Whether you’re hopping on the B.A.R.T in San Francisco or “minding the gap” in one of London’s subways, it should come as no surprise that at the core of every world class city is a robust public transportation system, providing affordable and eco-friendly access to entertainment, arts, sports and other amenities to residents across these metropolitan areas. Here in Phoenix, we have the Metro Light Rail, and while its name is neither as glamorous nor as catchy as some of its counterparts, it has been an unexpected hit since first opening its doors to passengers in 2008.

East Valley Destinations

So what is it about this Phoenix train – a train that maxes out at around 45 MPH – that has everyone from politicians to artists to bloggers on state tourism websites (shameless plug) singing its praises? Well, the Phoenix Metro light rail is a fantastic resource for local Arizonans and the abundance of visitors we attract throughout the year to get out and experience all that the state has to offer. The initial 20-mile line connects many of the region’s most exciting destinations, from historic downtown Mesa, AZ and its quaint mom-and-pop shops to the dynamic and eclectic scene on Mill Avenue in Tempe, set in the heart of the country’s largest college campus, Arizona State University. Family attractions, museums and shopping are a few of the many activities you can discover and enjoy on a light rail adventure through these East Valley cities.

Downtown Rail Hotspots

The impact of the light rail is most evident toward the western end of the line as you enter downtown Phoenix. Here, passengers will find corporate commodities including the renovated and expanded Phoenix Convention Center, sports complexes such as Chase Field and US Airways Center (home to the Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns), music venues like the Orpheum Theatre, Dodge Theatre and Symphony Hall, local art galleries on Roosevelt Row, and retail shops at CityScape and the Arizona Center. Employment and education hubs like the downtown ASU campus, Phoenix School of Law and the Colliers Center are also conveniently nestled along the line.

A Day in Downtown Phoenix

It’s at one of these stops downtown that you’ll usually find me making my way toward the exit. While planned afternoons or evenings out on the town are always great, one of my favorite ways to explore the city is to pick a stop on my light rail route and organically peruse the surrounding area. In fact, a couple of weekends ago, I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon doing just that. After coaxing my roommate out of bed with the promise of food and drink, we quickly drove over to the Apache and Price Park and Ride (there are 9 Park and Ride options along the route for light rail parking) before embarking on the 25-minute journey downtown.

Rail Stop Eats

On this occasion, we decided to get off on Central Ave and Van Buren, where we ate lunch at The Westin Phoenix Downtown’s Province restaurant. Lauded for its patio oasis, fun atmosphere and quality bites, the Province did not disappoint.

With a full stomach and content roommate by my side, we next ventured (albeit sluggishly) over to one of my favorite spots downtown- Civic Space Park. Bounded by Central and 1st Avenues, and just north of Van Buren, this park is a fabulous place to relax and unwind. Within the park – rather, below the park in the bottom level of the AE England Building – is Fair Trade Café, where a cup of Joe gave me the boost I needed to finish out my downtown excursion.

Shopping Along Your Route

No train ride home is quite complete without a few bags of goodies in hand, so our third and final stop was CityScape. Upon completion, CityScape will cover several city blocks with retail, office, residential and hotel space; but – on this day – shopping was the main draw. After stocking up on fall attire at Urban Outfitters and peering through the windows of boutiques such as Charming Charlie and West of SoHo, it was finally time to call it a day.

Light Rail- with frames.jpgDining, outdoor adventures and shopping are just a few of the many surprises that await at each stop on the light rail from western Phoenix to downtown Mesa. So, next time you’re planning a day on your own, a romantic date with a partner or a full-fledged family getaway, leave your keys behind, pick a light rail route and let the path be your guide to exploring more of the state’s endless attractions.

James Skinner, a graduate of Arizona State University, is a New Jersey native who has called Arizona home for the last six years. Having come from a major metropolitan area, he enjoys exploring the state's more urban centers; however, he'll never pass up an opportunity to get out and experience Arizona's great weather and outdoor attractions.