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If you’ve never visited Tempe, Arizona, now’s the time to plan a trip! I just spent a long weekend in Tempe exploring this artsy, outdoorsy college town of about 200,000 just east of Phoenix and to the surprise of no one at all – I loved it! Tempe has everything that makes a smaller city thrive – a bustling university presence (Arizona State), excellent food scene, art museums and theater venues, impressive architecture and even a lake for watersports. With so many things to do in Tempe, the only question is why you haven’t started planning a visit yet!
Where is Tempe?
Tempe is a city just east of Phoenix, in Arizona near the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert in the Salt River Valley. It’s pretty convenient to just about anything you might want to do in the Metro Phoenix area, plus it’s got charm all its own.
Drive Times from Tempe
- Tempe to Phoenix – 10 miles / 20 minutes
- Tempe to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) – 4 miles / 10 minutes
- Tempe to Scottsdale – 6 miles / 15 minutes
- Tempe to Sedona – 125 miles / 2 hours
- Tempe to Flagstaff – 150 miles / 2.5 hours
- Tempe to Las Vegas – 310 miles / 5 hours
- Tempe to the Grand Canyon – 240 miles / 4 hours
Tempe is about 10 minutes’ drive to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), known as America’s Friendliest Airport. It’s one of the US’ busiest, serving 45 million passengers a year as a hub for both American Airlines and Southwest.
3-Day Tempe Itinerary
So you’re in town to drop a kid off at ASU or maybe you’ve got Hamilton tickets at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed ASU Gammage, but you want to know what to do with the rest of your long weekend in Tempe. I’ve got you covered with this fun things to do in Tempe itinerary, designed for summer heat, but applicable to any season.
Day 1 in Tempe
Arizona Heritage Center
First stop, the Arizona Heritage Center at Papago Park. This is a must-visit for the first time visitor to Arizona! The 48th state has a fascinating history, spanning Native American cultures, agricultural innovation, desert life and explosive growth after WWII. A visit to the Heritage Center will give you context for the rest of your visit.
Explore Mill Ave
Tempe’s main street is Mill Avenue, named for the Hayden Flour Mill at the northern edge of town. The 100-year-old mill is still standing as a landmark to Tempe’s early days, when the town was little more than a ferry crossing over the Salt River. Now, it’s filled with quirky shops, bars, restaurants, art installations and thoughtfully, lots of misting fans on the outdoor patios.
Nighttime Flashlight Tour of the Desert Botanical Garden
Plant ladies of the world unite! And hey, even if you’re not a plant lady, this was such a fun adventure for all ages. I grabbed a flashlight and made my way out to the famous Desert Botanical Garden just before sunset for a self-guided tour through 140 acres and 50,000 species of cactus, trees and flowers from a mesquite bosque, semidesert grassland and upland chaparral.
If you don’t know what any of that means, no worries. There are docents stationed throughout to guide you and answer any questions. Sunset in the desert is just not to be missed. What a treat!
The flashlight tour is available on Saturday nights throughout the summer. Tickets are required.
Day 2 in Tempe
Hike “A” Mountain
One more “A” and it would be a mountain just for me! “A” Mountain is the nickname for Hayden Butte thanks to ASU’s “A” logo up top, and it’s a super popular hike. While steep, it usually takes less than an hour roundtrip to complete the mile-long trail. Many Tempe residents hike it at lunch time to get their steps in.
In the summer, it’s recommended that you not attempt this hike at midday. Every so often I looked out my window at the Tempe Mission Palms to see one lonely maniac RUNNING to the top of “A” Mountain in 115-degree heat. And that is just not advisable for the majority of humans.
The beauty of visiting the desert is that it’s sunny almost always, so factor in some down time at your hotel’s pool for frosty beverages and a splashy afternoon no matter what else is on the agenda. Just be sure to bring a big floppy hat and high SPF sunscreen.
Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, where I stayed, has a gorgeous pool with cabanas, a snack bar and sunshine to spare.
Shopping in Tempe
Tempe has excellent shopping, from all the big chains you’d expect at Arizona Mills, a huge entertainment and outlet mall, to Tempe Marketplace, an outdoor shopping area with water features and instagrammable art installations.
