Valley of the Sun . . . And Culture!

If you’re into football, you probably know that a big game is about to take place in Arizona. That’s right, my home town of Glendale – a suburb of Phoenix known for its affordable homes and the Super Bowl – is hosting the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship. I don’t follow college football, so I can’t make any predictions as to the outcome of the game, but I do know an awful lot about the Phoenix area as a nearly lifelong local. Here are my tips for making the most of your visit from a cultural perspective – besides, you know, watching that game.

Get local.

Like every metro area, Phoenix has plenty of chains, but surely you didn’t come all this way just to see the same things you have at home. If you want the most bang for your buck – both in terms of memories and economic impact – shop and dine local. This is easier than ever with publications like the Phoenix New Times Best of Phoenix Awards, and Local First Arizona’s Small Wonders map series, which highlight the gems in every Valley city and suburb from Gilbert to Glendale.

And, speaking of Glendale, why not give it a little love? True, it doesn’t have the club scene of Scottsdale or the hip urban vibe of downtown Phoenix, but it does have a great atmosphere for families. Mellow outdoor highlights include Saguaro Ranch Park (where you will likely see peacocks strutting and roses blooming as well as get a glimpse of Arizona’s early ranching lifestyle) and the Xeriscape (low-water) garden at the adjoining Glendale Public Library. If you’re feeling more active, jog or bike in the canal system (which even includes a playground), hike the scenic Thunderbird Conservation Park, or swim laps at the Foothills Recreation & Aquatic Center. With the exception of FRAC, all of these are free!

For some indoors fun, your first stop should be Cerreta Candy Company (try the classic French mint chocolate and a free tour), followed by browsing the specialty shops in Downtown Glendale. Not only is it a step back in time to a quieter era, but it’s famous for antiques. If your stomach starts to grumble, I highly recommend Haus Murphy’s for that oompa Beer Garden vibe, A Touch of European Café for authentic Polish fare, or Kiss the Cook for homemade classics and an overdoes of country kitsch.

Spread your Wings

As someone born and raised in Glendale, I hope you enjoy it – but as someone interested in all things intercultural, I also encourage you to spread your wings and see what else the Valley has to offer.

Here is just a sample:

Native American Culture:

Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve: So close to northern Glendale that you’d hardly know you’d slipped into Phoenix is the metro’s largest concentration of petroglyphs. It’s presented from an archeological perspective, and is a good introduction for those who want a taste but don’t want to spend much money or time on a particular day.

Heard Museum: Conveniently located in downtown Phoenix and accessible via light rail, the museum is dedicated to promoting understanding of indigenous peoples, with a particular focus on the Southwest. It’s a robust, well-curated, and highly respected institution – but be advised that it’s a bit pricy and really can’t be done (well) in less than half a day.

Pueblo Grande: If you want to get up close and personal with Phoenix’s Native roots, this is the place to start, as the 1500-year old Hohokam site features a partially-excavated ball court. Also located on light rail, it’s a perfect stop to or from the airport, especially for archeology buffs.

European Culture

Phoenix isn’t as known for its Irish and Jewish cultures as say, New York but our small communities are vibrant and proud. The Irish Cultural Center offers docent-led tours of the cottage and grand hall replicas, and informative exhibits inside the attractive library. It’s worth a visit just for the architecture alone, which was brought over stone by stone from Ireland. Nearby, the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center invites people of all faiths to visit the former 1920s synagogue and museum. Both are accessible via light rail – with the latter located near the public library. (While you’re there, go inside the library for great views of the city).

Asian Culture

Many people don’t think of Asian culture when they come to Phoenix, but our Japanese and Chinese gardens are surprising delights. The Japanese Friendship Garden is an emblem of international friendship, established via partnership with Phoenix’s Sister City, Himeji City, Japan. It’s compact, serene and photogenic, and people of all ages enjoy feeding the koi. Farther afield is the Chinese Cultural Center, which features pagodas, stone lanterns, moon doors, statues, and lakes with lily pads – all inspired by actual sights and historical moments from within China.

Hispanic & Latino Culture

With its location near the border and as a former part of Mexico, Arizona has a rich Hispanic and Latino heritage – but to my knowledge, the best places to experience this are farther south, closer to Tucson and Tubac. I especially recommend visiting gorgeous San Xavier del Bac.  You’ll want to plan ahead for these as they involve drives of a few hours or more, but they are definitely worth the little bit of extra effort.

Musical Culture

Last but not least, I highly recommend the Musical Instrument Museum. Billing itself as the world’s only global musical instrument museum, MIM brings world cultures to life through rhythm, melody, and the diverse instruments that make sound possible. It’s a great place for a whirlwind audio tour of humanity, inside a gorgeous building in the open desert. However, its prestige isn’t cheap. It costs enough, and there is so much to see, that you’ll want to spend at least a few hours here.


Arizona and the Phoenix area both have well-deserved reputations for tourism, but they also have a lot to more to offer in the international culture department than most people expect. You just have to know where to look. Enjoy your visit, and let me know what places you tried!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.