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Discovering downtown Phoenix, Arizona

There's lots of life in this desert city

  • Mar 20, 2018
  • 1,006 words
  • 5 minutes
The Phoenix skyline glows at sunset Expand Image

“Would you like a bottle of water?”

I’m offered refreshment each time I walk out the front door of my hotel during a recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and for good reason. The city is located in the Sonoran desert, one of the most unforgiving environments on the continent — although the Sonoran does get more rainfall than any other desert in the world. (Still, compare the 200 millimetres of rainfall Phoenix sees on average each year with the 700 to 800 millimetres that fall in Toronto and Ottawa, and you don’t really have to worry that your visit will be a washout.) 

This is my first-ever visit to a desert, and I’m learning so much. For one thing, I can advise that if you’re a heat-sensitive Canadian like me, you might want to avoid going to southern Arizona in summer. During the hottest month, July, temperatures routinely soar to 40 degrees Celsius. Yet Phoenix has a longer history than you might expect given the challenging conditions. Beginning in the 6th century, the Hohokam peoples built a series of irrigation canals that directed water from the Gila and Salt Rivers to their fields of beans, squash, corn and cotton.

The Hohokam moved on from their settlements in the mid-1400s, but some 400 years later, an enterprising gold prospector rebuilt the canals to once again grow crops on the land. With abundant water and food came more settlers, and Phoenix was born. 

Today, the nearby city of Scottsdale remains the area’s major magnet for Canadian snowbirds thanks to its golf courses, cycling trails and leafy resorts. I spend a couple of days there, staying at the Hotel Valley Ho, a place that makes you feel as if you’re stepping into Don Drapers’s digs — the decor is chic mid-century modern to the max. It comes by this nostalgia authentically: it was a hotspot in the 1950s and ’60s before declining into disrepair. The hotel was restored and reopened 12 years ago and today boasts a fantastic onsite restaurant, ZuZu.

Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona Expand Image
Hotel Valley Ho in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz. is a mid-century modern icon. (Photo courtesy Hotel Valley Ho)

From Hotel Valley Ho it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the palm tree-lined Main Street in Old Town Scottsdale, where you can visit art gallery after art gallery. There’s also plenty of great Southwestern cuisine to sample at colourful hacienda-style cafés (many, it seems, competing for best margarita!), and metal sculptures scattered about the streetscape depicting the Wild West.

From Scottsdale, it’s time to head to downtown Phoenix to check out what’s new. Phoenix’s core has been undergoing a renaissance. There are new street murals, funky cafés, galleries and music venues. My base is the Kimpton Palomar hotel, smack dab in the centre of it all — a chic desert sanctuary complete with rooftop pool. (Bonus: there’s a complimentary daily happy hour in the lobby, a great way for solo travellers to mingle with other guests.)

Good urban planning has helped revive a core that in past decades saw many people move to the suburbs. “Not too long ago, once the office workers had gone home to the ’burbs after work, downtown was abandoned,” says Ross Simon, proprietor and principal barman at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, after mixing me a tequila-based concoction called a Lime & The Coconut. “That’s no longer the case.” 

Simon, who grew up in Scotland’s Clyde Valley, saw great potential in Phoenix and has been a key player in its reinvention, opening Bitter & Twisted in, appropriately enough, the former Arizona Prohibition Headquarters in 2014. 

Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, downtown Phoenix Expand Image
Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour, opened in 2014, is appropriately located in the former Arizona Prohibition Headquarters in downtown Phoenix. (Photo: Nick Oza/Visit Phoenix) 

Phoenix began to boom in the late 2000s, explains Dan Klocke, executive director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. Two universities established downtown campuses, the city constructed light rail transit, and the Phoenix Convention Centre tripled in size. New restaurants and bars began popping up to meet the growing demand. All of these factors are attracting not only visitors but permanent residents — the lifeblood of any downtown. Says Simon, “Now this feels like a real city.”


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