The third-largest city in the state has more to offer than desert vistas.
Located in the Sonoran Desert and given its hot desert climate, Mesa might be overshadowed by a few other popular spots when it comes to travel destinations within Arizona. But this less explored section of the state—the third-largest city here—is the first autism-certified city in the country and the first destination to make it a part of its diversity and inclusion efforts.
There is an entire list of companies in the area that are certified as well, making it a family-friendly destination for all ages. But that’s not the only reason to visit Mesa. We have a few more.
Enjoying the City
For new visitors to the area, some of Mesa’s must-see attractions include the Mesa Arts Center, Mesa Amphitheatre and Mesa Historical Museum to get better acquainted with the city. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is just a half-hour away and possibly your gateway to Mesa.
Explore the ancient heart of Phoenix at Pueblo Grande Museum, a 1500-year-old archaeological site left by the Hohokam culture (prehistoric North Americans) and the largest preserved archaeological site within the city. Then head to Downtown Mesa to enjoy Art Walk & Murals on Main Street. On many side streets, up-and-coming local artists of all disciplines have painted murals depicting the city’s history and culture. Nearly 40 public art sculptures are part of the permanent art collection, so you might want to keep count.
“I have lived in Mesa for over 20 years. It has more to see than people really know. The parks, Downtown Mesa, great food, people, atmosphere,” says Ron Williams, owner of the local business, Contacts to Contracts LLC, who is also a board member at Visit Mesa and chair of board development and the equity, diversity and inclusion committee.
Some of his area favorites include The Mesa Arts Museum and downtown restaurants. Williams is also the owner of The Refuge Coffee Food Wine at Phoenix Sky Harbor and is one of the first African Americans to own and operate a restaurant there. “People are surprised when they see there is a great Native American or Latino population, great areas of community and culture that people don’t think about when they think of Mesa.”
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To that end, he is working on a new community learning series to share with citizens and the visiting public on the unique people and cultures that reside here.
Unique and Underrated
Doing a commendable job of promoting global cultures is the Musical Instrument Museum, the largest museum of its type in the world, located in Phoenix, just a short drive from Mesa. It is a gem of cultural learning and understanding through the global language of music and the instruments used by different societies. There are displays of instruments and objects from every corner of the globe, including entire floors divided by geographic galleries and specific areas dedicated to each country. The Africa gallery includes displays from Ghana, Benin, Togo, Burundi and more. The current special exhibit is Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa, which is a limited engagement but suffice to say if you are not spending a day here, your visit to the area is incomplete.
Moving to the outdoors, recreation in nature is a big draw in Mesa, including parks aplenty and multiple avenues to enjoy hiking, biking and other adventurous pursuits. The Apache Trail is famed in these parts for its Tortilla Flat stagecoach and saloon, an authentic remnant of an old western town nestled amid the Tonto National Forest, the largest national forest in Arizona.
Real saddles serve as bar stools and the wallpaper is currency bills from visitors. And everything prickly pear is on the menu, including ice cream and lemonade. Also located along here is Canyon Lake, a popular spot for swimming and boating. It features more than 28 miles of cactus-dotted shoreline and gorgeous rock formations, and Big Horn sheep, deer, and javelina roam freely through the area.
A scenic nature cruise aboard Dolly Steamboat is recommended — the hour and a half long ride is a serene journey spotlighting some of the natural beauty of the area, and if you are lucky, you might spot some of the wildlife too.
Food and Agriculture
The dining scene in Mesa offers an opportunity to not just experience local talent but also local ingredients. Knuckle Sandwiches, owned by Roscoe Smith, created handcrafted sandwiches made from scratch using fresh ingredients sourced from local vendors. With a second location in nearby Tempe, one need only glance at the menu to see why they are a local favorite. Aside from almost 30 different types of sandwiches, paninis and wrap options available daily, they have more than ten soups on the ready, along with multiple side and salad choices.
Other Black-owned restaurants you can find in the area include the chicken joint D-Mac & Wings, soul food restaurant Trap Food Xpress and Chicago’s Chicken Shack serving Chicago-style fried chicken, fish and shrimp.
To enjoy brunch, head to mainstay T.C. Eggington’s Brunchery, which has been serving breakfast, lunch and brunch in Mesa since 1985, featuring award-winning traditional family recipes. Indulge in the famous English toast of fresh-baked cinnamon bread dipped in a custard-rich batter, crab-stuffed pastries, apple streusel walnut muffins and smoothies perfectly paired with mimosas and other fun brunch libations.
And for your happy hour vibes, consider Postino East Wine Café, where you’ll want to head for delicious bruschetta boards, other snacks and bites, accompanied by an able beer and wine program, and an energetic evening crowd. The bruschetta boards are equally pleasing to the eye and taste buds and offer various sweet and savory options you can mix and match in sets of four. Located a short walk away is The White Rabbit, a chic cocktail bar with a 1920s speakeasy theme that requires a password for entrance with a secret door to the bar.
While Mesa might not seem like a place where much grows other than native desert plants, you’ll be surprised with the vibrant agricultural scene in the area. Step in at True Garden Urban Farm, a 5,000-square-foot vertical urban farm where you can learn how to produce healthy and nutritious food using no soil.
They offer seminars and food-education programming about organic growing practices, nutrition, and overall health and wellness, and a farmer’s market featuring living produce. Queen Creek Olive Mill is Arizona’s only family-owned and operated working olive mill and farm, where olives are grown and pressed to produce high-quality extra virgin olive oil. You can take a tour of their olive grove, enjoy a meal at the restaurant onsite and shop for olive oil-based products.
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The city of Mesa certainly has much to offer for the first-time visitor or returning tourist, and limitless possibilities on how you can spend your time here. Its mix of outdoor activities and indoor entertainment proves there simply isn’t a moment to be wasted when you are in this part of Arizona. What adventures will you experience here?