Free and Inexpensive Things to Do in Scottsdale
While vacations are a time to relax, rejuvenate and pamper yourself, getting a great value on your getaway is also important. What some tourists may not realize is that Scottsdale, in addition to being a world-class travel destination with luxury amenities and accommodations, also offers a number of free and inexpensive activities that are easy on the wallet and still a great way to experience the destination.
Downtown Scottsdale is a 786-acre pedestrian playground full of entertainment opportunities that won’t break your bank. Get around on the free Scottsdale Trolley that travels to every notable spot in the area. Loved by locals and visitors alike, you’ll get an up-close look at the specialty shops, restaurants and art galleries from the convenience of the air-conditioned trolley. And you can hop on and off as you wish – the ride is completely free and runs every 10 minutes, Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
You’ll also find your fair share of culture in downtown. The area is like an outdoor walking museum where you can take in nearly 50 eye-catching public art pieces like George-Ann Tognoni's “The Yearlings” and Donald Lipski’s “The Doors.” Herb Mignery's statue “Passing the Legacy,” which is situated at the Scottsdale Waterfront, symbolizes the melding of Scottsdale’s historic and modern western appeal with its depiction of a vintage 1860s horse rider of the Pony Express passing a mail bag on to a modern-day rider.
On the other side of Scottsdale Waterfront is the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, which connects the district to the rest of downtown across the historic Arizona Canal. The bridge evokes late designer Paolo Soleri’s fascination with solar movement. All of these pieces are possible thanks to Scottsdale Public Art, which since its inception in 1985 has created a diverse collection that encompasses a wide range of artistic expressions, from bronze to contemporary. Discover downtown’s most-celebrated public art works by downloading the self-guided Downtown Scottsdale Public Art Walking Tour.
Other artistic offerings include the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), which features compelling modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design from around the globe. Designed by award-winning architect Will Bruder, SMoCA's minimalist structure includes a public skyspace by the acclaimed artist James Turrell. There, you’ll experience the ever-changing light of the desert sky. Admission costs $10 for adults, $7 for students and is free for kids 15 and younger. On Thursdays, enjoy the modern displays at no cost.
Also on Thursdays is Scottsdale ArtWalk, a tradition that has taken place for more than 40 years. During ArtWalk, you will explore downtown and its diverse collection of dozens of art galleries. From 7 to 9 p.m., galleries open their doors to the public and show off the works from some of the Southwest’s most extraordinary artists. The galleries host artist receptions with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, as well as live demonstrations where you will observe creative minds developing their latest pieces.
For a sensory journey of song and dance, check out Native Trails, a series of free festivals showcasing the vivid first nations of Arizona and North America, presented by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Representatives from various American Indian tribes take the stage at noon most Thursdays and Saturdays from January through March and inspire attendees with their musical performances and traditional dances. Staged at the Scottsdale Civic Center Park downtown, the event celebrates American Indian traditions, while focusing on the individual cultures of tribes residing throughout the Southwest.
Enjoy a feast for the eyes and stomach during the Old Town Farmers Market. Discover the best local restaurants and growers in the area as vendors sell a variety of organic vegetables and fruits, flowers, herbs, coffee, and an assortment of handmade items including pastries, jams, and baked goods. And you won’t want to miss the event’s live entertainment and cooking demonstrations.
Afterward head to the Sugar Bowl for a taste of a true 1950s ice cream parlor and soda shop. The Sugar Bowl has been dishing out quintessential American food and scrumptious ice cream treats since 1958. The menu items, décor and location have remained virtually unchanged since its opening, and the Sugar Bowl holds a place on Scottsdale's Historic Preservation Register.
Downtown is bustling with wallet-friendly events and activities, but there’s no shortage of excitement throughout the rest of the city. Take the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, for example. Ride on the Paradise and Pacific railroads and antique carousel, enjoy the museum and playgrounds, or just relax in the grass. Make time to visit the LEED gold certified building, featuring motorized model railroads with scenic exhibits. The park also offers a free summer concert series during which you can kick back with a picnic and enjoy live music from local bands every Sunday evening, May through July. Admission to the park is free and tickets to ride the train and carousel are $2 each.
Moving on from rails to trails, Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve is 30,200 acres of protected land that offers a plot of pristine Sonoran Desert. There, you can experience the magnificence of the natural environment with hiking, biking, mountain climbing or horseback riding adventures. Other spots to get in tune with the desert for free include the McDowell Mountain Regional Park, Camelback Mountain, Papago Park, Piestewa Peak, Pinnacle Peak Park and Superstition Mountains.
Movie buffs can check out the complimentary film series, Movies in the Park, at Biltmore Fashion Park. Taking place October through December and then again in March and April, the outdoor event features classic films and holiday favorites. It’s held on Friday evenings in the shopping district’s courtyard, so grab good friends and a blanket to enjoy a flick under the desert night sky. And in June, Kierland Commons puts on a special concert series that highlights some of the best local acts Arizona has to offer. The celebrated event is ideal for the whole family and includes jazz, rock, blues and Top 40 cover bands.