My first visit to Tempe, Arizona, was with my daughter, Jessica during a tour of Arizona State University (ASU). Subsequently, we’ve been back many times both for business and pleasure. I adore college towns, and Tempe is no exception. I love all the red brick buildings, endless bicycle racks, and students rushing to class.
But Tempe isn’t just for students. This mid-sized city bordering Phoenix is affordable, loaded with outdoor activities, and features a nice selection of restaurants and accommodations. It’s the perfect weekend getaway for an active couple. If you’ve never been, I hope to convince you to add it to your list of future travels. Here are our favorite things to do in Tempe.
Paddle Around Tempe Lake
Everyone seems surprised to learn that Tempe has a lake. And while it’s small–just 1.38 miles long and ⅓ mile wide–it’s the focal point of many of Tempe’s outdoor activities. So during our recent visit Jason and I headed to Tempe Town Lake (the official name) to see it for ourselves.
We opted to rent a pedal boat from Boat Rentals of America. However, there are all kinds of rentals available including kayaks, paddle boards, and pontoons. If you’re visiting with a group, consider renting the Donut Boat, a round motorized boat perfect for a party. Around sunset we headed out on the water to explore the lake. Greenspace lines most of the lake where we saw people running, walking, and strolling with their dogs. And just beyond the pathways and grassy shoreline are large corporate headquarters and modern apartment complexes.
After an hour of paddling we returned to the rental dock and then headed to dinner. If you’re looking for something romantic to do with your partner, I definitely recommend getting out on the water at sunset.
Roll Around Tempe On An Electric Bike
With 215 miles of bike trails in and around Tempe, this is a great city for cycling. Jason and I rented electric bikes from Northshore Watersport Rentals and continued our exploration around Tempe Lake.
We rolled over the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge, past the Tempe Center For The Arts, and continued along the path for a few miles. We’ve become a bit obsessed with electric bikes this past year and really liked the models we rented which allowed us to cruise up to thirty miles an hour.
We opted to stay around the lake, but bike paths branch out all over the city and through the nearby Papago Park. Next time we hope to explore more of the city on bikes. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Tempe, Arizona, riding electric bikes is definitely it!
Read all about our electric bike tour in the Columbia River Gorge!
Find The Best Places To Eat In Tempe
The focus of our recent trip was finding the best food in Tempe so I could complete an assigned article. We took our assignment very seriously and succeeded in eating at several really good restaurants. It’s always safe to say that in a college town you can find plenty of good food and often at affordable prices.
Our favorite meal of the trip was definitely at Alter Ego located in our hotel, Canopy By Hilton. Our generally negative impressions of hotel restaurants was shattered by this place. The decor was warm, inviting and comfortable, but the real star was the food. We started with sweet Thai shishito peppers and a sweet pear salad. As the food was being placed on our table, Chef Vernon gave us some background on the restaurant and each dish. Alter Ego prides itself on supporting local farmers and vendors. Many of the dishes on the menu are known to guests, but they have a unique twist to keep things interesting. We continued with brick oven Calabrian shrimp and Asian style baby back ribs. We topped off the evening with peach cobbler served with goat cheese ice cream. Everything was delicious. All return trips to Tempe will include a meal here.
We also had delicious dinners at Caffe Boa and Culinary Dropout at the Yard. The first is a dimly lit intimate restaurant that would be great for a romantic date night. We loved their salmon Nicoise salad and butternut squash ravioli. The second restaurant is located in a big, noisy warehouse-like building that was bustling with diners of all ages. Totally different vibe than Caffe Boa, but it’s perfect if you’re with a group, celebrating a special occasion, or dining with kids. Jason and I shared their butternut squash and kale salad and the spicy vegan curry. Both were excellent, but the curry definitely wasn’t spicy.
Explore The Breweries In Tempe
Like many cities in the U.S, Tempe’s craft beer scene has exploded. I suppose it makes sense for a large college town to offer plenty of beer drinking opportunities.
