Scottsdale Travel Guide
Scottsdale, Arizona, is one of my favorite places to visit any time of year. Why do I love coming here so much? The real question is: Where to start? Located adjacent to Phoenix and in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale’s weather is warm and sunny all year long, so you can take advantage of outdoor activities from swimming, hiking, horseback riding and golf no matter what season you visit. The restaurants, bolstered by the support of millions of visitors and supplied by local, fresh ingredients, are fantastic, and the number of hotels and resorts here means you can find a property for whatever mood you’re in, whether it’s ultra-luxury to young and hip.
On top of all that, Scottsdale has more spas per capita here than anywhere else in the country, it’s hard to drive more than 5 minutes in any direction without coming across a golf course, and the people that have chosen to live in this desert paradise are welcoming and friendly. It’s no surprise that over 4.5 million visitors travel to Scottsdale every year to experience all that the city has to offer.
It would be impossible to list every place to stay, pamper yourself, or eat at in Scottsdale. But with so many options to decide from, I’ve put together a travel guide to help you find some of the best hotels, spas, and restaurants you should visit during your next trip to Scottsdale.
The Phoenician is one of Scottsdale’s best known hotels, and there’s good news for visitors who haven’t stayed there in a while: it’s currently in the tail-end of a three-year, major makeover. Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and only a short drive from Old Town, The Phoenician is one of the best situated resorts in Scottsdale. We made sure to get up early one morning and make the short drive to Cholla trailhead, the most popular gateway to hiking iconic Camelback Mountain.
The most noticeable change that long-time guests will notice is the lobby, which has been completely renovated, giving it a contemporary, Southwest feel featuring a color scheme reflecting the colors of the desert, and including a collection of art from local artists in the region. They’ve also given the bar, The Thirsty Camel Lounge, a makeover, including a new menu and a new location that provides panoramic views over the valley. For happy hour, my recommendation is to head to the bar around sunset and order the flavorful El Dorado, which features Herradura Reposado tequila, jalapeño, pineapple and lemon Juice, Grapefruit Zest, Agave Nectar and grapefruit bitters.
Mountain Shadows is part of a wave of new hotels in Scottsdale making a play for the younger, hipper visitors that are frequenting the city now more than ever. Built on the site of the former Mountain Shadows — one of the area’s first major hotels, and which was a favorite destination for the Hollywood jet-set circa the 1960’s — the hotel has maintained its cool, Mid-Century vibe. The long, narrow pool offers amazing views of Camelback Mountain for sunbathers, and The Short Course, the new par-3 course, is a fun way to get in a round of golf without too much time commitment.
Thought retro in style, the rooms have a distinctly contemporary, urban feel: think exposed concrete ceilings and open bathroom layout. When you’re ready for dinner, the new Hearth ’61 features an open kitchen and a menu from Chef Charles Wiley inspired from local flavors and fresh, organic ingredients. And when you’re ready for drinks, head to the lively bar adjacent to the restaurant for live music on the weekends and plenty of people-watching as visitors stroll in for date night.
Hotel Valley Ho
Hotel Valley Ho is located just a short walk from Old Town, Scottsdale, and is one of the best-situated hotels if you are looking to explore the area by foot. It’s also one of Scottsdale’s most fun hotels. The property was originally built in the 1950’s, and was the place to visit for Hollywood stars ranging from Bing Crosby to Zsa Zsa Gabor. For those looking for some fun on the weekends, the The OH Pool hosts pool parties throughout the summer featuring a live DJ and rentable cabanas.
A few years back the hotel was expanded, most notably with the addition of the multi-story Tower, which features roomy suites and amazing views in all directions. If you’re really looking to make the most out of your stay, be sure to book one of the many suites that include a full kitchen, comfy living room with walk-out deck, and enough room to host a gathering of all of the new friends you make at the pool.
Well & Being Spa at Fairmont
The Well & Being Spa is located at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, one of the largest and best-known resorts in Scottsdale. The property itself is huge (it’s spread out over 65 acres), and the spa is no different. Inspired by Havasupai, a hidden oasis deep in the Grand Canyon, the spa features a gift shop, full gym, and yoga and workout studios — and that’s just the start of it. Follow the set of stairs down, and you will enter an expansive space featuring a roomy locker room, pre-massage lounge area, outdoor waterfall hot tub, and access to their exclusive rooftop pool to relax at after your treatment.
I arrived an hour before my visit in order to try out all of the options the spa offers. I started off with the Swedish dry sauna to get the sweat flowing, followed by the steam room, hot therapeutic whirlpool, a refreshing dip in the cold plunge pool, then finally the Swiss shower. I decided to give the Himalayan Salt Stone treatment a try. Featuring warm stones, the masseuse works your entire body delivering salty minerals to your body, with the goal of really working your muscles while also removing toxins.
Thoroughly relaxed and with little motivation to do much else for the rest of the day, I made my way outside and up a set of stairs to the pool where I whittled away the rest of the afternoon under the desert sun having lunch and trying out a few cocktails, including the Arizona Fire & Ice, made with vodka, lemonade, prickly pear and jalapeno.
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
Sanctuary Resort Spa has been a famous destination spa resort for years due to its reputation (even Jay-Z and Beyonce stayed here during their honeymoon). If you’re not lucky enough to have booked a room here, you can still visit the spa, which has an Asian-chic vibe and a laundry list of treatment options. Bamboo shrouds its understated entrance, and the spa features a Zen meditation garden and reflection pool. Though smaller than some of the newer, bigger spas in the area, Sanctuary has a boutique feel. Before my treatment, I spent an extended visit to the eucalyptus steam room to refresh my skin after several days in the dry, desert air.
