Centuries ago, native people known as the Hohokam built an agricultural civilization on a stretch of desert known today as Arizona's Valley of the Sun. Some archaeologists believe the brutally arid climate forced the people to scatter in search of milder environs, leaving behind miles of irrigation channels, stick-figure pictographs and no forwarding address. From the ashes of that civilization rose one of America's fastest-growing assemblies of planned urban developments, golf courses and cactus, and it will host Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3. But maybe the Hohokam had good reason to skip town. ¶ Even today, Phoenix has a reputation as being an exceptionally forgettable city, unless, of course you're a golfer with a superhuman tolerance for heat. ¶ What's there to do in Phoenix during the Super Bowl weekend? I asked friends and family. ¶ "Best things about Phoenix are the highways leaving town," a travel writer from nearby Tucson responded. Even my wife, who attended college in Tempe and lived in Phoenix for two years, drew a blank when I asked for recommendations. Undeterred, I visited the Valley of the Sun for three days and dug up these gems of amusement.
Where to eat
Durant's Fine Food
Walk into Durant's cool, dark dining room, and you might expect to see Frank Sinatra holding court in one of the shadowy corners. This place is old-school hip with dark mahogany walls, red faux-leather booths and fresh flowers on each table. The waiters wear starched white shirts and bow ties. Best of all, the gin martinis are served strong and the steaks sizzling hot.
Dinner entrees $22 to $73.
2611 N. Central Ave.
(602) 264-5967, www.durantsaz.com.
Los Dos Molinos
If the red chili sauce at this Mexican eatery in south Phoenix is too spicy for you, don't even attempt the green chili sauce. The waiters leave a pitcher of ice water on each table, probably to avoid personal-injury lawsuits. This is authentic Mexican food with a bite like a pit bull.
Dinner entrees $3.25 to $13.95.
8646 S. Central Ave.
(602) 243-9113, www.losdosmolinosaz.com.
Matt's Big Breakfast
This red-brick restaurant is tiny, with a kitchen the size of a Mini Cooper, but the meals are big, greasy and tasty. Try the omelets, made with eggs from cage-free birds, with thick slices of freshly made toast slathered in butter.
Breakfast entrees $4 to $6.50.
801 N. 1st St.(602) 254-1074, www.mattsbigbreakfast.com.
Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area
"Where's the Summit Trail?" I asked a group of hikers after I parked at the base of 2,608-foot Piestewa Peak, about nine miles north of downtown Phoenix.
"See all of those people?" a gray-haired woman told me. "Follow them."
There's a good reason Summit Trail attracts more than 5,000 hikers a week. This 1.2-mile schist-lined path is a moderate to difficult climb with a 1,200-foot elevation gain and an exhilarating payoff: an eagle-eye view of the valley, from Scottsdale to Glendale and every golf course in between.
Directions: From Lincoln Drive, take Squaw Peak Drive until it ends; www.phoenix.gov /PARKS/hikephx.html.
South Mountain Park/ Preserve
The park ranger at the entrance to South Mountain Park/Preserve said I could drive a paved road to Dobbins Lookout on the mountain's summit in 15 minutes, or I could hike to the top along Holbert Trail. I chose the 2.5-mile hike and was rewarded with a rocky, saguaro-lined climb. I was serenaded by red-tailed hawks, accompanied by curious jack rabbits and shaded by bushy small-leafed Palo Brea trees. Along the way, I examined 600-year-old Hohokam pictographs etched into massive flat, black rocks. You can't get that from the driver's seat of a Chevy.
10919 S. Central Ave.
(602) 495-0222 or (602) 534-6324, www.phoenix.gov/ PARKS/southmnt.html.
Phoenix Art Museum
After a $50-million expansion last year, this stylish, two-story museum in downtown Phoenix has much to offer the art lover. The air-conditioned rooms are adorned with the creations of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keeffe and Claude Monet. But the museum will be a red-hot ticket this month with the opening of several new exhibits, including a collection of 19th century French painters and the work of famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon.
Admission: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $4 children.
1625 N. Central Ave.
(602) 257-1222, www.phxart.org.
Joining a tour of the Heard Museum is like walking into a high school history lesson on Native Americans, enhanced by some of the world's best visual aids. Colorful kastina (also called kachina) dolls, sand-cast silverware, hand-woven wedding shawls, water jugs and red-clay pottery lined the glass cases. The highlight of the tour -- I joined about a dozen tourists from South America -- was when we all squeezed inside a log hogan, to feel the tight living quarters of a Navajo family.
Admission: $10 adults; $9 seniors (55 plus); $5 students with ID; $3 children (ages 6 to 12) 2301 N. Central Ave.
