More than four million people have settled in and around the Arizona capital, Phoenix, all but obliterating any sense that the land here ever was, and still is, a desert. Golf courses, swimming pools, lakes, and fountains are everywhere, with only a few carefully coiffed cacti remaining here and there to testify to the natural state of things. But there is something oddly charming about the place—an anything-goes, Wild West spirit manifest in one of the highest rates of car theft in the country and a truly phoenix-like ability to grow and thrive despite the almost total lack of natural advantages.

Get an unforgettable sense of the desert’s natural beauty at the magical Desert Botanical Garden (480/941-1225, daily, $25), in Papago Park east of downtown between Scottsdale and Tempe. Especially in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the Butterfly Pavilion is open, the gardens here offer an intense and aesthetic distillation of this harsh but intricate environment.

The best thing about downtown Phoenix is the marvelous Heard Museum (2301 N. Central Ave., 602/252-8848, daily, $18), among the best museums anywhere devoted to the indigenous cultures of the Southwestern United States. The permanent galleries trace the history and diversity of prehistoric peoples and contemporary Native Americans, while changing exhibitions focus on specific themes. Don’t miss the amazing collection of Hopi kachina dolls, collected by hotelier Fred Harvey and the late U.S. senator Barry Goldwater. Downtown Phoenix is also home to Chase Field, the retractable-roofed stadium where the Arizona Diamondbacks (602/462-6500) play in the only major league ballpark with its own outfield swimming pool.

Another treat is Taliesin West (12345 N. Taliesin Dr., 480/860-2700, daily except major holidays, $34 and up), at the east end of Cactus Road. Every winter from 1937 until his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright lived, worked, and taught here, handcrafting this complex of studios, theaters, and living quarters, which survives as an architecture school.

Practicalities

Phoenix sprawls some 500 square miles and is expanding by many acres every day—with no end (or beginning or middle, for that matter) in sight. The I-10 freeway cuts through the center, and a spaghetti bowl of local freeways, such as the Hwy-202 Loop, Hwy-51, and the US-60 “Superstition Freeway” complete the high-speed overlay. Though there is a skeletal bus service along with a handy light rail train ($4 all day) connecting downtown’s Central Avenue with Mesa and Tempe, trying to get around town without a car is hazardous to your health. In a word, drive.

Phoenix is actually made up of many separate surrounding cities, each of which has its own character. Mesa, for example, was founded by Mormons and is now bigger than Minneapolis and Miami. Not surprisingly, considering its well-deserved reputation as a winter oasis, the Phoenix area is home to a number of gorgeous resort hotels; rates quoted here are for winter, and summer prices are much lower. The historic Arizona Biltmore (602/955-6600 or 800/950-0086, $199 and up), on the north side of Phoenix at 24th and Missouri Streets, is an absolutely beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright-style resort complex tucked away on spacious grounds.

Fun for families can be had at the many water park-style resorts, like the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort (11111 N. 7th St., 602/866-7500, $119 and up), next to the open expanses of North Mountain Park, which has suites and waterslides and eight swimming pools. Downtown, the Hotel San Carlos (202 N. Central Ave., 602/253-4121, $169 and up) is a well-maintained older hotel with a rooftop swimming pool. The pleasant HI-Phoenix The Metcalf House Hostel (1026 9th St., 602/254-9803, around $30) has dorm beds.

The classic road-food stop in Phoenix is the Tee Pee (4144 E. Indian School Rd., 602/956-0178), a characterful and always-crowded place serving cold beer and huge plates of old-style American-Mexican food. For something a bit hotter, brave the salsa at one of Los Dos Molinos (8646 S. Central Ave., 602/243-9113) four locations.

On the north side of downtown, next to a Lube ’n’ Tune car repair shop, Sierra Bonita Grill (6933 N. 7th St., 602/264-0700) is a welcoming, unpretentious restaurant offering an interesting mix of Southwestern and pan-American influences (pork loin alongside charro beans and tomato rice) and excellent desserts. Phoenix also boasts an unexpected treat: Pizzeria Bianco (623 E. Adams St., 602/258-8300, Mon. 11am-9pm, Tues.-Sat. 11am-10pm, Sun. noon-7pm), where transplanted New Yorker Chris Bianco cooks up delicious wood-fired designer pizzas in a historic downtown storefront at the original location; there’s a second as well as two spin-offs.