Hanging Out in Tempe, Arizona - My Family Travels

Tempe, Arizona has something for everyone: shopping, festivals, fairs, food and more.

In late March, early April of 2008, I took an amazing trip down to the Tempe, Arizona area (literally only a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Phoenix) and let me say: there is so much to do there. I tagged along with my friend Keri, visiting her grandma and uncle in the area, and it was incredibly relaxing. We had no set itinerary and no pressure, but instead just randomly planned our trip as we went. And since Tempe — a small town covering only 40-square-miles with a population of just fewer than 170,000 residents — has so much to offer its visitors, it is the perfect place for this relaxed vibe. Families should feel free to explore, “veg” and just hang out.

A Fun School Visit

Arizona State University is in the heart of downtown Tempe, so if you have kids in high school or college, they would probably love to check out the huge, 642-acre campus that is home to nearly 65,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Even as an adult, I loved walking around the beautiful complex and checking out the mile-long Palm Walk. It is the most popular corridor on campus with hundreds of palm trees each standing at least 70-feet-tall. Also, make sure to get tickets to see ASU’s sports teams the Sun Devils, play. Student favorites include: the Division One Men’s Basketball team, Men’s Baseball team and Ladies Softball team.

In sight of the ASU campus is Tempe Butte, a 1,500-foot-tall hill, that locals call “A” Mountain because of the large “A” that lays near the top of the it. A brisk hike up the hill only takes an hour at most and there is a path for walkers to take. For active families, a hike to the top is a must, especially if you want to get a fantastic view of Tempe. A few miles away, in Scottsdale, is Camelback Mountain, which, at 2,700 feet, is a much more strenuous and only for the most seasoned hiker families. Although members of my friend’s family hike to the top once a week, novices (like me) should not attempt the climb.

Art & Music Festivals

Tempe is also loaded with tons of festivals year round (they even have a big New Year’s Eve bash, the Fiesta Bowl Block Party– think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but much, much warmer with a $15 admission when you buy tickets before December 1). Most of the fairs take place on Mill Avenue, the main strip in downtown Tempe.

During my stay, we went to the Tempe Festival of the Arts (480/355-6075). Based on Mill Avenue, but down different side streets as well, the festival features more than 400 artists and vendors selling their authentic goods. There were jewelry makers, sculptors, painters, and even musicians presenting their masterpieces to the public. Keri even bought me some great homemade lotion called Butter Me Up: Tahiti Sweetie by Sophisticated Soaps, a local vendor from Scottsdale. It smells delicious and really helped me keep my sunburn from peeling. The semi-annual festival, ranked nationally as one of the “Top 20 Festivals” by Sunshine Artist magazine, happens in the spring and fall. And Fall 2008 marked the 40th Annual Festival. The festival averages about 250,000 visitors over the 3-day event.

If the kids get tired of walking or bored of perusing the stalls, take a lunch break and stop by the Qwest Main Stage located in the 6th Street Park next to City Hall. Here local artists perform daily from 11am-5pm. Or, also located by City Hall is the Kids Innovation Station where kids can get a hands-on experience in making collages and other crafts. The interactive program is both educational and entertaining and the kids I saw participating looked as though they were having a ball. For families with infants or toddlers, the festival also has a Mother’s Comfort Station next to the Kids Innovation Station. Here, parents can discreetly change diapers or nurse their babies if the need arises.

Also in town during my trip was the annual Tempe Music Festival (480/970-FEST). The two-day concert takes place at Tempe Beach Park and the 2008 lineup featured artists such as My Chemical Romance, Eve 6, the Gin Blossoms and Fergie. Local bands even got the chance to perform on the Emerging Artist Stage and one had the chance to open for Fergie on the Main Stage!

