, the Musical Instrument Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. Even its architecture reminds you of a musical instrument; the building itself looks like a piano. Home to thousands of musical instruments from all over the world, MIM showcases them along with dance costumes and recordings of playing them in their original settings. I’ve visited MIM often since they first opened, and I never get tired of it; I always find something new and exciting there.

The Geographical Galleries

Walking through the Geographical Galleries, you can travel the world through music, without getting on a plane. The individual exhibits showcase the musical instruments and dance costumes used in each country. A map, included into the exhibits, helps pinpoint the area you are “visiting”. And while there, you can read about the history of the music and customs the exhibited instruments are used for. Listening to the music played and watching performers on a screen helps transport you to the other country.

Exhibit in the Musical instrument Museum of Phoenix
Travel to Asia through the exhibits at the Musical Instrument Museum

Other Galleries

Replacing geographical travel with time travel, the Mechanical Music Gallery showcases instruments ranging from the most ancient to the modern ones, including the mechanical, self-playing ones.

Other exhibits demonstrate the instrument making process, including the workshops and materials used.

Highlighting some of the most influential musicians of our times, the Artist Gallery showcases specific artists and their instruments, recordings, life stories, and other paraphernalia.

After traveling through music in space and time, you can’t leave without stopping at the Experience Gallery. Here, you can touch and use the displayed instruments, while making your own music.

Outdoors Garden

When the weather is nice, outdoor time in the garden is a welcome break from all the instruments. A short walk outside in the shade of paloverde trees helps you enjoy the perfect winter weather.

This is one museum in Phoenix that even as a long-time resident I never tire of visiting, during any season.

Virtual Tours

One of the best museums in Arizona, not only Phoenix, MIM is definitely worth a visit. But if you can’t, you can still explore it online through the Google virtual tours. You can walk through all the galleries online, visiting each of them, enjoying a personal tour.

2. The Heard Museum

Another favorite of mine, and one of the very best museums in Phoenix, and in all of Arizona, the Heard Museum is dedicated to the Native Americans of the Southwest and indigenous people around the world.

Phoenix Heard Museum
The inner court of the Heard Museum

Showcasing Native American artifacts, the museum offers different exhibits while teaching about their history and culture. Their katsina doll collection has always been the highlight of a museum visit for me. It is also their oldest collection.

When I first visited the Heard Museum, about three decades ago, all I remember from it is the extensive katsina doll collection. It was the reason I kept returning to the museum while it expanded its exhibits over the years. They also offer now more hands-on experiences.

Extending the katsina collection became part of their permanent exhibit called Home.

The Permanent Exhibit HOME

The highlight of the museum, HOME presents all the things that define “home” for the indigenous people of the Southwest. You’ll see here a full-size Navajo Hogan, a Hopi piki room, a Yaqui ramada, and a Pueblo oven. The exhibit includes cultural pieces, as well, including the famous Hopi Katsina dolls, but also Navajo textiles, Zuni and Navajo jewelry, Southwestern ceramics, and baskets from the Southwest, California and the Northwest. Audio presentations of stories of the Native People offer a great way to learn about their traditions and their definition of home.

Hands-on and Other Galleries

Hands-on activities in the “It’s Your Turn: A Home Studio”, a favorite of all visiting children, deepen their learning. They can make Zuni jewelry, a dragonfly, a 3-D Navajo hogan, and a calendar stick.

Besides exhibits showcasing the culture and history of the Native people of the Southwest, the museum’s Around the World Collection displays works by indigenous people from other areas.

The Boarding School Exhibit

However, the museum understands that it is also important to acknowledge the dark side of history. Upstairs, the boarding school exhibit tells the horrific stories of the indigenous children taken from their families and forced to attend these schools. Cut off from their homes and families, they were forced to renounce their culture, their ways of living. A depressing exhibit, it is nevertheless important to visit. Even if it makes you angry or sad, or guilty for being white.

A Way to Learn About Native Nations in the Southwest and Around the World

After walking through the Boarding School exhibit, I like to return to the ground floor for another look at the HOME exhibit. This leaves me with a more positive outlook, helping me realize that the indigenous people still kept their traditions after all they went through.

And if you time your visit to the Heard Museum during any Native festivals, you can experience first-hand some of these traditions, through music, dance and storytelling.

3. The S’edav Va’aki Museum (formerly Pueblo Grande Museum)

From the present-day Native people, another Phoenix museum offer a way to go farther back in history, and learn about their ancestors. Dedicated to the archaeology of the area, the S’edav Va’aki Museum is another unique and fun museum in Phoenix.

