Tall Saguaro cactus ripe with yellow blooms cast shadows over the red dirt of the Sonoran desert. Flowering bushes ooze with white and pink bougainvillea. Resorts with towering palm trees are framed by red rock mountains. This is Scottsdale, Arizona. Just 20 minutes from Phoenix is the beautiful and buzzing town that offers visitors a wealth of activities, resorts, spas, and great restaurants. Plus, you’re close enough to day trip to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.
Scottsdale is the perfect place to indulge and enjoy. This Scottsdale travel guide and itinerary will share the best things to do, where to stay, and what to eat.
If you’re looking for a girl’s weekend away, an escape into the desert, or want a couples trip to explore, eat, and relax, Scottsdale, Arizona is the perfect place. After all, there are more spas per capita in Scottsdale than anywhere else in the USA. You can find cowboy chic in Scottsdale Old Town, explore Midcentury Modern architecture at Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, pamper and relax in some of the coolest spas, or take a hike and explore the desert. It’s called “The Beverly Hills of the Southwest” for a reason.
Not only is Scottsdale a wonderful place to explore, it’s close in proximity to some of the coolest places on earth: Grand Canyon, Sedona, Tucson, and, conveniently, Arizona’s state capitol, Phoenix.
I am continually surprised by Scottsdale. I assumed that Scottsdale was all about golfing and resorts, and while they do definitely have that, it’s so much more. This travel guide to Scottsdale will share everything you need to know for the perfect escape.
When to visit Scottsdale
With over 300 days of sunshine a year, you’re almost ensured to have a lovely trip. I suggest avoiding the summer, as the temperatures can rise to triple digits. But if you plan to come in the summer, you can snag great deals here. Most visitors come to Scottsdale at the beginning of the year, when spring training for baseball is in full swing. I prefer spring when the cactus starts to bloom!
How to Get Around Scottsdale
You’ll fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, from here, it’s a quick 15 minute drive to the heart of Scottsdale. I recommend renting a car while you’re here so you can easily explore the area and take a day trip if you’d like. We flew from Dallas to Phoenix and flight prices were extremely low – especially since Sky Harbor is a major American Airlines hub. If you prefer not to rent a car, you can take a free Scottsdale shuttle that will carry you directly from the airport to downtown Scottsdale.
Where to Stay in Scottsdale
One area that Scottsdale is not lacking is the amazing restaurants and resorts. We stayed in two different resorts in Scottsdale. Each one is different from the next and offers exactly what you need in a stay. Whether you want a fun and funky Instagram-worthy spot or a laid-back and luxury oasis in the desert, Scottsdale does not disappoint.
Just walking the grounds of Royal Palms is an experience in itself. An exquisite refuge with fountains, palm trees, elegant Spanish style architecture, and rooms tucked away from the world. I always look for a quiet hotel room and this is like having your own sanctuary in the desert with the Camelback Mountain behind you.
Royal Palms is the definition of luxury resort with it’s sumptuous grounds, delightful spa, and delicious restaurant, T. Cooks. Just make sure to walk the grounds during the day and night. It’s lit up beautifully!
During the day, you can lounge in a cabana by the pool or head to the two story fitness center.
We stayed in a secluded casita that had its very own fireplace. The exquisite bathroom was my favorite space in the room, with the huge shower with two separate shower heads encased in glass with Eucalyptus spray for the most reviving shower. It’s also connected to the huge walk in closet!
This is the perfect romantic getaway spot, you’ll feel like you’re worlds away, despite being just minutes from downtown.
Modern retro at it’s chicest, Hotel Valley Ho is one of Scottsdale’s first hotels. With a guest line up like the Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, & Sammy Davis Jr), Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, you’ll feel like an old Hollywood star in one of these suites. Two pools, plenty of beautiful Instagram worthy locations, a great restaurant and cocktail bar, this vibrant hotel has it all.
