While I was having lunch during my 4 days in Scottsdale, Arizona last month, my dad called and asked where I was… to which he responded, “Isn’t Scottsdale for golfing and retirees?” And seeing as how he’s both a golfer and a retiree, he’s clearly an authority on the subject.
I told him it was, but now it’s cool. [No offense! for the record.]
But as with everything else, cities, too, change and evolve. What was once a haven for golf enthusiasts and other retired folk is now a city of hip eateries, outdoor adventures, contemporary art, offbeat spa retreats, and a winery owned by the lead singer of TOOL.
With the median age of residents being a cool 37 and Maynard James Keenan on the list of local business owners, this ain’t Phil Mickelson’s Scottsdale anymore.
4 days in Scottsdale, Arizona
Okay, I’mma be upfront so as to not confuse anyone. I really spent a full 3 days in Scottsdale + 2 half days. Therefore I’m calling this 4 Days in Scottsdale, and I’m the boss, so there.
So during my 4 days in Scottsdale in the winter I really wanted to fit in a big mix of everything. I wanted deserts and desserts, hot tubs and cold beers, hiking, biking, and bull riding, art and architecture, and everything in between. That’s not too much to ask, right? Being from Tennessee, this is what we call a “casserole.”
Scottsdale, Arizona is a surprisingly diverse little town where everything you could want out of a short vacation is closer than the friendship between Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg (them’s tight).
Here in Scottsdale, it’s incredibly easy to do so much with so little time. Finally! The Universe provides!
For all things to do in Scottsdale from this post, see them here on this map.
4 days in Scottsdale: Day 1
My 4 days in Scottsdale started with landing at the Phoenix airport around 11am. I swiftly picked up my rental car (ok fine, but it was swift after I got in the correct line after standing in the wrong one for 15 minutes) and headed towards the desert.
After my 6:00 am flight from Boston, my stomach was empty and my arms were tired (lolz) so I headed straight for lunch.
Lunch at Craft 64
For lunch I visited Craft 64, a wood-fired pizza joint with a craft beer problem (if such a thing was possible) right next door to the Hotel Valley Ho where I was staying.
I had a flight of local beers (+ more, don’t judge) and the Fico pizza (add prosciutto, because everything’s better with prosciutto).
This place is great for a casual, but exceptionally delicious, lunch or dinner that you can walk to from your hotel. Or lunch and dinner and breakfast the next morning because you can take the girl outta college but you can’t take the college outta the girl.
After lunch I drove across the street to the Hotel Valley Ho (yeah, I didn’t know it was rightthere–the fact that I’ve made my living as a professional traveler for so long should shock everyone).
I checked in, spent some time checking out the place, unpacking a bit, and sashaying around my new Mad Men-esque accommodations like Joan through a room of secretaries. I’ve got a thing or two to learn about smack-talk but otherwise ‘twas a productive hour.
Wine tasting in Old Town Scottsdale
To continue 2019: The Great Year of Wine Tasting, I first made my way to the tasting room for LDV Winery—a short 14-minute walk from Hotel Valley Ho and an even shorter Uber ride (what, it was drizzling).
LDV is a winery that focuses on sustainable farming and high quality gluten free and vegan wines like Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, and more. Do these words mean anything to you? Good! You’re a wine person. Or a California Raisin.
We were able to taste five wines and learn all about them plus we opted for the extra cheese/meat/cracker trio because this was not our first rodeo. (Although, it would be that week… you’ll see.)
After our tasting at LDV we walked across the street to the tasting room for Merkin Vineyards. Sure, the artwork here was *interesting* but I just chalked it up to the fact that I’m a weak wine drinker who’d just downed her 5th hefty sample and my own name wasn’t making much sense to me anymore.
After our server introduced herself and the fact that Merkin Vineyards is owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the band TOOL, it all made complete, disturbing sense.
Being a fan of TOOL myself, I was like, “Finally! A wine tasting where I just might pay attention!” And it’s a good thing I did because… whoa. The things I learned. But also–the things I can’t unhear.
