North America

Behold the Valley of the Sun

Posted on / by Alex Berger
Airplane Over Phoenix Arizona

With roughly 4.3 million residents in the greater Phoenix metro area the city, named after a mythical bird, has wings that cast a mighty shadow.  So mighty in fact that if it were converted into a stand alone country that population would make it the 127th most populous country in the word – right between Croatia and Georgia.  It is a city of diversity which is the source of many of its greatest attributes but part of what makes the city, and the state it resides in, a lightning rod for national debate and controversial discourse.  It’s the city where I spent my undergraduate years and a city I experienced in a whole different way as a business professional.  Now, as someone who has spent the majority of three plus years away from Phoenix I want to share with you the things I miss and the things I look forward to experiencing for the first time the next time I find my way back.

  1. Mexican food – Phoenix is perfectly situated at a crossroads in the heart of the Southwest. This has resulted in not only countless Mexican restaurants, but a similarly vibrant level of diversity and differentiation between those restaurants. From budget greasy-spoon and gourmet fine dining to spectacular fusion plates Phoenix has it all in abundance. This creates a culinary environment in which you could eat a different type of Mexican food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week.  From Sonoran and Cali-Mex to Tex-Mex or Chihuahuan Mexican food you’ll find it all, and then another dozen combinations that you never imagined existed.
  2. The food in general – As a veteran traveler the question of food comes up quite often. With the topic comes the inevitable question – who has the best food in the world?  Is it the French? The Italians? The Japanese?  While I dare not guess at who has the best food in the world, one of my favorite countries for food is hands down the United States.  A response that almost always gets scoffed at with a snide remark about hamburgers and hot dogs. The reality is that American food reflects America’s nature as a melting pot. But, not only is it a melting pot, it is a highly affluent one at the center of one of the world’s greatest economic empires. The result? the grand collision of cultures, foods, and the availability of native spices.  As with the Mexican food I mentioned above, this holds true for other cuisines as well. There’s some great food and some really weird culinary fusion stuff in Phoenix- often at awesome prices.
  3. Arizona sunsets – In Phoenix when the sun sets, the sky burns.  That’s the only way I can describe it.  On a bland day it is impressive.  On a spectacular day it is enough to leave your toes curled.
  4. Summer monsoons with their lightning storms and warm rain – A truly spectacular rainstorm with accompanying lightning show is a surprisingly difficult thing to find.  There’s something about Phoenix – a combination of its low-skyline, massive sprawl, and situation in the midst of a large, mostly-flat bowl that amplifies the beauty of the desert monsoons.  Add to that the sight of saguaro cacti silhouetted against the night sky and bomb-sized rain droplets the temperature of bath water and you have a recipe for stormy bliss. Normally storms are an annoyance, but a good lightning storm over Phoenix with its white and purple lightning is something worth celebrating.  I miss settling in on the back porch and watching the clouds roll across the valley.
  5. The Botanical Gardens – When you think of the desert I think most of us think of rocks, sand, a couple of cactus and a whole lot of nothing.  Toss a coyote, scorpion, and tumbleweed in for good measure and you have the desert we all expect.  The Botanical Gardens does a gorgeous job illustrating just how wrong-headed and grossly inaccurate that perception is.  It also serves as a beautiful venue for fine art, art installations, and musical performances.  I’ve seen everything there from a Chihuly glass exhibit to a burlesque show and know that there is still so much more to see and experience. The luminaria light display for the holidays is gorgeous.
  6. The Renaissance Festival – Every spring a plot of land on the outskirts of Phoenix comes to life as a thriving fantasy city.  Home to craftspeople and artisans, performers, fairies, warriors, royalty, and jousting knights, the Renaissance Festival bridges more than just the Renaissance period. It brings to life delicious turkey legs, mead, boisterous comedians, jugglers, tumblers, blacksmiths, falconers and even one of the world’s few portable carillons.  When living in Phoenix we had an annual tradition of dressing up and heading to the fair for an afternoon (or two) of fun tomfoolery.  With or without a costume it is a great way to spend an afternoon and always results in grand smiles and solid belly-laughs.
  7. The Musical Instrument Museum – When I first heard about MIM I immediately had a mental image of a small mom-and-pop museum in someone’s converted barn that had a few guitars, an old base, and a forlorn banjo.  The reality of what the MIM actually is couldn’t be further from the truth. The museum is the largest museum of its type in the world and was placed in Phoenix after a nationwide review of potential locations. One of my great regrets is that I haven’t made it into MIM yet. I have, however, cyber stalked their website on numerous occasions and am blown away by the size, scope, artistry, and sophistication of this living museum.
  8. ASU’s Origins Project – This initiative sponsors a series of talks, debates, and lectures that are at the leading edge of thought and inquiry. In a state that has spent ample time on the national stage for less than progressive views, it serves as a stark contrast and delivers world-class intellectual discussions to the public. When living in Arizona I had the pleasure of attending several of their annual debates. These changed my world view and were deeply meaningful. While the large annual events are obviously harder to align with during a quick visit they have a series of on-going events which are also well worth exploring.
  9. Guadalupe – Within a mega-city like Phoenix you’ll find more than a dozen incorporated towns. While cities like Scottsdale, Mesa, and Chandler within the greater Phoenix metro area get most of the attention, I’ve always found Guadalupe fascinating.  This small, predominantly Hispanic, town is situated right in the midst of Phoenix.  Despite this it has maintained its charm and personality against all odds. Not only that, but the city itself is like transporting into a different time and place. Suddenly square intersections built along a roman grid with large street signs and carefully defined crosswalks give way to roundabouts, stop signs, and cozy streets, some of which may even be lined by a fruit or taco stand. Similarly the traditional street names temporarily change from names like Priest to Avenida del Yaqui. It’s not the safest city and it isn’t a tourist city. It is, however, a fascinating insight into Phoenix’s identity and what happens when cities and cultures collide.
  10. Country Dive Bars – What’s a visit to the Southwest without spending a few evenings in authentic country dive bars? With roaring country music, folks in tight jeans, plaid shirts, boots, line dancing and old baseball caps there are few genre bars as charming as a good country bar. They’re also something you just won’t find in the heart of towns like New York or Washington D.C.

