Let's Talk About Fun Things to do in Tempe - One of the Top Arizona Getaways
I’m from Toronto, and I love my hometown dearly, but I am starting to feel like each passing Toronto winter steals at least one small piece of my soul. Nowadays, once the first snowflake hits the ground, my mind has already wandered to greener pastures or, in the case of Arizona holidays, to beautiful deserts and temperate climes.
However, before I ever got to Arizona (a feat achieved only recently), I made the mistake in my head of noting that Arizona was a state where you could escape Toronto’s insufferable winters, and did little further research. If I learned anything during my time in Tempe, Arizona, it’s that this city and the surrounding area is so much more than a place that happens to have a rather appealing climate.
Tempe, I quickly found out, is a vibrant, active, intriguing and exciting little city, with enough going that by the time I had to head back to Canada, I had already made a mental list of all that I would hope to do the next time around. For me, it redefined what I thought of in terms of Arizona holidays or Arizona getaways almost in all aspects.
I want to talk to you about all the fun things to do in Tempe because, in my humble opinion, it’s a city that deserves to be on the map. At times, I can have an attention span that rivals an excitable gopher, and my attention was captured for the entirety of my stay there - so that’s rather telling, no? I’m smiling even thinking about my trip there, which, dear reader, is always an awfully good sign.
By the way, if you want to see what Tempe was like for me from a live perspective, check out my Instagram story highlights for the trip.
So, Fun Things in Tempe - Where do we Start?
Now, this is just me, but I usually like to start at the beginning.
Go Hiking in the Heart of the City
The heart of Toronto is filled with barely discernible condominiums, and in Tempe they’ve got a literal mountain - go figure!
“A” Mountain, also known as Hayden Butte, is the roughly 1500 foot mountain in the centre of Tempe. For me, it’s not just one of the fun things to do in Tempe, it’s an absolute must for any itinerary. The hike up takes about ten minutes, but the views are timeless.
It’s called “A” Mountain because of the sixty foot letter A on the side of the mountain, which, of course, pays respect to ASU, the famed college in Tempe. It’s sort of hilarious and reminiscent of that Abbott and Costello skit, but I remember messaging a friend from the top and letting him know that this was the view from “A” Mountain. I laughed when he responded back, “‘A mountain” doesn’t give much of a description. Which mountain is this a picture of?!”
I was fresh off the plane when I tackled “A” Mountain, and it was downright invigorating. Between the subtle breeze and the views of Tempe that last for days, go ahead and make this happen. If you’re really into hiking, you might also want to take note of nearby South Mountain Park and Preserve. I love hiking, and, as any good Canadian, I also like Snowshoeing!
Test Out the Local Breweries
Before I arrived in Tempe, I just assumed that all the breweries, bars, and restaurants would be neatly placed along Mill Avenue (the main throughway) in downtown Tempe. Was I ever wrong…it seems every neighbourhood has a brewery that is their pride and joy, so I want to talk about a few breweries in Tempe that tickled my fancy.
Four Peaks Brewing Co. - Four Peaks has been around since 1996, and they’ve really helped fuel the craft beer movement in this part of the country. As far as breweries in Tempe go, I think you’ve got to make it here if you’re a beer drinker, period. From what I gathered, it’s the Tempe brewery with the most clout, and I can say that it does live up to the hype. The Kilt Lifter, Peach Ale, and especially the Pitchfork and Hop Knot were a delight. The food was also splendid - I’d recommend getting a wrap on their famous beer bread!
Pedal Haus - What do you get when you mix a great patio with great craft beer? A great brewery! Pedal Haus is nice and central, which makes it an easy diversion from whatever Tempe attractions you’re trying to knock off the list. As with Four Peaks, the food and service was stellar, and the “hip” vibe really shone through the establishment. You ought to add this to your list of breweries in Tempe to visit while you’re here.
The Shop Beer Co. - This is the Tempe brewery you might have missed if I wasn’t saving your buns right now with this recommendation. I’m kidding, but, also, kind of not. The Shop Beer Co. isn’t in downtown Tempe, but that’s okay, because when you arrive there, it’s only the brewery that you can see, and you get the sense it enables them to create their own rules and atmosphere. As far as breweries in Tempe are concerned, this was probably the most adventurous and eclectic in terms of what they were creating. They featured beers like “Church Music,” a juicy IPA, and “Coffee Brown,” an American nut brown ale.