Besides their intriguing names, the wines at Merkin are really, really good! The stories? Even better. If you’re looking for a wine tasting with a little less “Now let’s talk about grape varietals for another half hour” and a little more “Oh, a merkin is an old-timey pubic wig,” absolutely stop by the Merkin tasting room
Tour of Old Town Scottsdale
After consuming a healthy amount of wine and learning more than I’d anticipated about company taxidermy parties, we were picked up at Merkin by Captain Kirk of JoyridesAZ for our golf cart tour of Old Town Scottsdale.
This may not be Phil Mickelson’s Scottsdale anymore but I don’t know a soul who doesn’t like golf carts. They aren’t just for golfers and retirees anymore, Bub. (Look at them repurposing things!) I mean, if thick, black-rimmed nerd glasses can turn hip, so can golf carts.
Captain Kirk’s tour of Old Town Scottsdale was informative and hella entertaining. He really did a great job of introducing us to this historic city while keeping us in stitches. Plus, he brought blankets on that chilly, chilly night and that is definitely one way to this girl’s heart.
We drove all over Old Town Scottsdale—down the historic streets, through the more modern parts, past statues and monuments and missions, on streets we for sure thought didn’t allow golf carts, and right to the door of the restaurant where we ate dinner. It was such a fun way to get acquainted with the city! Walking be damned!
Dinner at Citizen Public House
To end the night we had dinner at Citizen Public House, the kind of place where the salad has its own Facebook page. Because it does and it damn well deserves it.
Citizen Public House is an award-winning eatery and craft cocktail bar… so I think it goes without saying I ordered a meatloaf and a beer. Obviously, there’s something for all types here. Other must-try items: the bacon fat popcorn and the Bernie’s Mac ‘N Cheese.
And yes, their Original Chopped Salad has its own Facebook page (with more followers than yours truly, I might add) and it’s incredible. It’s less of a salad really and more of just a bunch of seemingly random things tossed in a bowl together, but it works.
The service here was some of the best I experienced in Scottsdale and the place is within walking distance of Hotel Valley Ho. Score one for a day free of driving!
4 days in Scottsdale: Day 2
The second of my 4 days in Scottsdale started out, shall we say, at the ass crack of dawn?
Hot air balloon ride
Hot air ballooning dominates the list of popular activites in the Scottsdale area so I knew I had to do it during my trip. Even though the act of floating above the earth in a tiny basket carried by a balloon powered by fire makes zero sense to me. But if I can get over flying over the ocean in a steel tube, I can do the same with this. The less you know. 💫
Turns out, the countryside (is that word applicable in the desert?) surrounding Scottsdale is one of the most ideal places in the country to take a hot air balloon ride—perfect weather conditions and all. So naturally, everyone’s doing it.
My Scottsdale hot air ballooning experience
My hot air balloon adventure with Hot Air Expeditions began at 6:00 am when I was picked up at the Hotel Valley Ho and driven to a yet to be disclosed location.
Fast forward a few hours and I’m officially addicted to hot air ballooning! It was the most serene and unique experience I’ve had in a long time and I can’t wait to do it again.
For more on my hot air ballooning adventures, I’ve written two posts about it: this one on what you need to know for a hot air balloon ride, and this one on what to pack for a winter hot air balloon ride. Also, watch this video:
Lunch at Diego Pops
After returning to the Hotel Valley Ho and taking a shower (TMI?), I found myself back in Old Town Scottsdale for lunch at Diego Pops, an easy, breezy, hip Mexican-ish food joint.
Besides the entire lunch being aesthetically-pleasing, the food here is incredible. I chowed down on the to-die-for Brussels Sprout Nachos, the grilled street corn, topped it all off with a Sonoran Hot Dog, and washed it all down with a prickly pear margarita. My tastes buds give it all two thumbs 10,000 bulbous nerve endings up! (That sounded better in my head.)
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
After lunch, we drove over to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, henceforth referred to as SMoCA. Scottsdale, Arizona is a city for art lovers.
There are over 100 art galleries, almost another 100 public art pieces, and two museums, this being one of them. Obviously art—whatever your definition—is going to play a major part in your 4 days in Scottsdale.
Now, I’m not typically a fan of contemporary art—I’m one of those people that just doesn’t “get” it. But I have to admit this museum does have some really cool pieces, some really fun, giggle-inducing pieces, pieces you can’t possibly forget for better or for worse, and one of my new favorite pieces of “art.”
