If you’ve never been to Scottsdale, you might be surprised at all the things to do in Scottsdale. It might be best-known for its world-famous golf courses, but that’s not where the fun ends. The city is full of museums, galleries, nightlife, wellness retreats, nature reserves, and tons of history — all of which make Scottsdale a bucket list must.
From the classic cacti sunsets of the Sonoran Desert to the thriving streets of Old Town Scottsdale, there’s something for everyone no matter what brings you to Arizona.
I just returned from a trip to Scottsdale on a girl’s getaway. Scottsdale was the perfect weekend getaway, it had everything me and my friend were looking for: great food, perfect weather, spas, shopping, outdoor activities, and more. It was a bonus that flights to Phoenix are super affordable from most major cities in the USA. I was able to get a direct round trip flight for under $100, and that was purchased just a week in advance.
Here are 10 of the top things to do in Scottsdale that will make your visit unforgettable in every way.
Where to stay in Scottsdale – Hotel Valley Ho
I stayed at the Hotel Valley Ho, which was within walking distance of everything you could possibly need. The Hotel Valley Ho is located right in Old Town Scottsdale.
The hotel is a quick ride from the Phoenix airport, for me, it was under a $20 taxi ride. My and my friend walked everywhere, some of the best restaurants in Scottsdale were a few minutes from our hotel.
1. Take a hot air balloon ride over the desert
If there’s one way to get an unbeatable view of the Sonoran Desert, it’s from above. As long as you’re not afraid of heights, a hot air balloon ride is an unforgettable experience to have and one of the best things to do in Scottsdale.
There are many different Scottsdale/Phoenix hot air balloon tours, like this one. Tours aren’t just a quick half-hour spin, either — you can expect to be in the air for two to four hours and it’s worth every penny to drift peacefully through the warm desert air while you gaze at the landscape below from a new perspective.
If you’re slightly nervous, there’s no need to worry. All balloon pilots are FAA-certified in the rare event of emergencies and will be able to put your mind at ease so you can just enjoy the ride, and take as many photos as you want!
I’ve been in a hot air balloon multiple times in some epic destinations (Myanmar, Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey) and they never get old. Sailing high above in a hot air balloon is surreal and so smooth, definitely should be on everyone’s bucket list.
2. Wander through the Desert Botanical Gardens
The words ‘desert’ and ‘botanical gardens’ aren’t often words you hear in the same sentence. But in Scottsdale, the Desert Botanical Gardens are one the top things to do in Scottsdale and not to be missed on your first trip.
The Desert Botanical Gardens cover 140 acres, with five paths to choose from that will take you through an outstanding display of 50,000 plants. Each path offers a closer look at the wild flora that grows even in the extreme heat of the desert, like cacti and succulents, vibrant wildflowers, and trees.
The gardens host programs for gardens, cooking, photography, and more, so you can take an educational approach to your love for the outdoors. For families, there are educational walks, gardening workshops, and even Girl Scout activities. The Gardens also have conservation and research initiatives and work hard to propel change for climate change and endangered species.
After you’ve taken a tour of the beautiful gardens, settle in at Gertrude’s for a farm-to-table dining experience or grab a snack at the Patio Café. There is also a garden shop, a library, and an interactive butterfly pavilion. Tickets vary depending on the time of day but range from $20-30 for adults and $15-19 for youths. Ticket prices for special events or exhibitions may be higher.
You will have to drive or take an Uber/Lyft, as the Desert Botanical Gardens aren’t within walking distance to hotels. We took an Uber from our hotel the Hotel Valley Ho, it was super easy and cheap. I found Uber/Lyft super affordable and quick in Scottsdale.
3. Wander through Old Town Scottsdale
There’s always something magical about wandering through the oldest part of a modern city. Most have maintained some of their most beautiful architecture, while contemporary buildings have grown around them. Scottsdale is no exception, and once you’ve been there you’ll wonder why you didn’t visit sooner.
