4 Phoenix Arts & Culture Must-Sees (With Cheap Eats)

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Phoenix, Arizona has much to offer in the way of arts & culture, both of which have been shaped by the wild desert and its unique history. It was my second trip in as many years to the sixth largest city in the US, and I’m beginning to understand what makes this city tick. Generous public funding of the arts, a year-round amicable climate, and some of the friendliest locals around make Phoenix a perfect destination to indulge in all kinds of culture. For trip-planning advice, consult Visit Phoenix for more information.

It’s a spread out itinerary, covering many of the unique neighbourhoods within Phoenix and its suburbs. Thanks to my Roam Mobility Talk+Text+Data plan, using GPS to get places was a snap. If there’s one drawback, greater Phoenix isn’t blessed with a surplus of public transportation options. You’ll probably be driving to many of these, but traffic is light compared to other major American cities, and parking is plentiful and frequently free.

At the end of each attraction, I’ve also included a few quick’n’cheap eats selections based on proximity. I figure that consuming all that culture will leave you with a fierce appetite.

1) Taliesin West

TaliesinWest03_gobeirnePhoto Credit: Wikipedia

Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘summer camp’ is on the outskirts of the city, accessible only by escorted tour. It’s fully worth it, as knowledgable guides illuminate both the buildings and the eccentric life of this master architect. Illuminate is a good description, as much of Wright’s work revolved around the play of shadow and light. The mimicry of nature and use of local materials blends the buildings into their surroundings, making the achievements much less noticeable to the unaided eye.

The 90-minute highlight tour is their most popular, and strikes a good balance as a general primer without resorting to architecture-speak. For the building geeks however, there are also tours that run at least twice that length, with a deeper examination of detail that may elude (and possibly bore?) the rest of us.

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The experience was enough to whet my interest about the rather controversial Frank Lloyd Wright, most recently known for his design of the Guggenheim Museum, which opened to both controversy and fanfare after his death. His exhaustive legacy means that there are buildings in practically every almost every pocket of America. For more information on tours and upcoming special events at Taliesin West, consult the website.

Eats: Craving that fresh sushi yet, Vancouverite? If you’re going this far out anyway, drop in on mom-and-pop joint Hiro Sushi. The traditional nigiri is gorgeous, given that Phoenix’s restaurant scene is currently fixated on an ‘Asian fusion’ craze at the moment. Yawn. Vancouver is ages ahead in Asian cuisine. Have your fill of Mexican instead.

Oh wait, there is one bizarre Mexican-Chinese takeaway place that is worth your curiosity – the aptly named Chino Bandido. The food can be greasy, but it’s an interesting fusion twist that actually works. This one’s a bit further out of the way, but so are most things from secluded Taliesin West. And I did mention that you were in for lots of driving.

2) Mesa Arts Center

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Vancouver has nothing close to the sheer scale and potential of the Mesa Arts Center (MAC), a landmark of the otherwise up-and-coming city. Mesa ends up playing second fiddle to Phoenix, but initiatives like their generous community-building and arts spending set this large suburb apart in my mind. In fact, Mesa has quite the population base, and a large contingent of families and culture lovers that support things like taking a large chunk of public money to build such a landmark arts structure. Consult the Visit Mesa website for more information.

I toured through the four theatres – everywhere from grand concert hall to the innovative black box setup. The space is used by the various Resident Companies, as well as rented to many other local groups. There are also classes of every single discipline and age group, many of which are subsidized by the Center. The collaborative, support-our-artists atmosphere also extends to the unique gift shop – all of the wares are made by local artists, and frequently there’s an artist available to demo or tell you about the work on display.

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MAC also plays host to some big name acts in their largest concert hall, canyon-inspired and graceful. David Sedaris of This American Life was on the week I was in town, and December’s big act is Melissa Etherbridge. There are many varieties of acts in between, from music to comedy to kids-friendly, all curated by a single bookings manager. Of special note is the very popular National Geographic series, where photographers come in and talk about their work, and what it took to get the shot. It always sells out.

Jail 3

If you’re in the area anyway, the Arizona Museum of Natural History is worth a quick peek through, notable for its real jail exhibit. But if you’re looking for the ultimate education on the cultural history of Arizona, then skip on to the next suggestion on this list.

