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Where to Eat, Play, Stay in Scottsdale, the Soul of Phoenix, Arizona

Where to Eat, Play, Stay in Scottsdale, the Soul of Phoenix, Arizona

Experience Scottsdale - Hiking the Trails

In Scottsdale, Arizona, snowbirds are overstaying their visit not only because of the good weather but because of all the city’s exceptional offerings.

Scottsdale (the soul of Phoenix) has many positive qualities that would make anyone want to extend their visit. The town is breathtaking; you can hike any time of day, observing nature at its finest as jackrabbits dart among the cacti. The sunrises here are otherworldly. The sky becomes a vibrant hue of orange, which looks like one of Thomas Moran’s works of art at dawn. And while the infamous summer heat feels like baking cookies in an oven, there are periods throughout the year when you can cozy up by a fire pit with a hot cup of apple cider.

Experience Scottsdale - Old Town
Experience Scottsdale – Old Town

But what makes visitors like myself want to extend their stay? Scottsdale has a lot to offer beyond its wildly beautiful playground. It boasts some of the best resorts, such as the luxury Phoenician, which provides access to a top-notch spa with views of Camelback Mountain. Then there’s the Andaz Scottsdale Bungalows Resort, which offers rustic bungalows and the best ginger cookies, and they are complimentary for guests.

You can feel the locals’ love for their home, from an Uber driver doting on his dogs and the mountains to a private tour driver giddy about rooftop sunsets to a hostess who’s excited about meeting people in her hometown and seeing Taylor Swift in 2024.

There are also museums that unpack Arizona’s rich history, especially its relationships with the Native American community. The Old Town is bustling with quirky bars competing for the most festive exterior, one-of-a-kind shopping, and several other qualities that make you understand why Snowbirds flock to Scottsdale.

If you’ve made it this far into my ramblings and I’ve piqued your interest in visiting Scottsdale, below I’ve highlighted the things to do, eat, and where to stay in this exceptional city.

Exceptional things to do in Scottsdale.

 Hiking the trails

Scottsdale's McDowell Sonoran Preserve at sunrise.
Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve at sunrise.

 

While I didn’t get to hike the trails during my four-day stay, locals and other visitors recommended some places for my next trip. Some include;

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It has many trails to entice and excite the retired and adventure-chasing couple from Canada. Or the younger crunchy couple road-tripping from San Diego, who thrives from being immersed in all things nature. It will also be great for the two best friends who believe glamping is equivalent to camping. The point is that at 35,500 acres that offer more than 225 miles of shared-use trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, there’s a path for everyone to enjoy the desert at their own pace.

The Granite Mountain Loop trail is another recommendation; at approximately 6.2 miles, hikers can enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, including Pinnacle Peak and Four Peaks. Nearby this loop is The Balanced Rock, which is shorter and has a multi-ton mushroom-shaped boulder that will remind you that seemingly impossible things can exist.

Of course, there is also Camelback Mountain, the iconic mountain that serves as the background from many parts of Scottsdale (including The Phoenician, Canopy’s rooftop bar) and offers two more challenging trails to the summit, The Echo Canyon trail steeper and the Cholla, longer but less strenuous.

Hot air ballooning

Experience Scottsdale - Hot air ballooning
Experience Scottsdale – Hot air ballooning

If I could suggest one thing to do on your visit, it would be a hot air balloon, granted you are not afraid of heights. It’s an incredible experience to see the desert from a bird’s eye view, and the views are breathtaking. There are many hot air balloon companies to choose from. However, I recommend Hot Air Expeditions, founded by Hot Air Expeditions was founded by Margie and Randy Long and now owned by her daughters Amanda and Stephanie, which was an unforgettable experience.

Be prepared for an early call time, before being taken to the hot air balloon airport, where you’ll meet other excited passengers. You’ll then be taken to your basket, which can hold up to 700 pounds, and introduced to your Captain, who may or may not like heights. The chase crew will help push and propel the basket into the sky while the captain powers the gas chamber to help the balloon take off.

As you float through the sky, you’ll see how stunning the balloon’s colors are, with the fire’s embers flickering underneath it. It glows like the sun. Below, you might see jackrabbits hopping around, joggers pacing through the trail, and other hot air balloons nearby with passengers smiling at the remarkable sights surrounding them.

After your time in the sky, you’ll return to breakfast in the desert with your fellow passengers. Before digging into some delicious homemade food, the captain will raise his glass in a toast that glistens in the sun, saying, “You have flown so high and so well that God has joined in the laughter and sent you gently back into the arms of Mother Earth.”

Wonderspaces

Experience Scottsdale - Wonderspaces
Experience Scottsdale – Wonderspaces

Located on the lower level of Arizona’s largest mall, Scottsdale Fashion Square, this art show showcases unique and innovative works of art from artists around the world, such as Maarten Baas’s “Analog Digital Clock” and Nate Milton’s “Eli,” who use technology and interactive elements to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Visitors can expect to see a variety of installations, from light shows to virtual reality experiences to interactive sculptures. The exhibit changes periodically throughout the year, so there’s always something new to see and experience.

Museums

Experience Scottsdale - Talesin West
Experience Scottsdale – Talesin West

I’ll admit visiting museums has never been my first choice for travel activities. However, it will be worth it if you’d like to better understand it’s culture. Here are two I visited:

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)

The contemporary art museum features a variety of exhibitions and installations throughout the year, showcasing works from emerging and established artists in a range of mediums. Some include “Christina Fernandez’s: Multiple Exposures,” Through a collection of photographs, the LA-based artist showcases the rich exploration of migration, labor, gender, her Mexican American identity, and the unique capacities of the medium itself. Whereas “Earth and Sky,” highlighting how humans live, create, or think about various natural or ethereal environments.

Another exhibit featured is the Knight Rise by renowned James Turrell, well-known for his work with light and space. This outdoor skyspace installation allows visitors to experience the sky’s changing light through an elliptical opening in the ceiling. It’s a truly unique and mesmerizing experience that showcases Turrell’s mastery. I had the pleasure of meeting the museum’s volunteer, George, a native of Syracuse, who informed me more about James Turrell and his new work to lure more people to the desert.

Taliesin West

Nestled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, Taliesin West is a truly breathtaking destination and, for design students, an educational treasure. This museum is the only National Historic Landmark in the area. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it a must-see for anyone visiting the Valley of the Sun. The architectural masterpiece was designed by the American master architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who used it as his desert home and studio. He created some of his greatest works, including the Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater.

Wine Tastings

Experience Scottsdale - Merkin Vineyards
Experience Scottsdale – Merkin Vineyards

If you’re like me and have this question, “They make wine in Arizona?” the answer is yes. Grapevines are growing and thriving — amid the State’s canyons and cacti, flourishing in a range of microclimates. With climate and soil conditions comparable to wine regions in California and Argentina, Arizona’s southern high deserts made the State a significant player in international wine circles. Luckily, you don’t have to travel far to taste the wines. Arizona has more than 120 places to try, and I had the pleasure of visiting two of them.

Merkin Vineyards

Maynard Keenan, the lead singer of Tool, ventured into winemaking in the mid-2000s and became one of the few celebrities to own and operate a winery as the head winemaker. Together with his wife Jennifer Keenan, Tim White, and the Merkin’s team, they produce wine from 110 acres of Estate Vineyards in Verde Valley and Willcox, AZ. Visitors and locals can experience the unique 100% Arizona wine experience at one of their tasting rooms. In the heart of Old Town my friend and I visited the room which focuses on high-elevation Spanish, French and Italian varietals produced in a tiny underground facility called The Bunker.

While seated by the bar we were greeted by our host Louis, who was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and personable. He kicked off our wine tasting experience stating we should “Think of the wines like shapeshifting beasts that go and steal your goats and leave a trail behind them. Like this shapeshifting beast, the wines shape-shift in the vineyards, taking bits and parts from Mother Nature and thus there are many variations.”

Our standouts were from their rosés range, of which we tried two; Caduceus Marzo Rose and Merkin Chupacabra Rose. We found the Caduceus to be very interesting. It has a gorgeous salmon color, with a playful berry dance on the nose. I wasn’t too dry finish and had a tart after taste. It went well with the goat cheese from the Chef’s selection of artisan charcuterie & cheeses, pickles, wood oven olives, bacon dates, nuts, which the goat cheese helped balance out the wine. The other rose used 100% Sangiovese which provided sweet, almost strawberry notes on the nose. It is a light, dry rosé, with slight tannins. For pairings, Sangiovese is an Italian grape so think of their local flavors such as caprese salad and other soft cheeses, prosciutto, and seafood dishes like salmon risotto or pasta with shrimp.

Wine Collective

The Wine Collective, owned and operated by Zoya Vora-Shah is another great option. Before opening in late April 2022, it was a vanilla space completely deserted. That’s until Zoya came and disrupted things in a good way with her passion for wine.

The Wine Collective showcases at least 40 offerings, with special consideration given to Arizona-made wines. While there isn’t a preset wine for flights, you can select any wine to build your flight. My friend and I had differing palettes, and Zoya did a great job curating a tasting for us. The wines included the Laramie Cellars Dos Hermanas 2021, Malvasia Bianca 2021, Tumbleweed 2021 Rose, The Wanderer Sangiovese 2020 Vintage, Page Springs Rose of Graciano Willcox.

Both Merkin Vineyards and Wine Collective are perfect spot for wine groups or friends who want to know more about Arizonian wines in one place. And when you find a wine you love, you can buy one or a few bottles to go.

Tours

Experience Scottsdale - JoyAZ Tour
Experience Scottsdale – JoyAZ Tour

Suppose you’re pressed for time but still want to experience everything Scottsdale offers. In that case, JoyRidesAZ tours are an excellent option to consider. The company offers various tours in Scottsdale that cater to tourists who wish to explore the city’s top attractions and hidden gems.

My friend and I had a great time on a private tour with Captain Kirk, who drove us around Scottsdale in his festively decorated car sans doors. It was a unique and enjoyable way to learn more about the city. During the tour, he gave us a brief lesson on Native American art, the different types of cacti, micro and family-owned businesses, the best coffee spots in Scottsdale, and other interesting facts. At the end of the tour, he surprised us with a chance to see magnificent mountains from another viewpoint.

Depending on your preferences, other tours are available, such as wine tasting, photo-ops at the city’s vibrant murals for Instagram, sipping and shopping, and more.

Exceptional Eats in Scottsdale

Experience Scottsdale - FnB Chicken
Experience Scottsdale – FnB Chicken with Spaetzle

Until recently, I failed to recognize the culinary creativity of Scottsdale. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the city’s food scene during my recent trip. The chefs and staff are incredibly talented, and they bring gastronomic heat to the table. I enjoyed unforgettable vegetable dishes, new takes on flatbread, Mediterranean-inspired yogurt bowls, creamy guacamole, tasting menus with mountain views, and cocktails made with the prickly pear, one of the desert’s most prized fruits. Here are a few eateries I had the opportunity to visit.

FnB

You may not need this recommendation for FnB, as the James Beard Foundation recognized the chef’s talent by awarding her the first local chef award in over a decade in 2019. but for those unaware FnB is not your seemingly ordinary Gastropub dishing burgers, fries, and beer. No, it’s where you’ll be served vegetable-rich plates, drawing inspiration from world cuisines from James Beard Award-winning chef Charleen Badman. And its where you’ll experience an award-winning cocktail program by Front of House Manager and Beverage Director Pavle Milic.

On the frequently changing seasonal menu, you might find Deep-Fried Flatbread with langos adorned with Slovakian cheese called Liptauer, cured salmon, butter pickles and flowers. The dish is almost too pretty, but once you take a bite, it’ll be finished in a matter of minutes.

If you order the Roasted Carrot Slices, you’ll understand why chef Brandman is nicknamed the vegetable whisperer. The carrots are full of flavor, synonymous to comfort food. it sits on harissa mayo, dukkha (Egyptian blend of herbs and spices) and avocado.

Experience Scottsdale FnB - Roasted Carrots
Experience Scottsdale FnB – Roasted Carrots

Momos are given a vegetarian flair by swapping the meat for mushroom and paired with a savory tomato-pepper chutney, sunflower seeds, and cilantro.

While the restaurant is vegetable-centric, meats make an appearance on the menu. In December, there was a rendition of Hungary’s paprikash; while traditionally made with veal, Badman’s version used chicken, which peeled right off the bone when picked at with a fork and swiped against the tangy dill sour cream along with the crispy German-inspired dish; spaetzle.

Partner Pavle Mili matched Badman’s locally focused cuisine with a beverage menu that puts Arizona wines at center stage.

Sel

Owned and operated by a husband-and-wife duo, Chef Branden and May Levine take Arizona on an excursion through various ethnic cuisines and techniques worldwide at Sel.

The tasting experience is evocative of an infant exploring things for the first time; your palate will be tantalized with dishes such as the Herb Crusted Patagonian Lamb Loin. Chef Branden accentuates a simple parsnip in this dish by pureeing, garnishing with huckleberries and carrots, and topping it with a tender and juicy Patagonian lamb loin. However, if there’s one dish to try it’s the grilled Spanish octopus, it’s felt like a labor of love. It’s char-grilled and served on an indulgent bed of squid ink pasta cooked in a uni-butter crab roe sauce. I can understand why its a fan favorite on the dinner menu since the day they introduced it.

For dessert, while Moses, the charming waiter, recommends the award-winning Strawberry Marzipan Shortcake, the blackberry sake cobbler should be on your radar, especially during Arizona’s scarce chillier days.

