A Traveler’s Guide To Phoenix, The Next Big Concert Destination City

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There’s nothing quite like seeing the first show of an arena or stadium tour. The big ones, where the production is gargantuan and the artist’s movements are timed to the millisecond, put a ton of pressure on this stop. For massive fans, being at the opening night of tour — before the setlist or the surprises can be spoiled, before an endless stream of Instagram stories gives away the event’s tiniest details — is a must. For an artist, the first night of a big tour is also absolutely nerve-wracking. If anything is going to go wrong on the run, the first night has the highest likelihood of being when it does. The opener is a chance to work through the kinks before the tour really gets rolling, to see if anything doesn’t work, and to gauge the fan reaction for the first time.

So, it’s not surprising that tours rarely kickoff in big media markets. Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago will often get small underplays as warmups, but they’re rarely the site of massive tour kick-offs. These are saved for less frenetic big cities. Cities like Phoenix.

Yes, Phoenix, Arizona. Along with Vancouver, Phoenix is popping up on more and more itineraries as the first show on arena and stadium jaunts. And in a lot of ways, it makes sense. It’s a huge market — currently vying for the fifth largest city in America, ranking along with Philadelphia — though it isn’t as much of a center for national media. Phoenix offers artists a chance to get big city energy with slightly lower stakes.

This year alone, I’ve ventured to the Valley of the Sun to see an opening night by Taylor Swift, launching the biggest all-female stadium bill in American history, and the Smashing Pumpkins, who offered up the first arena show of an 18-years-in-the-making reunion. Earlier in the year, Pink used the city as the location to debut her Beautiful Trauma arena run, while last year likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kesha, and Macklemore all launched tours in the greater Phoenix area.

It’s a trend that is drawing in fans not just from nearby cities in the southwest, but from around the world. And on my second visit in the last three months, I decided to take some time to see what else the region has to offer for travelers. What I discovered was a place that doesn’t need the concerts to draw in people seeking all types of vacations — whether they’re adventurous-types or just keen to relax in the sun. For those of us who are in town for the music, I’ve accumulated the following tips to make your Phoenix stay as enriching as possible.

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Where To Stay

Phoenix is big. That shouldn’t be surprising for a city of its population, but it’s also just incredibly vast. There’s a lot of elbow room in the desert. Don’t let that discourage you or make you think that you need to stay within a few miles of your intended concert venue.

During my two trips to the city, I tried staying close to the venue once and pretty far away from it the second time. During my first visit I stayed at a very affordable Airbnb, complete with a pool and enough space to accommodate the entire Uproxx Music team if we’d needed. But while it was just a few minutes drive from the Glendale complex that houses both the stadium (University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals and the annual BCS Fiesta Bowl) and the arena (Gila River Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes), it was also located in a vast suburb that didn’t really capture the best that Phoenix has to offer.

On my second trip, I really began to understand how Phoenix works. Like any major urban area, it’s made up of many distinct cities with their own culture. For the Smashing Pumpkins show, my girlfriend and I stayed in Scottsdale — about a 30-45 minute drive to the venue, but was worth it in terms of the environment. Our hotel, the just-opened Hotel Adeline, gave off the boutique vibes that you’d get staying at the Ace in Palm Springs, it was the kind of place where pristine rooms, indoor restaurants and bars, and luxurious pool scene all vied for our attention.

I wished there were five of me so I could give each element its due.

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Though Scottsdale is known for its nightlife and pool party scene, opting for somewhere like downtown Phoenix offers something a little rougher around the edges and more bohemian. Tempe is known for its college town bona fides, and Mesa is a slower and quieter alternative despite being the third biggest city in the state.

The point here, though, is that Phoenix is not one thing — it contains multitudes and whatever vibe you are seeking you’ll surely find it there. And though the mileage may look intimidating, the intricate freeway systems and relatively chill traffic make it all very accessible.

Where To Eat

If you’re looking to dine near the actual venues in Glendale, you’re in luck, as the arena shares a parking lot and grounds with a giant complex called the Westgate Entertainment District. Here you’ll find steakhouses, casual fare, and everything in between, including favorites like Bar Louie, Shane’s Rib Shack, and Whiskey Rose.

Just a short drive away from the venue, we tried out the Arrowhead Grill, which was remarkably busy for happy hour; its generous portions and delicious flavors quickly explained why. From sliders to hot pretzels, their happy hour was enough to satisfy, while an option like buying a porterhouse steak the size of a human baby was also available. The actual stadium and arena just feature the expected venue cuisine, so I’d strongly urge concert-goers to arrive with food already in their bellies.

But the foodie scene in the surrounding Phoenix area is real and blossoming. In just my few days that I spent in the city, I feel like I’ve only touched the surface, but here are a few places I’d recommend.

First, I have to shout out the Hotel Adeline again. Within the hotel’s interior is a fantastic brunch spot called Good & Proper, that is changing the breakfast game by introducing scalloped potatoes as their default breakfast potato option. This dish blew my mind. The food was good enough to eat there a second time, and everything from their french toast with balsamic caramel to a mushroom scramble exceeded all our expectations.

Look, if you can impress a native Angeleno with your avocado toast, you are doing something right.