Did I spend most of my time here spinning around on the spinning chairs? Yeahhh. But I also spent some time checking out James Turrell’s skyspace, listening to the bird sounds in the courtyard exhibit called Murmuration, and watching a woman paint a wall by ballroom dancing in hairy shoes. Okay, some pieces are stranger than others.
Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West
Desiring a form of art that’s more my speed, I then headed over to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Not wholly an art museum, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West (because yes, there are others) aims to tell the story of the Greater Western region, focusing on how the past has played into their future.
Some of the exhibits include Western-centric paintings and other visual art (this was my favorite part), a sculpture garden, Hopi pottery, and a collection of saddles, spurs, sheriff’s badges, and other quintessential “Western” items. There are photo ops and video footage, and everything here is so interesting and visually appealing.
I really wanted to get a sense of the West during my 4 days in Scottsdale and I definitely found that here at the Museum of the West. (imagine that!)
Old Town Scottsdale public art
Before dinner I had some time to kill in Old Town Scottsdale so I walked around checking out some of the nearly 100 public art pieces. Scottsdale, Arizona is bursting with cool public art quite literally on every corner. It’s incredibly inspired, some of it is interactive, and all of it is engaging.
My favorite piece is called Horseshoe Falls by artist Michael Maglich. What looks merely like rusty poles are actually stacks of horseshoes. Push the nearby button and the whole area fills with cold, wet (I know this because I got in this) fog.
The water collects on the horseshoes and creates a kind of waterfall. The lesson here: Scottsdale’s public art is not always what it seems. But also, always push the mysterious buttons on street corners!
Dinner at Zuzu
Being that it was my last night at Hotel Valley Ho, I opted for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Zuzu. This turned out to be my favorite meal of my whole 4 days in Scottsdale.
Zuzu is a brand-newly designed space and it’s Mad Men-er than ever. Everything I had from their unique menu was incredible. They even have a menu option called “Zuzu, Take the Wheel” where you just sit back and let the chef do all the deciding for you.
My top choices: the beef tartare, the harimasa crisp, and for dessert, the Showstopper Shake of the month.
Drinks at Coach House
After dinner, we walked down the street to the Coach House to fill what little space was left inside me. I’m prrrretty sure those beers just went straight to my wrists.
The Coach House is Scottsdale’s oldest tavern, having been owned by the same family since it opened in 1959. Today, it’s a dive bar with a Christmas addiction and definitely a place worth checking out. If your eyes still work after entering.
4 days in Scottsdale: Day 3
Because Day 2 of my 4 days in Scottsdale started so early and was so very, very long, Day 3 began with brunch in the room because to my door, in my robe was about all I could muster before sunrise.
Hotel Valley Ho has an incredible in-room brunch menu and you betcha I was going to take advantage of that before checking out. What would Betty Draper do?
One of Scottsdale’s most prized possessions is Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home Taliesin West. It’s just recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws visitors from all over. Even from out of their robes at the Hotel Valley Ho.
At Taliesin West, I took an awesome and super informative guided tour of the entire property. I got to see so many rooms and learn about the man and architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his famous architecture style—a style I thought for sure I’d hate but, who’da thunk it?, I loved!
His home was so cozy—definitely not a term I used when just looking at pictures. Being there is a whole ‘nother story.
Next up was a short drive to Cosanti—the gallery, studio, and shop of Italian-American architect (and former student of Frank Lloyd Wright) Paolo Soleri.
Here at Cosanti, they still make Soleri’s famous bronze bells in some of the most interesting studio space I’ve ever seen.
We got to tour the studio and watch as the crew went through the process of pouring the molten bronze into the molds. It was interesting and terrifying all the same. I thought for sure someone was gonna lose a hand. And, somehow, that someone was gonna be me.
After one of the most intriguing art tours I’ve taken, we headed back towards Old Town Scottsdale for lunch at Postino—not to be consfused with Cosanti, which I did many, many times. It’s a wonder this Scottsdale itinerary went off without a hitch.
Postino is housed inside a former bank (and if you know me at all, you know I love restaurants that used to be banks) and decorated floor to ceiling in one dude’s collection of matchbooks from around the world. I realize there’s a lot going on in that sentence—just roll with it.
Everything I had at Postino was delicious—I mean, everything! The crispy cauliflower, what I’m calling the Bruschetta Flight, the French onion soup, and the prosciutto + brie panini… shut up, art tours make me hungry.
