My first trip to Scottsdale, Ariz., took me quite by surprise.
Somehow I imagined Scottsdale as a predominantly golf and spa mecca, surrounded by miles of luxury resorts and lush greens with dramatic mountain backdrops. To be sure, that image stands true and is an important part of Scottsdale’s appeal.
What I didn’t realize is that this decidedly hip and romantic city can be easily enjoyed without a car, and so many of the city’s charming venues can be accessed on foot or with clean and efficient public transportation.
My husband and I chose Scottsdale for a much-needed getaway, since it is less than an hour’s flight from San Diego and was a part of the Phoenix area we had never explored. Since we aren’t golfers, we decided to check out the urban scene, having discovered that downtown Scottsdale boasts nine walkable neighborhoods within a square mile.
It sounded inviting to avoid the stress of standing in long lines at the car rental and negotiating our route via cellphone to guide us along unfamiliar freeways and streets. But could we really get the most out of our mini-vacation without a car?
We agreed to give it a try.
We booked three nights at the W Scottsdale not only because of its positive reviews, but mostly because of its prime location right in the heart of downtown, in the middle of the burgeoning entertainment district. While the hotel can arrange for paid shuttle service from Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, we opted to make the 11-mile ride to the hotel using Uber, for a fee of $22.
Our first adventure that afternoon was an urban wine-tasting at LDV Winery and Carlson Creek Tasting room, both located within walking distance of our hotel. Of all the things Arizona is known for, wine might not be the first thing that comes to mind. To our surprise (one of many during our stay), we learned that Arizona now has more than 100 wineries with award-winning vintages, thanks to the varietals that flourish in the high altitude regions of the state.
Our hotel concierge had recommended we visit the Scottsdale Waterfront that evening to enjoy the Canal Convergence, an annual, free event that showcases large-scale interactive artworks by local and international artists. We arrived just at sunset, and our first view of Scottsdale’s historic Arizona canal and waterfront area couldn’t have been more dramatic. The vibrant lights illuminating the walkways and the artistic balloons swaying above the canal created an almost surreal image of this chic and architecturally innovative area of downtown.
We enjoyed dinner just steps away, at Cowboy Ciao — a Scottsdale icon famous for its Stetson chopped salad and pancetta mac and cheese — as well as for a full menu of eclectic entrees and an outstanding wine selection.
You can’t get any better than free when it comes to public transportation and we took advantage of this perk the next day of our visit. The City of Scottsdale operates the vintage-styled Downtown Trolley, which takes travelers through the city’s arts, shopping and entertainment districts. We spent the morning hopping on and off the trolley to explore the heart of downtown Scottsdale, and discovered both old and new along the way.
Our first stop was Scottsdale Fashion Square, the largest (and most profitable) shopping mall in the American Southwest, featuring an astounding array of outlets that would satisfy even the most jaded shopaholic. After our foray into the material world, we were ready to go back in time and discover Scottsdale’s picturesque Old Town, founded in 1888. The feel of the Old West permeates this neighborhood, with its sidewalks lined with vintage shops selling indigenous jewelry and artifacts, rustic bars, art galleries and exceptional museums. In fact, Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, was recently named best Western museum in the nation.
We wandered on foot into the Southbridge neighborhood of downtown Scottsdale, where we enjoyed window shopping along its picturesque streets and experienced an exceptional lunch at FnB restaurant. The vegetable-based entrees at this trendy locale are incredibly creative and (though many non-vegetarian options are available), vegans and vegetarians would definitely give this restaurant a vigorous thumbs up.
Since it was a glorious early spring day, we decided to make our way to the Desert Botanical Garden, an approximate 4-to-5-mile drive from downtown ($5.25 one-way fare via Uber). This 140-acre garden boasts the world’s finest collection of arid-land plants from deserts around the world, accessible via winding paths that can accommodate baby carriages and wheelchairs. We marveled at the stately saguaro cactuses lining the trails and were surprised to learn that they have a lifespan of 150 years! An added bonus was to watch colorful butterflies of all varieties flutter before our eyes in the newly opened 3,200-square-foot Butterfly Exhibit.
It was evening by the time we returned to Old Town, where we were met by the enchanting glow of lights adorning the towering palms and fountains along East Main Street. We strolled down to the Old Adobe Mission, built by hand in Spanish Colonial Revival style by the Mexican artisans who first settled in Scottsdale in the late 1910s. The Mission Restaurant, located next door, was recommended to us by our San Diego neighbors who hail from Scottsdale, so we felt confident with our choice. And what a perfect choice it turned out to be! In the glow of an adobe fireplace next to our table, we dined on dishes that were a creative melange of Latin and French cuisine. Don’t miss the amazing tableside guacamole, which is practically a meal in itself.
The next morning, we took advantage of the W Scottsdale’s free drop-off service (to destinations within a 5-mile radius) and were delivered in style to the Camelback Mountain Echo Canyon trailhead. We spent the morning trekking up the rocky and challenging trail, past spectacular sandstone formations and breathtaking views on the valley and the Phoenix skyline in the distance.
Our final experience was a visit to the renowned Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. As musicians, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tour the largest museum of its type in the world. The 19-mile trip from our hotel to the museum cost $21 each way, and we would have gladly paid double for the experience of seeing such an impressive collection. Once you enter the museum’s walls, you can travel the world to see and hear the music and instruments of any continent. Our only regret is that we had only a mere afternoon for this adventure, as we could have gladly spent days exploring the museum’s fascinating exhibits.
It’s always a joy to end a trip on a high note, and that we did. After packing our bags for the next morning’s departure to the airport, we made our way to Sushi Roku in the W Scottsdale, where we discovered the culinary joy of “Okamase,” a Japanese phrase that means, “I’ll leave it up to, and trust, you.” Well, we definitely trusted Sushi Roku, and what a culinary experience we enjoyed in return. The exquisitely prepared dishes were presented one after another, from seared scallops, grilled octopus, blue crab tartare, Toro caviar, to the absolutely amazing Japanese Wagyu beef. It was an unforgettable dining experience and a perfect end to our Scottsdale visit.
As our Uber driver whisked us away to the airport for our trip home, we congratulated ourselves that we took the challenge to go car-less in Scottsdale. What a ride indeed!
DiBona is a San Diego-based travel writer and photographer.