S’edav Va’aki Museum offers a look into the lives of the ancient people of the Sonoran Desert, who lived here thousands of years before air conditioning was invented. Known as the Canal Makers, they were some of the best engineers of the ancient world, able to figure out how to bring water into the dry Valley of the Sun.

Start Your visit with the Indoor Gallery

The Indoor Gallery is the best way to start your visit. Here, the exhibits help understand the ancient process of canal making. You can see the length of the ancient canals on a map, and realize that we still use sections of them today. Ancient pottery with elaborate designs, jewelry, and tools, and the diorama of a miniature ancient city bring the past alive.

Before heading outside, stop at the Hands-On Gallery to understand archaeology and ancient artifacts better. The gallery even offers children and adults alike the chance to make their own ancient artifacts.

Of course, the highlight of this museum is the archaeological site. Because most of it is outside, this is one museum in Phoenix best experienced in the winter or shoulder seasons.

The Archaeological Site of S’edav Va’aki

The first outdoor exhibit you walk through is the Hohokam Garden. If you live in the desert and ever tried to grow anything here, you understand how hard it is, and also understand how ingenious these people were. The garden showcases the ancient crops the Hohokam cultivated with the help of their canal irrigation system.

Next, the walk through the site brings you to the ball court, also used as a gathering place for market days. Following the path, you see an ancient pit house. Filled with artifacts, the pithouse is open to walk through. On a hot day, it is surprisingly cool inside. Looking for an explanation, you’ll notice that it is built partially underground. Before air-conditioning, this was the way they ensured the house stayed cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

the interior of a pithouse at the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix
The interior of a pithouse at the Pueblo Grande Museum

Finally, at the end of the trail, you’ll see the canal we still use today. It is the same one the ancient canal-makers built.

4. The Phoenix Art Museum

Opened in 1959, the Phoenix Art Museum is the largest of the art museums in Arizona and in the Southwestern US. With plenty of permanent collections and a few temporary ones, the museum is always a great place to spend an afternoon, especially in the summer. Naturally, you can still visit it in the winter, but it’s my favorite hideout from the summer sun.

Phoenix Art Museum lobby. Photo by Airi Katsuta; curtesy of the Phx Art Museum.
The Phoenix Art Museum lobby. Photo curtesy of the Phx Art Museum

The museum’s extensive permanent collection spans through time and space, showcasing old classic to contemporary and modern artworks from different areas of the world.

Contemporary and Modern Art Collections

The collection includes both contemporary and modern art. If you are wondering about the difference between the two, you are not alone. It is mainly about the time when the artwork was created. The contemporary collection features works of art created since the 1960s, including all mediums, from paintings and sculptures to new digital and media art.

The modern art collection features works of art just a little bit older, created in the first half of the 20th century. It includes works representative of the major movements of the time, including Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction, and the early Abstract Expressionism.

Asian, Latin American, European, and American Collections

One wing on the first floor houses the museum’s extensive Asian collection, featuring both historic and modern art works. The exhibits take you through a thousand years of history from India to China, Japan, Iran, Nepal, Tibet, Korea, Thailand. From archaeological objects to sculptures, porcelain works, and paintings, the exhibited pieces represent the art history of the region.

Besides the Asia collection, you’ll find the extensive Latin American collection in the museum. The art works span in time and space through from Spanish colonialism to contemporary art in all the geographic regions of Latin America. The religious art pieces, portraits, and historical objects date from as early as 1665. But modern and contemporary Mexican art pieces are also present, including works by Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Traveling further, the European collection features works from the 14th to the 19th centuries, and showcases works from the Renaissance to Impressionism.

For art work created geographically closer, visit the American and Western American collections. The works featured in these galleries date from the 18th through the 20th century. You’ll see art works of all forms, from portraits to landscape. You’ll find American art of the Southwest here, adding a local feature to the collections of the museum.

Fashion Design, and Miniature Rooms

For two unique experiences visit the Fashion Design collection and the Thorne Rooms. The Fashion Collection features clothing and accessories from the 17th century to the present.

The Thorne Rooms display 20 of the miniatures created between 1932 and 1940 under the direction of Narcissa Niblack Thorne. The Phoenix Art Museum owns 20 of the existing Thorne miniature rooms, on display in this gallery. Created as part of a set of about 100, the miniature rooms document the interior design of Europe and the Americas from the late 13th century to 1930s. offer a peek into fully furnished miniature rooms, replicas of those found in Europe and the Americas.

Temporary Exhibits

Like any museum, the Phoenix Art Museum also houses temporary exhibits. Displayed on the first floor, they are usually my favorites, always interesting, always new. On view for a limited time, they offer a glimpse into the international world of art, from ancient artifacts to contemporary art works.