Of course, there is a lot more to see in Phoenix.  From a wolf sanctuary that rescues domesticated wolves to malls with world class shopping.  Depending on who you are and what you’re looking for there’s always something new and exciting to discover in Phoenix. The biggest challenge?  Finding it. These are a few of the things I miss and look forward to re-experiencing during my next visit the Phoenix.  Have you done some of them?  Feel free to share your experiences in a comment.

Disclosure: The idea for this post came from the FlipKey “Take Me There” contest for which it is an entry. The contest has been launched to celebrate the release of a series of unique and visually creative virtual guides.  You can see their guide to Phoenix here. I love the format and using it as incentive encourage you to hop on Google maps and flickr to explore the places and experiences I’ve talked about in this post. 

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Evo Terra
    January 3, 2015

    I’ll miss many of those things, Alex. But here’s my list:

    * Craft beer – Much like the maligned “American food”, the U.S. takes it on the chin when it comes to beer, largely because of the mass-produced swill that clutters every sporting event. But in reality, The States have been home to a huge movement of craft beer that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. I’m already missing the my dozen or so IPA options, each with a unique flavor.

    * Warmth – Hey, it’s always nice in Phoenix. Except when it’s too damned hot. But that’s why they make air conditioning.

    * Friends – We’ve spent 18 years here. That’s a lot of friends. I’ll miss ’em. Good thing we have the magic of the interwebs.

    (See you in a few weeks, Alex!)


    • Alex Berger
      January 4, 2015

      Ahh yes! The craft beer. Soo good! So underrated!

      We could definitely use some of that warmth here in Copenhagen ATM. Though I imagine the rest of central and eastern Europe want it even worse.

      There are definitely some great folks there. Also some very cool events once you know how to find them ehh?

  • Arianwen
    January 6, 2015

    Glad to see Mexican food at number one there! That will always give a place the edge! 😉

  • Turkey Family Vacation packages
    January 12, 2015

    Good Post.


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