For the truly budget-conscious, the Mesa Arts Center, Natural History Museum, and i.d.e.a Museum are all free every first Sunday of the month, as part of the Target 3 for Free. It’s one of the many ways that the center gives back to the community. Another way is the center’s ever-popular festivals, which are largely free of charge and accessible to the general public. The next is spark! during Spring Break in March, when thousands are expected to gather at Mesa’s downtown arts hub.

Eats: Worth mentioning in downtown Mesa is a family restaurant devoted to the art of Mexican empanadas – savoury, deep-fried pockets containing different choices of fillings inside. At República Empanada, three will satisfy most for a quick lunch in between culture outings. Duck out back after your meal and see one of Mesa’s newest citizen-led initiatives – a blooming community garden.

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Photo Credit: Republica Empanada Facebook.

3) The Heard Museum

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The Heard Museum is a fantastic collection of everything Native American that goes beyond pure collection and categorization. I’m frequently overwhelmed at the vastness of the collection at the MOA, but Heard takes a different – and welcome – approach. A great use of space and selection allows the pieces to truly breathe and our eyes to focus on what’s truly important. Themed narratives weave into different exhibits, allowing for a focus on stories and advocation.

Apache Kids AfterPhoto Credit: Arizona Historical Foundation

The haunting Indian School Experience especially stayed with me, a fascinating exhibit that has many parallels with our First Nations legacy in BC. What was different about Heard’s exhibit was the carry-through of the experience to present-day, instead of relegating the experiences to historical distance.

Eats: I’ve been told that the museum’s Courtyard Café (lunch only) serves up some tasty food, faithful to Native American heritage. I didn’t get a chance to try it out, but the casual Coffee Cantina wasn’t great – specialized coffee drinks were made out of a machine, and the prickly pear ice tea was too sweet to my taste.

4) Desert Botanical Garden

9466530967_98aa195353_kPhoto Credit: Adam Rodriguez

The desert can be an unknown, scary place to West Coasters, so face your fears at the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden. Traversing through the different desert environments was a great way to learn more about the terrain and its particular beauty. While most of the signs were satisfactory in the educational component, I wish the Garden gave a bigger focus on any ongoing conservation and preservation efforts.

14214653329_826f237082_kPhoto Credit: Adam Rodriguez

While seasonal, one of my favourite moments was at dusk at the Mariposa Monarca (Monarch butterflies) exhibit. Seeing hundreds flit about, roost, and err, mate was a true highlight. The staff inside are enthusiastic with their explanations of the butterfly lifestyle, migratory patterns, and other random facts. Exhibitions change all the time, so consult the website for more information.

Phoenix in the Spring. Shot from South Mountain.

And if you’re really ambitious, consider doing Phoenix’s signature hike, Camelback Mountain, to see if you can spot different flora and fauna along the way. It’ll take your mind off the steep inclines. The locals are split on the ‘best’ way up, but having done both, I’d recommend the Cholla Trail – it’s much easier on the knees on the way down, if you can handle the more technical ascent. Oh, and if you can, go at daybreak. Even experienced hikers may have some difficulty with the added heat, and there’s precious little shade along the trail.

Eats: Relatively close by is the only restaurant I returned to this year: The Blind Pig. It’s the only place I know that does ‘pig wings’ that are more delicious than most normal wings.

Hey pig wings, we meat again. One year later, and you haven't changed. Thank god. #myphx #phoenix #dinner

A photo posted by Cecilia Lu (@theatre604) on

Or, swing further into Old Scottsdale for the ultra-healthy stylings at ChopShop, a local protein-bowl-and-power-smoothie institution (think meat-friendly version of The Naam, but better). Just around the corner is Yogurtland, a glorious froyo chain that makes me weep over how far Vancouver froyo concepts still need to go.

Healthiest meal of the trip. #shrimpbowl #greens #healthy

A photo posted by Cecilia Lu (@theatre604) on

Finally, I’m not usually into Italian under such hot temperatures, but North at the Kierland Commons shopping district has a delicious array of pasta and hearty salads.

Disclosure: Hosted by Visit Phoenix and Visit Mesa, passes and tours provided by venues. US data/talk/text plan provided by Roam Mobility. This review was neither paid for nor expected, and consists of my own thoughts of the experience.

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Cecilia Lu Arts & Culture Editor at Vancity Buzz. Cecilia a sucker for great indie theatre and anything really geeky. Lethal drink of choice: single malt whisky. cecilia[at]vancitybuzz[dot]com
@CeciliaLu

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