Though you can get away without having a car in Phoenix for one day, if you have over 24 hours in the city, you need to rent one. After exploring the downtown area on your first day, it’s time to check out the largest wilderness area within city limits in the US, South Mountain Park, then stop for a short visit at the Pueblo Grande Museum, and spend an afternoon at Mill Avenue and Tempe Town Lake for a taste of college culture.
If you are visiting in the summer, you may want to skip spending too much time in the sun and instead choose to take a scenic drive to the top of South Mountain. Then you could spend your afternoon in air-conditioned museums, like the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa and the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale.
Drive towards South Mountain Park and stop for breakfast at the Morning Glory Café at South Mountain Farm for a farm-to-table experience in the organic garden. For a true taste of the farm, order the Back to Your Roots, roasted seasonal veggies topped with two over easy eggs and served with a buttermilk biscuit.
After breakfast, drive to South Mountain Preserve and take Summit Road towards Dobbins Lookout for a panoramic view of the city. Stop at the Education and Environmental Center to get your bearings, learn about the park, the surrounding desert environment, and the ancient people who lived here and left petroglyphs in the park. Take the short interpretive walk, then drive up the mountain, stopping at scenic viewpoints. Or, if you get inspired, take a hike, especially if you are here during the spring when the wildflowers bloom. Note that Summit Road is closed to motorized traffic on the fourth Sunday of each month.
For an extra bit of quirky Arizona history, stop by the Mystery Castle, built entirely from recycled materials (it’s not a castle, per se, but worth a stop to learn its story).
After lunch, head over to the Pueblo Grande Museum to learn about the ancient people who called this area home thousands of years before Phoenix was born.
Drive over to Tempe Town Lake and enjoy a late afternoon in this desert oasis. Rent a bike and ride it on the five-mile paved trail around the lake, walk this same path, or take a boat ride on the lake. Visit the Tempe Center for the Arts on the shore, then walk over the bridge and watch the sunset over the water.
Within walking distance from the lake, downtown Tempe and Mill Avenue offer plenty of options to choose from for a memorable dinner, no matter what you are in the mood for. For a unique upscale dining experience, try the House of Tricks, which unfortunately doesn’t include a magic show but does have creative dishes like bison meatloaf and guajillo spiced game hen.