Experience Scottsdale - Sel, Octopus
Experience Scottsdale – Sel, Octopus

In addition to the traditional menu boasting impressive dishes like the Octopus and Lamb Loin, Sel also offers a full vegetarian tasting menu. This impressive six-course experience with optional wine pairing takes diners through a full meal of bright, bold, meatless dishes.

The Mission

The Mission takes its name after the Old Adobe Mission just around the corner. It offers decadent, indulgent Mexican street food and cocktails. Beautiful chandeliers dangle from above, reflecting in mirrors that contribute to indubitable impressions of luxury and intimacy, only heightened by the glow of the tens of candles against the Himalayan salt block wall by the bar.

After you’ve calmed down from your first experience in a driverless car to get there and taken in the beauty of your surroundings, you’ll likely have worked up an appetite. The menu is extensive, so choose wisely from the salads, soups, starters, handmade tacos, grilled meats and fish, sides, and desserts.

See Also
Gstaad Palace Hotel

Experience Scottsdale - Mission, Tacos
Experience Scottsdale – Mission, Tacos

You can never go wrong with the table-side guacamole paired with any of the handmade tacos. It’s a must to pair guac and tacos; I choose the Tecate Battered Mahi Mahi with citrus escabeche, green olive aioli, cilantro, cotija. While my friend ordered the Classic Pollo a la Brasa with ají rocoto, white bean puree, oregano, lime, cabbage, avocado, cotija. Our chatters about the driverless car immediately ceased once we started devouring the tacos. We sipped on the Prickly Pear Margarita made with Altos Blanco, prickly pear juice, pressed lime, or agave.

Excellent Hotel Dining

MowryandCottonDining
Mowry and Cotton Dining

It is worth noting that some of the most exciting restaurants can be found inside hotels. Unfortunately, these restaurants have gained a reputation for catering to tourists and people with expense accounts instead of the city’s actual residents. It’s time the Mowry and Cotton in the Phoenician and Weft and Warp in the Andaz Scottsdale became destinations for both locals and tourists.

Mowry and Cotton

Newly added to the luxury Phoenician’s lineup of restaurants, Mowry and Cotton dishes are seasonal American cuisine. That’s a smart way of saying they blend cuisines to appeal to all of us who want the best of everything. You’ll see butters in different flavors, Mediterranean spices making a special appearance in some dishes, and seafood given equal airtime. Most of the dishes accentuate whatever is in season, which means you might find eggs and shredded chicken on a blue tortilla shell or pan roasted salmon alongside a fennel sauce.

Mowry and Cotton Scottish Salmon
Mowry and Cotton Scottish Salmon

At breakfast, the Chef’s Favorite Huevos Rancheros nods to Mexico featuring chicken tinga, blue corn tortilla, and avocado crema. The result delivers a tingle sensation with every bite. To drink get the Green Nectar, it is a refreshing, healthy, forward choice made with apple, kale, ginger, and cucumber. The main event occurs at dinner. To start get the Southern-inspired Buttermilk Buns or Roasted Squash Soup. However, if you had to choose just one, get the soup, it’s un-negotiable. For the main course, the Scottish Salmon is a satisfying option, served with preserved lemon labneh and fennel gremolata. It’s a simple dish that hits the spot. Pair your meal with a signature cocktail such as The Sheriff. It’s made with tequila exclusive to the hotel, canton ginger, pineapple, ginger syrup, Angostura® bitters, and orange bitters.

Lastly dessert, The Spice Cake Martini is identical to a slice of pumpkin pie but with a boozy touch. The Sweet Potato Pudding is a dense with delightful flavors of sweet potato, spiced caramel, candied walnuts and topped with a dollop of toasted marshmallow ice cream. Each bite is insanely good.

Weft & Warp

Located at the Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Bungalows, Weft & Warp puts an innovative twist on Mediterranean cuisine in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

At brunch, the Mediterranean flavors shined through in a dish called the Super Bowl which brought deep and lasting happiness to me. The bowl was beautifully presented and had roasted red grapes, figs, roasted coconut flakes, and pistachios with drizzles of extra virgin olive oil and cardamom honey on top of a creamy, tangy Greek yogurt. It was too pretty to eat, yet I thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Experience Scottsdale - Weft and Warp Brunch
Experience Scottsdale – Weft and Warp Brunch

Other highlights included the fantastic tea and coffee selection; there’s a cappuccino made with fruit loop-infused cereal milk, which you’d think would be too sweet, but it’s surprising not; there’s a hint of fruit loops with every sip.

