Not long ago, Tempe was a place entirely unfamiliar to me, even though I’ve been to both of its neighbors, Phoenix and Scottsdale before. But now, Tempe is permanently ingrained in my mind for two very distinct reasons –
- It’s extremely central, lively, and close to (in some cases, home to) so many of the mainstays I recommend whenever anyone asks me for recommendations when visiting Phoenix.
- It’s a word of long-time debate with my boyfriend, Jacob, who leading up to our visit never failed to refer to it as tem-peh, like the fermented soybean, instead of Temp-ee, like the city. 🙂
So, what is there to do in Tempe? If you haven’t heard of Tempe before, you have probably heard of Arizona State University. Arizona State University is one of the country’s biggest campuses in the entire nation with more than 70,000 students, and the school just so happens to have a Tempe address. But you’d be surprised, as I was, to learn just how much more there is to this city beyond the expected college town ambiance and lively nightlife. Maybe it’s the quick access to desert scenery, or the actually good food scene that goes way above the expectations of a college student appetite of cheap burgers and fries. In just a couple short days, I set out to uncover all the most enticing and adventurous things to do in Tempe the next time you plan on paying Arizona a visit.
Where is Tempe, Arizona?
Tempe is a city just east of Phoenix, and less than 10 minutes from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Getting here, you can easily fly into Phoenix or road trip from a neighboring city or state. Because it is home to Arizona State University, Tempe has a lot going on and a lot to offer – from lively restaurants and bars, to open-air markets and street art, to spring training and countless ways to get outdoors. Two big landmarks that set Tempe apart from neighboring Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Mesa include Tempe Town Lake and a collection of buttes that you can hike up to get a 360-degree vantage point of the city.
Now that you’re situated, here’s my advice on how to spend a long weekend in Tempe, Arizona!
How to Spend a Long Weekend in Tempe, Arizona: 3-Day Guide
DAY ONE: Coffee Shop Hop, Visit the Botanical Garden, Experience Mill Avenue Nightlife
Whenever I visit a new city, I always try to make some time at the very beginning to explore and get my bearings on foot. What better way to do that than by venturing out of your hotel for a cup of coffee? Tempe happens to have dozens of tasty coffee shops peppered throughout the city (thank you, college town!) that are worth a visit. While you might not be able to get to all of them, there’s nothing like a strong caffeine buzz to kick off your long weekend!
After getting your coffee fix and exploring the city on foot, head to the Desert Botanical Garden for the afternoon. At night, get acquainted with Mill Avenue and the downtown nightlife Tempe is, understandably, well-known for.
Coffee Shops To Try in Tempe:
If you’re wondering, the answer is yes – I did visit every single coffee shop in this list over the course of one weekend. I’m WIRED on research, people!
Places to Visit in Tempe:
- Tempe Town Lake: Tempe Town Lake is a reservoir located smack next to downtown Tempe, and can’t be missed. It’s well-loved as a hub for kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing, and rowing, and you can rent anything you need from Boat Rentals of America.
- ASU Gammage: If you’re a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and unique architecture, a stop on the ASU college campus might be right up your alley. The auditorium, which was originally intended to be an opera house in Baghdad, Iraq, officially opened to the public in the early 60s and today plays host to a number of performances. Catch a show or, at the very least, pay a visit while you’re in town to get a closer look inside this beautiful building. (2020 update – temporarily closed, but offering virtual experiences online)
- Tempe Center for the Arts: Another space wholly committed to the arts scene in Tempe, the Tempe Center for the Arts hosts performances, events, installations, and a year-round gallery (with free gallery admission) featuring local, regional, and international artists on display.
Desert Botanical Garden:
Hands-down my favorite stop in the greater Phoenix area, the Desert Botanical Garden should be a priority while you’re in town. I’ve been to many botanical gardens, but the Desert Botanical Garden is one of my favorites because of my obsession with desert landscapes. Here, you’ll find more than 50,000 plant displays across 140 acres – from wildflowers and desert shrubs to prickly pear and all the saguaro cacti your heart can possibly handle. It’s a treasure trove of information, beautiful surroundings, and incredible opportunities for photos and vistas unlike anything you might have seen before. Sometimes, they have special events or evening exhibits, so I highly recommend checking out their site before you go to plan your visit.
Places to Check Out On / Near Mill Avenue After Dark:
DAY TWO: Explore Tempe by E-Bike, Check Out a Brewery, and Go Horseback Riding on an Indian Reservation
While walking around this city will get you pretty far, an even better (and frankly, way more fun) experience is getting lost in this city’s crazy-efficient bike path system. What you might not know is that Tempe is actually a surprisingly bike-friendly city, with incredibly safe bike paths and systems (175 miles of bike paths within Tempe’s 40 square miles!) throughout. Rent a bike or take a an e-bike tour to have the best possible experience and see all that Tempe has to offer in a short amount of time. After that, visit one of Tempe’s breweries for a pint and some well-earned food. Then, ditch town for a little while and go for a sunset horseback ride. You won’t be sorry you did, as this was one of my absolute favorite experiences in my entire weekend in Tempe!