Get on a Mountain Bike, and Be One with That Epic Arizona Nature
What should be noted about Tempe, and perhaps isn’t understood well enough, is that Tempe is a mecca for outdoor lovers due to its proximity to some striking landscapes where you can bike, hike, and pretty much everything in between. Larry, our guide from Arizona Outback Adventures (originally from Ontario. I might add!), took myself and Jeremy from Living The Dream on a biking adventure I’ll never forget.
You want to talk about fun things to do in Tempe? - we spent the morning cruising across Usery Mountain Regional Park on mountain bikes with the Arizona sun high above, and a brisk wind to keep us cool.
It was a special experience to visit the Sonoran Desert and, as a travel photographer, it was one of those scenic places in Arizona that I was just in awe of. We stopped to learn about the flora and fauna, but also covered great distances on our bikes. To me, it was perfection, and I’d strongly recommend that you think about heading out here with AOA when you visit Tempe.
If it was up to me, all Arizona holidays that I ever take moving forward will have a component like this.
Throw and Axe or Two in Tempe
It is as it sounds, and if I was living in Tempe, AZ, I’d be frequenting this place rather regularly. When I’m talking about “this place,” I’m referring to Lumberjaxes Axe Throwing. I’m not sure if a place like this is what first comes to mind when you’re thinking about things to do in Tempe, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. Jeremy and I had a blast here, taking turns hitting the board and bragging, then embarrassing ourselves on the very next throw.
My suggestion would actually be to stop at a brewery before and have a beer, then get some beer to go and bring it to Lumberjaxes. It’s BYOB, but, remember kids, drink responsibly!
Stay at a Hotel in Tempe That Makes You Feel Like a Million Bucks
Now, I know what you’re thinking - can this really make the list of “fun things to do in Tempe?” The answer I shall deliver with minimal hesitation is an unequivocal yes. Soft, fresh linens and a comfortable bed? That’s fun. A gorgeous seating area in my room that made me feel like I was in Mad Men? Yup, thats fun. A buffet breakfast with an omelette that you’’re hesitant to admit you’ve dreamt about on several occasions since? Fun! A stunning property that befits your idea of what perfect holidays in Arizona can look like? Fun, fun, fun!
Without further adieu, I’m talking about the Tempe Mission Palms , a hotel which not only met but surpassed my expectations by a longshot. I mean, I had my own boardroom, so that helped, but whatever room you're in, it's just a nice place to be.
Feel free to take a peak at Tempe properties, but just note that I will get a small percentage of any booking as an affiliate sale. It's of no extra cost to you, and keeps the lights on at travelingmitch!
Take a Stroll Through the ASU Campus, and Acquaint Yourself With the Culture
I was incredibly fortunate to meet with Rob Cox and Jay Thorne who worked with ASU, get a good feel for the school, and then have Rob take me for a spin around campus in the golf cart. If I learned anything about Arizona State University, it’s that this is an institution on a meteoric rise, much of which was spearheaded by Dr. Michael Crow, when he took the helm in the early 2000’s.
I was particularly keen to visit the ASU School of Earth and Science Exploration, where they’ve got a model of the Mars Rover. I wasn’t aware that the Mars Space Flight Facility is actually on campus and is sending back recent images to the lab, many of which can be seen by the public.
In general, walking around the campus is a pleasant experience, especially when you find yourself on the famed throughways lined by palm trees and the like. I’m a sucker for education in general, so this was my idea of fun, and something you might want to consider if you’re planning a holiday to Arizona and know you’ll be in Tempe.
On the campus, it’s worth noting that you’ll find the ASU Art Museum. Many of the exhibits are currently under renovation, but it should be up and running in no time. I was particularly struck by the exterior of the building itself, but the interior was also impressive. The two collections I was able to peruse certainly made it worth the visit, so don’t forget about this when you’re considering Tempe attractions. I’m told the renovations will be finished shortly, and it’ll once again be fully operational.
