By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Scottsdale, Arizona, in the bone-dry American Southwest, doesn’t look anything like my hometown in the wet, Rust Belt Northeast. Yet this sunny city of nearly a quarter-million, just east of Phoenix, has a decidedly ‘hometown’ feel, palpable even to travelers from far away.
A relaxed pace of life is part of that. The friendly, open outlook of the locals is another. The compactness of the downtown area, which offsets suburban sprawl in other parts of the growing city, also helps give Scottsdale a hometown vibe, and makes it easy to ditch the car and get out and walk.
The upshot is that this erstwhile East Coaster and his expatriated English wife feel surprisingly at home. Good food and drink, gorgeous resort hotels, emerald golf courses, splendid desert landscapes, spring training baseball, turquoise blue skies and echoes of authentic cowboy culture don’t hurt, either. I fell in love with Scottsdale street names: Chaparral, Indian School, Drinkwater, Cactus, Stetson.
Following our most recent visit, I composed a short, selective list – none dare call it ‘curated’ – of good things to do in and near Scottsdale. Cue ‘My Favorite Things’, the John Coltrane instrumental version:
● Desert Botanical Garden: This marvelous attraction is actually just over the city line in Phoenix, but since Scottsdale and Phoenix are contiguous, why quibble? Founded in 1939, the expansive garden claims to offer “the world’s finest collection of plants from deserts around the world in a unique outdoor setting”. The DBG boasts some 50,000 living plants, including cacti, succulents, shrubs and trees – many arranged around five themed walking trails. A treasure. For more information, visit dbg.org or call 480.941.1225. The Desert Botanical Garden is located at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix.
● Old Town: Located just west of Highway 101 and south of East Camelback Road, this Old West meets New West district is where Scottsdale began in the late 1880s. A handful of heritage buildings share the area with recent structures, most of them human-scale low-rises. The grassy mall near City Hall and Performing Arts Center is easy on the eyes. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art lends a touch of modernity. Mesa-flat and walkable, Old Town hosts a fleet of free, enclosed and air-conditioned Scottsdale Trolleys – a nice way to get around on a hot day.
● Scottsdale Stadium: An intimate 1992 stadium renovated a few years back, the ballpark hosts San Francisco Giants spring training games in the heart of downtown; the Arizona Fall League showcases hot prospects later in the year. Sports memorabilia and caloric ballpark food are readily available. The vibe is generally laid-back, save for minor leaguers trying to make the big team. When I was last there, a baseball fan called out, “Jobs on the line! Jobs on the line!” The Scottsdale Stadium is located at 7408 E. Osborn Rd. Call 480.312.2586 or visit scottsdaleaz.gov/scottsdale-stadium.
● Scottsdale Waterfront: Say what? A waterfront in the desert? Yep. Located southwest of Scottsdale and Camelback roads on the Arizona Canal, the area has sprouted restaurants, hotels and many restaurants. It’s very pretty at night, when fairy lights on South Bridge are switched on. Arts festivals and other gatherings are held here.
Here are a few prime places for good meals and snacks:
● Cartel Coffee Lab: You don’t have to wear camouflage gear or carry a satellite phone to order a coffee at Cartel. The Scottsdale branch of this hipster haunt, a local chain with shops in Phoenix and Tucson, is a hub of alternative culture. More important, it welcomes everyone, and the coffee drinks and nibbles are good. Worth a stop to fuel up or chill out. Located at 7124 E. 5th Ave, virtually across the street from FnB (see below). Call 480.621.6381.
● FnB: This James Beard Award-nominated foodie favorite remains down-to-earth and reasonably priced. It’s popular and buzzy, friendly and efficient. The kitchen does flavorful, creative takes on plant-based foods but does not neglect carnivores. A smallish place with indoor/outdoor seating, FnB (for food and beverage) is located in the warren of shops on East Fifth Avenue, just west of bustling Scottsdale Road. The wine list is good, too, and includes both homegrown Arizona wines and vintages from California and international vineyards. Located at 7125 E. Fifth Ave. Visit Fnbrestaurant.com, or call 480.284.4777.
● Sugar Bowl: No, not the annual college football game – a combination soda fountain and diner dating to 1958. Painted hot-pink outside, the Sugar Bowl is friendly, unpretentious and impressively efficient inside. Truth to tell, the toasted tuna melt I ordered on a recent visit to this old favorite was mushy and bland, but when we switched to ice cream, it was a whole new ballgame. Single scoops of ice cream for $2.25 are virtually meals in themselves – heaping, rich and full of flavor. Located at 4005 N. Scottsdale Rd. Phone 480.946.0051, or visit Sugarbowlscottsdale.com.
For more information on things to do, sights, accommodation, and dining and culture options in Scottsdale, go to experiencescottsdale.com, call 480.421.1004, or call toll-free at 800.782.1117.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others.