E-Bike Touring Around Tempe:
As I mentioned, Tempe is way more bike-friendly than I expected it to be. It felt like there was a dedicated lane or safe detour everywhere we turned, allowing commuters to zip all over the city without feeling unsafe. To get a quick tour of the entire city top-to-bottom, take an e-bike tour with Tempe E-Bike Tours. E-bikes allow you to bike normally or with a bit of an assist so you can cruise up and down Tempe’s streets and hills with ease at varying speeds. Our tour took us across the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge above Tempe Town Lake, to Papago Park, and up to the ‘Hole-in-the-Rock,’ a short 10-minute mini hike to a unique rock formation that perfectly frames a great view of both Tempe and Phoenix from above.
Breweries To Try in Tempe:
Sunset Horseback Riding:
Just outside of Tempe lies the Gila River Indian Community Reservation. While most might expect a recommendation for visiting Indian reservation to include stopping by a casino, my recommendation is actually to experience the area on horseback! We took a private tour with the KOLI Equestrian Center and explored the vast landscapes at a calm, comfortable pace, spotting jackrabbits, coyotes, and even an entire herd of wild horses along the way. My beautiful paint’s name was River, and our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide’s name was Robert (if you get him as your guide, you’re bound to have a great time!). Our tour ended right before sunset, which we got to enjoy with freshly made margaritas in hand. Did I mention this was one of the highlights of my entire weekend? No?
Well, it definitely was.
DAY THREE: Take a Hike, Explore Tempe’s Murals, and Stroll Through 6th Street Market
Before heading home, day 3 is the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a little more sight-seeing without going too far outside of the downtown area. There’s some great quick hiking in Tempe that can easily be done before breakfast. If you have more time, go hunting around the city for Tempe’s beautiful art murals (which double as great photo-ops). And, if your last day in Tempe just happens to be on a Sunday, check out 6th Street Market for some art, souvenirs, or snacks to take home with you.
Hiking in Tempe:
Art Murals and Installations to See:
Downtown Tempe’s 6th Street Market:
On Sundays in Tempe, 6th Street Park transforms into a market complete with local artisans, food, souvenirs, and live music. 6th Street Market is worth a walk-through for a snack or a unique gift to bring back home! (2020 update – no live music, but the market is still open!)
Tempe Hotels and Other Places to Stay
- Graduate Tempe: an affordable, 1970’s-meets-southwest hotel located next to Arizona State University
- Airbnb Options (New to Airbnb? Use this link to save up to $55 on your first booking!)
- Other Hotel Options in Tempe
Where to Eat and Drink in Tempe
Tips to Know Before You Go
- TRANSPORTATION: Tempe is very walkable and easy to get around. You can also easily rent bikes or scooters, or take an Uber or Lyft. In addition to all the more or less standard options, Tempe has its own light rail that operates seven days a week from early in the morning (around 4:30 or 5 am) to 11 pm. For routes and schedules, go here.
- WEATHER: It’s been said that Tempe boasts more than 330 rain-free days a year. In the winter, expect the temperatures to fall between 40ºF at night and 70ºF during the day. In the summer, those temperatures might rise to between 80º and 110º. Generally speaking, you can expect sunshine and clear skies for a good chunk of the year.
- STAYING ACTIVE: If hiking, biking, and exploring the city on foot isn’t enough to get your heart going, I actually had a great experience using Classpass in Tempe! The studio I visited using Classpass is called ONE TRIBE Yoga & Wellness and the workout was just what I needed to sweat out the queso and beer I’d been consuming all weekend. Highly recommend!
More Time to Spend in Arizona?
If you have more time to spend in Arizona, I recommend exploring Scottsdale or taking a road trip to Sedona. I’ve linked my suggestions for each below –
There you have it! Tempe showed me that there’s actually so much more to a visit here than its college town legacy would suggest. Arizona continues to rank high on my list of favorite states to explore, and while you may be overwhelmed with choice thanks to all the well-known destinations Arizona has to offer, I hope this itinerary has cemented Tempe in your list of places to check out. With 3 days to spare, there’s just so much you can do.
Ready to go to Tempe?
Have you been to Tempe yet, or are you currently planning a trip? Tell me below!
Read This Next:
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- Where to Stay in Tempe: The Graduate Tempe
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- Road Tripping From Phoenix to Sedona: 5 Stops To Make Along the Way
- 36 Hours in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona