The city of Tempe, Arizona might not be the first place you think of when it comes to desert vacations, but squeezed between Phoenix to the west and Mesa to the east, Tempe (pronounced: TEMP-ee) actually has a lot to offer. First of all, it’s the home of Arizona State University, Sun Devils not Bulldogs. Don’t mix those up, it’s a thing. Second, it has several centers for the arts both performing and visual. The Gammage on the ASU campus hosted Hamilton earlier this year! And the area all around the campus is pretty hip, with restaurants, bars, and lakeside activities like kayaking and paddle boarding along the Tempe Town Lake, also known as the Salt River.
While visiting a friend who lives in Tempe earlier this year, we explored a lot of the city in a short period of time. All of the activities listed here are free!
Tempe Historical Museum & Public Library
My friend and I are big book nerds, so it’s not weird that we would visit the library. (If you’re a book nerd too, check out Changing Hands Bookstore -it’s an adorable independent bookstore that also sells book themed and locally made gifts) Actually, the reason why my friend took me there was because of the really cool art installation out front. It’s a map of Tempe made with locally sourced stones. Next door to the library is the Tempe History Museum, which was unfortunately closed the day we were there. Its exhibits focus on the history of the city of Tempe including pictures of the town during ages past, artifacts from the railroads and rodeo that were once part of the city. Also, strangely, a lot of hats. Museum open Tuesday – Sunday. Free admission.
Tempe Center for the Arts
The Tempe Center for the Arts puts on live performances as well as showcases artwork throughout the year. I have no doubt that their selection is top notch. However, this is not the reason we visited. The grounds of the Center is really beautiful and very hip. It’s the perfect place to play around and shoot some instagram pics. My friend dabbles in portraits and often brings families here to do photo shoots. There are several buildings in the complex and each of them have a unique flair. There’s the bright yellow and turquoise glass fences lining the walkway with planters filled with cactus. A really neat water display that looks like something you might find on the coast of Ireland or Oregon that doesn’t quite come out in photos (though I wish it would so I can share it with you!) as well as murals, walls painted fun colors, and those awesome top-like chairs that spin at a really awkward angle but don’t fall over. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time spinning around in those chairs – and I didn’t have to pay a penny!
Hiking Hole in the Rock
Though I’m trying to change, I’m not much of a hiker. I only want to hike if I’m going to be rewarded with a beautiful view or something really cool at the end. Hole in the Rock is a very easy hike that is really really popular with locals and tourists alike. Because it’s a hole, in a rock, in the middle of Tempe/Phoenix and you can see the whole city spread out around you when you get to the top. It’s really cool. There are picnic benches near the parking lot so you can have a little snack, especially good if you’re with kids. The Phoenix Zoo is on the other side of the street so you can tack hiking onto your zoo adventure if you are so inclined. But either way, it’s definitely worth it on it’s own.
Local LDS History
If you’ve never been to Tempe you probably don’t know that the area was settled by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, commonly referred to as Mormons. While, there are polarized views about the religion and its history the same could be said for other religions but we’ve just been exposed to those for longer so it doesn’t seem weird to go into a cathedral if you’re not Catholic. Because there is such a large population of LDS in the Tempe area there are two temples, in Mesa and Gilbert. The temple in Mesa was built in the 1950s, it was one of the first built and one of only a handful that do not have a spire on top. I really like the architecture of this building, it reminded me a lot of downtown Los Angeles, kind of art deco in a way. It also kind of looks like it might be a huge ark of the covenant. Or a tomb for a giant. The Gilbert temple was completed only last year. Most temples are designed by a different architect and usually have some kind of theme flowing through it. The Gilbert temple uses desert flowers and agave plants in discrete ways, like in the pattern on the stained glass windows.
Note: Those who are not members of the church may not enter the inside of the temple, but the grounds are always open. The Mesa temple even has fruit trees that you can pick from!
Scorpion Gulch and South Mountain
South Mountain is actually in Phoenix, southwest of Tempe. There are 51 miles of trails used by hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. These hikes are a little more strenuous than Hole in the Rock and take more time to traverse, so unfortunately we did not have time to explore on my trip. I can’t wait to visit again, when the weather is cooler. Be very cautious when hiking in Phoenix in summer. Temperatures will reach over 100 degrees and the parks department actually prohibits hiking with your dog when it’s that hot. Bring lots of water, hats, sunscreen, etc and go early.
At the base of the mountain is a pretty neat modern ruin called Scorpion Gulch. It was built in 1936 by William Lunsford who hauled the rock and built the store he operated and house he and his wife lived in for 30 years. The buildings are still standing, at least most of it. It’s a fun place to see if you like old stuff. Across the street from the Gulch you can walk out to the ridge of the mountain and get a great view of the city. From either the top of South Mountain or the Hole in the Rock, you can really see why they call the area “The Valley of the Sun”. It’s surrounded by mountains!
Lunch at Someburros
Okay, so this one is not free but you gotta eat, right? I am a San Diego native and currently live in Los Angeles so I’ve constantly got tacos on the brain and I am very open about my total Mexican food snobbery. What can I say, I like my salsa spicy and my tortillas soft. So believe me when I say that Someburros is legit. This restaurant is fast casual style, meaning that you order at the counter and they bring the food to your table. They’ve got all kinds of ‘burros’ even a veggie one. It’s awesome when places have vegetarian options you don’t have to substitute. They also offer tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, basically all the traditional menu items and you get chips and salsa with your meal. What really makes this place different is that they hand make their tortillas which is hard to find outside of Southern California. If you’ve never had an authentic hand tossed tortilla you need to get your hands on some asap – they will blow your mind.
Tempe, Arizona is a great destination, and perfect for a weekend trip. It’s easily accessible from most major cities with a short flight or if you live close enough it could be a fun road trip. Here are a few other things to check out:
Baseball Spring Training – The Chicago Cubs train at Sloan Field in Mesa. Dodgers and Padres train in near by Glendale and Peoria, respectively.
What is your favorite activity in the Tempe area? Let me know in the comments!
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