Originally opened in 1956, Hotel Valley Ho is a beautiful mid-century modern build that makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time with all the traditional comforts you need. We stayed in the plush 1,100 square foot executive suite that offers a beautiful terrace view of the pool. I loved the unique design elements like the cork floor and oversized bathtub.
Don’t forget to grab a bathrobe and a cocktail glass with a towel around your head to visit the pool. You know, for the aesthetic. You can also take a tour of the hotel and learn about it’s architecture and history.
Make sure to check out the on-site restaurant ZuZu. I loved the beautiful, retro feel and unique menu options like truffle grilled cheese and show stopper shakes. They’re almost too pretty to eat!
Scottsdale Itinerary at a Glance:
Desert Botanical Garden
Tour Old Town & Go Shopping
Dinner: The Mission
Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride
Dinner: T. Cook’s
Brunch: Hotel Valley Ho
Taliesin West- Frank Lloyd Wright House
Dinner: Herb Box
Breakfast: Sweet Dee’s
Hike or Kayak (or both!)
Go to a Winery
What to do in Scottsdale
There really is so much to see and do in Scottsdale. If you aren’t taking day trips to Sedona or a venture over to the Grand Canyon, I’d suggest at least a full weekend in Scottsdale to experience all it has to offer. As far as timing, I think you can see almost everything in 3 full days but I suggest pushing your trip to 4 or even 5 since there are so many activities here.
Cruise Around Old Town
This wouldn’t be a Helene in Between post if I didn’t recommend a tour. This is my top tip for getting to know a city. We jumped in a golf cart and cruised Scottsdale’s Old Town with JoyRidesAZ, locals who provide perspective on the area. We learned about the Winfield Scott family and the history before Scottsdale was a beautiful desert oasis.
Scott purchased 640 acres for $2.50 an acre. He and his wife, Helen, and his brother George got busy planting olive trees that you’ll still see today.
Scottsdale is organized into a few different districts that are all cozied up next to one another. To name a few, Historic Old Town, Art, and Garden each have unique characteristics and there’s something to see in each. You’ll pass by Bischoff General store in Old Town, that’s been around since 1971 and sells nearly everything. Pop in for some cool cowboy gear or a Diet Coke.
As you make your way around you’ll notice beautiful statues on nearly every street. There’s lots of public artworks on display in Scottsdale such as the “One Eyed Jack” rabbit sculpture, the Bronze Horse Fountain, and Soleri Bridge. You can find an artwalk guide here. This area is very pedestrian friendly and easy to walk.
Take a Food Tour
Scottsdale’s food scene is in a world of its own. I would say Scottsdale isn’t really known for a particular type of food, but everything they serve is just plain good. A great way to get your bearings and taste some of the best bites in town is with a food tour. Arizona Food Tours not only provided us with great tasting food, but we also walked the streets and learned more about the history of Scottsdale.
This award winning food tour has been around for 13 years, and I felt like I learned so many fun facts about Scottsdale, while also trying some delicious food. I’d never know about the hidden bathroom room in AZ/88 if we didn’t go on the tour.
I also loved hearing the story behind restaurants and how they make their mark in such an incredible food scene.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
This was my first ever hot air balloon ride, and for someone that is afraid of heights, I can tell you… JUST DO IT! It’s the most serene and incredible feeling to see the world from 7,000 feet above. We rode with Rainbow Ryders and they’re simply the best choice. Their ratings are impeccable (4.9 starts out of 500+ reviews), our guide made me feel comfortable and safe, and we finished the ride with champagne. Buy your ticket here.
We woke up just before 4 am and it was worth every second of missed sleep. As we watched the sun rise over the mountains, I looked as the desert landscape faded from brown to pink to white with pops of green cactus. Such an incredible experience everyone should have once!
Desert Botanical Garden
“A garden… in the desert?” This was my first reaction as we drove up to the Desert Botanical Garden. It was our first stop in Scottsdale but after looking up the “best things to do in Arizona” and this being on the list, I knew we had to go. I was not disappointed. Flowering cacti of every kind glittered against the red mountain landscape. This is a shockingly cool and impressive collection of cactus and flowering trees. The garden was started in 1939 by George Lindsay who collected plants from all over that thrive in the desert climate.
You can purchase tickets and get reservations here (recommended!).
Relax at the Spa
Travel to Scottsdale just wouldn’t be complete without a bit of pampering. I had a glorious Mind and Body massage at Royal Palms. Now I’ve had a fair share of massages, but this one was particularly wonderful. First, it started off with snacks! I was so hungry before the massage but Royal Palms was already a step ahead with snacks, hot tea, and cold water. After the massage you can hang in the Jacuzzi or the pool.
You can customize your Mind and Body massage with a selection of aromatherapy massage oils and a heated massage table. It’s quite the indulgent experience.
Kayak the Salt River
The cool waters of the Salt River are the perfect respite from the heat in Scottsdale. We headed to Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch for a self guided, 2-hour kayak excursion down the river. You’ll see wild horses grazing, otters slinking effortlessly through the water, and thousand-foot cliffs by the majestic Saguaro Cacti. The ranch itself offers rustic cabins that let you really get away from the world with panoramic views, horseback rides, and low lighting to enjoy starry nights.
Take a Hike
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is over 36,000 acres (36 times larger than Central Park) that are perfect for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. You’ll see roadrunners skitter by and mountain high cactus on your path. The Gateway Trail Loop is 4.5 miles out and back and is moderate intensity with 650 feet elevation gain. If you’re looking for an easier hike try Pinnacle Peak. Up for a bit of a challenge? Try Camelback Mountain’s steep incline.
You can take a look into Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter desert hideaway, Taliesin West, and take a “look over the rim of the world.” A UNESCO World Heritage site, you’ll get a good look at his unique architectural style and some fun stories of his quirks. Make sure to take a tour, it lasts about 90 minutes and runs every 15 minutes.
Go to a Wine Tasing Room
There are a quite a few wineries in Scottsdale but I’ll make it easy on you with two recommendations. If you only have time for one, make it LDV Winery. The love and effort the owners put into their wines is apparent after the first sip. The grapes come from volcanic soil in the Chiricahua mountains and their all vegan wine process takes three years to complete. We bought a few bottles to take home!
Another option is the fun and funky Merkin. Started by MJ Keenan of the band Tool, the winery is dark and dim, a contrast to many others. Make sure to try a few dishes while you’re there. We opted for bacon wrapped figs and avocado panna cotta.
Bar Hop at the Entertainment District
There are tons of bars and restaurants in the Entertainment District and from Thursday to Sunday the streets are blocked off so you can easily walk from place to place! You’ll find everything from loud clubs, cocktail lounges, and Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row. Nearby, the Rusty Spur Saloon offers live music seven days a week from 2pm to midnight.
Cosanti was the home and studio of Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri, who apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, It’s a gallery and still working studio that showcases Soleri’s work, including his bronze and ceramic bells. The real art is the structures he created out of the desert that seem to flow with the landscape.
Wonderspaces is a funky, interactive art exhibit that features art from around the world and offers some cool ‘gram-worthy spots. It’s located in Fashion Square so it’s the perfect place to go to escape the heat.
Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West
Museum of the West is affiliated with the Smithsonian and contains beautiful Western art as well as culture and history of the American West.
If you’re in Scottsdale on a Thursday, you must attend ArtWalk! From 7-9 pm this free block party allows you to check out live demonstrations, art, food, drinks, and live entertainment.
Where to Eat in Scottsdale
You won’t go hungry in Scottsdale. This city does not disappoint with its myriad restaurants offering all sorts of cuisines. There are over 650 restaurants in Scottsdale, so it’s hard to narrow it down. Here’s what you can’t miss.
