A Queer Traveler’s Guide To Phoenix

Fly in a hot air balloon, enjoy Mexican cuisine by a famed lesbian chef, and dance the night away with gay cowboys in the Sonoran Desert.

Phoenix gets more than 330 days of sunshine per year. I live in Pittsburgh, which is officially one of the most overcast cities in America. So when I was presented with an opportunity to spend six days in Phoenix at the start of spring, I jumped at the chance.

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The Phoenix area also sees highs of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer — but it’s that delicious, famously “dry heat” that evaporates the sweat right off your skin. Coming off the end of a long, snowy winter, the desert heat was nothing short of transformative for me — it offered the perfect excuse to wear as little clothing as possible, find my way to a pool during the day, and keep an ice cold drink in my hand after dark.

This queer, sunshine-loving traveler’s guide covers when to go, where to stay, where to eat and drink, and what to do to make the most of your adventure in greater Phoenix.

Go
The Sonoran Desert offers sun and heat most of the year, but November through April generally offer the most temperate weather — clear skies and average temperatures in the high 60s, 70s, and low 80s.

That said, you may want to avoid going in March — there’s a huge spring training baseball event, so airfare and hotel prices skyrocket and everything is more crowded than usual.

April is LGBT Pride month in Phoenix, and the city’s Pride organization goes all out with events, including a festival, parade, and pageant.

Stay
Both Scottsdale and Phoenix (including downtown Phoenix, for those who prefer to be amid the hustle and bustle) have no shortage of LGBT-friendly accommodations in every price range.

Scottsdale, Phoenix’s immediate neighbor, reportedly has more spas per capita than any other US city—and many of them are among the most scenic in the world, thanks in large part to the stunning desert views available from their picture windows and soaking tubs.

If pampering is a priority, you’ll be well served at the Andaz Resort and Spa in Scottsdale. They’ve got a palm tree-flanked pool with a beautiful view (pictured below), and the on-property Palo Verde Spa and Apothecary features decadent treatment options and private, clothing-optional outdoor pools (one for men and one for women) adjacent to the steam rooms and saunas.

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Kristina Marusic

For a more energetic, party-centric vibe (i.e., dance tracks are bumping poolside by mid-afternoon and the bar is always crowded), head to the Hotel Valley Ho in downtown Scottsdale. It features beautifully restored mid-century modern architecture and design, and the walls are decorated with photos of old Hollywood patrons like Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Despite the modern upgrades, the place still retains its quirky, vintage vibe.

The newly-opened Mountain Shadows resort in Paradise Valley is another visually stunning place to call home while you explore Phoenix. Nestled in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, it’s all sleek modernity, minus any of the kitsch or camp of Hotel Valley Ho. It features mountain views at every turn, an on-site golf course, and an excellent restaurant and bar.

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Kristina Marusic

Eat
Phoenix hasn’t traditionally been considered a destination for gourmands, but thanks to its recent population explosion, it’s now got a burgeoning, vibrant food scene. Here’s a sampling:

No trip to downtown Phoenix would be complete without a stop at Pizzeria Bianco in Heritage Square. Chef Chris Bianco is considered a pioneer in the slow food and artisanal pizza scenes, and is the only pizza-maker to ever win a James Beard award. His award-winning pies have garnered shout-outs from celebs like Oprah, Martha Stewart, and Jimmy Fallon. Bianco also serves up non-pizza, Italian-inspired dishes made from local southwestern ingredients at his second restaurant, Tratto, just around the corner.

Arizona is the winter vegetable capital of the U.S., and veg-centric FnB (short for “Food and Beverage”) in downtown Scottsdale showcases local produce like none other. The menu changes regularly, but you’re likely to see innovative uses of locally-sourced ingredients like escarole, tomatillo, celtuce, pomegranate, and goat cheese in dishes you can pair with a choice selection of local wines and craft beers. The butterscotch pudding is a to-die-for staple on the dessert menu. Vegetarians and serious foodies shouldn’t miss this one — it was a unanimous favorite among the travelers I ate my way through Phoenix and Scottsdale with.

Salad at FnB
Kristina Marusic

No trip to the American Southwest is complete without Mexican food, and Barrio Urbano delivers flavorful new takes on classic dishes in a vibrant, colorful space complete with a large, mist-cooled outdoor seating area. Out and proud lesbian chef Sylvana Salcido Esparza is an authority on regional Mexican cooking, and her expertise shows in her cuisine. You can also sample her dishes at Barrio Queen in Scottsdale. If you like a little heat, order the El Picado cocktail with house-infused chili and serrano tequila. Muy picante!

Other spots worth a visit include Hash Kitchen for decadent brunch with a 40-topping bloody bar; the Phoenix Public Market Cafe, which sources ingredients from the adjacent farmer’s market; Nami for decadent gluten-free, vegan desserts; and the Mission for modern Latin cuisine. There are at least two other LGBT-owned cafes/restaurants in the region, and Phoenix also has a vibrant food truck scene for delicious quick bites.

Drink
Phoenix and Scottsdale both have vibrant bar scenes with a little bit of something for everyone — from lesbian cowgirls to leather bars to late night queer dance parties for ages 18+. Pick up a free copy of local LGBT magazine Echo once you’re in town (or see their website) for a comprehensive nightlife guide. Here are a few highlights:

Charlie’s is a country-themed gay honky-tonk that’s something of an institution in Phoenix. It’s a big space with an active dance floor (and DJs who spin more than just country), handsome cowboy bartenders, and a huge patio out back with a stage that’s graced with male go-go dancers on weekend nights. The scene definitely caters to men (women, heads up: you might be charged a cover even when the boys aren’t), but the crowd is fairly mixed on Friday and Saturday. Most weekends the excellent taco stand in the patio stays open for late night bites, and on select weeknights Charlie’s offers free dance lessons — two-step, salsa, and of course, line dancing.

