After a decade of press trips to far-flung locales, our managing editor pitches a media visit to a more familiar destination: home.
“This is known as a miegakure-style garden. That means ‘hide and reveal,’” says Nick, the docent leading me on a toasty November afternoon tour of the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. “Our designer, Mr. Okita, designed the garden so that at no point along the path in either direction can you see the entire place at once. It forces you to go around and check out new things, see things you maybe didn’t see before.”
I feel the familiar thrill of a source giving me a perfect quote. “That’s actually a metaphor for my whole piece,” I say. “Living in Phoenix, but experiencing it as a tourist.”
After 10 years of taking press trips to other cities to write about them in this magazine – from gorgeous Kapolei, Hawaii, to tourism underdog Yuma, Arizona – I wanted to focus my voice recorder and inquisitive nature on a path more traveled: the Phoenix metro, where I’ve lived since my family moved from Tucson when I was 6. What have I missed? What could I discover in a place that is quite literally my job to know about? How does my city market itself to visiting media?
I pitch the “press trip to my own city” idea to my editor, who approves two trips in the span of two weeks – a solo sojourn with Visit Phoenix (where I live) and a group trip with Experience Scottsdale (where I work).
“I’m so glad you reached out,” says Emma Sounart, media relations specialist for Visit Phoenix (visitphoenix.com). “I’ve been wanting to do a story like this with local journalists for a while.” After some emails and a phone chat, Sounart has programmed a two-and-a-half-day blitz of Downtown Phoenix, threading the needle between two themes: Walkable Downtown and Downtown Art.
Art is on deck first, with a visit to Heard Museum (heard.org). I’ve been going to “the Heard” since I was in elementary school – I can still hear the docent on my first-grade field trip telling us to say “katsina,” not “kachina” – but I’d never eaten at its Courtyard Café. I order prickly pear lemonade (so Arizona, so something I’d tell a visiting friend to order) and the Spanish market salad, then wind my way through familiar exhibits and fascinating new ones, including “The Substance of Stars,” which examines Indigenous creation stories.
My base of operations is FOUND:RE Phoenix (foundrehotels.com), an art-centric hotel brimming with the work of local artists (Randy Slack’s “That Was Then, This is Now,” aka “Burtney” welcomes guests at the check-in desk). I haven’t been to FOUND:RE since it opened, and I had never roamed its art-covered halls. It’s fun to get a funky gallery experience in a hotel.
The “walkable” part of this trip proves the most challenging – and the most revealing of my “local” status. Our sprawling metropolis has an inherent car culture; I have been commuting since I could drive. The thought of a sticky 20-minute walk through Downtown, when summer still hasn’t burned itself out, is deflating.
Instead, I Uber to Wren & Wolf
(wrenandwolf.com), where I eat a decadent plate of lobster tagliatelle with king crab and chorizo and down two glasses of Chenin Blanc before I make friends with the table next to me and they insist I have a glass of their Chardonnay. This feeling I know from solo press trips: making friends with strangers. I leave with a new Instagram pal (hey, Chaille!) and a buzz, Ubering again to my final stop, Luckys Indoor Outdoor (luckysphx.com). Sweet barkeep Revy pours me two cocktails – hibiscus-kissed South of the Border Punch and a Lucky Negroni – and my first Montenegro, an amaro popular with the food-industry folks who frequent Luckys.
The next morning, I commit to walking. It’s a pleasant stroll to The Churchill (thechurchillphx.com), the community hub with 10 food, drink and retail vendors in one spot. I’ve been on dates and played Boozy Bingo there, but I’d never seen it in the light of day. I eat a Money Shot bagel from Stoop Kid (getstoopkid.com) and then walk through the Roosevelt Row Arts District
(rooseveltrow.org), taking in the ever-growing gallery of murals on its walls.
It’s time for arguably the most touristy thing on my Phoenix itinerary: lunch at Pizzeria Bianco (pizzeriabianco.com). A shameful confession for a foodie Phoenician: I’d never eaten at the Heritage Square location, always deterred by the line. After one bite of the Rosa pizza (pistachios, red onions, rosemary and Parmigiano-Reggiano), I realize I should brave the wait again soon.
Then it’s on to the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix (japanesefriendshipgarden.org), which I’d previously only been to for food events. What a gorgeous, truly transportive place. I can’t believe admission is only $12 ($10 if you purchase ahead online). I make a mental note to bring my sisters and nephew here for some tranquil family time.
My throbbing feet tell me I’ve walked enough, so I Uber to Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour (bitterandtwistedaz.com) for drinks and dinner. It’s the holiday season, so the Sippin’ Santa takeover is in effect, with dazzling decorations and tiki drinks. I would never go to this pop-up on my own, wary of crowds. But on a Tuesday night, it’s all right – buzzy, not frantic. As I dig into my fish tacos and fries, owner Ross Simon sidles up to the bar and we catch up. I’ve interviewed him multiple times, and he’s always so sweet and charming.
I finish my Phoenix exploration the next day with a visit to Phoenix Art Museum (phxart.org). I skip the Yayoi Kusama Fireflies room everyone is swarming (it’s incredible, but I’ve seen it plenty) and instead spend an hour in the Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory exhibit, which runs through February. The Chicana artist creates in many mediums, from photographs and paintings to collages of her personal effects and large-scale ofrendas.
