For a basketball fan, a Final Four trip is a pilgrimage to the holiest of hardwoods.
This year, the so-called March Madness culminates in Phoenix, Arizona, March 31 – April 3, as the field of 68 teams is winnowed to four semifinalists. And while the three 40-minute games on Saturday and Monday will take center stage at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, there’s a lot of downtime for fans before the games and between the tip-offs.
Here are 16 ways to take a timeout from basketball and explore the Greater Phoenix area.
1. Take a hike.
While walking (traveling) is a foul in basketball, it’s a favorite pastime around here. The wide-open expanse of parks and preserves in the Greater Phoenix area means you’re not far from a hiking or biking trailthrough the Sonoran Desert.
South Mountain Park and Preserve is one of the largest municipal parks in the U.S., while Camelback Mountain offers up panoramic views of the Valley.
These ‘urban’ hikes range in difficulty from easy to challenging. Rule of thumb: The higher the climb, the tougher the trail. Pack plenty of water and sunscreen, regardless of the temperature.
2. Take it to the house.
Fans of basketball and Frank Lloyd Wright will want to check out Taliesin West, the innovative architect’s winter home and workshop in Scottsdale. The buildings were constructed over a 20-year period and use the rocks and materials of the Sonoran Desert. Several tours are available to explore the grounds.
3. Splash out with the kids.
Meet Cora and Ziva, rescued sea turtles, visit a Seahorse nursery and find Nemo’s clownfish cousins in the habitats at the SEA LIFE Arizona Aquarium in Tempe.
This kid-friendly spot has several educational talks and feeding times throughout the day, and offers a behind-the-scenes tour for just $3 extra (Saturdays and Sundays only.)
Buying tickets online a day in advance will save a couple bucks on admission, and you can buy a combo pass that also includes admission to the nearby LEGOLAND Discovery Center as well.
4. Find fun & food right by the Stadium.
On Final Four Friday (March 31), you can catch an open practice for each of the teams for free at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Before or after the practice or the games on Saturday and Monday, you won’t have to go far for food, entertainment and shopping. The Westgate Entertainment District is one block away with 23 restaurants (ranging from Chipotle to Buffalo Wild Wings to Yard House to Dave and Busters).
In addition to shops and a 20-screen movie theater, there’s Fountain Park with a splash pad for kids and WaterDance Plaza, a water attraction (think: Bellagio Fountains on a smaller scale) with shows every 30 or 60 minutes from 11:30 a.m. until midnight.
5. Walk this way.
Get into town early for the weekly Scottsdale ArtWalk, held each Thursday evening from 7 to 9 p.m. in downtown Scottsdale. This free event in its 42nd year is essentially an open house for the famed Scottsdale Arts District, as galleries open their doors.
This area is very walkable, with fountains, outdoor statues and tree-covered courtyards drawing visitors along with top-rated restaurants and wine tasting rooms.
While in the District, don’t miss Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, which has later hours during the Thursday ArtWalk. Recently opened in 2015, the museum showcases the artifacts, history, art and culture of the American West — cowboys, Native Americans, pioneers — past and present.
6. Go downtown for fan favorites.
Many of the Final Four’s fan-focused events will be in downtown Phoenix. The Final Four Fan Fest at the Phoenix Convention Center is a popular festival with games, clinics, autograph signings, a chance to take your photo with the NCAA championship trophy and freebies from NCAA sponsors.
There is an $8 admission fee, but kids 12 and under get in free with a ticketed adult.
On Saturday morning, kids can join the Final Four Dribble — a free event (pre-registration required) where kids 18 and under can dribble a basketball (which they get to keep) from Heritage Square to the Fan Fest.
Before or after the events, stop by DeSoto Central Market for a bite to eat. One of 100+ restaurants in downtown Phoenix, DeSoto is a cool collection of yummy boutique eateries like DCM Burger Joint and Walrus & Pearl oyster bar inside a historic converted warehouse.
Then head over to the March Madness Music Festival, held at Margaret Hance Park March 31 – April 2. This year’s lineup features Chainsmokers, Aerosmith, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Oh, and it’s free.
7. Check out real-life mascots.
While the NCAA bracket is full of Wildcats, Bears (or Bruins), Gators and Ducks, the real animals in Glendale’s West Valley are at the World Wildlife Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park.
Go on a kangaroo walkabout, feed giraffes from a 12-foot platform, gawk at new additions like baby lion cubs at the Baby Animal Nursery and check out the rare all-white albino alligator. Home to 600+ species, the park also includes rides like a safari train through a 15-acre African plain and Skyride above the park (extra fees apply).
8. Sail through town.
A dam on the Salt River creates the Tempe Town Lake in downtown Tempe. This is a popular spot for morning walks and bike rides, but the real way to enjoy this spot is to get out on the water. Kayaks, pedal boats, sailboats and stand-up paddleboards are available to rent.
While in downtown Tempe, make sure to check out the Tempe Festival of the Arts (March 31 – April 2), a free street fair with 400+ artists and vendors now in its 40th year.
9. Embrace the art of it all.
If you missed the ArtWalk in Scottsdale, there are several museums that are worth a detour indoors.
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA) in Old Town is a renovated movie theater that showcases modern art and architecture, including a really cool skyspace from artist James Turrell that uses the changing desert sky as a canvas. (It’s also free to visit on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m.)