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Elsewhere, Vovomeena in Phoenix proper is also worth the brunch experience, if only to try the decadent banana bread pudding French toast. Both of these places could easily stand out in Los Angeles’ crowded brunch scene, which is pretty much the highest compliment I could pay them.

In terms of lunch and dinner, we ventured around Phoenix following recommendations and were not disappointed in anything we found. In Scottsdale, Olive & Ivy was a great discovery, as any place that was packed for its lunchtime rush bodes well. The bruschetta sampler, which offers a choice of three different types of bruschetta on a single plate, was too unique to pass up, juxtaposing temperatures, textures, and flavors for an ideal “light lunch.” With ample vegetarian options, including a melon, avocado, and goat cheese salad that I am still craving weeks later, Olive & Ivy is the kind of crowd-pleaser that is easy to overlook because it isn’t too flashy. It proved to be one of the more memorable meals I’ve recently had.

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Other standouts included both pizza and barbeque, two food genres that are staples of big cities in the Southern half of the US. For the former, Pomo Pizzeria lived up to its reputation and local success, as it now has several locations in the larger metro area. Pomo does Neopolitan style pies, which arrive at the table with a pleasant char from the spot’s wood-burning oven, a smoky aroma, and the soft-in-the-center trademark of an authentic Italian-style pizza.

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As for the que, we tried another local establishment that has had enough good fortune to open multiple locations in the Phoneix area: Bobby Q. The huge space seemed like a meat lovers paradise, with items like a BBQ baked potato and the requisite combination meat plates arriving at other tables with virtual halos hovering above them. But it was the sides, including off-the-cob corn complete with black grill marks and a macaroni and cheese worthy of a meal in of itself, that really stood out. The restaurant’s little touches, including complimentary cornbread and a little bag of homemade doughnuts for dessert, will make travelers feel like they’re at home.

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And it wouldn’t be a trip to a new city without a stop for ice cream. As an LA native, it’s tough to find ice cream that approaches the quality of my local favorites, but Phoenix’s Sweet Republic gets damn close. If there is a fault in these scoops, it’s that they come across a bit too sweet (particularly the waffle cone option), but that’s a small gripe that many could also take as a compliment. It’s the flavors, including Brown Butter Pecan, Strawberry Balsamic Peppercorn, and Peaberry Espresso that make this shop — with two locations in the area — a must visit.

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What To Do

As pointed out before, the reason for my recent visits to Phoenix has been the concerts. But even if you aren’t seeing the latest arena or stadium tour launching from the Arizona city, there’s still plenty to do to keep visitors occupied and having a blast. Elsewhere on the music side, there are venues like The Van Buren, Ak-Chin Pavilion, Valley Bar, The Crescent Ballroom, and Comerica Theatre, just to name a few. In the next couple weeks alone, artists like Car Seat Headrest, Logic, Shania Twain, Lil Uzi Vert, and Hop Along will visit the area. Whatever your musical preference, it’s likely that Phoenix’s concert scene has you covered.

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One of the less talked about activities to do in Phoenix is shop. I’m not talking about malls and department stores, which are certainly prevalent. I’m talking about thrift stores. A little-known secret about the thriving Los Angeles vintage scene is that many store operators frequently drive to Arizona to load up on inexpensive merchandise that they then unload in LA for a big profit. Spending an afternoon visiting Savers and Goodwills across the valley meant finding clothing, furniture, home goods, and decor that would cost a small fortune in Los Angeles, but were attainable in Phoenix for a fraction of the cost (think about it friends, a lot of people who lived during the chic mid-century era went to PHO to retire and are now dying).

The only drawback is that you need to travel with a car big enough to get your haul home. Still, it’s 100% worth the endeavor.

For those looking for a more traditional good time, Phoenix was also the location of my first game of Topgolf: I. Am. Hooked. There are no Topgolf locations in Southern California, which makes no sense considering how they are popping up in big cities across the country, but a single hour at the Scottsdale location had me looking up where the nearest one is to my house (it’s in Las Vegas). For those who don’t know what Topgolf is, it’s basically the combination of a driving range, a bar, and an arcade, all wrapped up into one. You pay by the lane, similar to bowling, and the computer technology keeps track of the location of all the golf balls you hit. It winds up being the kind of activity that uses its sporting nature as a backdrop for the fun you have, no experience necessary.

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Of course, the Phoenix area is also known for its real golf, though it is kind of hard to imagine being out there in the summer heat. But between museums (I visited the quick and fun Fiesta Bowl Museum during a lunch break) to the famed Sedona desert and wealth of National Forests that exist directly to the city’s north, finding something to do both inside and out shouldn’t be a problem.

That’s Phoenix in a nutshell in my experience. Maybe I was a little disappointed that signs warning of wild horses never really delivered on their promise, but I found myself falling in love with the wonderfully shaped and inspiring cacti and the water spritzers that were a feature at every patio. The city has a delightful ability to meld to your tastes. You can lounge near a pool all day, explore the outdoors, and take in world-class entertainment.

Most importantly, it’s a pretty great place to start off a tour — whether your a huge artist or just a huge fan.

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