When you tell people that you’re going to Arizona for holiday, you’re met with several reactions: (1) Oh, I hear it’s great for golfing, (2) Oh, I hear the spas are nice, (3) my grandparents live there. Basically no one is all that excited for your trip, and they’re wondering why you didn’t go to LA instead. But Arizona is an underrated destination–there’s a lot of great food to be had, excellent happy hours seem to be the norm, and it’s especially kid friendly. After spending a week here, you’ll be kicking yourself thinking why am I paying $8 for a slice of cake and for my kids to play in a tiny museum when my money could go so much further in Arizona. Here’s a baby friendly itinerary of how we spent a week in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson with the kids. Don’t worry, there are James Beard award winners and Tasting Table/Bon Appetit vetted restaurants in this Arizona itinerary.
Where to Stay
6114 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85253
The Andaz in Scottsdale has a unique desert-chic, boutique hotel vibe that makes for a nice stay. It’s not exactly a family resort with a kids’ camp and onsite daycare, but there is a heated swimming pool and an outdoor cornhole set that will keep your kids occupied. Plus its luxury bungalow suites are much nicer than a run-of-the-mill room at the Hilton, and the food at the hotel restaurant Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen is solid (get the sliders and the crispy cauliflower during happy hour). Bring your own Pack-and-Play, though.
What to Do
McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park
7301 E Indian Bend Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85250
This place really is the best because it has a big outdoor playground and lots and lots of trains. One of the buildings at the railroad park houses a huge and intricate 10,000 sq ft model railroad village that even the adults will find impressive. The biggest attraction by far is the Paradise & Pacific outdoor train ride. Try to go earlier in the day because a line does form in the afternoon.
9500 East Vía de Ventura F100, Scottsdale, AZ 85256
Kids who are obsessed with the Hungry Caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly will love this butterfly park. After a short intro on butterfly migration, you are then led to a rainforest conservatory where many beautiful butterflies are fluttering about. What’s even better is that there’s more to the Wonderland than just butterflies–there’s also a mini aquarium and a reptile exhibit on site. My son in particular loved feeding the koi fish.
Where to Eat
4338 N Scottsdale Rd, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Diego Pops in Old Town Scottsdale has one of the best happy hours I have ever been too. Most happy hours feature watered down cocktails or uninteresting glasses of wines and a food menu of generic fried snacks. But not Diego Pops. Its happy hour made me question why I was living in New York. We got a huge bowl of delicious chicken tortilla soup that was way better and cheaper than the ones you could get in New York. Just out of principle, we ordered two bowls because we were so amazed by this great deal. The margaritas were fantastic and so were the brussels sprout nachos.
7125 E 5th Ave #31, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
FnB is a pretty serious-minded farm-to-table restaurant that features local produce with a Southwestern flavor profile. It also won a James Beard award this year for Best Chef – Southwest, so you know it’s a pretty legit place. I overheard one of the waiters telling someone that he used to work at Union Square Cafe in New York. So yes, it’s pedigreed, and the refined cooking is very good. The Dave’s grilled 1/2 chicken was especially memorable.
Where to Eat
Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva
1301 NW Grand Ave #1, Phoenix, AZ 85007
We only had time for one dinner in Phoenix, and we decided upon Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, a lovely and intimate refined Mexican restaurant in Desert Sun Plaza. Desert Sun Plaza itself is a very cool hipster neighborhood block featuring colorful art galleries and boutiques. I was very impressed by my 5 course vegetarian tasting and did not feel like I was missing out on the meat. The vegetables were cooked very creatively–they were refreshing at some times in the manner of a ceviche, and robust and meaty at other times like a pork in mole sauce. I thought the cooking here was on par with something you could find at Cosme or Atla in New York City.
What to Do
Children’s Museum of Phoenix
215 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85034
The Children’s Museum of Phoenix puts the children’s museums of New York City to shame. Well, at least the CMA in Soho. It’s huge and sprawling and has everything imaginable. A reading corner, an indoor playground, an arts center, an enormous indoor treehouse, a playhouse, I could keep going on and on. While it’s aimed at the toddler set, there are baby zoned areas where your little crawlers can chill out on padded mats and pillows. You could easily spend 2-3 hours here, a big win for both the adults and children.
Where to Eat
7002 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85710
Tucson is a city that gets started early. I suppose when it gets so hot outside you want to maximize your time in the cooler AM air. That explains why early morning diner culture is such a thing. We went to Baja Cafe at 6 am and we weren’t the only ones there. There’s just one thing you need to know about the cafe–newcomers get a free order of a snickerdoodle pancake, and it is just heavenly. They also specialize in these monster eggs benedict platters, which are delicious but also extremely heavy.
18 S Eastbourne Ave, Tucson, AZ 85716
I waited in line for 20 minutes for bread. It was crazy. One woman even came up to us waiting in line and incredulously asked why we were waiting in line for bread. But the bread at Barrio Bread is pretty special and highly coveted. The woman in front of me said that she had tried every single loaf that the bakery had ever made. The baguettes and the whole wheat seemed to be especially popular choices. I brought the whole wheat loaf back home with me and was pretty pleased with the crust and the tangy, sourdough flavor inside.
Seis Kitchen in Mercado San Agustin
130 South Avenida del Convento #130, Tucson, AZ 85745
Mercado San Agustin is a pretty fancy little market in Tucson. It wouldn’t be out of place in a city like LA or Napa Valley. The most popular eatery in the mercado is Seis Kitchen, and for good reason. Its award winning al pastor tacos were incredible. The huge bowl of hearty and comforting pozole soup was also delicious. Again, another restaurant that made me rethink my life choices of paying so much more money for smaller and subpar tacos and soups in New York City.
El Guero Canelo
5201 S 12th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85706
You can’t leave Tucson without eating a Sonoran hot dog, which is a signature street food of the city. It features a hot dog wrapped in bacon in a wide bolillo-style hot dog bun plied with toppings. El Guero Canelo is the most famous restaurant in Tucson that serves the Sonoran hot dog, and it was even awarded an American Classics award by the James Beard Foundation for its hot dog contribution. I personally did not love this style of hot dog, as I prefer my dog to be grilled and topped with onions, ketchup and mustard. But if you have to check the box on the Sonoran dog, you might as well do it at the original.
Happy Hour Central
Tucson is a town full of high quality, happy hours. Not only are the drinks specials great, but the happy hour food menu is just as tasty. I still can’t get over the turkey and brie sandwich I had at Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar. It was definitely a sandwich I would eat everyday for lunch, if such a thing were available in my neighborhood. Here are three restaurants / bars in the downtown Tucson area that are worth stopping by for the magical hours of 4-6.
Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails
135 S 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701
Get the calamari and the caesar salad.
Charro Del Rey
178 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85701
Get the lobster al pastor taco.
Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine Bar
220 N 4th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85705
Get the turkey and brie sandwich.
What to Do
Children’s Museum Tucson
200 S 6th Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701
This children’s museum in Tucson is also an impressive one. The STEM exhibits here are especially well done and the best that I have ever seen in any children’s museum. But the highlight for my son was the real life-size fire truck that he could climb around in, which he did for 30 minutes.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
2021 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743
The name of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a little misleading. It makes you think that you are going to see rows of nicely manicured cactus and deserts plants. In actuality, it is an outdoor zoo built on a nicely manicured desert garden. There are a lot of big ticket animals here, but they tend to be hiding out or sleeping during the prime daytime hours. My favorite part, though, was the Packrat Playhouse kids’ center. Basically, once you’re about 1/3 of the way into the zoo trail, you can make a pit stop at this playhouse and let your kids get the wiggles out for 30 minutes.
Funny Foot Farm and Tucson Petting Zoo
2405 W Wetmore Rd, Tucson, AZ 85705
This was probably the least commercial of the tourist attractions that we went to in Arizona. It’s a highly rated petting zoo, yet when I got there, I was a little surprised by how basic it was. I think someone running a full-time working farm decided to do a side hustle of letting people pet and feed their animals. The grounds are not paved and the animals aren’t necessarily trained to be gentle and calm around humans. In all fairness, they do give you advance warning that you shouldn’t go into the animal gates with food in your hand, because they will be aggressively all over you. But I probably wouldn’t recommend that you go there unless you are into this sort of thing. Perhaps if you pay up for the tour and to see the exotic animals then it is more worthwhile.
Pima Air & Space Museum
6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85756
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the Pima Air & Space Museum. Because honestly I went more for my son than for myself, which happens to be a recurring theme in my life as of late. I was very impressed by the sheer volume of planes that were on display, both outside and in several large indoor hangars. Some of the workers seemed to be old world war veterans, which also made the experience more interesting. I noticed that a lot of these world war planes had pin-up ladies, sometimes naked, painted on them, and the museum spun this as the images boosting morale in a much needed time. Interesting. You can climb into some of the planes, which the kids will love, and there is also a playground outside.