Free Things to do in Phoenix, Arizona

Free Things to do in Phoenix, Arizona

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Arizona, especially Phoenix, Antelope Canyon and Sedona, has been on our bucket list for many years. So when my nephew asked me to attend his graduation ceremony in Phoenix last May, I immediately booked a last minute flight even if I only had three days in Phoenix. I knew that there are hundreds of attractions in Arizona’s capital. But since Kerstin couldn’t join me, and we had already planned to travel along the Ancient Silk Road in China two months later, I didn’t want my short trip to Phoenix to break the bank. So I decided to visit only the places in town that don’t require admission fees. Besides, I only had two days to explore around, so why not see what Phoenix has to offer for free, before hitting the fancy places! If you plan to visit Arizona’s capital on the budget, I highly recommend you these free things to do in Phoenix.

 

Hike around Papago Park and stop at the Hole-in-the-Rock

 

 

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Spreading across both cities of Phoenix and Tempe, Papago Park is more than your usual municipal park. With its 6 square kilometres, it covers a lot of hiking trails, bicycle paths, picnic areas and lakes. But also amazing geological formations, such as the Hole-in-the-Rock. This naturally eroded rock formation of conglomerate sandstone is also an archaeological site. The inhabitants of this place, called Hohokam who lived in the Salt River Valley from around 1 AD to 1450 AD, used this geological feature as a calendar devise. The ray of light coming through the hole in the ceiling of the rock-shelter change positions on the floor throughout the year. That was how the Hohokam people could mark the summer and winter solstices, as well as the equinoxes, by grinding a bedrock metate slick at the exact location where the ray of lights fell.

 

I put Papago Park on the top of my list of free things to do in Phoenix, mainly because I wanted to start my first day in this city with a good outdoor hike. After all, Arizona’s capital is also known as the Valley of the Sun. So why not take advantage of the sunny weather in Phoenix right from the start of my trip, right? Papago Park also features a large zoo, a Desert Botanical Garden, and even a fire museum. But these attractions are not free.

 

Watch sunset from the “A” Mountain

 

 

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Since the purpose of my visit in Phoenix was to attend my nephew’s graduation, it was natural for me to explore his university. The Arizona State University has four campuses, and the one my nephew went to is in Tempe, east of Phoenix. It’s actually the largest one of the four campuses, and also the original one where the historical building Old Maine from 1898 still stands. After strolling along the 111 perfectly aligned palm trees on the iconic Palm Walk, we crossed the ASU University Bridge and headed to Tempe Butte. The hike to the top of this 90-meter-tall hill is rather easy. But since I was wearing high heel shoes, we stopped at one of the resting areas along the way to catch the breathtaking sunset over the city.

 

On the top of Tempe Butte, there’s an 18-meter-tall letter “A” painted in gold. My nephew explained that originally the letter on this hill was an “N”. It payed tribute to the Tempe Normal School, the predecessor of the Arizona State University. When the school changed its name, the “N” was replaced by an “A” in 1938. But at that time, the letter was formed with loose rocks. It was only in 1955 that they built the current “A” letter, made of reinforced steel and poured concrete. Due to the presence of this letter, locals call this hill “A Mountain” and rarely use its official name. By the way, I later found out that the pioneer who founded the city in the 1870s named it Tempe, because this hill looked like the Vale of Tempe close to Mount Olympus in Greece.

 

Have a walk in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

 

 

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A few years ago, someone offered us a small cactus. After a few months, I found our little cactus behind a pile of books. It was dry, forgotten and dead. Kerstin and I are not plant persons… But I felt really bad that even a cactus dies in our home! So to make it up, I told myself that I needed to pay extra attention to cacti. When I landed in Phoenix, I told my nephew that there’s only one thing I absolutely needed to do in town. And that would be to see a saguaro cactus, which is Arizona’s state flower. He probably thought that he’s got a crazy aunt, but that’s alright for me…

 

On the following day, he drove me to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, where I happily found a few saguaro cacti. The Riparian Preserve is actually a wildlife preserve in the town of Gilbert, located east of Tempe. It’s best known for its 200 species of birds, as well catfishes, rainbow trouts and largemouth basses. There’s also an observatory open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights. If you’re looking for an outdoor place in the Greater Phoenix area for a relaxing stroll, this would be the place to go. The whole park is also wheelchair accessible. Besides, this wildlife preserve is also part of the Sonoran Desert.

 

Visit the Old Town of Scottsdale and talk to Southwest’s artists

 

 

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Located in the northeast of Phoenix and filled with golf courses and luxurious hotels, Scottsdale is known as the fancy part of the Greater Phoenix area. So why add Scottsdale to the free things to do in Phoenix if it’s an upscale town? Well, because a destination that attracts a lot of rich kids is not necessarily a place that forces you to spend your money. Remember: you can go to Vegas without gambling. So you can head to Scottsdale just to walk around. And the Old Town of Scottsdale, which dates back to the 1920s, is actually a charming historic centre where you can stroll around for free.

 

If you’re an art fan, you might want to visit the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The admission to this museum is free on the second Saturday of the month and also on every Thursday for the whole day. And if you’re in town on a Thursday, make sure that you also go to the Scottsdale ArtWalk in the evening. For more than 40 years, art galleries of the Scottsdale Art District offer live entertainment, artist receptions and special exhibits once a week from 7pm to 9pm. The event is free. You don’t have to buy anything, and you can chat with the artists and learn about their work.