Day 3 in Tempe
Water Sports at Tempe Town Lake
You’ve got several options if you’d like to get out on Tempe Town Lake and take in the views of the light rail crossing over the bridge, beautiful desert sunsets and the flight path into PHX. Stop in at Boat Rentals of America – Tempe Town Lake to rent kayaks, paddle boats, electric boats, stand-up paddle boards and some fantastic giant swans.
And if the lake itself doesn’t interest you but the 7 miles of paved path surrounding it does, there are scooter and bike rentals available, too. Tempe Town Lake’s surrounding park areas are the perfect spot for a sunset picnic and they’re dog friendly.
Board Games at Snakes and Lattes Tempe
Stop here for yummy lunch with a side of competition! I didn’t have anyone to play boardgames with on my solo road trip, but I was so impressed by the setup – amazing food, craft beverages, coffee and hundreds of board games to choose from – that I thought about how I could bring Snakes and Lattes to Florida.
Then I got lost in my iced chai latte and the hilariously competitive friends at the table next to me playing Trivial Pursuit to the death – well, almost.
Is this all the things to do in Tempe, Arizona? Ha – I’ve barely scratched the surface! But it’s a great start for a weekend itinerary so you can get the lay of the land and plan a longer Arizona trip in the future – like I absolutely plan to do!
Where to Stay in Tempe, Arizona
Tempe Mission Palms Hotel & Conference Center
Tempe Mission Palms was one of the best hotels I’ve visited in a long time. The interior is reflective of the desert surroundings, with cactus wallpaper in the elevators, succulents in colorful pots on wood tables and some of the most beautiful chairs I’ve ever seen. (What – you don’t get excited about chairs?!)
The service was so good, so personalized, that I almost forgot travel isn’t always so lovely – ha! The hotel’s location can not be beat. Right in the heart of downtown, I was able to walk to Tempe Town Lake, all the ASU attractions and facilities and endless food/shopping options like Snakes and Lattes, Culinary Dropout and House of Tricks.
I stayed in an incredible corner suite overlooking downtown Tempe, the ASU Sun Devil Stadium and “A” Mountain. (When you go, ask for room 4090!) There are also courtyard view rooms overlooking the fountain and tall palm trees, and pool view rooms, too.
Tip: Mission Palms can coordinate a rental car so you can avoid the excessively long lines at PHX offsite car rental facility. Rather than waiting in line for a car, you take Tempe Mission Palms’ free airport shuttle to the hotel and they’ll have a vehicle waiting for you when you arrive. Trust me on this one – that’s a smart move that’ll save you literal hours waiting for a car at the airport.
Highlights: free bike rentals, rooftop pool, award-winning restaurant
The Westin Tempe (Coming soon!)
Highlights: Peloton bikes in the gym, rooftop pool, rain showers in bathrooms
Weather in Tempe, Arizona
Many of you have asked why in the world I chose to visit the American Southwest in the summertime. Arizona is one of the few states I haven’t been to (other than via layovers at PHX), so I thought: why not plan an Arizona road trip on the end of my Las Vegas adventure? So what if it’s June… how hot could it be?
Friends, it was toasty… in the sense that I felt like I was a piece of cinnamon raisin bread in an industrial toaster. I imagine there are better months to visit Arizona in general than the dead of summer, and lucky me, I happened to be there during an extreme heat wave. All that said, the desert landscapes never cease to be breathtaking, even if the best way to view them is from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, which I highly recommend.
Believe it or not, summer is a wonderful time to take advantage of off-season travel deals in Tempe, Ariz., so if you can handle the sunshine (hey, it’s a dry heat!), then it might make sense for you to visit from June – August.
Now, if crisping up like a Brussel sprout is not your idea of a good time, hang on a few months for what I hear is the most spectacular weather. After Halloween is when the temps drop and to a cool 75 on average through the end of April.
This 3-day Tempe itinerary works for all seasons, too, so feel free to use it any time of year.
I know I just said that if I were ever to move again, I’d consider moving to Tupelo – the last place I visited before Tempe. But now I want to add Tempe to the list, too.