Insider’s Guide to Downtown Phoenix’s Hidden GemsBy Jodi Thornton O’Connell
When it comes to putting your finger on the heartbeat of Phoenix’s history and culture, the city’s downtown district places you in the heart of the action. Major entertainment venues abound and light rail can whisk you miles in any direction to explore the Valley of the Sun.
From the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown, step outside to discover hidden gems within a short walk of the property, or stop by the Renaissance Hotels Navigator’s desk in the lobby — an iconic hand-carved piece in the shape of a roadrunner. The Navigator, a twist on the typical hotel concierge, will share even more personalized, insider tips about off-the-tourist-track sights.
Seek Out Back Alley Treasures
Some of the city’s best surprises await in the alleyways that go unnoticed by travelers on the downtown streets.
Dip into the alley north of the hotel to be greeted by a 70-foot mural commemorating the locale’s colorful 1800s history as a red-light district. The vibrant mural of Malinda Curtis — a lasciviously intriguing call girl who lived in the area during this time — holds a secret at its base.
A single red light glows at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, revealing that the nondescript entrance to an old-fashioned speakeasy in the basement — Melinda’s Alley — is open for business. Enjoy a choice of four craft cocktails featured weekly as you step back in time in the period decor. Settle into an atmosphere featuring vintage couches and seating, old-fashioned lights and antique mirrors and artwork.
Exit the east side of the hotel lobby a half-block south on First Street. The mid-block alley on the east side holds another hidden gem. The city’s iconic symbol in the mural, “Phoenix Rising” by Thomas “Breeze” Marcus is easy to see from the sidewalk, but don’t stop there.
Venture east through Paint Can Alley to view the massive “Throw Up Your Mind” by Carlos Rivas on the back of the Monarch Theatre, colorfully painted dumpsters and a several-story parking structure graced by colorful murals by various artists.
Take a Bite of History
Take a walk to Heritage Square to see the oldest brick homes remaining in Phoenix. Then head to Pizza Bianco to nosh on artisanal wood-fired pizza crafted by James Beard Award–winning chef Chris Bianco in the picturesque Baird Machine Shop just across Adams Street from the famous residences.
Soul in the Heart of the City
When you’re hungry for comfort food and good Southern cookin’, meander to Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe. The simple block building and minimal decor let you focus your full attention on the delectable soul food dishes that include smothered chicken, fried catfish and oxtails served up with cornbread, greens and peach cobbler.
Get Lost Among Fireflies
Experience the feeling of standing in a vast galaxy of fireflies at Yayoi Kusama’s You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, a full-room display at the Phoenix Art Museum.
The artist brings to life a Japanese folk tale about a person who is in a field with 10,000 of the glowing creatures, using a darkened room lined with mirrors and filled with looping LED lights.
Sip Tea in the Garden
Participate in an authentic tea ceremony at the Japanese Friendship Garden. The event takes place once a month in the garden’s Musoan tea house. The Tanko Kai tea group hosts the ceremony wearing beautiful kimonos.
Afterward, take a self-guided tour of the garden to discover scenic ponds, peaceful places to ponder and a bevy of bird species that call the garden home.
Rub Elbows with the Locals
The Crescent Ballroom hosts concerts, trivia nights and open-mike nights in a standing-room-only venue with room for 550 people. Take a seat in the lounge, restaurant or open-air deck and order cooked-from-scratch fare.
Dance to the View
Enjoy the city view from an open-air dance floor at the Monarch Theatre, a hidden gem in itself. Housed in what was once a brick warehouse, the venue also has a 7,000-square-foot indoor dance floor and plays host to fashion events, festivals and other special events.
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