Mesa-Bains’ work primes my palate for my final Phoenix meal: Barrio Café (barriocafe.com). I get the famous cochinita pibil because that’s the touristy thing to do, but I also order pozole, because I’ve never had it there before. I love it.
The heat of the previous week has dissipated, and it’s cold and drizzly as I check in at Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows (andazscottsdale.com). Like most Phoenicians, I’m giddy about the rain. The group of Canadian journalists I’ve joined for their Experience Scottsdale (experiencescottsdale.com) press trip? Not so much.
Despite our weather differences, I’m psyched to get to know the six Canadians and observe them on this expedition organized by my dear friend, Laura McMurchie, vice president of communications at Experience Scottsdale. Over a mixology class and dinner at the hotel’s Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen, we do the get-to-know-you dance journalists do on the first night of every press trip. They’re shocked I’ve never been to Canada. “You’ll have to come visit us!” I make a mental note to start plotting a trip north of the border in the new year.
It’s still overcast the next morning as we board a bus and head to breakfast at Hash Kitchen (hashkitchen.com), where they’re blown away by the gaudy cocktails, vast bloody Mary bar and huge portions. “You should see it on weekends with the DJ,” I say. “It’s like a club.”
I am most excited for today’s itinerary, since it boasts two places I’ve never been: Cattle Track Arts Compound (cattletrack.org) and Cosanti (cosanti.com). Cattle Track is part commune, part collective of studios you can patronize whenever the artists are in. Everything there was built by the artists themselves, starting in the 1930s. It’s a place I’d visit somewhere else and think, “Wow, that’s cool. I wish we had something like that.” It turns out we do.
As we approach the entrance to Cosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s original home and workshop for his experimental “arcology” blending architecture and ecology, the Canadians sniff the air. “It smells so good here. It’s a unique scent, the Scottsdale air,” one says. “It smells like a spa, or like incense,” says another. I smile, happy that the rain won them over in the end. “It’s creosote,” I say. “When the rain hits the desert, this shrub gives off the most beautiful aroma. This is the signature scent of Arizona. This is what we smell during the monsoon in the summer. Isn’t it glorious?” Also glorious, but in a Tatooine-y way: Soleri’s “earth-cast” structures and famed bronze bells.
After a tasty lunch at Postino Kierland (postinowinecafe.com), we trek through Wonderspaces Arizona (arizona.wonderspaces.com), which I previously and, inaccurately, it turns out, wrote off as a collection of backdrops for influencer photos. In reality, it’s a neat gallery of immersive and interactive art installations, from a wall covered in tape art to a room filled with bean bags and a psychedelic light show.
The Canadians get a crash course in Arizona wine at The Wine Collective of Scottsdale (the-wine-collective.com), a bottle shop and tasting room I didn’t know existed. Must return for happy hour, especially since it’s around the corner from my office. We have a showstopping dinner at FnB (fnbrestaurant.com), where front-of-house charmer (and PHOENIX wine columnist) Pavle Milic talks more about Arizona wine. James Beard Award-winning chef Charleen Badman even comes out to chat, sweetly gifting each of us a Meyer lemon from her own tree. I’m happy these are the people representing my city.
The next day is an Old Town whirlwind: walking tour with Ace Bailey from Hotel Valley Ho (hotelvalleyho.com), Merry Merchantile Market (merchantilemarket.com) at Scottsdale Civic Center, a flute performance and piñon coffee at the Indigenous-owned Native Art Market (thenativemarket.com) and an over-the-top lunch at The Mission (themissionaz.com). “These are the best tacos I’ve ever had,” one journalist says of the pork shoulder.
We finish the day at Musical Instrument Museum (mim.org), where I’ve weirdly been for concerts, but never the museum. I get the hype – it’s a singular, overwhelming place, with far too much to take in than our quick stop allows. I’ll return soon to linger. We dash to check in to the tony new Privado Villas at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (scottsdaleprincess.com).
The next morning begins dark and early with a hot air balloon ride with Hot Air Expeditions (hotairexpeditions.com). I’ve flown in hot air balloons on press trips in Utah and Colorado, but never in my desert home. The North Valley is stunning from above, and we see hikers, mountain bikers and wild donkeys below us.
Back at the resort, we relax at Well & Being Spa, take in the Christmas at the Princess holiday wonderland and have dinner at La Hacienda. I’m happy the Canadians’ last big meal here will be delicious Mexican food – and flowing margaritas and mezcal flights. We relish our last moments together around a fire pit at the ice-skating rink, making s’mores and sipping cocktails. Tomorrow is a travel day for them, but it’s an office day for me. Normally, I’d beg off early, but tonight I close down The Plaza Bar with the last folks standing. Press trip Leah says yes to two more rounds.
Embody the open spirit of a visitor by doing this in your own city:
Ask for recommendations (from a server, concierge, cashier, etc.) for what to do, eat and drink. People have so much knowledge gleaned from their daily lives, and most are eager to share it.
Assume a cheery attitude and willingness to chat when you go into a new place – or an old one. That energy attracts people who want to share with you, whether it’s a rec or a glass of wine.
Visit during off hours. If you can take a weekday (or morning or afternoon) off to visit a museum or try a restaurant, you’ll be rewarded with less crowds and better service.