There's more to Phoenix than golf and resorts. Look closer, and you'll find unusual attractions and off-the-beaten-path delights in this "Valley of the Sun."
Roam the Mystery Castle in the mountains
Perched on a steep hillside in Phoenix's South Mountain Park, Mystery Castle is mysterious indeed. The castle is an 8,000-square-foot structure made from rocks, bricks, old car parts and assorted junk, built by an eccentric architect named Boyce Gulley—with a little help from his friend, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright—for his daughter, Mary Lou.
When Gulley learned he had tuberculosis in 1929, he left Seattle for Phoenix, where the city’s dry air would help with the then-incurable disease, and began creating the castle's 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces as a testament of his eternal love for his daughter. Mary Lou and her mother didn't find out about the castle until Mr. Gulley passed away.
The once privately owned castle, where Mary Lou lived until her death, resembles a children's book come to life with mosaic-tiled multicolored patios, curved walls and a homemade doghouse. Inside, Mr. Gulley hand-built a tavern, a wedding chapel, a wine cellar, and, atop the house, a mother-in-law's suite.
Note: The castle is open from Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., October through May. All tours are guided and last 30-45 minutes. Due to its location and design, it is not wheelchair-accessible.
Explore The Hall of Flame
The Hall of Flame Museum, near Tempe, houses scores of old fire trucks, equipment and the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes. The fire trucks are impressive enough—included is one rig that Gene Autry salvaged and donated—yet it's the old equipment, dating back to the 18th century, that's most impressive.
The story goes that, as volunteer fire departments began forming just after the American Revolution, members started competing to see who could make the most elaborate rig. Items such as an 1870 parade carriage from Connecticut, with its oversized spoked wheels, interlaced metalwork and bass drum-like water tank, leaves visitors wondering, "What planet is this stuff from?"
Peer down an elevator shaft as you drink and dine
Hanny’s, a former department store in downtown Phoenix turned destination bar and restaurant is known as much for its expertly shaken classic martinis as it is its curios. Hanny's is an experiential space, where you'll run into a bedazzled, horned mannequin in the main lobby (known only as "She"). Hold your breath while walking over plexiglass above the old elevator shaft and be intrigued by a collection of vintage porcelain dolls in the basement. Insider tip: Bring coins.
See the Spire
On the corner of Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard is a Wright-designed monument that's as puzzling as Taliesin West is beloved. The Spire is a 125-foot blue and green, unicorn horn-resembling glass monument. Initially conceived as part of the Arizona Capitol building Wright envisioned but was never built (likely because Wright was never asked to design it), The Spire instead became part of a mall and lights up in cool shades of blue at night.
Discover a castle off the highway
Tovrea Castle’s "wedding cake" layout, with three tiers rising from a cactus-covered hillside, was the brainchild of sheet metal magnate Alessio Carraro. He envisioned the castle as a hotel but abandoned the effort when his neighbor, E.A. Tovrea, built a meatpacking plant nearby. Carraro packed up and moved, leaving the castle in disrepair.
Tovrea bought it, naming the castle for himself, but eventually left the building to fall apart until the 1990s when the castle's restorations began. Now owned by the city of Phoenix, Tovrea Castle (and its thriving cactus garden) is again testimony to Phoenix's flair for the idealistic.
Tovrea Castle is located off Loop 202 and has attracted the attention of thousands who wonder about its history and interior. Opened for tours in 2012, reservations are required to visit and tickets are in high demand (you have to enter a lottery system). If you can nab a spot, enjoy more than 40 acres of Southwestern gardens and 360-degree views from the most curious castle in the city.
Visit a pyramid at Papago Park
Travel to the top of a hill within Papago Park to a white pyramid—congratulations, you’ve arrived at Phoenix’s most unusual gravesite! Hunt’s Tomb is where George W.P. Hunt (Arizona's first governor), his wife, their daughter, and his in-laws are buried. An intriguing plaque lists off governor Hunt’s accomplishments, such as allowing women the right to vote eight years before the rest of the country, and that he was elected governor seven times, which "set a national record."
About the Author
Mark Sanders is a journalist and archaeologist. He currently lives in Florida.