We started at Pedal Haus Brewing, located just off Mill Ave., the epicenter of Tempe’s party scene. I knew I would like this place when I saw the shuffleboard table. We ordered a couple of beers and a Bavarian pretzel with beer cheese and challenged each other to a few games (in case you’re wondering, I won). There are about a dozen beers on tap, but I personally recommend the Amber Ale. We had intended to order lunch here, but were too full after eating the very large pretzel.
If you have to choose just one from among all the breweries in Tempe, I highly recommend our second stop, Four Peaks Brewing. This is Arizona’s largest brewery, and for good reason. The beers are excellent and it’s Tempe tap room is located in an historic building that was once a creamery. We came for lunch on our final day, and it was also quite good. But the highlight was the tour. For just $5 guests get a 30 minute behind the scenes tour, a souvenir glass, and a ticket for a beer in the bar. We learned about the history of both the building and the company while walking among the large brewing tanks, bottle filling machinery, and barrel room.
Go Hiking In Tempe
By far the most popular hike in Tempe is to the top of A Mountain (aka Hayden Butte), named for the large, yellow letter “A” found on it’s side. Let me be clear, this isn’t really a mountain, more of a hill, but for a quick and steep workout, it’s perfect. Along this .7 mile trail you can see petroglyphs left by Tempe’s first settlers, the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People. With great views of the valley, it’s a particularly popular destination at sunrise and sunset.
For more hikes head to Papago Park, 1,500 acres of desert great for all kinds of outdoor activities. While our daughter was attending ASU, we enjoyed a few of the short trails here. All are rated easy and range in length from .2 to 3.1 miles.
If you’re visiting in the summer–or anytime the temperatures rise–be sure to hike early or late in the day and be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
Check Out The Desert Botanical Garden
The Desert Botanical Garden would be beautiful anytime, but right now it’s exceptionally so while it features a Dale Chihuly exhibit. This internationally recognized artist creates large, colorful artworks from blown glass which have been featured in many museums. I’ve long been a fan of Chihuly and was very excited to see his work in a garden setting.
The Desert Botanical Garden is located on 140 acres of land and displays more than 50,000 plants. Founded in 1939, these gardens preserve many endangered plant species and educate the public about desert environments. There are several different gardens, all of which can be explored along five, flat trails.
Jason and I strolled through the gardens for about an hour and were able to see all eleven Chihuly artworks outdoors. We were heading home and had a long drive ahead of us, so we rushed a bit and were not able to see more of his artworks in the Desert Gallery. I would definitely recommend setting aside two hours for this place.
Tickets to the garden currently include the Chihuly exhibit as well and range in price from $29-$39 per person. Timed tickets should be purchased in advance online.
Visit The ASU Art Museum
I didn’t know what to expect at the ASU Art Museum, so I was pleasantly surprised that this free museum is currently featuring a provocative exhibit entitled, Undoing Time: Art And Histories Of Incarceration. Spread over three floors, this installation features twelve artists all exploring the impact of imprisonment on the accused, their families, and the surrounding communities. It’s not for the faint of heart–some of the stories told are disturbing–but it’s definitely worth seeing.
Watch A Sunset In Tempe
If you’re not feeling like an uphill hike to watch the sunset, another option is to head to Skysill, the rooftop bar at the Westin. I love a good rooftop bar, and this one is my new favorite. The bar is completely open, there is no roof or covering of any kind, so the views are excellent no matter where you’re sitting. We sat at the bar, had a drink, and just drooled over the sky colored with pinks, purples, and blues. Personally, I’m convinced this is the best place to watch a sunset in Tempe.
Best Hotel In Tempe
We had the pleasure of staying at the Canopy by Hilton and I can’t recommend it enough. The decor of the lobby and guest rooms is stylish and unique. It’s not the usual bland decor of a hotel, but instead there are warm colors and plenty of locally influenced accents. The rooms have several thoughtful touches like a Nespresso machine, robes, and books and magazines. I really liked the large glass bottle that was provided with each room that could be refilled at water and ice machines on each floor. Finally, a hotel that has stopped using individual plastic bottles! And while we don’t travel with our dog, this is a pet friendly hotel.