If you only eat at one place, make it The Mission. This is some of the best cuisine I’ve ever had, the atmosphere is impeccable, and the service was delightful. Start with spicy guacamole and an elderflower or spicy hibiscus margarita. Then move on to the duck confit empanadas for an appetizer. For dinner I had tacos and Michael had the decadent Chorizo Porchetta. The modern twist on Latin cuisine is absolutely delicious (especially after coming from Dallas, Texas where we’re known for Tex Mex). Make sure to order the home made corn tortillas! The outdoor patio is dazzling and the low lighting and chandeliers of the restaurant are lovely.
This is the most decadent, indulgent, delicious meal. Everything was perfection: the wine selection, the fresh bread with pesto, the bone marrow with escargot, the signature cocktails, and the mouth watering entrees. This is a bit of a splurge as it’s the restaurant inside of the Royal Palms resort. But as you look out the window at the silhouette of Camelback Mountain, you’ll know T. Cook’s is worth every penny.
The Mix Up Bar menu is Mediterranean inspired and every single dish was divine. You can sit outside near the blooming bougainvillea and cozy fireplaces or inside with the Spanish terra-cotta and high back chairs. This is the perfect place for a romantic meal or celebration.
I was surprised a lunch spot at a botanical garden would have such high praise but the food at Gertrude’s is just that good. This is the best spot for feel-good food. Fresh vegetables, seasonal offerings, and delectable soups and salads are the perfect options after a hot day in the sun. The menu creates dishes from farmers near the Arizona and Southwest region so you know you’re getting farm to table fresh. Located inside the Desert Botanical Garden, after you’ve toured the grounds you can head here to eat. If you do anything, get the carrot hummus!
I recommend you make a reservation, here!
AZ88 looks and feels like a fancy restaurant but treats itself like a bar and calls itself a “modern day saloon.” This is Scottsdale’s most well known cocktail bar and stays open until 2 am and serves food until 12:30 am. You’ll find pub style food and rotating artwork that’s changed every few months. Opt for a homemade Moscow mule, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, and homemade potato chips drizzled with hot sauce and topped with blue cheese.
Grab yourself a glass of wine, sit under the misters outside, and indulge in their signature “bruschetta boards.” I opted for their prosciutto panini and tomato soup and scarfed it down. Postino is a wine bar, so you’ll find a great selection on hand.
Featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-In’s, and Dives (despite being none of the above) Bootlegger’s has everything made in house. From their moonshine to the beef brisket hash nacho flat (my favorite) and the smoked salmon tacos. This hole-in-the-wall is a great place to grab a meal and have some good hangover food.
If you need a lighter meal, then this is the perfect stop for savory salads, soups, and healthy sandwiches. They use fresh and seasonal ingredients and in a beautiful setting. Make sure to save room for the vegan brownie! Even if you aren’t vegan… just get it.
This popular restaurant serves Mediterranean in style. The high ceilings and low lighting make for a great meal out with the girls or your better half. Flatbreads, hummus, and an array of cocktails make for light bites or a full meal. There are also seafood dishes and shareable plates as well as signature cocktails.
Not only did I love this adorable pink and marble bakery and coffee shop, I think I liked the owner even more. A mother and daughter owned shop, this lovely, French style bakery offers inventive sweets (she often does themed days), vegan goods, and funky coffees and teas.
Located inside of Hotel Valley Ho, ZuZu is perfect for brunch, dinner or drinks. You’ll find imaginative shared plates, colorful cocktails, and a sleek bar with a mid-century modern vibe. The “Show Stopper” shakes are their over-the-top ice cream shakes that are fully loaded and change every few weeks.
Gelato Cinmino started in 2010 when an Italian family living in Scottsdale felt there wasn’t a true gelato shop in the foodie city. All the ingredients are flown in from Italy, making this a delectable treat! I’d say this tastes pretty close to Italian gelato!
Extra time in Scottsdale?
Scottsdale is so close to some of the coolest places in the world! You can take a day trip to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, or make a super quick trip to Phoenix! Guided tours are available right here.
Scottsdale is the perfect destination for your next trip. I know I’ll be back again soon!