 

Explore Street Art in Downtown Phoenix

 

 

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If you don’t like the kind of arts exhibited in Scottsdale ArtWalk, then head to Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix for quirky street art. This is a walkable art district. So to see the mural paintings, it’s best to park your car somewhere and explore around, especially in the back alleys. I must admit that we had a hard time finding Roosevelt Row, because we went there in the afternoon. All the streets were quiet, and it was almost creepy because the restaurants and bars in the area were closed at that time of the day. But in the evening, especially during the weekends, this neighborhood is much more alive. You can join the local hipsters to hang around the bars and restaurants for happy hours or taste the Southwest specialties.

 

On first Friday evenings, Roosevelt Row gets even more interesting. All the art galleries and studios open their doors to the public. And you don’t just get to see the latest urban artworks, but also street performances with live music from 6pm to 10pm. There are also happenings in restaurants and bars, turning the whole district into a real artsy place-to-be.

 

Stroll along Tempe Town Lake

 

 

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Since it can get pretty hot in Phoenix, you’ll probably look for a place to cool down. Tempe Town Lake would be a good choice. This 3,2-km-long lake is located in the heart of Tempe, surrounded by a park where locals go to practice various sport activities. If you go there during the day, you can go for kayaking, sailing, boating or even standup paddle boarding. If you don’t want to pay for these activities, just stroll along the water.

 

When we arrived at this recreation base, it was already dark. But the area was nicely lit up by Elmore Pedestrian Bridge with its vibrant blue hues. Although it was already after 9pm on a weekday, there were still a lot of people doing inline skating, jogging and biking. We followed them along the lake towards Tempe Beach Park. This 10,000-square-meters park holds about 40 events each year, including the Fourth of July firework shows. A few locals were still sitting around to enjoy the evening breeze. But what draw my attention from this park was the beautiful Light Rail Bridge, which plays a show of colourful lights whenever a train crosses it.

 

So which of these free things to do in Phoenix are you most interested in? Or if you’ve already visited Arizona’s capital, what other free activities would you recommend?

 

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Free Things to do in Phoenix, Arizona © Travelwithmk.com

 

Free Things to do in Phoenix, Arizona © Travelwithmk.com

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Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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19 Responses

  1. Shutterbug Sage
    | Reply

    My sister and her family live in Phoenix, so we visit often. However, I’d never heard of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch until now. We’ll have to check it out when we visit next (hopefully in March)!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is not very big. And in March it’s not too hot in Phoenix, so you should definitely go there for a walk! 🙂

  2. Erica
    | Reply

    Lovely sunset and hiking options here! I´ve been in Arizona a few times, but mostly just road trips and the Grand Canyon, I´ve yet to visit Phoenix! Great roundup here, and I love the colourful street art!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Erica. The sunsets are definitely awesome in Phoenix, and the street art is certainly worth stopping by!

  3. aniajames
    | Reply

    Phoenix, looks like great placce to visit, plus have so much free interesting stuff. we like to travel slowly and free to do stuff are a must in such situation. Im pinning it for later

  4. Patricia Pagenel
    | Reply

    We skipped Phoenix and Scottsdale when we visited Arizona, as we were short on time, but we loved the state so I can see us returning for more. These Saguaro cacti are always so impressive, and I like hiking around these massive plants! The Street Art scene seems pretty neat, these artists painted quite vivid scenes for sure.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh too bad you skipped Phoenix and Scottsdale last time! Hope you’ll get to visit soon. You can see saguaro cacti in other places too, but the street art in Phoenix is totally worth stopping by!

  5. Michael Hodgson
    | Reply

    So many great things to do in Phoenix … well at least as long as the weather isn’t hot enough to melt the rubber of the soles of your shoes. Have not yet checked out the street art you mention, but have added it to our list for a future visit. Last time we were there, reviewing the Biltmore, we spent a bit of time hiking around the Piestewa Peak Park (Squaw Peak Park) and loved it!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      I also wanted to go to Piestewa Peak, I heard that the views from up there are awesome. But unfortunately I didn’t have enough time. But that’s all right, I’ll visit Phoenix again in a few years! 🙂

  6. Samantha Karen
    | Reply

    So many free things to do in Phoenix! I would definitely be checking out that street art.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, Phoenix is much more to offer than people think. Most people only stop for a night or two before heading to Gran Canyon or other nearby canyons, but the city is really worth visiting!

  7. Delphine
    | Reply

    I’m a fan of street art, so I would love to catch some of that when I visit Phoenix!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Those murals are awesome! Hope you’ll get to visit Phoenix soon. 😉

  8. MY RIG Adventures
    | Reply

    This is right up my alley. We love to explore the free things on offer in each town that we visit. Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile or interesting. The Hole in the Rock sounds fascinating. I love how they used to use it as a calendar.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re absolutely right: free things don’t have to be not worthwhile. You’ll certainly love to see and hike around the Hole in the Rock in Phoenix! 😉

  9. Carol Colborn
    | Reply

    I have done both Papago Park and Old Town Scottsdale but not the other 5. I live in East Valley so we are more into Mesa and Apache Junction landmarks. I have many places in Central Valley like the street art in the Roosevelt District.

  10. Danik
    | Reply

    Ok, havent been to the city yet but am looking at doing a trip. Want to do everything on this post including Scottsdale but if the sunset views from top of mountains are like this over the city, I really want to capture that. 🙂 One of my favourite sunset views over the city was at Twin peaks in San Francisco, and that will hold a speical place in my heart.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Oh yes, sunset at Twinpeaks is awesome too! We lived in San Francisco for a few months back in 2013, and absolutely loved the city’s sunsets from Twinpeaks (and from other places in S.F, which is our favorite city in the US!)

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