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With regular triple-degree temperatures in the summer and more than 300 days of whiteout sunshine a year, it hard to get beyond the obvious fact that Arizona’s largest city is hot and sunny.

But hidden within the sprawl of Phoenix -- and adjoining Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa (collectively known as the Valley of the Sun) – are little clusters of artistic cool, musical joy and botanical beauty. Here are a few amazing experiences to get you started.

Reading on the top floor of Burton Barr Central Library
If cities were judged by their library, Phoenix would be the coolest town in the world. The Butron Barr Central Library is designed to make use of Arizona’s ample natural light, which floods throughout the building. The stair/elevator system is aptly nicknamed the Crystal Canyon because of its glittering, glassy presentation and sight lines across the building. The top floor may be the best place to read in the state. And the tensegrity structure roof looks like something from a Star Trek set.

Listening to a West African harp at the Musical Instrument Museum
The Musical Instrument Museum aims to exhibit at least one instrument from almost every country in the world (the really small ones such as Vatican City and Andorra do not count). Visitors are given a headset and sent off on self-guided walking tours; in front of each display you can hear several samples of music played on everything from violins to giant Polynesian crocodile drums. Kids go gaga at MIM; there is a hands on section where they can play drums, gongs and harps. Does it get noisy? A little bit.

Counting the stars as the sun sets over the Desert Botanical Garden
Pop into the Desert Botanical Garden to realize how much the desert truly flowers. This is one of the best collections of arid plant life in the world, ranging from towering saguaro cactus to spindly palo verde, sweet-smelling mesquite to bristly creosote. Throw in an excellent cultural trail on Native American life in the Southwest and you have a must-visit. Plus the sunsets are probably the best Phoenix has to offer. The flowering season of March to May is the busiest and most colourful time to visit, but special events happen all year; in particular, concerts here are beautiful under the desert night sky.

Embarking on ethnographic adventures in the Heard Museums
The Heard Museums (in three locations at Heard Museum North, Heard Museum West and Heard Museum Downtown) are the best introduction to indigenous culture in Phoenix. Using a combination of professional and community curators, the museum explores the native cultures of the Southwest (and to a much smaller degree, the Americas as a whole) with sensitivity and thoroughness. There is rooms of ethnographic displays, art galleries, a desert garden and an unrivalled kachina gallery (many of the pieces are a gift from Barry Goldwater). The focus here is not just history and anthropology; during our visit we caught a temporary exhibit on Native American pop art. Check the museum’s website for information on the many events held throughout the year here, including the Spanish Market (second weekend in November), which highlights Southwestern Latino culture; the Hoop Dancing Championships (first weekend in February), a competition that showcases indigenous dance, and the Guild Indian Fair and Market (first weekend in March), one of the largest Native American arts festivals in the world.

Strolling down Roosevelt Street and Grand Avenue on First Fridays
First Fridays – the tradition where galleries across a city throw their doors open on the first Friday evening of the month – are hardly unique to Phoenix. But the Phoenix First Fridays  event is now regarded as the nation’s largest self-guided art tour. Some 70 galleries, design spaces, shops, kiosks, clubs and bars basically throw a party along Grand Avenue, and Roosevelt Street, between 7th Street and Central Avenue. Indeed, much of the neighbourhood used to be abandoned. The cheap property values attracted artists who, as is often happily the case in these situations, led a wave of creative-culture-driven gentrification and urban renewal in central Phoenix.

You can download a map of First Friday businesses, but a loose rule of thumb is that the area around Grand Avenue is more adult-oriented, while the 7th Street zone attracts teenagers and college students. Scottsdale throws its own arts walk every Thursday from 7 pm to 9 pm. The party is not as wild as the Phoenix fun, but it is still definitely worth a stroll through if you are around.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘More than heat and sunshine in Phoenix’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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