Definitely stop in here for a casual but delicious lunch in the Old Town.
After Postino, I walked across the street to the Dick’s Sporting Goods. This is going somewhere cool I promise.
Inside the Fashion Square Mall is an art experience called Wonderspaces. Wonderspaces is a collection of unique art exhibits from all over the world. “Unique” being a complete and utter understatement.
The exhibits at Wonderspaces blew my mind. Most of them are interactive and the ones that aren’t are simply magical. There’s the wall of confessions where visitors write anonymous confessions for the world to see.
There are the plants that talk to you, the sewing machine orchestra, the chorus of pedestrians on New York City streets that you control with a piano, and what I like to call “The Matrix.”
In a city dominated by art, this was my favorite art experience of my entire 4 days in Scottsdale. If you like your art on the modern side but want something you can completely absorb, appreciate, and that will inspire you beyond belief, please visit Wonderspaces. Plus, there’s a bar.
Check in at Civana
After having our minds blown at Wonderspaces, we hopped in the car and made the beautiful drive out into the desert to check in at Civana, our spa retreat for the next few days.
Just upon arriving at Civana you’re instantly relaxed. Spa voices galore and the world’s tastiest juice (their “welcome elixir”) will do that to you. I dropped off my stuff, spent some time taking pictures of the sunset, then gathered the girls.
Dinner at Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue
If you’re laughing at the fact that the first thing I did at the spa resort was ditch it in favor of a hearty BBQ dinner, then you’re my kind of people. It’s true—our first dinner at our spa resort was actually a few miles down the dark, dirty road in a town called Cave Creek.
Having dinner at Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue was a really fun experience. We went nuts and ordered a little bit of everything: brisket (da best!), ribs, pulled pork, habanero chicken, corn bread, cowboy beans, slaw, and eventually some ice cream sandwiches.
Scottsdale may be hip and artsy, but nearby Cave Creek has all the down home Western charm I was looking for. I told you this itinerary had a little bit of everything. Still not convinced?
Live bull riding at the Buffalo Chip
We’d heard about the live bull riding but still weren’t exactly sure what to expect. It wasn’t until we were told Wednesdays were “amateur nights” that our plans solidified.
The Buffalo Chip Saloon is an enormous bar, restaurants, and, yes, live bull riding arena in Cave Creek. There are multiple bands playing on multiple stages, bartenders swinging from the ceiling, a mechanical bull, fire pits, and totally random people signing waivers and hopping on bulls. And if this ain’t the definition of YOLO, I dunno what is.
Being from Tennessee, I’m no stranger to barn parties; but this was my first amateur night at a bull riding bar and I have to say I’m a huge fan. Did I ride the bull? No. But did I want to? You better bull-ieve it! But ya girl was wearing a dress and sometimes I’m a lady. I did, however, get to pet ol’ Bullfrog the bull.
If you really want a piece of everything in Scottsdale, be sure to visit the Buffalo Chip—it’s an experience you have to see to believe.
4 days in Scottsdale: Day 4
My last full day in Scottsdale started with a pre-sunrise breakfast at Civana’s Café Meto. Gimme all the avocado toasttttt… for I am about to embark on a journey that will mostly likely result in many bruises—both physical and emotional.
The rest of the day was going to be trying out more of this “wellness” thing and that “relaxation” business therapists are always telling me I need more of.
Mountain biking with REI Adventures
Yes, the last of my 4 days in Scottsdale started out with an activity that almost always results in tears and tantrums. I. Hate. Mountain biking.
However, I really wanted to spend some time in Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve and I knew this would be the best way to see it.
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is a huge, protected habitat that covers over 30,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. It’s technically the largest urban park in the U.S. and has over 215 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails.
With the little amount of time I had, I knew hiking it was out of the question because I am suh-lowwwww. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also a really slow biker as well but being slow on a bike is still faster than being slow on foot. Logic, duh.
Well, it turns out I’ve been unfair to mountain biking this whole time. I was actually doing it all wrong.
For my mountain biking adventure in Scottsdale I did a half day tour with Rei Adventures and that made ALL the difference. I was picked up at Civana, provided with a quality bike that was fitted to proper feet and tush levels, given thorough instructions, and taken on an awesome guided ride.
