By: Devney Preuss, President & CEO at Downtown Phoenix Inc.
If we gave “Family Favorite” awards to different areas of the Valley, Downtown Phoenix would surely be in the running. While the area is flush with nightlife options for adults, parents may be surprised to learn that Downtown offers plenty of family-friendly activities and local favorites on the cheap. Many of these activities are close enough to be enjoyed in succession, making for a fun day of adventures.
You can even go the extra mile, like Downtown resident Allison Otu, and bring your bikes with you. “We love the wide bike lanes all over Downtown Phoenix,” says Otu. “We can ride to all the local events, and even our new-to-bike-riding daughter feels safe.”
For Phoenicians just outside of Downtown, hop aboard the light rail. Downtown area resident, Fara Illich, says it’s a blast: “We’re just a short bike ride or light rail trip away from Downtown. The kids love riding the train. It’s like their very own personal choo choo!”
Whether your kids want to experience one of the Valley’s largest playgrounds or you want to discover a hidden garden oasis, here are some of Downtown Phoenix’s unknown family favorites—straight from area residents themselves.
FilmBar at The Pemberton
FilmBar has been a Downtown Phoenix staple for the past decade, hosting an eclectic mix of films at two locations; indoor at its original theater near Second and McKinley streets, and at The Pemberton, a small business collective near Second and Portland Streets. Bring the family to catch films like Lord of the Rings, Ghostbusters, Hairspray and more. Unlike traditional theatres, many shows have an interactive component—like singing along to Hairspray—and the food and drinks are reasonably priced.
Fiesta Bowl Play – Mega Playground at Margaret T. Hance Park
One of Downtown Phoenix’s newest family-friendly additions is Fiesta Bowl Play, a 20,000 square-foot playground at Margaret T. Hance Park. Fiesta Bowl Play features animal-themed play structures, a climbing wall, a splash pad and slides; all of which are sure to keep the kiddos busy for hours. Downtown area resident Brian Vance and his family are no strangers to Fiesta Bowl Play: “We love the new park! It’s super family friendly, and the greenbelt leads straight toward the center of Downtown.”
Burton Barr Central Library
The Burton Barr Library is a sight to behold. Don’t just take our word for it—the Phoenix Public Library’s flagship recently received the 2021 Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects. Aside from its good looks, the Burton Barr Library has amazing resources for both children and teenagers. The Children’s Place on the first floor is a 14,000-square-foot storytime space stocked with children’s books and interactive games for parents and kids to enjoy together. Likewise, Teen Central is a community space for young adults 12–18 years old, complete with a hands-on music room, computers with high-speed internet, study areas, an art gallery and plenty of YA books. “There are programs for kids and teens all year, and we always like the annual kid book festival,” shares Downtown resident Krista Pacion. The best news is the library is open again; just be sure to make a reservation before your visit.
Self-guided Art Walk
It doesn’t take long to notice that Downtown Phoenix is a canvas for hundreds of local artists. Why not make a game out of finding some of their work? Take a stroll down Roosevelt Row and you will see a plethora of beautiful murals. Or, take a page from Downtown resident Fara Illich’s book and check out a couple of well-known sculptures: “We like to get a photo with the Downtown Phoenix robot on the corner of First Avenue and Monroe Street,” said Illich. “Or we’ll visit the giant brass panda sculpture at Hance Park.” Whether you’re on your bike or roaming the streets after visiting the farmers market, you’ll be sure to find plenty of creative inspiration.
While Roosevelt Row is the typical go-to for local art, Grand Avenue also has amazing murals and art galleries, and it participates in First and Third Friday Art Walks. After you get your fill of art hunting, be sure to check out the unique local businesses lining the historic street. “I love to bring my kids to Grand Avenue Pizza Company,” says Illich. “It has an awesome art-filled courtyard with its very own half pipe for adult skaters, which is fun for the littles to watch. After that, we like to go to Novel Ice Cream across the street as a special treat. The “cookie monster” flavor is a hit with the kiddos, but beware, it will stain their lips and tongue bright blue!”
If you’re looking for some weekend fun, why not round up the family, get in the car and head to a Great Arizona Puppet Theater drive-in puppet show? The nonprofit theater puts on classics like Jack and the Beanstalk and The Little Engine That Could. Shows are in the mornings to ensure everyone stays cool, and you can order breakfast from Fair Trade Cafe—delivered directly to your car.
Japanese Friendship Garden
The Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix is a serene oasis tucked into the side of Margaret T. Hance park in Downtown Phoenix. The 3.5 acre Japanese stroll garden features stone footbridges, a koi pond with more than 300 fish, a 12-foot waterfall and a tea house. You and the family can roam the grounds, learn about the culture of Phoenix’s sister city Himeji, Japan, and grab a traditional Japanese frozen treat, including fish-shaped ice cream sandwiches with flavors like matcha or strawberry. The best part? Kids 6 and under get in free!
Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market
Many Phoenician families have made it a Saturday morning tradition to visit the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market—and for good reason. There is an exciting sense of community as you peruse the local business stands surrounded by Phoenix skyscrapers. “The market is fun for all ages, supports local business and is steps away from the art district and lots of cool restaurants,” says Vance. Grab an iced coffee for you and an Italian soda for the kids at Pour Jo’s truck, snag a couple of sourdough croissants before they’re gone from Proof Bakery, and then browse your neighbors’ handmade goods. Soon enough, the market will be your Saturday morning tradition, too!
After a difficult year for small businesses and community organizations, we’re fortunate to have local spots with unique family fun offerings, especially ones in the heart of the Valley. Next steps? Use this list as a guide to find a piece of Downtown your whole family will enjoy.
Devney Preuss is President & CEO of Downtown Phoenix Inc. Launched in 2013, Downtown Phoenix Inc. is a community building organization that coordinates the work plans of Downtown Phoenix Partnership, Phoenix Community Alliance and Downtown Phoenix Community Development Corporation. Collectively, these organizations work to facilitate collaboration, cultivate connections, and contribute to both the growth and vitality of our community. To generate progress on issues, work toward sustainable growth and build a stronger, more inclusive city core that generates positive perceptions, memorable experiences and a sense of pride in downtown.