Out here, in the scorching desert of southwestern USA, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Phoenix was a little parched when it came to cultural institutions. But the opposite is true. Boasting some of the state’s best museums, plus many more besides, Arizona’s capital and the greater region is a flourishing oasis of world-beating art, Indigenous history, authentic American West memorabilia and real-life dinosaurs.
Here are the 12 best museums to visit in the Greater Phoenix area.
Experience Native American art at the Heard Museum
This internationally acclaimed museum in Midtown is one of the best places in the world to learn about Southwest American Indian art and culture. A celebration of Arizona’s 22 sovereign tribal nations, there are more than 40,000 objects on show across 12 exhibition galleries, including 1200 Hopi katsina dolls (carved representations of the universe’s spirit messengers), Southwestern ceramics and baskets, Navajo and Zuni jewelry, and delicate Navajo textiles.
Hear music from around the world at the Musical Instrument Museum
This wonderful five-gallery space is home to the largest collection of musical instruments in the world. There are more than 8000 on display, running from Stratocaster guitars to Japanese shō (mouth organ) with a working conservation laboratory, which allows visitors to see how older apparatus are cleaned and restored.
Instruments from more than 200 countries feature, so you’re just as likely to see Scottish bagpipes as you are tam-tam, slit drums made in Vanuatu from tree trunks. What’s more, the Musical Instrument Museum’s special exhibitions will often show off culturally significant instruments like a Mayan shell trumpet or Hendrix’s Black Widow guitar. Its interactive exhibits also allow guests to hear the sounds of some instruments and see them be played too.
Admire works by everyone from O’Keeffe to Kahlo at the Phoenix Art Museum
Designed in the 1950s by Alden B. Dow and Blaine Drake – apprentices of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright – this vast modernist space is the largest art museum in the southwestern USA. The size of nearly five football fields, it is stuffed with the good and great of the art world from the Renaissance period to today. Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, and other well-known painters are all featured here, but it’s perhaps Arizona’s own Philip C. Curtis who leaves the most lasting impression. His weird, often magical take on the state’s desert gives Phoenix Art Museum visitors a whole new perspective on what lies beyond the gallery walls.
With more than 20,000 objects on display, you’ll need at least three hours for a full visit. Look for contemporary works by Kehinde Wiley and Japan’s great Yayoi Kusama, which stand alongside Anish Kapoor’s intriguing Upside Down / Inside Out, a black spherical blob that lay across the gallery floor. There are also great fashion design and photography sections as well as an Asian art collection that spans more than 1000 years of history with works from India, Iran and China.
Explore Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home
With construction beginning in 1938, Taliesin West was the winter home of the revered architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Made from materials Wright described as «desert masonry» – rocks, stone, and desert sand – the home also doubled as Wright’s architectural laboratory, where apprentices could push the envelope in design. In use until he died in 1959, Wright continually tinkered with the building, which is tucked into the McDowell Mountains and overlooks the Sonoran Desert.
With sharp, modernist lines, cacti and Ocotillo plants, plus Native American petroglyphs Wright found during construction, Arizona’s only Unesco World Heritage cultural site showcases Wright’s talent for blending indoor and outdoor spaces with the surrounding environment. Home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, there are guided and self-guided tours available for visitors, but don’t miss the six-sided cabaret theater, one of Wright’s finest architectural achievements.
Let the kids run wild at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix
Dens! Blocks! Crafts! Messy play! For those 10 years or younger, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix stands as a pantheon of playtime. Featuring three floors of fun, hands-on activities – climbing frames, racetracks, role play supermarkets – as well as interactive open-ended play such as oversized building blocks and sensory-rich shapes and colors of the Texture Cafe, this place will tucker out even the most energetic little one.
It can be a haven for adults as well. Staff read tales to kids at the daily storytime in the Book Loft area and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved too as the little ones are let loose in a safe space that encourages child-led play.