I stressed my “beginner” status and was taken on the perfect trail—easy enough that I didn’t think I was going to die, but challenging enough that I wasn’t bored. My guide made sure I was safe but also challenged me. He showed me some awesome spots out in the preserve and taught me so much about cacti, rock formations, the desert, the wildlife, and so much more all along the way.
I thought the tour was going to end in tears the way all my mountain biking attempts do, but this one rocked! Desert puns 100% intended. After this outing I realized the key to enjoying mountain biking to have a professional guide lead the way.
Culinary demonstration at Civana
After being dropped back off at Civana, I totally did not change clothes (how else would everyone see how adventurous I am if I don’t show off my bloody leg scrapes?) and went straight to a culinary demonstration.
Civana offers a full calendar of classes—yoga, circuit training, cycling, etc.—but not all of them are physical. They also offer art classes, mandala workshops, even something called “Animal Spirit Guides,” and, obviously, culinary demonstrations.
As someone who hates cooking, I was delighted to find out this is not a cooking class. I repeat, another activity that will not result in tears and tantrums. *cue angel choir*
Instead, we got to join one of Civana’s chefs in the kitchen and watch while he prepares a meal for us and talks us through the steps. And in a brilliant twist of fate, he had chosen one of my favorite meals—raw fish.
After a great sashimi appetizer and a more substantial lunch at Café Meto, I donned my swimsuit and robe and headed to the spa.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I am not a spa person, but I will get on board with a hot tub any damn day. I began my day at Civana’s spa with some time in their aqua therapy circuit.
Civana’s Aqua Therapy Circuit is: heat up in the hot tub, then hop directly into the cold tub, rest and repeat. It sounds horrible, and at first it feels horrible, but man does that also somehow feel amazing!
One of the best things about the spa at Civana is that anyone staying at the hotel has free use of the spa—no expensive registrations necessary. (It’s only the treatments that cost extra.) Anyone can use the aqua therapy pools, the regular pools we all know and love, the saunas and steam rooms, the locker rooms, the relaxation rooms, etc.
Because I’ve never had a proper spa treatment before, I decided to give one a go. And I picked the most off-the-wall treatment I could find. Why go for a regular ol’ massage when you can have an Energy Aligning Chi Signature Massage? I asked and my chi agrees.
With time to kill before dinner, we stayed in our robes and went on a carefree walk around the property. Everyone goes everywhere in their robes here so we thought we’d give it a try. Turns out, I’m all about that #robelife. However, keep in mind this is a cactus garden.
The Civana property is intertwined with simple walking trails through their cactus garden, around the exterior, and then some.
After that we chilled out in the outdoor hot tub and watched the sunset. That sounds far more romantic than it was—maybe I should’ve said, “chilled out in the outdoor hot tub then jumped out to take about a million photos of the sunset because we’re travel bloggers who don’t know the meaning of relaxation.”
Dinner at Terras
Eventually I showered and put on actual clothing –the kind of act only food can motivate sometimes
On our last night in Arizona we had dinner at Terras, the main restaurant at Civana. The food was, unsurprisingly, amazing. And since this is a wellness resort, you can bet it’s all health-conscious food made from seasonal, local ingredients.
However, since “wellness” is an all-encompassing term that also includes wellness for the soul, I ordered the blue cheese burger + fries and a beer. You thought you knew wellness resorts, but you have been wrong.
4 days in Scottsdale: last day
Because my flight home wasn’t until the afternoon, I decided to squeeze in more activities on my last morning in Scottsdale. I’m all about the #timebudgettravel.
Desert hiking: Metate trail
Another item on Civana’s free class schedule is a guided trail hike through the surrounding desert. On my last morning that was a Metate Trail hike.
For these hikes you’re driven to the site and led through the trails by a professional Civana hiking guide. You have to worry about nothing. The hike itself was short and simple (all I had time for) but was beautiful and enlightening.
We learned about metates, all about the native plants and animals, and saw some beautiful scenery and some really whacked-out Saguaros. It was a casual and effortless way to spend some more time soaking up the desert before I headed back to Boston.
As you can see, there are endless possible ways to spend 4 days in Scottsdale, Arizona. I only scratched the surface. There’s also horseback riding, kayaking, way more hiking, craft breweries, a full-on wine trail, and so much more public art to insert myself into.