See This, Skip That: Phoenix, Arizona

PHOTO: Buildings dot the skyline of Phoenix, Aug. 18, 2009.Joshua Lott/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Buildings dot the skyline of Phoenix, Aug. 18, 2009.

In many ways, Phoenix is a study in opposites: this is where urban meets desert, where sleek meets rugged and where modern is nestled in history and culture. A downtown boom is set against a backdrop that is both sweeping and breathtaking. And the experiences that Phoenix offers the traveler are as varied as they are endless. Here are a few of our favorite things to do in what’s known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon.

Skip the Pub, Sip on the Roof The rooftop garden at the new Hotel Palomar – a Kimpton Hotel has quickly becoming a locals’ favorite watering hole. LUSTRE, located on the third-floor pool deck, features great downtown views. But what keeps them coming back are the premium wines by the glass, the craft beer and the shareable menu of locally-inspired food items. Come Monday through Friday, between 3-6 p.m., for $6 specialty cocktails and flatbreads. Still thirsty? The Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour serves up awesome sippers inside the 10-story brick and stone building that was this city’s first-ever high rise.

Skip Lunch, Do Tea The Arizona Biltmore is alluring on reputation alone – Hollywood greats like Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy and Steven Spielberg have stayed here. But this deluxe Waldorf-Astoria property, set on 39 lush acres, is also known for its tea. Afternoon high tea in the lobby is a sophisticated treat for the taste buds, with a bevy of finger sandwiches, desserts and pastries to choose from. The Biltmore’s tea sommelier changes the tea menu seasonally and helps guaranteed a truly polished culinary experience. The cost is $45 per person and reservations are recommended.

Skip Dinner, Cook Your Own Why not use your visit to Phoenix to sharpen your kitchen skills? The instructors at Phoenix BBQ and Grilling School offer a six-hour BBQ cooking class that covers all the basics, and then some: how to cook on charcoal versus gas grills, how to use pellet smokers and how to make rubs and brines. Students prepare a feast of pulled pork, pork tenderloin, beef brisket, chicken, buffalo wings, sweet potatoes and stuffed peppers. And when cooking’s done, they sit down to savor the fruits of their labor. Thirsty? The class is BYOB!

After Dinner, Catch an Allusion Carnival of Illusion is not your typical theater experience. This Vaudeville-inspired traveling show delivers a sensual experience where magic and mystery get top billing. Show locations change frequently but regularly include the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix. This very intimate, parlor-inspired experience sells out often so reserve in advance. For audiences 13 years or older.

Skip the Park, Go Grand Need an easy way to keep the kids busy all day? Water parks do the trick, and there are a handful in this area, including Big Surf and Wet ‘n Wild. But guests of Phoenix’s Arizona Grand Resort don’t have to go anywhere. Exclusive to those staying at this 4-Star property, Oasis Water Park is a seven-acre wet playground, featuring a huge wave pool, a lazy river and a 25-person hot tub. The centerpiece eight-story tower features three waterslides.

Skip the Movie, Explore Science Want to catch a movie? Head to the Arizona Science Center, home to a five-story IMAX screen! The 280-seat theater features state-of-the-art surround sound and two spectacular, nature-inspired films a day; many are shown in 3-D. You can also catch a show against the NanoSeam dome of the Planetarium. And then stick around; the center also features more than 300 hands-on exhibits.

Skip Downtown, Go Ghostly If you have time for just one day trip, head east to Goldfield, a ghost town dating back to the 1890s. Located about 35 miles east of Phoenix along the Apache Trail, this is a throwback to the old West. Attractions are affordable: half-hour underground mine tours and narrated train rides around the town on the Superstition Narrow Gauge Railroad each cost $8 ($5 for kids). Shows by the Goldfield Gunfighters, which happen hourly starting every day at high noon, are free. So are strolls down Main Street. Check out the historic museum and the new zipline.

Skip Phoenix, Do Mesa If you’re looking to stretch your travel dollar while exploring the area, consider Mesa as your home base. Hotel rates in this city, located about 20 miles straight east of Phoenix, can be 45 percent less. And, from here, you can access a bevy of activities, like hot air balloon rides (check out Hot Air Expeditions) and tours of the Grand Canyon (consider top-tier companies Pink Adventure Tours and Across Arizona Tours).

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a ton of Phoenix deals ( as well as specials in and around Mesa (