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Sights in Scottsdale, Arizona

Front of a historic white adobe mission with narrow windows, a wooden door, and a belltower.
The Old Adobe Mission in Scottsdale’s Old Town. Photo © Natalia Bratslavsky/123rf.

Many of Scottsdale’s historic and cultural attractions center on Old Town, easily toured on foot or by hopping on one of the free trolleys that stop every 15 minutes along 5th Avenue, Marshall Way, and Scottsdale Fashion Square. Two stellar attractions are located in North Scottsdale: the fabulous Musical Instrument Museum and Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West.

Scottsdale’s shopping venues and world-class spas are highlights in and of themselves. Even if you’re not a guest at a five-star resort, you can stop in for a drink and soak up the ambience—and the desert mountain views, which are among the city’s most iconic sights.

Downtown Scottsdale Sights

Old Town

There’s no better place to begin a tour of “The West’s Most Western Town.” This touristy hodgepodge of restaurants, bars, and Old West–themed boutiques is a little kitschy, but you’ll find some historic sites along with the shopping and art. And even if you’re not a big shopper, the live music courtesy of singing cowboys on horseback and Native American performers makes for a fun “only in Arizona” experience.

Start at the beautifully landscaped Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, a 21-acre park ringed by chic hotels and restaurants, hole-in-the-wall bars, arts venues, and the city hall and library. The cool fountains and mesquite-shaded walkways attract visitors and residents year-round. You might see friends playing chess in the sunken garden or a young girl posing for pictures in an elaborate white dress for her quinceañera (a Mexican coming-of-age ceremony held on a girl’s 15th birthday).

Across from the statue of Winfield and Helen Scott on the western end of the mall, you’ll find the Little Red Schoolhouse (7333 E. Scottsdale Mall, 480/945-4499, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat., noon–8 p.m. Sun., closed July–Aug. and holidays, free), the original 1909 Scottsdale Grammar School that now houses the Scottsdale Historical Society. Inside, artifacts from the Scotts’ home and a collection of historic photographs illustrate the city’s modest beginnings as a territorial farm community.

Head east to the outdoor amphitheater, a popular site for festivals and outdoor concerts. You can see Robert Indiana’s iconic Love sculpture on the lawn, along with a host of other public artworks.

On the far eastern end of the plaza, you’ll see Scottsdale’s City Hall, designed by native Arizonan Bennie Gonzales, whose Midcentury Modern interpretation of traditional Southwestern design transformed the region’s architecture.

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)

Anchoring the southern end of the mall alongside the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is the city’s finest example contemporary architecture, as well as the state’s only museum devoted to contemporary art. SMoCA (7374 E. 2nd St., 480/994-2787, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Wed. and Fri.–Sat., 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs., noon–5 p.m. Sun., $7 adults, $5 students, kids under 15 free, admission free Thurs.) specializes in modern art, architecture, and design—a refuge for avant-garde art lovers in the land of cowboy paintings. The museum’s “eggplant gray” stucco is meant to evoke the McDowell Mountain Range to the east, while the shimmering steel facade reflects the blue Arizona sky. The permanent outdoor installation, Knight Rise, is a favorite place to watch a sunset. The oculus in the ceiling distorts your perception of the sky, focusing your attention on the shifting palette of pinks, purples, and velvety blue while you feel like you’re floating on air.

Inside, architect Will Bruder deftly reconfigured an old cinema into a series of flexible galleries. The ever-changing lineup of exhibitions has included photography by Aaron Siskind, video works by Peter Sarkisian, and “Strangely Familiar,” focusing on design in everyday life. Regular events include the Friday night SMoCA Lounge and a summer program introducing kids to art through hands-on activities.

Old Adobe Mission

Scottsdale’s original Catholic church, built by Mexican and Yaqui Indian families who had settled in the area, celebrated its first mass in 1933. Originally called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Old Adobe Mission (1st St. and Brown Ave., 480/947-4331, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, Nov.–Apr., free) is being restored to serve as a space for quiet reflection. The brilliant white facade and domed bell tower of the Spanish Colonial Revival church were designed by architect R. T. “Bob” Evans to resemble the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson. Inside, a “truth window” (a small cutaway in the north wall) lets you view the building’s original adobe bricks, made by blending local soil, straw, and water, then molded and baked in the sun. The thick adobe moderates the church’s temperature in both summer and winter.

Central Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Sights

Camelback Mountain

The Valley’s most iconic landmark, a ridge in the profile of a kneeling camel, straddles the communities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Paradise Valley, luring some 300,000 hikers to its red sandstone and granite cliffs every year. Though the federal government set aside Camelback as an Indian reservation until the late 1800s, it slipped into private hands in the 1940s, and multimillion-dollar homes and posh resorts began to creep up its lower slopes. Finally, in 1968 private citizens, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, arranged a land exchange which protected the mountain from future development. The event was marked by a visit from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, who walked the mountain in high heels.

