On the edges of Scottsdale, signs read “Welcome to Scottsdale: Most Livable City.” At first pass, that may seem like an underwhelming title to claim, but many of the reasons that motivate people to live here are equally compelling if you’re planning a vacation: the pleasing dry heat (there are, on average, 299 days of sun a year); shades of red, brown and orange that pop against a bright blue sky; and the town’s well-rounded offerings—spas, shopping, art—which are unpretentious and mostly affordable. Follow this guide to make the most of this Sonoran Desert town at a reasonable pace.
Day 1: Get Out There
Upon your arrival, the weather demands nothing less than a full day of exploring outside. Temperatures during the shoulder season are particularly euphoric here, hovering at a dry 70 to 80 degrees. Fuel up at Butters Pancakes & Café, a restaurant devoted to the breakfast staple in an unassuming strip mall. Here, the flapjack-to-topping ratio is evenly split, and it’s impossible not to enjoy the “banana cream,” a stack topped with sliced bananas, graham-cracker pecan crumbs, a drizzle of caramel and a dollop of cream, rendering the bottle of syrup hardly necessary.
Maximize your vitamin D exposure at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a 30,000-plus-acre ecological site with more than 180 miles of hiking and biking trails to suit any fitness level. With well-marked paths, you can opt for a strenuous climb up Tom’s Thumb or an easygoing 2- to 4.5-mile loop that kicks off at the Gateway Trailhead. To learn about the region’s geology and its succulents—such as the iconic saguaro cactus and the jojoba plant, which yields jojoba oil found in spa treatments and as a sunburn-relief aid—on your outing, enlist an experienced guide from Arizona Outback Adventures.
You can cool off with the iced tea of the day (flavors include passion fruit and hibiscus) at the alfresco restaurant The Vig McDowell Mountain, which also serves great fish tacos and a hearty steak salad.
Day 2: Rest and Reset
Scottsdale takes relaxation seriously—there are more destination spas per capita here than any city in the country. Work out the kinks from yesterday’s adventures with a treatment at The Spa at the Boulders, set 35 minutes north of downtown in the appropriately named municipality Carefree. Inside, you’re abiding by a foreign set of rules in which walking around in a bathrobe is encouraged and cellphone use is not. Opt for the turquoise clay wrap, derived from turquoise stone commonly used in Native American practices. The clay draws out impurities from your skin while it soothes muscles.
If you spent the rest of your vacation lounging in a robe, you wouldn’t be doing it wrong, but when reality (or hunger) calls, show your body more TLC at True Food Kitchen, back in downtown. Inspired by the restaurant’s founder, Dr. Andrew Weil, a physician and holistic-health practitioner, the wholesome menu has tasty fare, such as kale guacamole to start and Moroccan chicken with figs, chickpeas and Greek yogurt. Ride out the rest of your afterglow by gliding around the outdoor shopping mall Scottsdale Quarter. With its palm trees, string lights and high-end shops, it feels almost dreamlike.
Day 3: In the Old West
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright drew inspiration from the Sonoran Desert. He found the cactus-and-brush-dotted landscape evocative of the ocean and built his winter home and architecture school, Taliesin West, in the silhouette of a ship. A 90-minute tour of Wright’s home (the grounds of which are still used for his architecture school) also showcases the shelters that students have built on the property as part of their theses; they manifest in all shapes and materials, from wood and canvas to rammed-earth walls and steel.
Though Scottsdale is a young town, the area’s history goes back much further, to the Hohokam Indians, settling circa 100 ce. Ranch operations first developed in the early 1900s, resulting in “the West’s most Western town” moniker. Nods to the past lie in Scottsdale’s Old Town, where you can find Saba’s, a family-operated Western-wear store founded in 1927. Its boots are as sturdy as they are classic. With new kicks on, sidle up to the bar at the Rusty Spur Saloon (swinging doors and taxidermy included), where film’s most famous cowboys, such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, have passed time listening to live country music.
In a courtyard in Old Town is the buzzed-about FnB restaurant. With its modest storefront and simple interior, it’s clear the food is what speaks loudest here. Four-time James Beard–nominated chef Charleen Badman is at the helm and serves vegetable-forward and locally in-season creations like roasted tomato with quark and sumac, a dish so hefty it demands a steak knife. It’s hard to resist filling up here, but the butterscotch pudding is worth holding out for. Garnished with homemade whipped cream and sprinkled with nutmeg, each spoonful tastes like fall—a welcome reminder of the season in the midst of all the summertime weather.
Weekenders Guide: Scottsdale
Butters Pancakes & Café : 8390 E. Vía de Ventura; 480-629-4333; breakfast for two, $19* http://butterscafe.com/
FnB : 7125 E. Fifth Ave., Suite 31; 480-284-4777; dinner for two, $100 http://fnbrestaurant.com/
True Food Kitchen : 15191 N. Scottsdale Rd., Suite 101; 480-265-4500; dinner for two, $40 http://truefoodkitchen.com/
The Vig McDowell Mountain : 10199 E. Bell Rd.; 480-935-2949; dinner for two, $34 http://thevig.us
Saba’s : 7254 E. Main St.; 480-949-7404 http://sabas.com/
Scottsdale Quarter : 15059 N. Scottsdale Rd.; 480-270-8123 http://scottsdalequarter.com/
Arizona Outback Adventures : 16447 N. 91st St.; 866-455-1601; tours, from $65 a person http://aoa-adventures.com/
McDowell Sonoran Preserve : 18333 N. Thompson Peak Pkwy.; 480-312-7013; admission, free
Rusty Spur Saloon : 7245 E. Main St.; 480-425-7787 http://rustyspursaloon.com/
Taliesin West : 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.; 888-516-0811; house tours, from $34 a person http://franklloydwright.org/
The Spa at the Boulders : 34631 N. Tom Darlington Dr., Suite 101, Carefree; 480-595-3500; spa packages, from $129 http://theboulders.com/
*Estimated meal prices do not contain drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.