Finally, I was able to watch an ASU Men’s Basketball game, which was high up on my list, largely because of the “Curtain of Distraction.” Basically, when an opposing team is about to take a free throw where the student section is, they’ll have a curtain open up and someone doing something absurd. One time, it even featured Michael Phelps in a speedo. If witnessing the “Curtain of Distraction” isn’t one of the fun things to do in Tempe, well then I don’t know what is.
Visit the Desert Botanical Garden
If you want a one-stop shop to learn about the biology of the desert, you simply won’t find a better place than the Desert Botanical Garden. It’s s short drive from Tempe, maybe 15 minutes or so from the centre, and I’d go as far as saying that this is probably a must in terms of attractions to take note of when you visit Tempe.
The Desert Botanical Garden is set up in a number of trails and loops which showcase different aspects of the desert, and that could be wildflowers, cacti, butterflies or anything in between. If you’re visiting between October and May, you should strongly consider going at night for the Electric Desert exhibit, which is immensely popular and people simply rave about it.
On your way to the Desert Botanical Garden you’ll also pass the geological formation known as the “Hole-in-the-Rock.” This is one of the best photo opportunities in the area, so think about stopping here on the way to the Desert Botanical Garden. For reference sake, it’s in Papago Park, and it’s really just a 15 or minute so detour, as the walk up isn’t long at all. You can see it in the photo below.
For me, taking that picture was a definite highlight of my time in Tempe, and I’m sure it’d be a highlight of your holidays in Arizona if you make the time for it. Just be sure to arrive early before the throngs of tourists arrive.
Live it Up When the Sun Goes Down in Downtown Tempe
Tempe, as you’ll be well aware now, has a large university within it’s city limits, and, when that’s the case, it often translates to a lively nightlife scene. There are no shortage of bars in Tempe, AZ, and I’d love to take a moment to let you know which ones are worth visiting if you’re in downtown Tempe at night. I just felt it was my duty to include a section like this if I’m purporting to include all the fun things to do in Tempe, right?
Varsity Tavern - Eat, drink, dance, and just do whatever you’re feeling in one of Tempe’s most exciting sports bars. Not to mention, you’ve got some pretty fine views of Mill Avenue to boot!
Rodeo Ranch - They’ve got a live DJ, a mechanical bull, and a rocking dance floor. I mean, what else do you need to know?
Culinary Dropout at The Yard Tempe - A more chill vibe, with fancier cocktails, and a lot of local music walking in and out of the doors. This is more of a gastropub, and might suit you well if you’re not trying to ride a mechanical bull tonight.
Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row - Any place that has over 50 craft beers on tap, classic American gastropub cuisine and 55 HD TVs is going to steal my heart, and it’s just that simple, baby.
Wander Around Downtown Tempe
I really mean what I say, just wander around downtown Tempe and see what you come across. I’d recommend starting around South Mill Avenue and 3rd Street, and then walking south towards University Drive, and then back down the other side from the direction you came. There are a few interesting stores that I just found myself walking in and out of such as the Hippie Gypsy, and, in my opinion, one of the most picturesque spots in all of Tempe is the view of the Valley Art Theater.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it, it’s one of those fun things to do in Tempe which is, more or less, going to be “choose your own adventure.”
If you want to be in the heart of the city, but walking around and exploring isn’t your thing, consider heading down to Tempe Town Lake, renting a boat and getting out on the water. It’s just a short walk.
Sample Some of Tempe’s Fabulous Restaurants
The sheer array of quality (yet reasonably priced) restaurants was remarkable. When I was in Tempe I had some delicious food, and I was shocked by how many restaurants just blew me away. I came back to Toronto at least a couple of pounds heavier, and it was worth every single bite (and sip, for that matter). If you’re planning a trip to Arizona, just make sure you plan a stop in Tempe, and get to work eating at some its restaurants.
The Farmer’s Market at Singh Meadows - You won’t find Singh Meadows in downtown Tempe, and that’s because it sits on 75 acres of greenbelts just outside the city. The breakfast that I had here is the most memorable meal I’ve had in recent memory. You’ll see it pictured above, and it was the Beet Toast, which consisted of noble bread, yellow beat cream cheese, a variety of beets, avocado, and toasted almonds. You could taste how fresh it was, and, quite frankly, it blew my mind. It sounds silly, but eating that meal is on the list of fun things to do in Tempe because of the sheer enjoyment I experienced throughout. I’m positive that every single thing on that menu will wow you.