One of the oldest museums in Arizona, the Heard Museum, dates back to 1929 and focuses on American Indian art and history. Located in downtown Phoenix, the museum has an extensive collection of Hopi kachina dolls, as well as pottery and beadwork from tribes of the Southwest.
The largest art museum in the Southwest is the Phoenix Art Museum, a favorite for its variety of art — from paintings by masters like Rodin and Monet to photography from the likes of Ansel Adams. Don’t miss big works of art in the Dorrance Sculpture Garden and the tiny furniture replicas in the Thorne Rooms exhibit.
The Musical Instrument Museum is rated as one of the best museums in the country for families by USA Today and ranked a top attraction by TripAdvisor readers. Check out more than 6,000 instruments and objects — including a few you can play yourself. Stop by the Artists Gallery to see memorabilia and instruments from the likes of John Lennon, Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
10. Catch the final innings of Spring Training.
Arrive a couple days early to catch the final spring training games of the Cactus League. Fifteen teams play games within a one-hour drive of downtown Phoenix, including both of last year’s World Series teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians.
March 29 is the final day of a full schedule of games at the spring training ballparks — which offer a more intimate setting to watch a ballgame. If you can’t arrive that early, the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks will play their final exhibition games on March 30 & 31 at Chase Field in Phoenix.
11. Dine around town.
The dining scene in Phoenix goes way beyond where to get the best Mexican food (ask 10 area residents and you’ll get 10 answers, all of them probably right).
There’s a robust menu of options that offers up everything from the morning comfort food at Matt’s Big Breakfast to Southern home cooking by Justin Beckett at Southern Rail to omakase from James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda at Nobuo at Teeter House. Looking for suggestions? Ask the chefs.
Oh, and the best Mexican food? A good bet is one of four restaurants offered by James Beard nominee Silvana Salcido Esparza, including Barrio Café. If you miss out while you’re in town — there’s one at Terminal 4 in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
12. Seek out a souvenir.
Not every souvenir from the Final Four needs to have a basketball on it.
If you’re looking for the big names of shopping — it’s hard to go wrong at Scottsdale Fashion Square, where the likes of Burberry, Gucci and Tory Burch have set up shop.
For a unique souvenir, head to the Cosanti Foundation in Scottsdale to see the innovative architecture of Paolo Soleri and hear the wind-blown chimes of one-of-a-kind Cosanti bells. Self-guided tours are free; come on weekday mornings to see the bells cast in bronze.
You might be inclined to take a few bells home to hang on your porch.
13. Get to know CenPho.
A short Uber or taxi ride from downtown, Central Phoenix (or CenPho as locals call it) is a neighborhood that’s on the rise by making old things new.
You’ll find spots like The Orchard (one-time citrus nursery), The Yard (an old car showroom) and The Crown (one-time home of Crown Imports). These old buildings and spaces that have been stripped to the studs (so to speak) and revitalized with popular restaurants, retail shops and event spaces.
14. Go for a ride.
Two-wheel it through Phoenix by trying out the Grid Bike Share, with hundreds of neon-green bikes available throughout downtown Phoenix.
Reserve a bike online or by downloading the mobile app, then unlock your bike from a station with a four-digit PIN. Rentals start at $7 an hour or $10 for 3 hours on the 7-day pass. The maximum daily charge is $25. (Helmets are not included.)
When you stop for coffee at a spot like First Draft Book Bar, lock up the bike and put your bike on ‘hold’ for up to an hour. Popular rides include the bike paths on 3rd and 5th Avenues, and past the murals and galleries on Roosevelt Row (also known as RoRo).
15. Get to the Garden.
Hoops history has a few famous ‘gardens’ — Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden come to mind. Hoops fans in the Phoenix area should instead make their way to these two gardens for a moment away from the Madness.
The Japanese Friendship Garden is a peaceful oasis in downtown Phoenix. As you walk through the manicured 3 1/2 acres, you may not even realize that it’s built on top of a section of Interstate 10.
Take a few photos of the Japanese flora to post on Instagram and really confuse your friends, feed the koi and find a moment of Zen before you head out to root for your team.
You can go even bigger by visiting the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park between Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. More than 50,000 desert plants are on display here — that’s a lot of cacti and desert wildflowers. Take a guided tour, hike one of the five trails or check out the new butterfly exhibit, opening in March.
16. Don’t miss cocktail hour.
To celebrate a championship (or lament a loss), Phoenix has a ton of options to enjoy a drink or two. There are rooftop bars with downtown views like Lustre at the Hotel Palomar, swanky cocktail lounges like Bitter & Twisted or an underground speakeasy like Valley Bar.
(Overtime) Enjoy your own ‘One Shining Moment’.
NCAA basketball fans know ‘One Shining Moment’ as the iconic song that plays under the tournament-finishing highlight montage.
For those visiting the Phoenix area, ‘one shining moment’ can also be described as that time when you see a sunset over the Sonoran Desert and say “wow” under your breath. The mountains change colors to deep purples, the vast sky is painted in oranges and reds, and the cacti cast towering shadows across the landscape.
Some of the best spots to catch a sunset include the grounds of Taliesin West, the tower of the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, the Degree 270 lounge at Talking Stick Resort & Spa, the drive up to Dobbins Lookout in South Mountain Park and over dinner at Different Pointe of View in central Phoenix.
You can find a different spot for the sunset each night — when you’re not at the games, of course.