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Scottsdale brings the outside in. And what an outside it is.

There’s a lot to take in, from the gardens to the food to the art to the architecture

Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's desert home.Ellen Albanese

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In the kiva at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, triangles are everywhere — in the artwork, in the objects, even in the shadows the lamps throw on the walls. That is, they look like triangles until you gaze out a window and realize they are not triangles at all. They are the mountains that surround this desert landscape. Wright of course was famous for incorporating the landscape into his buildings, but all of Scottsdale seems to know how to bring the outside in. And what an outside it is.

The Desert Botanical Garden, which is in Phoenix but borders Scottsdale, is otherworldly, with more than 50,000 desert plants. At Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, a special exhibit showcases the work of women artists who captured the desert landscape on canvas in the early 1900s. Every Thursday evening a vibrant community of working artists invites visitors into their studios in the historic Old Town, where high-end Native American crafts share the landscape with tchotchke shops and restaurants. And everywhere we ate, the tacos were top shelf.


At Taliesin West we took a 90-minute guided tour (a 60-minute audio tour requires a smartphone and your own headphones). Wright was 70 when he designed Taliesin West. He had refined his tenets of organic architecture: buildings must respect the landscape, materials must be honest and used authentically, and everyone shares the work, our guide explained. Local rock and sandstone are used in walls throughout the property. Wind tunnels take advantage of naturally occurring breezes. A view over a rocky landscape suggests an undersea world with scrubby cactus and stones evoking coral and a sea bed. Even the trusses on the dwelling’s roof replicate the lines of “washes” running down the mountains behind. franklloydwright.org

Cacti of every size and shape thrive at the Desert Botanical Garden. Ellen Albanese

We spent far more time than we planned to at the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden. “Look, there’s another one!” became our refrain as we spotted yet another variety of cactus. We counted at least 10 types of cholla — the cactus that sticks to animals and clothing, making us all potential transporters of the species — including teddy bear, red teddy bear, devil, staghorn, Christmas, jumping, silver. We were awed by the monumental saguaro with their Gumby-like look. Did you know a saguaro doesn’t grow “arms” until it’s 100 years old? Short, easy loop trails off the garden’s main pathway showcase wildflowers, night blooming desert plants, and the stories of people who made the desert their home. Bold, large-scale sculptures by Rotraut are on display until May 14. dbg.org


Cactus flowers add a pop of color at the Desert Botanical Garden.Ellen Albanese

Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, a Smithsonian affiliate, brings the outside in by focusing on the artists who trained their eyes on the land and the people of the Southwest. In “Women of the West,” colors of sand and stone, as well as angular, almost cubist, shapes echo the world outside. A more extensive exhibit by women artists, drawn from the Elliott Collection, is scheduled to go on display at Western Spirit in 2024. Photographs by Edward Curtis, bronzes by John Coleman, Hopi ceramic baskets and other Native American crafts, and an outdoor sculpture garden create a distinct sense of place here. scottsdalemuseumwest.org

These towering cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden are cardon cacti, said to be the tallest cactus in the world. They can reach 60 feet tall. Ellen Albanese

About those tacos: One way to sample them is with Taste It Tours, which offers several downtown food tours, and they all include at least one taco stop. The Taco Tour was sold out, so we took the Old Town Tour, sampling foods like pizza and Cornish pasties (we thought Cornish pasties seemed an odd choice until Kyle, our tour guide, pointed out that the hand pies Cornish miners took to work are a lot like empanadas). We gave thumbs up to the impossibly thin-crust pizza and Arizona-brewed beers at Craft 64, frozen margaritas and shredded beef tacos at Cien Agaves, and the salted whisky gelato at Red Canyon Cafe. The three-hour walking tours depart from the stylish Canopy Hotel by Hilton.


Along with far too much food, we also got a good tour of Old Town Scottsdale, moving through the arts district to the historic district. There are several large-scale outdoor sculptures, such as the 8-foot “Jack Knife,” depicting a rider astride a bucking horse, at the downtown rotary. Most of these portray scenes from the Wild West. Maybe that’s why the “LOVE” sculpture by Robert Indiana at Civic Center Park, one of only 50 such installations in the world, is such a pleasant surprise. tasteittours.com

In the historic district, the architecture changes to brick and wood buildings dating from the 1800s. As we passed the Rusty Spur Saloon, country music spilled onto the sidewalk, where a white-haired couple danced with considerable panache. High-end Native American and Mexican crafts shops, such as the Native Art Market, sit alongside vendors selling wallet-friendly souvenirs, offering a little Old Town magic for all budgets.


Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.

The shredded beef tacos at Cien Agaves are a popular item — especially with a frozen margarita. Ellen Albanese