Ghost Ranch - Arizona meets Texas meets New Mexico meets northern Mexico. Welcome to the relatively new restaurant in Tempe known as Ghost Ranch. With Ghost Ranch, Chef Aaron Chamerlin was really trying to capture the flavour of the region, and he seems to have pulled off the feat rather swimmingly. I had the taco platter with chile colorado, braised pork, chimayo chile, ranchero beans, rice, salsa, guacamole, and handmade tortillas. Yes, I was very full, and very satisfied. Isn’t a meal like this what Arizona holidays are all about?
Cotton & Copper - This place is hipper than hip, and is a place that uses the term “handcrafted cocktail,” and you can accept that as fact, not marketing. I didn’t get to try the food, but I did try a Contention City, which was a cocktail that had Larceny bourbon, Appleton 12yr, Banana Amaro, Root bitters, and Angostura bitters. I’m not a big fan of pop or soda, so boozy beverages are a hit for me. I’d recommend coming here for a drink, then walking the small distance over to Ghost Ranch.
Snooze, an AM Eatery - I ate more than I should have at Snooze, but that’s largely because I had this incredible server named Lyle who just knew what my perfect breakfast should look like, and I’ve got precisely zero regrets. I ended up with an ancient grain benny, which consisted of two poached eggs with cream cheese hollandaise, drizzled with tomato ragout, on roasted vegetable faro cakes, and finished with toasted quinoa and black rice. AND, I also had the blueberry danish pancakes because…why not? Hey, eating two unreal meals for breakfast has to be up there on the list of fun things to do in Tempe. Honestly though, I want to give Lyle credit, he was so kind I felt like I was having breakfast at a friend’s house, so I hope somewhat at Snooze gives this guy a real pat on the back!
Postino Annex - On a sunny day, when all feels right, I still contend that nothing feels better than having the perfect glass of wine for your mood. Right on ASU Campus is Postino Annex, and it’s ready to fill that aforementioned void for you. It’s simple, fresh cuisine like excellent salads, and a sophisticated yet perfectly understandable wine list. If it’s a lovely day, get a seat on the patio, and just watch student life float on by. I’ve been to some great wineries, and it’s not that, but what they’re doing works well.
You’re Planning a Trip to Arizona? Why Spend Your Holidays in Arizona in Tempe?
If the above text wasn’t enough to convince you, then I’ve failed rather miserably, but here goes. In all seriousness, what I think makes Tempe special is that it’s a city on the rise. It seems like whether it’s restaurants, breweries, or even the home university, everything is on the up and up, and a feeling like that can downright permeate a city.
That’s what I felt when I was there visiting. It’s not a place that’s full of glamour and glitz, where you’re going to be wowed in the first minute. It’s a city that you need to get to know, that deserves your attention, and if you give it a fair chance, you’ll be amazed by what you can find.
For someone like me who is constantly on the move, the proximity of Tempe to the mountains and the desert makes it a very appealing spot and, as I noted in the introduction, the weather certainly doesn’t hurt either. I’m also not sure I mentioned this enough, but part of the reason there actually are so many fun things to do in Tempe is because the people are so warm and friendly. Every establishment I went into, every tour I went on, and every Lyft or Uber I took, I was floored by the warmth, and I promise this time I’m not talking about the weather. Kindness? Yeah, that’s kind of fun.
Tempe treated me just right in all aspects and, as a writer of travel, all I can do is share the love. So, perhaps next time you’re looking for a getaway, you’ll think about Tempe. What I can say for certain is that when I think back on my time in Tempe, all I can do is smile, and I forget about whatever warmth I could potentially feel on my skin, and, instead, feel it in my heart.
I want to humbly thank Tempe Tourism for hosting me as media. All opinions are completely my own. Below, I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve been to Tempe, Arizona before and what you thought! Conversely, let me know what you thought about the article, and if you’re now convinced that Tempe needs to be a spot you add to your map as well! Any and all thoughts are appreciated, and I respond personally to every comment.
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