The 76-acre park on Camelback’s slopes preserves Sonoran Desert and dramatic rock formations where bighorn sheep once roamed. Today, it’s an excellent place to see smaller Sonoran critters like spiny lizards, roadrunners, rabbits, and, yes, even rattlesnakes, without leaving the heart of the city.

At the camel’s “head,” the Echo Canyon Recreation Area (5700 N. Echo Canyon Pkwy., 602/256-3220, free) is a popular destination for rock climbers who scale Praying Monk rock. From a distance, the freestanding, 80-foot-high rock tower looks like the camel’s eyelashes. Neither of the two steep, boulder-choked trails to the 2,704-foot summit are recommended for beginning hikers, but those with more experience will be rewarded with 360-degree views of the Valley and the surrounding mountain ranges. Trailheads are open daily from sunrise to sunset, but parking is limited. Avoid the congestion by carpooling or catching a ride from the Park n’ Hike shuttle (602/696-2883, $5).


In 1947 Paolo Soleri moved from Italy to Scottsdale for a fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. More than a half century later, Soleri is known for an organic style that merges Wright’s aesthetics with an ecological focus. Cosanti (6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Rd., 480/948-6145, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., free) serves as Soleri’s gallery, studio, and home, and reflects many of his theories on environmentally responsible design.

The small village includes his original subterranean “Earth House,” outdoor studios, student dorms, and a performance space, set amidst terraced courtyards and shaded paths. This is also home to the foundry and ceramics studio where the popular Soleri “windbells” are created. The bronze and ceramic bells (most of them $30–60) help fund Arcosanti, an experimental artists’ community 70 miles north of Phoenix. The casting process can be viewed weekday mornings.

Southwest of Scottsdale and Camelback Roads, you can walk across the 130-footlong bridge Paolo Soleri designed to span the Arizona Canal. It’s Scottsdale’s largest public art piece, completed in 2010 for $3.2 million. The bridge acts as a solar calendar, its brushed steel pylons marking equinox and solstice with a beam of light. The connecting plaza has large cast concrete panels featuring Soleri’s designs.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

Children, train buffs, and Americana enthusiasts love McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park (7301 E. Indian Bend Rd., 480/312-2312, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays, summer and weekend hours vary, free general admission, but tickets needed for entry to some attractions), a city park near Paradise Valley that has an air of the Old West about it. Formerly the ranch of Anne and Fowler McCormick (a grandson of John D. Rockefeller), it boasts a scale reproduction of a Colorado narrow-gauge railroad, a beautifully restored carousel, a general store selling hand-dipped ice cream, and an adobe-style playground. The train, donated by Anne’s son, Guy Stillman, carries passengers on a one-mile loop through a desert xeriscape arboretum. (Rumor has it Walt Disney tried to buy the railroad for one of his parks.)

Antique engines and train cars dot the property, including a Pullman car that was used by every president from Herbert Hoover to Dwight Eisenhower, and the “Merci Train,” one of 49 boxcars donated by France to thank Americans for their aid after World War II. The cars were originally loaded with personal belongings that ranged from wooden shoes and toys to wedding dresses and war medals from dead soldiers. Tickets are required to ride the train and carousel and to visit the museum exhibition ($2 each). The train and carousel schedules vary monthly. The park’s shade ramadas make it a popular spot for picnics, concerts, and special events. Check the website for detailed schedules and event listings.

North Scottsdale

Musical Instrument Museum

Combining graceful architecture, state-ofthe art exhibits, and an intimate theater, the Musical Instrument Museum (4725 E. Mayo Blvd., 480/478-6000, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., till 9 p.m. Thurs.–Fri., $18 adults, $14 ages 13–19, $10 ages 4–12) is so much more than a mecca for music buffs. It’s easy to while away several hours in the light-filled exhibit halls showcasing the spread of musical instruments throughout the world.

MIM’s two-story entry lobby has a gallery of iconic electric guitars, as well as examples of outsize instruments hanging from the ceiling. You’ll be handed a map and a set of wireless headphones before you set off to explore the geographical exhibits upstairs, where photographs, flat-panel video monitors, colorful clothing, and instruments detail musical history from 200 countries and territories. The growing collection counts 15,000 instruments, many of them works of art as well as historical treasures (such as the Chinese paigu drum dating to 5000 b.c.).