Virtual Visits

One of the best art museums in Arizona, the Phoenix Art Museum is worth a visit. But if you can’t make it in person, you can also enjoy the museum’s exhibits online, through its YouTube channel. Besides virtually walking through the exhibits, you can watch short films, lectures, and artist talks.

Other Art Museums in Phoenix Area

Greater Phoenix is home to several other art museums, all worth a visit if you are interested in the fine arts.

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, as its name suggests, is dedicated to contemporary art, architecture, and design. Offering several innovative ways to experience art, besides the traditional paintings and sculptures, it helps redefine your idea of what art is.

Western Spirit, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, showcases paintings, sculptures, artifacts and interactive exhibits dedicated to the Wild West. Here, you’ll see Native American pottery and blankets along with cowboy artifacts.

You’ll find the West Valley Art Museum in the Peoria City Hall building, showcases besides traditional art pieces, experimental installations and world costumes from over 60 countries.

The ASU Art Museum, on the University’s campus, is also open to the public, showcasing new and experimental art works.

5. The Arizona Science Center

Five stories high, theArizona Science Centeris the largest and most interactive museum in Phoenix. One full day is hardly enough to explore it. A great learning environment, the Science Center features hands-on exhibits from all branches of science. Besides the exhibits, it also features a planetarium, and a large IMAX theater.

The Science Musem

Like most other museums, the Science Center also has both permanent exhibits and temporary ones. The permanent exhibits explore all branches of science.

First Floor Exhibits

The first floor is dedicated to sciences dealing with the human body and our surroundings. Here, you can explore the human body and mind in the All About Me exhibit. Walk through a working human stomach, hear your actual heartbeat, test your heart muscles, watch the way our body responds to germs, among other things.

Also on this level you’ll find the W.O.N.D.E.R. exhibit, teaching you everything about the human brain. Here, you’ll find a touchable brain that looks and feels like the real thing. And if you get overwhelmed by everything you learn al at once, you’ll find an opportunity to take a “brain break” with one of three MindUp mindfulness exercises.

The Flight Zone exhibit offers a hands-on learning experience about the science of flight. Walk through an airplane, simulate flighing, and try your hand in designing new models of both planes and helicopters.

Second Floor Exhibits

You’ll find more traditional sciences on the second level. Play with electric circuits and build your own. Or watch how magnets move objects on the electromagnetic workbench. This is also where you can play with a prism, creating colored light. Or go for a ride in a pulley car. Play a tug of war using a pulley to understand its advantage. You can even experiment with a bed of nails and balloons.

Third Floor Exhibits

The highlights of the Forces of Nature Gallery are the simulations of a hurricane, a tornado, a volcanic eruption, and a monsoon storm. The exhibit also offers opportunities to understand weather patterns, and talk to scientists studying the forces of nature and weather.

Here, you’ll find the Digital World Exhibit where you get to play with all things digital, and Solarville, where you understand renewable energy.

Other Phoenix Museums Worth Visiting

I only included my favorite museums in Phoenix in the above list. However, the city has many more, and you can find one for any taste.

Another science-related museum, the Arizona Challenger Space Center offers exhibits relating to space exploration.

History Museums in Phoenix Area

The Arizona Capitol Museum or the Tempe History Museum are both perfect for those interested in the state’s history. However, those who want to know a bit more about the history of the region, beyond the state of Arizona will find the River of Time Museum in Fountain Hills of interest.

Useful Things to Know:

  1. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)

    Showcases thousands of musical instruments from around the world, along with recordings of them being used in their original setting, dance costumes, and stories. Address: 4725 E. Mayo Blvd. Phoenix, 85050

  2. The Heard Museum

    Dedicated to the Native Americans of the Southwest and other indigenous people around the world, it showcases artifacts and exhibits teaching about their history and culture. Address: 2301 N. Central Sve, Phoenix

  3. The S’edav Va’aki Museum

    Unique as being both an archaeological dig and museum, S’edav Va’aki Museum (formerly Pueblo Grande) showcases a village of the ancient people of the desert. Address: 4619 E. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ

  4. The Phoenix Art Museum

    It is the largest art museum in Arizona and in the Southwestern US. Address: 1625 N. Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ, 85004

  5. The Arizona Science Center, Phoenix

    The Arizona Science Center the largest and most interactive museum in Phoenix.Address: 600 E. Washington Ave, Phoenix, 85004

best museums in Phoenix, AZ
Best Phoenix museums
5 Museums Worth a Visit in Phoenix
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