(602) 252-8840, www.heard.org.
Arizona Science Center
I got a sinking feeling as I entered the Arizona Science Center. As I stepped into the new Titanic Artifact exhibit, I was handed what looks like a boarding pass to the ocean liner. The name on the ticket read Edgar Samuel Andrew, a real passenger who boarded the ill-fated ship in 1912 to attend his brother's wedding in America. I didn't know until I walked through the exhibit whether Andrew survived. As I stepped past the maze of displays, I saw suitcases, tools, chandeliers, coins and even a tattered steward's jacket, all recovered from the wreck of the 46,000-ton ship. The music on the intercom turned somber as I entered a dark room with a slab of ice the size of an SUV, a miniature replica of the iceberg that sank the ship. At the end of the exhibit, a list on the wall told me that Andrew never made it to his brother's wedding.
Admission: $9 adults; $7 seniors; $7 children. (Viewing the Titanic Artifact exhibit is extra.)
600 E. Washington St.
(602) 716-2000, www.azscience.org.
Desert Botanical Garden
If you plan on installing a drought-resistant garden, this is a great place to get inspiration. Gravel paths lead around arrangements of towering saguaros, squat compass barrel cactus, multi-pronged organ pipe cactus and the "Old Man of the Andes," a short, narrow cactus covered with long, white thorns that look like gray whiskers. The Phoenix Zoo is just down the road, but it may not be worth the drive. I've seen more luxuriant cages in an animal shelter.
Admission: $10 adults; $9 seniors; $5 students and $4 children.
1201 N. Galvin Parkway
(480) 481-8114, www.dbg.org.
Char's Has the Blues
I had trouble finding this tiny club on a commercial strip in central Phoenix until I rolled down my car window and heard the thump, thump, thump of a funky bass calling me. Inside this dark, crowded bar, bodies bounced to a live band called Badness, blasting out Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Santana tunes. It was so bad it was good.
4631 N. 7th Ave.
(602) 230-0205, www.charshastheblues.com.
Phoenix resident and notorious bad-boy rocker Alice Cooper operates a sports bar across the street from US Airways Center, and, yeah, it's as loud and nasty as you can imagine. The waitresses wear Cooper's creepy eye makeup. Heavy-metal rock blasts from speakers, giant-screen TVs blare football and basketball games from on high and concert posters plaster the walls. Then there is the food. Like Cooper, it's loud, hot and mean, such as the W.M.D.s (Wings of Mass Destruction) and the Megadeth Meatloaf. Take earplugs and a tolerant palate.
101 E. Jackson St.
(602) 253-7337, www.alicecooperstown.com.
Phoenix Greyhound Park
Spencer Bell, a black greyhound with a rail-thin build, had a reputation for taking an early lead on the track. I put $5 on the hound, betting he would hold that position and win me a cool $110. He charged out of the gates strong, galloping like a quarter horse but fell behind on the first turn and came in fourth. The stands were nearly empty that Tuesday night. It was just me, a group of boisterous college kids and a few hapless gambling junkies. I left before I became one of the latter.
General admission: Free.
3801 E. Washington St.
(602) 273-7181, www.phoenix-.
The story of the Mystery Castle began 78 years ago on a beach in Seattle. A toddler watched with anguish as waves washed away her sand castle. Her doting father promised to build the girl a castle that would never fall. Four years later, when the man learned he was dying of tuberculosis, he left his family and moved to Phoenix, where he began to fulfill the promise by building an 18-room castle from desert rocks and salvaged tiles and steel. Today, the girl, Mary Lou Gulley, now 80, reigns over her castle, offering tours Thursdays through Sundays. The whimsical rock-and-concrete structure is a combination of Walt Disney and Simon Rodia. It has 13 fireplaces, a children's playroom, a bar, a chapel and a cool, dark room in between the latter two known as "purgatory."
Admission: $5 adults; $3 children.
800 E. Mineral Road.
Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his winter home and architectural campus on the "brow" of a hill north of Scottsdale. Like his summer home in Wisconsin, the compound was named for the Welsh poet Taliesin, whose name means "shining brow." A 90-minute tour of the buildings -- now home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and his school for architects -- included Wright's office, bedroom, living room, movie theater and a subterranean cabaret theater. Each room demonstrated his unconventional design approach: acute angles, low, slanting roofs and an abundant use of natural material. Sit in the chairs he designed, watch the soft light seep through the canvas ceiling and you might start to feel his genius. To see more of Wright's work, check out the nearby Arizona Biltmore resort, for which Wright was a consulting architect.
Admission: 90-minute tours are $32; $29 for seniors, students and military; $20 for children.
Cactus Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale.
(480) 860-2700, www.franklloydwright.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times