As you approach each display, your headphones stream samples of ethnic, folk, and tribal music, from an African village celebration to a Chinese opera or an American big-band jazz performance. Life-size dioramas recreate the process of making Indonesian brass gongs and the interior of the Martin guitar factory. Other displays focus on influential musicians, including John Lennon and the Black Eyed Peas.

Downstairs, MIM’s 300-seat theater is an acoustic gem, hosting a full schedule of concerts. Past performers have included Carlos Nakai, Shawn Colvin, Doc Severinson, Junior Brown, the Leipzig Quartet, and the Mariachi Mystery Tour. Other events include lectures and workshops (including many geared to kids) on playing or making instruments like steel drums or African thumb pianos.

Exploring MIM is like traveling around the world, and you’ll probably need a break after your cultural adventures. The on-site café (11 a.m.–2 p.m.) is worth a visit by itself, offering an innovative menu and views of the soothing entry courtyard. There’s also a coffee shop for quick bites, and a museum store filled with books, CDs, and instruments made by global artisans.

Taliesin West

Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, Taliesin West (12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., 480/860-2700, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, closed Tues.–Wed. July–Aug., tours $24–60), is the perfect synthesis of architecture and the desert. Wright’s use of local sand, gravel, and stone (what he called “desert masonry”) creates the impression that the complex of terraces and walls emerged out of the ground. He masterfully incorporated the environment by integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, diffusing harsh sunlight through canvas ceilings, and creating asymmetrical lines evocative of the surrounding mountains to stunning effect.

Wright first came to Phoenix from his Wisconsin home, Taliesin, to serve as a consultant on the Arizona Biltmore in 1927. He was so captivated by the desert landscape and light that in 1937 he used the money from his Falling Water commission to purchase 600 acres of land in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains.

Wright’s “winter camp” evolved into a small cooperative community, where apprentices and students helped build a complex of structures, living on-site in communal sleeping spaces. Wright thought his students should be well-rounded, so in addition to their studies, they helped with chores and performed in the Cabaret Theater and Music Pavilion. Some chose to live in tents around the property, where they could experiment with their own designs and building techniques. This practice grew into a more formalized program of “desert shelters” that continues today, with older structures eventually being razed to make room for the designs of new students.

The insular community resembled a soap opera with its entangled affairs and desire to create a utopian society. Wright associates, some in their 70s and 80s, still live on the property today. The National Historic Landmark also serves as the headquarters of the Wright Foundation and its accredited school of architecture.

Guided tours range from a one-hour panorama tour to a three-hour behind-the-scenes exclusive. The popular 90-minute Insights tour ($32) showcases Wright’s private living quarters and canvas-roofed office, where he designed many of his masterpieces, including the Guggenheim Museum and Tempe’s Gammage Auditorium. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and large groups, as well as on Tuesdays and Wednesdays September–June. Call ahead or visit the website for details.

Heard Museum North

For two millennia, indigenous tribes have made their home in and around North Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains, creating a rich and varied culture. Their pottery, kachina carvings, baskets, paintings, sculpture, jewelry, and other treasures are showcased at the Heard Museum North (32633 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480/488-9817, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., summers 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., $5 adults, $2 students, children under 6 free), a satellite of Phoenix’s outstanding Heard Museum.

Heard North is set in a stunning bit of desert just south of Carefree on Scottsdale Road, among the rounded rock formations that gave the neighboring Boulders Resort its name. Attend a lecture or program, join a free tour of its two galleries, and browse the museum shop featuring artwork from American Indian artisans. Stroll through the sculpture garden or have a bite in the outdoor café, where you might spot javelina, desert cottontails, or quail wandering the lightly developed neighborhood. You can walk next door to the adobe-inspired El Pedregal shopping center, where you’ll find shops, restaurants, and the occasional festival in its open-air courtyard.

Penske Racing Museum

Car buffs will appreciate the small but very well-designed Penske Racing Museum (7125 E. Chauncey Ln., 480/538-4444, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun., free), which showcases 11 of the dynasty’s Indy 500 winners, plus stock cars, pace cars, engines, and memorabilia. It’s located near the border between Phoenix and North Scottsdale, where luxury car dealers line Scottsdale Road. Turn 4 Café (8 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), on the museum’s second floor, sparkles with trophies and overlooks a test track and obstacle course. The adjacent gift shop has Penske logo apparel and collectibles.

Scottsdale International Auto Museum

Detroit’s finest are the main focus of the Scottsdale International Auto Museum (9119 E. Indian Bend Rd., 480/302-6461, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun., $10 adults, kids free), located in North Scottsdale’s Pavilions Shopping Center. The collection includes auction items, with exhibition space for about 150 cars, including such oddities as Howard Hughes’s 1936 Lincoln Aero Mobile.

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