Although known by many as an expansive Greater Phoenix Area suburb with great shopping and restaurants, there is much more to Scottsdale than meets the eye.
The land here was originally inhabited by several Native American tribes, including the Hohokam, Navajo, Hopi, and Apache Indians. And although the number of descendants of these tribes has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, today there are an estimated 300,000 still living on reservations in the area.
Scottdale’s specific history dates back to the late 1800s when a U.S. Army Chaplain by the name of Winfield Scott—the city’s namesake—arrived here to explore the mighty Salt River which runs through this part of modern-day Arizona. Once determining that the River could be a major asset for establishment of a settlement, he laid down roots and the beginnings of a great city were born.
Using this vital water supply, Scott helped transform this dry Sonoran Desert terrain into a more lush, habitable environment which eventually spawned numerous thriving agricultural enterprises. In the mid-1930s the natural beauty of this desert and mountainous landscape began to draw artisans of every stripe from far and wide, including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Just over a decade later, Scottsdale became the home of a crucial cadet flight training school, as well as a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.
It wasn’t long, particularly due to the excellent irrigation system here, before housing and commercial enterprise boons increased the population by leaps and bounds. This was naturally followed by a thriving tourism industry which now draws an estimated 6 million visitors a year, half of the estimated annual visitors to the neighboring capital city of Phoenix (with a population hovering near 5 million).
Charming, small-town flavor and flair
One of the most attractive aspects of Scottsdale is that although it has grown to over 250,000 denizens, it has still retained a charming, small-town flavor and flair with many of the offerings of “the big city.”
To grasp more of the city’s early history while here, be sure to explore the Scottsdale Historical Museum. Located inside of the former, one-roomed Little Red Schoolhouse, you’ll find several interesting permanent exhibits.
The heart and soul of Old Town Scottsdale is the Fifth Avenue Shopping District, peppered with a wealth of restaurants, wineries, bars, western and contemporary clothing boutiques, artisan shops, street art, museums, and other cultural entities.
Old Town is also the home of the Scottsdale Arts District. One of the largest and most well-regarded in the country, the central focus of the District is its fine art galleries encompassing everything from Native American, American West and Southwest art, to sculptures, paintings, photography, pottery, jewelry, textiles and more.
One of the best and most popular times to visit is during the year-round, Thursday night ArtWalk, where the galleries reopen from 7-9 p.m., welcoming casual art enthusiasts to staunch art aficionados and collectors inside to enjoy the wealth of artistic talent that Scottsdale and the Greater Phoenix Area have to offer. The District also features numerous upscale restaurants, fashion boutiques, and interior design studios.
Among the other cultural entities here are the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Stagebrush Theatre, and the Scottsdale Artists’ School. However, perhaps the biggest—in size and scope—cultural entities are the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West.
The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art focuses entirely on contemporary art, architecture, and design and features a wide array of contemplative, emotion provoking, expressive, and sometimes controversial exhibits that invite the visitor to immerse themselves into areas that perhaps push the boundaries of their own comfort zones, yet in an inviting and animated way.
At the Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West, an award-winning Smithsonian Affiliate, the offerings extend far beyond celebrating the history and culture of the American West, instead more aptly addressing “regional history, particularly as reflected by the arts and the dynamic cultural exchanges that have marked the transition of the Old West into the New West.”
The exhibits here are awe-inspiring and yet another place where one could spend hours taking in the expansive permanent and temporary collections and related historical artifacts. Visitors will also find a stunning Sculpture Courtyard highlighted by contemporary architectural design permanent and changing installations accented by lovely desert plantings. Inside, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust Theater/Auditorium is a visually and architecturally dramatic venue featuring a wide variety of educational programs, entertainment, and other events throughout the year.
So much to see and do
If you happen to be in town in mid-November be sure to catch the annual Canal Convergence: Water + Art + Light event. Held at the Scottsdale Waterfront, an expansive 1.1 million square foot mixed-use project, Canal Convergence draws an estimated 250,000 people for this free, 10-day, public immersive art event.
Beginning at sundown, attendees are regaled with over a dozen large-scale, light-based artworks and creative workshops created by local, national and international artists. The location is significant, as it was here where the city really made its mark by incorporating a series of canals to utilize the flow from the Salt River. As such, Canal Convergence incorporates that element of water with public art and light. Free artist talks, educational tours of the art installations, food trucks, activities for the entire family, and more are all part of the fun.
Located about 20 minutes north of Old Town is another of Scottsdale’s most well-known and popular landmark attractions - Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Representing one of the famed architect’s masterpieces, it served as his beloved winter home and desert workshop when he lived here in the 1940s, and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and a National Historic Landmark.
Just a stone’s throw away is the spectacular McDowell Sonoran Preserve, where both locals and visitors flock to enjoy a wide range of recreational activities. Situated amidst the awe-inspiring McDowell Mountains, the Preserve features over 200 miles of walking/running, self-guided and guided hiking, and biking trails covering some 30,000 contiguous acres (an amazing one-third of Scottsdale’s total land mass!). Other activities relished here include rock climbing and horseback riding.
The focus here is not just on recreation, rather the long-time and staunch conservancy efforts dedicated to keeping this wide open, for the most part untouched, expanse created by nature for the enjoyment of generations to follow.
Next up, we’re eating our way through Scottsdale!
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