For non-caffeinated beverages, there is a wide selection to choose from, thanks to teas sourced from Loose Leaf Tea Market. You can get a cup of When Earl Met Rose, Butter Pecan Oolong, or Bulletproof Breakfast, a bold, energizing brew with rich, smooth dark chocolate and creamy coconut flavor.

A savory and delicious option is Chilaquiles Verdes, which is not Mediterranean but represents Mexican and Arizona’s cuisine. It has a green salsa-based sauce which was subtly spicy, and the chips were crispy and not overly soggy. The plate is served with green chili pork, cotija, avocado mash, pickled red onion, and eggs any style.

At dinner those Mediterranean flavors will make a stronger appearance especially in the starters like the Moroccan Zaalouk, a flavor-rich dip of eggplant, tomato, and roasted cumin paired with pita bread. Or the Za’atar Pistachio Laffa, a dip of white bean hummus, chickpeas, and chili garlic oil. Additionally handmade pasta is available such as the Tagliatelle with arugula pesto, heirloom tomatoes, preserved lemon, and Stracciatella.

Weft and Warp’s pastry chef, Chef Morgan, makes decadent desserts like Toasted Arizona, a ginger carrot cake with opals crème fraiche mousse encased by cardamom meringue and surrounded by bits of toasted pineapple. If all desserts are similar in presentation and taste to the Toasted Arizona, they are worth saving room for.

Exceptional Places to Stay in Scottsdale

The Phoenician

Experience Scottsdale - Phoenician
Experience Scottsdale – The Phoenician

There’s nowhere else quite like this place. The beautiful landscape, the majestic mountains, and the boundless sky above. Let yourself step into the Phoenician, a realm of pleasure and discovery, where there’s something fresh and fabulous for everyone to enjoy.

Driving up to the resort creates a magnificent ambiance with its long and winding driveway, stunning fountains at the entrance, and a fleet of luxury cars parked out front. The entrance and lobby are glammed in holiday flair during a December visit. Inside are massive Christmas trees, one decorated with teacups to match the festiveness occurring in the nearby tearoom, where guests have a great view of the mountains.

Outside, a few guests with caddies are heading to the golf course. Tennis courts and pool (heated in December) are available too. Although the pools are bare in the morning, during the midday, a few children and adults may be splashing around or laying poolside book in hand.

As for the guest rooms, they are spacious and elegantly decorated. To match its surroundings, the room has tan hues, natural stone glass showers, double sink vanities, oval tubs, and large balconies or patios.

It’s worth booking a treatment such as the Himalayan Salt Stone Ritual or Body and Soul, just to access this stunning spa. The facilities feel super luxurious with art, sculpture-like sconces, iridescent mosaic tiles, skylights, and well-stocked lavish locker rooms. There’s also a placid rooftop pool with a bistro where you can order salads, snacks, and smoothies. After your treatment, hit the hydrotherapy area for a round of sauna, steam, a circulation-boosting cold shower, and hot tubbing.

The new fitness center is beyond anything I’ve seen in other hotels. It is a two-story building; the top floor has top-notch workout machines like treadmills, weight machines, and Peloton bikes. The gym also has a wall of glass that provides a breathtaking view while you work out. Additionally, there is a separate movement studio with on-demand classes that you can stream on a flat-screen TV. On the lower level is a game room with video, arcade and board games, pool, foosball, and shuffleboard.

Andaz Bungalows Scottsdale

Experience Scottsdale - Andaz Bungalows Scottsdale
Experience Scottsdale – Andaz Bungalows Scottsdale

The resort evokes a distinctive “crunchy” aesthetic, highlighting a natural and organic way of life. The design offers a chance to experience the Sonoran Desert in a new way, with various bungalow-style rooms spread across the 23-acre area. Meandering pathways wind through gardens and rocky arroyos, and the resort’s unparalleled views of Camelback Mountain make it stand out from other resorts in the region.

Local craftspeople created much of what’s visible on the property, and the resort offers guests both art classes as well as tours of a nearby artists’ compound with which it has a close partnership. There’s a weekly schedule of other activities and wellness classes—from cocktail making to HIIT boot camp—along with performances by local musicians several days a week, an excellent restaurant, and a cocktail program.

For a December visit, the hotel offers complimentary ginger snap cookies during the day (pro tip: visit the lobby before 11 am to get one or pack a Ziplock for the flight home). They also offer Apple cider in the evenings, which would be excellent for the chilly nights; yes, Arizona receives a bit of reprieve from the heat in December. Both items would be great to take with you at one of the resort’s fire pits, bundled up, looking above at the black sky uninterrupted by tall buildings and city lights.

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