Known for their highly skilled staff, I chose a classic Swedish massage. The rooms are situated to look out over the garden, and the peaceful spa music and the aroma of the berry-infused lotion used on my skin had me working hard not to nod off and miss everything. My masseuse even paid special attention to my neck which was sore form a vacation-related neck strain from a night spent sleeping on large hotel pillows (there are worse minor injuries to endure).
We Do Men
For many men, the idea of visiting a traditional spa is out of the question. For those guys, there’s We Do Men, the boutique spa experience tailored just for men. The brainchild of Stacey Grondahl, We Do Men caters to men looking for skin treatments without all the normal fuss. The decor inside is part tattoo parlor, part cigar bar, with leather upholstery, pictures of male icons such as Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra on the wall, and a faux-diamond encrusted skull that greets you at the entrance.
A look at the names of the treatments here will let you know you’re not in your girlfriend’s spa. The Sake Bomber, Not Another Prick, and Holy Mother Prick(er) are just a few of the options you can choose. With a rockabilly soundtrack on the stereo and a coffee and tobacco-scented candle filling the room with its scent, I had my face worked over for better part of an hour. Despite my beard (something they are very used to working with here), I had my skin treated with blue agave extract, menthol and a pair of metal balls (yes, really) to make me look glowing like I had never glowed before.
Mowry and Cotton
Newly opened at The Phoenician, Mowry and Cotton takes high-end cuisine and serves it in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. With its exposed wood interior, Edison bulbs and mason jar aesthetic, Mowry and Cotton is clearly taking a cue from contemporary dining trends (the bearded waiters in their jeans and cooking aprons would be just at home at many of the restaurants back home in Brooklyn). The menu is a mix of Old West favorites and newer creations, and is attracting new visitors curious to see what all the buzz is about (Chef Tandy Peterson and Mowry & Cotton were recently named one of the three best chefs and restaurants, respectively, by Phoenix Magazine).
We started with the charred brussel sprouts served with bonito and chicory kimchee, and a heaping order of the buttermil buns sprinkled with citrus sea salt butter and glazed with duck fat fig butter. On a tip from the front desk, we followed this up with an order of lamb tacos made with harissa braised lamb and seasoned with pickles and herb quark, as well an order of the smoked spare ribs served with cranberry snap pea slaw and covered in a honey chipotle barbecue sauce. With little room to spare, we finished with the peanut butter bar for dessert, a concoction of soft caramel, mousse, and chocolate croquant.
FnB is fast approaching its 10-year birthday, and this storied restaurant hasn’t let off the gas pedal since opening to acclaim. Located in Old Town, FnB (which stands for Food and Beverage) obsessively focuses on seasonal, local ingredients prepared with the type of care and and attention to detail normally found in much stuffier restaurants. Stuffy FnB is not: diners are seated close to each other in one of three small dining rooms, and decoration is kept to a minimum to avoid distracting you from your meal. The table next to ours struck up a conversation with us when they caught us gawking at one of their dishes — it’s one of those places where everyone is excited to talk to each other about their meals.
On the night we visited, we were served by part-owner Pavle Milic, credited for bringing attention to the Arizona wine scene. Back in the kitchen, co-owner Chef Charleen Badman, a James Beard award semifinalist (affectionately known as the “vegetable whisperer”), was working her magic. We began with the savory peruvian chicken spring rolls, served with pecans and aji amarillo quark, followed by a flavorful beet and chickpea salad. We then opted for the Creekstone Farms ribeye steak served with tepary beans, poblano peppers, roasted tomato and a tomatillo salsa, and a side of brussel sprouts and broccoli. After our third glass of wine and their signature butterscotch pudding served in a highball glass and topped with whipped cream, we were already planning our return visit.
Located at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, La Hacienda is a great high-end take on the traditional Mexican restaurant (which the Greater Phoenix area has plenty of). Boasting a selection of over 200 tequilas and an eclectic take on Mexican favorites from Chef Richard Sandoval (dubbed the Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine), La Hacienda is a reliable favorite. Inside, the restaurant is inspired by traditional Spanish architecture with beehive fireplaces and exposed wood-beam ceilings, and outside you can eat al fresco beneath strings of white lights strewn across the airy patio.
I started my meal off with their signature drink, La Hacienda, made with reposada tequila, cointreau, grand marnier and sour, and an order of chips and guacamole prepared fresh at our table. For starters we had chorizo and potato empanadas covered in tomatillo salsa and crema cotija cheese, and for dinner we shared the costilla de res, braised short ribs served over ancho chile mashed potatoes, baby carrots, herb-heirloom tomato salad, and smothered in a cherry chipotle mole.
If you’ve spent any time watching the Food Network during the past decade, chances are you’re already familiar with Elements’s Head Chef, Beau MacMillan, the New England transplant who opened Sanctuary back in 2001 and quickly rose to become one of Scottsdale’s most famous chefs. Located at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort, Elements boasts enviable views over Paradise Valley. MacMillan’s menu is Far East meets local Southwest flavors, and features seasonal, local produce, sustainable seafood and hormone-free meat.
If you can, call ahead and reserve a seat out on the balcony overlooking the pool. The quiet, peaceful atmosphere is perfect for devoting your attention to what really matters here: the food. With fond memories of eating them during my last visit, the first thing I ordered as soon as we sat down was their signature shishito peppers, served gooey and a bit sweet. On a recommendation from our knowledgeable waiter, we followed this up with the fiery calamari, a spicy take on the classic dish prepared with a miso scallion vinaigrette. For our dinner we shared our giant portions of chilean seabass, served with a kimchee coconut broth, and the braised short ribs accented with a tangy hoisin sauce. With barely any room left in our stomachs, we couldn’t pass up the deconstructed s’more, a fitting dessert as the air became brisk and the campfire-like heat lamps were turned up.
Matt Stabile is based in New York City, and is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner which was founded in 2008. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.