The sprawling city of Phoenix, Arizona, may have a pricey, metropolitan feel in its downtown district, but it also hosts a plethora of free or cheap outdoor, arts, adventure and cultural activities.

Scattered across the Valley of the Sun, there are dozens of museums, trails, markets and historic sites to visit at low cost. Here's how to see the best of Phoenix and the surrounding area on a budget.

1. Experience Phoenix's contrasts at Heritage Square

Heritage Square is a cluster of late-Victorian and early-20th-century homes that stand in stark contrast to the soaring modernity of downtown Phoenix. In fact, this city block is actually on the National Register of Historic Places. With the buildings now sensitively repurposed, it's possible to see inside many.

Planning tip: It's not all free, though. If you wish to enter the stately and well-restored Rosson House Museum, expect to pay a $15 admission fee.

2. Learn about the state at Arizona Capitol Museum

The Arizona Capitol Museum serves as a symbol of the state's vast and colorful history. Guests can experience a range of educational opportunities – for free – that offer visibility into governmental, political, social and cultural chronicles of the state.

A red dinosaur in a red cage in the grounds of an art museums
Visit Phoenix Art Museum on "Pay-What-You-Wish Wednesday" © Alamy Stock Photo

3. Time your visit to Phoenix Art Museum just right 

The Phoenix Art Museum is Arizona's premier repository of fine art, including works by Claude Monet, Diego Rivera and Georgia O'Keeffe. On "Pay-What-You-Wish Wednesday," entry is by voluntary donation after 3pm. Look out for AfterHours, free evening sessions at the museum, with live music and entertainment – there are four a year. Family FunDays – also four times a year – happen on Sundays, with free access and activities aimed at art enthusiasts of all ages.

Planning tip: Make a beeline for the Western Gallery to see how the astonishing Arizona landscape has inspired everyone from the early pioneers to modernists.

4. Hike the challenging trails at Camelback Mountain 

Camelback Mountain is considered one of the nation's top hiking destinations. This 2704ft twin-humped mountain sits smack in the center of all the Phoenix action. The two main trails are rated extremely difficult and subject hikers to elevation gains, uneven terrain, and a path that is unprotected from the elements, so make sure you bring plenty of water and take adequate rests on the way to the top.

The Echo Canyon Trail (4925 E McDonald Dr) is short but steep, with 1264ft of elevation gain over a mere 1.2 miles (each way) and lots of hands-on scrambling over boulders. It's a great workout followed by stellar views of the Valley of the Sun.

5. Heard Museum is free to visit on the first Friday of most months

The impressive, historic Heard Museum spotlights the culture, life and arts of American Indian tribes in the Southwest. Visitors will find art galleries, ethnographic displays, films, a get-creative kids' exhibit and an unrivaled collection of Hopi kachinas (elaborate spirit dolls, many gifted by Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater).

Planning tip: On the first Friday of every month (except March), it's free to visit the Heard Museum from 4–8pm. Keep a lookout for occasional events that enliven the grounds, such as Indian fairs and competitions of spectacular hoop dancing. Overall, guests can easily spend two to three hours exploring.

A woman walks through an art gallery
Take a self-guided art walk through Roosevelt Row and the arts district © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

6. Take part in a self-guided art walk on First Fridays

Phoenix's First Friday event occurs every first Friday of the month from 6–10 pm and is one of the nation's largest self-guided art walks. Guests can experience a variety of artworks at more than 70 galleries, event venues, and art-related spaces across the city – a great way to get to know Phoenix's cultural side.

Planning tip: Use the light rail that runs through downtown Phoenix to connect the various art districts.

7. Desert Botanical Garden runs a free monthly Community Day

Community Day at Desert Botanical Garden allows visitors to enjoy the beauty of the desert for free every second Tuesday of the month (reserve tickets in advance). The garden is home to thousands of species of cactus, trees and flowers from all around the world spread across 55 acres. From bluebells to Mexican gold poppies (just two of the colorful showstoppers blooming from March to May along the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail), this well-nurtured botanical garden is a lovely place to reconnect with nature while learning about desert plant life. Looping trails lead past a profusion of desert denizens, arranged by theme (including a Sonoran Desert nature loop and an edible desert garden).

Planning tip: To make the most of your visit, plan your route through the property beforehand. It's a dazzling spot to check out year-round, but the flowering spring season is the busiest and most colorful.

8. Get hands-on at one of the best kids' museums in the US

The Children's Museum of Phoenix is rated as one of the top three children's museums in the US. It's designed for active involvement for children aged up to 10 years old, where they can touch, explore, create and be inspired. There are more than 300 play experiences on-site spread over three separate floors. The museum is open free of charge on the first Friday of each month from 5–9pm on a first-come, first-served basis.