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Kristina Marusic

Until recently, the Cash was the “Cash Inn Country,” a country-themed lesbian bar. They’ve recently come under new ownership and had a bit of a makeover — it now just looks like a gay lounge, and DJs play pop, hip hop and dance songs in addition to occasional upbeat country jams. The queer, still mostly-female crowd is diverse and prone to hitting the dance floor enthusiastically on a Saturday night. There are also billiards room in the back, and on weeknights they have events like Truth or Dare Drag Bingo, beer pong tournaments, and performances by local bands.

If you want to catch a top-notch drag show, the Rock is the place to be on a Saturday night. Host Barbra Seville (aka Richard Stevens) has spent the last 20 years entertaining Phoenix audiences with her wry sense of humor. A rotating cast of other queens lip sync and crack jokes for a mixed crowd. The show starts at 10pm.

Drag dreams in Phoenix.

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If your main priority is dancing, put Latin gay bar Karramba at the top of your list. On Saturdays they host a late night 18+ dance party (they close briefly at 2am to change it over, then reopen til 4am) that draws the most racially and gender-diverse crowd I saw anywhere in Phoenix or Scottsdale. They have themed dance nights almost every night of the week (top 40, Latin Pop, salsa, etc.), and the after-hours party on Saturday is heavy on hip hop, R&B, trap music and reggaeton. There’s usually a taco truck parked out front that stays open late — you’ll need it to replenish all the calories you burn on the packed, sweaty dance floor.

If you’re more interested in artisanal alcoholic beverages than you are in nightlife, you’re in luck: Scottsdale and Phoenix are home to some excellent wineries and breweries. Both Aridus Wine and Carlson Creek Vineyards have excellent tasting rooms in Scottsdale.

The beer flights and bites are excellent at local craft breweries Mother Bunch (this one was my personal fave—it’s got incredible beer cheese-infused mac ’n’ cheeses and is owned and operated by a woman, which is still a rarity in the craft brewing world), Helton Brewing Company, and North Mountain Brewing Company. True beer lovers (and the lazy) can also indulge in all-inclusive craft brewery crawls with Arizona Brewery Tours—they’ll handle all the driving and decision-making for you.

Do
No one would blame you if you opt to never leave the pool or the spa in Phoenix, but for those inclined to feeling FOMO, there’s no shortage of exciting options for daytime adventures in the city and beyond.

A guided tour of downtown Phoenix is a great way to kick off your adventure, since you’ll get a thorough orientation and learn where to find all the best food, bars, and art in the city. I did one at the very end of my trip, and wished I’d done it first so I could’ve planned my days around all the great intel I got. Phoenix Rising Tour Company is owned and operated by a staff of all women and offers fun, informative historical and street art-themed tours by bus, trolley, or bike. They also offer multiple walking tours, and even do a guided coffee crawl.

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Kristina Marusic

If flying in a hot air balloon is one’s on your bucket list, Phoenix is the place to do it. The views of the desert from the sky are totally unreal, and the ascent is so smooth and serene that even folks who are afraid of heights are usually able to relax and take in the scenery. During the warmer months, most hot air balloon companies only offer sunrise trips, since it’s too hot to keep the balloons afloat with just hot air in the afternoon. These companies offer balloon rides, many of which come with an optional breakfast and a champagne toast in the French tradition of serving bubbly upon landing. You should take that option—sipping mimosas in the middle of the Sonoran Desert at dawn is an amazing experience in and of itself. Make this the big splurge of your trip—it’ll be well worth it.

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Kristina Marusic

Visionary architect Frank Lloyd Write’s winter home, Taliesin West, is a wonder of organic architecture that sits on a hilltop a overlooking Paradise Valley. Wright resided and taught students there until his death in 1959. Today, it’s the main campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. If you’re remotely interested in Wright or the history of American architecture, a guided tour is well worth the price.

To truly immerse yourself in the beauty of the Sonoran desert (without risking heat stroke by getting lost in it on your own), consider a guided hiking, biking, or backpacking tour on one of the many local mountain trails, or a kayaking tour of the Salt River. The guides at Arizona Outback Adventures are very LGBT-friendly and impressively knowledgable about the local flora, fauna, and landscape. Be advised, during summer months, any outdoor adventures will have to start very early in the morning to avoid the searing afternoon heat.

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Kristina Marusic

If that’s a little too active for your tastes, you can also experience the natural wonders of the desert in a more controlled environment at the beautiful, 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden. On evenings in May and June, they host ballet performances against gorgeous desert backdrops.

Phoenix doesn’t neccessarily have a reputation as a major art city, but that certainly isn’t stopping the vibrant arts community there from flourishing. In Phoenix, there’s the excellent Heard Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum, and a slew of smaller galleries.

In Scottsdale, there’s the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and lots of small galleries. Serious art lovers shouldn’t miss the Cattle Track Preservation — it’s a beautiful, ecologically-conscious, desert art colony that’s been hosted artists-in-residence in a variety of mediums since 1937.

There are also excellent art walks (some scheduled, some for whenever) in both downtown Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Happy desert travels!

I believe that true, well-told stories have the power to change the world for good. I also love a good listicle.
@KristinaSaurusR