The vibe of the show was relaxed and it never got too crazy; there were some young adults and college students mildly partying, but also young families sitting on the grass and each group meshed well together. With plenty of (expensive) options for food and drinks, there were lots of activities on the premises, such as Harley Davidson motorcycles, a Dillards store and even a skate ramp. I only attended the evening portion of the show in order to avoid the heat and sun because even though it was only the beginning of April, it was still 90°F during the afternoon. The evening, however, provided a nice cool breeze. I recommend bringing a blanket to either sit on or cover yourself with if you get too chilly.

The spring festival will take place April 3-4, 2009, featuring major recording artists Kidrock, All American Rejects, and 3 Doors Down. The Friday night portion is from 5pm to midnight and the Saturday concert begins at noon and ends at midnight. Beware that re-entry to the concert is not permitted.

And although I never got to check out Tempe Beach Park during the day, my friend said it is a great place to hang out for an afternoon.

You can rent a boat or kayak and explore Tempe Town Lake or even hang out at the Splash Playground (480/350-8625 a free to the public water playground designed by Keri’s uncle, architect Greg Swick, and his partner Kevin Moore). The one-acre park features slides, water guns and toy whales for the wet children to ride on. Although a parent must be present as the child plays, the park is as safe as they come. Two inches of water is the deepest it gets and the entire ground, steps and all, is constructed out of soft and cushioned material so that even the worst fall is not so bad. The park is open daily from April-September.

Eat Up or Chow Down!

As for eating in Tempe, all the restaurants I ate at were family-friendly and had a trendy feel at the same time. My first night we dined at The Macayo’s Depot Cantina (300 S. Ash Avenue), what the locals refer to as “The Depot.” This Mexican eatery was fun with excellent chips and salsa and chimichangas. They also have a vast assortment of margaritas (my favorite was mango), which the kids can get without the tequila, so they do not feel left out.

We also dined at a few Mediterranean restaurants and even though I am not a big fan of this type of cuisine, the food was excellent. My favorites were La Pita (480/784-6700) on Mill Avenue and the Phoenicia Cafe (480/967-8009 616 Forest Avenue) right by ASU. (Locals actually know the latter by “Sylvia’s” because the owner’s wife, Sylvia, is such a sweetheart, greeting each and every guest as though they were her own family). Both places had delicious hummus and grilled chicken sandwiches and salads, making for an excellent (and healthy) lunch.  Plus, the Pheonicia Cafe offers a Kid’s Meal for $3.49 that even comes with ice cream.

If morning coffee is your thing, skip the Starbucks and head to Mill’s End Cafe (480/829-0755 310 S. Mill Avenue) on the corner of Mill Avenue and West 3rd Street. The service is a little slow but all of the workers are accommodating and will keep you entertained as they make your breakfast on the flat, circular hot grill right in front of you. Plus, the coffee and the original crepes are fantastic. If the weather is not too hot, enjoy your cup of coffee on the porch in front of the cafe.

Details, Details

Although I was lucky enough to be a houseguest during my stay in Tempe, Keri’s Grandmother, Millie, highly recommends the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel (480/894-1400; 60 East Fifth Street, Tempe, AZ 85281). Located steps from Mill Avenue, the 300-room southwestern-themed hotel even has a pool on the roof, giving swimmers a fantastic view of the city and “A” Mountain. Millie also recommends the dining experience at the hotel, saying that she has even had her Easter Brunch in the Mission Palm’s restaurant.

For more information on activities in Tempe, visit the city’s official tourism website (866/914-1052). Also, remember that I had incredibly good luck being in Tempe during a week with so much going on. Check out the events calendar to make sure your visit is as fun-filled as mine.

And if nothing in Tempe tickles your fancy, head to Phoenix. It is a quick drive and as of December 2008, with expanded service of the Phoenix Light Rail, trips to and from downtown Tempe to downtown Phoenix are now effortless. Also, Tempe offers a free bus service called the Orbit which has five different routes that run throughout the downtown area and into Scottsdale. The mini-18 passenger buses run everyday from 6am-10pm, seven days a week, every 15 minutes.

For more information on what to do in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area, check out Family Travel Forum’s Family Guide on the area.  For additional suggestions on places to stay, please see Hotels in Tempe.

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