Street art murals of faces on a white wall
Roosevelt Arts District in Phoenix showcases the work of local artists © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

9. Wander through the street art at Roosevelt Row 

Roosevelt Row in the downtown neighborhood is a trendy spot to check out some street art. The mission of the area is to advance arts-focused initiatives for artists, entrepreneurs and residents by cultivating a creative, sustainable space for growth, opportunity, engagement and art advocacy. Take a walk and enjoy the dozens of murals and the various locally owned shops, bars and restaurants all throughout the arts district.

Planning tip: If you're willing to spend a few bucks, head up to From the Rooftop at Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix for a drink with a sweeping view of the city skyline.

10. Follow the scenic loop around Tempe Town Lake

Walkers, cyclists and runners will love the scenic 7-mile loop that encircles Tempe Town Lake. A perennial reservoir that was created in 1999, Tempe Town Lake serves as a recreational center point for the town of over 180,000. The path runs on the north and south sides of the lake, with bridges connecting at Priest Dr and Mural Rd. For those who want to shorten the loop, take the pedestrian bridge located near the Tempe Center for the Arts. There are numerous pieces of public art lining the lake on both sides of the walkway. 

11. It's a short but tough hike to Piestewa Peak

Hike to Piestewa Peak, dotted with saguaros, ocotillos and teddy bear cholla, and you'll be rewarded with views from the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains (after Camelback Mountain). It was named for Arizona local American Indian soldier Lori Piestewa, the first American Indian woman to die serving in the US Armed Foreces, in Iraq in 2003.

Planning tip: The 1.1-mile trek to the 2600ft peak is a tough climb, but still hugely popular. The park can get extremely busy on winter weekends, so plan your parking carefully.

A couple sit on a bench at a lookout with the sun shining down over an arid landscape
Follow dusty trails to South Mountain's Dobbins Lookout for city views © Gregory Clifford / Getty Images

12. Explore the vast South Mountain Park and Preserve

At more than 25 sq miles (larger than Manhattan), this park is one of the largest municipal parks in the country. It's great for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The 58-mile network (leashed dogs allowed) dips through canyons, over cacti-studded hills and past granite walls, offering city views and access to ancient petroglyphs.

Planning tip: The main entrance is at 10409 S Central Ave. Take a hike on the South Mountain's Dobbins Lookout, which is the highest peak in the park at 2330ft, and enjoy the panoramic view of the city when you make it to the top. 

13. Go running or biking in Papago Park

Known for its massive buttes that rise and fall throughout the park, the terrain at Papago Park is primarily made up of sandstone with trails that are considered relatively easy. It's a popular area for running and mountain biking.

14. Take a leisurely cycle along Tempe Bike Paths

Tempe has 175 miles of bikeways with bike lanes, desert trails and canal paths to explore. Routes include pathways around Tempe Town Lake, as well as Mill Ave or in Papago Park. The League of American Bicyclists has designated Tempe as a Gold-Level Bicycle Friendly Community.

A row of old stores in Old Town Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Get a sense of the Wild West in Scottsdale © Alamy Stock Photo

15. Wander the Wild West in Old Town Scottsdale

Tucked among Scottsdale's trendy upscale malls and bistros is its Old Town, a Wild West–themed enclave filled with historic buildings, covered sidewalks, boutique stores selling souvenirs, and hip restaurants. There's also a museum, public art, saloons, wine bars and galleries.

16. Browse the many stalls at Phoenix Farmers Market

This large open-air farmers market offers some of the best fresh fruit and vegetables, indigenous foods, wonderful bread, spices, pastes and salsas, organic meat, BBQ trucks and plenty more. Jewelry, textiles and body products also make appearances. Even if you don't buy a thing, it's a sight to behold. However, this is a great opportunity to support local business vendors if you're able to.

17. It's always free to visit Arizona State University's Art Museum

The Arizona State University's Art Museum lives by the words "Arte para todos. Art for all," with a goal to offer advancement for the future by focusing on education in social justice and equity. Exhibitions are free to visit and frequently rotating, so visitors get a fresh perspective with each visit.

Planning tip: The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday.

18. See Hotel Westward Ho, a Phoenix landmark

A beloved Phoenix landmark, the beautiful 16-story Westward Ho hotel has weathered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune since its opening in 1928. It held the title of tallest building in Arizona for more than 30 years until the Meridian Bank Tower took the title in 1960.

Once frequented by celebrities and politicians (JFK stopped in for dinner and gave a speech here in 1961), Hotel Westward Ho fell into disrepair and closed down in 1980. In 1982, the National Register of Historic Places recognized the Westward Ho as a historic building. The property was converted to a low-income housing complex in 1981 and opened to senior citizens. It underwent a multi-million dollar renovation in 2017 to restore some of its original facades, including a historic fountain.

This article was first published April 2021 and updated February 2024

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