Discover Indigenous history at the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park
Home to the largest preserved archaeological site in Phoenix, this museum offers visitors an insight into how the Hohokam – an agricultural people who lived in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert from 1 CE – built homes and a 1000-mile canal network in this hot, unforgiving environment.
The Main Gallery shows they flourished here and created art, red-on-buff pottery, and even built ballcourts for ceremonial games, before its outdoor trail leads visitors to the archaeological ruins of the Hohokam’s Pueblo Grande, thought to have been used for astronomical observation. There are also abode replicas on display, as well as the agricultural garden, which demonstrates the way the Hohokam’s cotton, beans and cornfields were irrigated by an innovative canal system. The Children’s Gallery lets little ones dig for artifacts as if there were archaeologists.
Go dinosaur hunting at the Arizona Museum of Natural History
A sweeping 101 into the natural history of the Southwestern US, this vast museum stuffs in everything from Tyrannosaurus bataar, mammoth and American mastodon skeletons to displays about the Indigenous Hohokam and Clovis people of southern Arizona, as well as the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the 16th century. It takes around three and a half hours to see the lot if you include the outside sculptures like the Autosaurs, dinosaur artworks made of old car parts. The Dinosaur Hall is particularly popular with kids.
Go up in a warbird at the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum
Located in Mesa, to the east of Phoenix, the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum offers more than your average aviation collection. Run by volunteer veterans, the space features a variety of rare aircraft that were used from WWI to the Vietnam War and have one major difference – visitors are able to go up in six of its authentic warbirds.
Book ahead to tear across the skies of the Sonoran Desert in restored WWII bombers like a B-17G Flying Fortress or B-25J Mitchell. If you prefer to stay grounded, there are plenty of other planes on show, as well as exhibitions on the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military pilots in the US, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the select women who flew in the Air Forces during WWII. Cockpit tours are also available on Friday (book ahead).
Don your lab coat at the Arizona Science Center
Designed by renowned architect Antoine Predock (the brains behind Canada’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the starling Flint RiverQuarium in Albany, Georgia), the Arizona Science Center pierces the skyline in downtown Phoenix like a shiny, futuristic spaceship.
Unfurling across its four floors are an almost infinite number of things to see and do surrounding the scientific world. From one of the largest planetariums in the US to electromagnetism workshops via a huge, working stomach you can actually walk through, this fantastic space thrills astronomers, physicians, biologists and chemists of all ages.
Dip into the modern art scene at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Affectionately known as SMoCA, this museum in downtown Scottsdale celebrates modern art, architecture, and design through a slew of thought-provoking, rotating exhibitions. Housed in a former movie theater that’s been reinvigorated by architect Will Bruder, even the minimalistic, silver building is seen as a futuristic work of art.
As well as displaying works from the museum’s own collection, the four galleries here tend to showcase up-and-coming artists and local talent. Expect everything from film screenings and stand-up comedy to theater and workshops in Japanese flower arranging or piñata making.
Admire Victorian-era architecture at the Rosson House Museum
Accessible only via guided tour, this sublime Queen-Anne-style Victorian house built in 1895 has been fully restored in intricate detail and gives visitors an understanding of what life would have been like for wealthy families in the early 20th century. Part of the Heritage Square and Science Park, the house was designed by the San Francisco architect A.P. Petit for the Rossons, a prominent political family in Phoenix, and it features a marvelous mix of Gothic turrets, Italianate hooded windows and striking yellow tiles.
A 25-minute drive southwest of Phoenix, the Chandler Museum tends to focus on exhibits that explore the history of the city and the wider region; however, it also has a reputation for regularly bagging some of the best traveling cultural exhibitions too. Previous displays have included the great photographs of the American West and a show centered around heavyweight boxing, as seen through the eyes of local slugger, Zora Folley. Throw in lecture series, art clubs and plenty to do for toddlers and it’s the Chandler Museum is a decent all-rounder.
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