Old Town Scottsdale is the bustling center of the city, thrumming with sounds, smells, colors, and tastes you’ll love to experience. There are boutiques, some of the best restaurants in Scottsdale, bars, cafés, museums, galleries, and lots of public art to pass the time. There’s no doubt that the lifeblood of Scottsdale can be found in these streets.
You can even find historic attractions dating back almost 150 years from colonial times. Look out for hidden speakeasies where you can get a drink and listen to live music.
Events and tours happen all through the week. Try the self-guided wine walk for a glass (or several) of Scottsdale-produced wines, or the 90-minute free guided tour of the oldest landmarks in the neighborhood.
If you’re interested in the indigenous history of the area, don’t miss the Edward Curtis Exhibit, based on his 18th-century photos of the region’s native tribes.
I loved Old Town Scottsdale, this is where I suggest staying. It’s a central location and easily walkable to some of the best restaurants in Scottsdale and great shopping too.
4. Hike Camelback Mountain
Camelback Mountain is one of the best hikes in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area since it’s only a 15-minute drive from Scottsdale.
It’s popular but not easy, so it’s better if you’re at least an intermediate hiker and know your way around a mountain. Or you can book a private guided tour with an experienced guide, like this one here.
Camelback has two main trails: Echo Canyon and Cholla. The canyon trail is steeper, and Cholla is longer. Echo Canyon takes about two to three hours and has plenty of spots to stop along the way for photos of the view.
Cholla takes two to three hours, and is a bit of a more gradual incline but does get quite steep toward the end. There is more loose gravel on this trail so be sure your footwear is up to standard. There is more wildlife to see on this trail but do watch out for rattlesnakes.
There are bathrooms on Echo Canyon only. Both trails feature parking lots but they will start to get busy at 6 am, so you will want to get an early start if you plan to drive. No dogs are allowed on either trail so leave your furry friends at home.
If you’re looking for something unique and memorable to do in Scottsdale, be sure to check out Wonderspaces. It’s an immersive and interactive art show center where you can experience artists from around the globe.
Although you’re likely coming to check out the art, there is a bar at the front entrance where you can grab a drink—something you’ll surely enjoy on a hot day. Try the prickly pear cider, a favorite of many guests.
The installations at Wonderspace rotate periodically. Some of the installations are interactive and make for great photo-ops, in case you want to spice up your Instagram grid. Many of them use creative lighting and projections to create a unique immersive setting.
There’s no minimum age requirement, but kids under 10 will probably not be entertained. Tickets cost $24 for adults and $15 for youth. They also offer special pricing for the military, teachers, seniors, healthcare workers, and students.
It is also a bonus that Wonderspaces is located in the Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall, which has over 240 stores and restaurants. Who doesn’t love shopping while on vacation!?! Some of the best restaurants in Scottsdale are located in/near the mall. If you are like me and love to shop, make sure to put the Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall on your Scottsdale itinerary.
6. Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West
Not only was the winter home of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright right here in Scottsdale, but you can also take a tour of it in person.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a celebrated American architect and a key figure in the expansion of 20th-century architecture, propelling American infrastructure into a new age. He believed strongly in harmony between a building and its surrounding nature, often incorporating natural elements into his designs.
Taliesin West is located at the base of the McDowell Range mountains and overlooks Paradise Valley. It was built in 1937 using rocks and other materials from the surrounding desert and makes great use of natural light through clear ceiling panels. Having been constructed entirely by Wright and his students, it is one of his more personal creations and has many personal touches.
Taliesin West is open seven days a week. Self-guided tours are $35. Guided tours are $49. Student and youth pricing is also available at a slight discount.
7. Visit the Heard Museum
Arizona has a rich native history, with many desert tribes having lived here before colonists arrived from overseas. Heard Museum is a non-profit museum dedicated to preserving indigenous history. The museum was built in 1929 to house a private collection of art and has grown to showcase an enormous amount of culturally significant pieces.
Heard Museum tells stories of the first people who lived here and showcases stories, art, and artifacts. There are also regular rotating exhibitions with contemporary First Nations artists, who help to provide education on these tribes in modern times.
There are two very popular festivals at the Heard Museum. If you are visiting in November, El Mercado de Las Artes focuses on Hispanic artists and Mexican cultural art. The festival has mariachi bands that move throughout the fair, while artists display pottery, embroidery, painting, silverwork, and more.
In February, the Guild Indian Fair and Market attracts over 15,000 visitors and displays art from hundreds of native artisans. There are several categories of art, including jewelry, pottery, painting, photography, woodwork, sculpture, textiles, and basket weaving, and a Best In Show prize is awarded each year.
Also in February is the annual hoop dance competition, a traditional American Indian dance.
8. Have a spa day
One of the best things Scottsdale is known for is the sheer amount of spas and retreats that can be found in the city. There are many different options from high-end luxury spas to more affordable options with less complicated treatments. So no matter what you feel like having done, you can find something perfect.
Because Scottsdale is a winter retreat for many Americans, there are lots of resort spas built into nice hotels. And the best part is, they are open to the public, so you don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy their spa services.
If you have previously enjoyed spas in some of the more well-known hotels and want to go that route again, the Fairmont, the Four Seasons, and the Waldorf Astoria all have hotel spas in Scottsdale. However, there are also many highly-rated affordable spas for anyone who wants the experience without spending too much.
No matter where you visit, you’ll be able to experience a Swedish massage, hydrotherapy, relaxing facials, and endless other treatments — all of which can be a welcome escape from the scorching Arizona heat.
My and my friend visited the Andaz spa. Our total was about $325 each after tip. This was for a 90 min body treatment, which was totally worth it. We spent a few hours enjoying the steam room, and the gorgeous outdoor pool that we had to ourselves. If you come mid-week you can sometimes find good deals, we were visiting on a weekend and booked our treatment only days in advance.
9. Visit Pinnacle Peak Park
Another option for hiking fans or anyone who just wants to get outdoors would be a visit to Pinnacle Peak Park. Located in the Sonoran Desert just a half-hour drive from Scottsdale, Pinnacle Peak is a small rocky summit that overlooks the landscape below.
There is an inclined trail that stretches for just under two miles to the top peak. It can be steep at times but with proper footwear, most able-bodied hikers should be able to complete it with the right footwear, and enough water. Once at the top, the view is incredible and worth sticking around for some photos (especially if you’ve arrived late in the day as the sun begins to set over the desert).
Those with enough experience (and their own equipment) are also permitted to rock climb in certain areas of the park. Follow the signage which indicates the areas where you can do this. Click here for more park info and trail maps.
There is a parking lot at the entrance, an office at the trailhead with information for guests, and bathrooms on-site (but not on the trail). There is also a bike rack where you can securely lock up your bike if that’s how you’ve arrived.
10. Take a ride at MacDonald’s Ranch
If you’ve ever dreamed about galloping through the desert, cowboy-style, this might be your chance.
MacDonald’s Ranch is a family-owned stable and horse ranch that has been a well-known community site for years. The biggest attraction here is horseback riding. The ranch offers group rides, private rides, and moonlight rides, all at varying times in the morning and evening.
If you’ve never ridden before but are interested in trying, no need to worry—the ranch has a large roster of horses to suit all experience levels. They can pair you with a more gentle or docile horse which is ideal for beginners.
Not only do they offer horseback riding tours of the desert, but you can also enjoy a Cowboy Cookout. A juicy steak, chicken, or stuffed bell pepper roasted over an open fire sounds like a pretty good way to end the day, especially when followed by roasting s’mores over the fire.
The ranch is great for all ages, even younger children. Prices for riding vary by time of day and age but start at $60 for children and $65 for adults for a one-hour ride.